Story last updated at 10/23/2013 - 2:08 pm
Ah, it's that favorite time of year when Alaskan's thoughts turn to travel. The Permanent Fund Dividend has been distributed, Alaska Airlines has announced its yearly PFD sales, and everyone is dreaming of a vacation. As a longtime traveler, and travel writer, let me give you some ideas about where to go.
First of all, plan ahead. As we all know, those seats on the jet are limited, and mileage plan tickets are scarcer still. I've virtually always been able to get the travel days and times I want by booking three to six months in advance. Worried that life will get the best of you? Don't be. You can always redeposit miles or turn in unused tickets for credit on future travel. Besides, you know when Spring Break comes you will want to get out of town like the rest of us and the days will fly by with a trip to look forward to.
Thinking outside of the box can also help you get the vacation experience you want without the crowds. Use Alaska Airlines cities as gateways to other places. We like to visit family in New Mexico by flying into Phoenix, Las Vegas or Denver and taking Southwest to Albuquerque. We'll fly in to whichever city has the cheapest fares for our travel dates. Or flying into Seattle, we get out of the rain by taking the Bellair Shuttle or Victoria Clipper to the brighter climates of Friday Harbor or Victoria B.C.
While we all love Hawaii, there are lots of other places with sun that can be a lot cheaper. Try Austin, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Anaheim, Sacramento, Atlanta, or Orlando for a change of pace. All of these cities have loads of family friendly activities and a range of lodging options.
Smaller communities can also be good values and more relaxing than big cities. I like Scottsdale better than Phoenix for amenities and lodging, Laughlin, Nev., better than Vegas for natural beauty, and Boulder better than Denver. Santa Fe is just an hour north of Albuquerque and has guaranteed sunshine 360 days a year along with hiking, shopping and skiing. Some of most appealing small cities I've visited include Boise, Eugene, Missoula and Sun Valley.
Boise has a large Basque community with some of the best food I've eaten outside of Spain, and a lively movie scene, with a gorgeous historic downtown theater and a three screen art house that has a full menu to enjoy while you watch your films. Throw in some river rafting, hiking and reasonably priced hotels and you've got a great vacation.
One of my biggest travel surprises over the years was Spokane, Wash. I dreaded going to a conference there only to find out that it had miles of bike paths, a 100 acre Riverfront Park featuring an IMAX theater, ice rink, Skyride, and restored carousel adjacent to a great historic downtown with the coolest mall I've ever seen (it's in a historic brick building with a modern glass exterior added) that connects to other buildings by sky bridge. You gotta love a community where the Nordstrom's is just a walkway away from the city library. Also remarkable is that Spokane is surrounded by farms and ranches providing an array of local foods. I had the best steak dinner I'd had in years at the Steelhead Bar and Grille one evening served with a remarkably delicious vegetable medley.
If just getting out of the rain is good enough, major East Coast cities can be real bargains for Spring Break. We've enjoyed fine sweater weather in New York City and Washington, D.C., in March, with fewer crowds and cheaper hotel rates than in the peak summer season. Think you can't afford those hotel rates? Think again. Both cities have bargains if you know where to look.
Staying across the Hudson River in New Jersey and using public transportation to travel in and out of NYC each day can save you hundreds on your lodging and give you a much nicer hotel room with a view of the NYC skyline at night, plus you'll save about $100 on travel between the airport and your hotel over staying in the city because there are huge tariffs for crossing state lines in the metro area.
You do want to cross state lines in the D.C. Metro area however, where taxi cabs are cheap and fares are by zones, not zip codes. Staying in Arlington, Va., and taking the Metro to monuments and museums is the way to go. For comfortable family lodging we like the Courthouse Arlington Square and when it's just me I head for the funky and recently renovated Americana Inn as seen in the Russell Crowe film "State of Play."
The Americana has a free airport shuttle, and is a short walk to the Pentagon City Mall, the Crystal City Metro or my favorite Legal Seafoods restaurant so I overlook the dated exterior and plain, but serviceable rooms with pink tiled bathrooms. This is the hotel of choice for airline employees because it is just minutes away from Reagan National.
So dream big, grab a guide book, dig around on the web and start planning your next vacation. I'll talk about vacation research resources in a future column.