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Airfares from Alaska just plain ugly until winter's thaw

Scott McMurren

Alaska travelers have closed the book on 2012 and now are planning for a robust 2013, with new air service from Anchorage and Fairbanks, new airlines and new deals. 

Let's take a look at some of the best bargains available right now. Remember, the best rates typically require a two-week advance purchase unless you're cashing in frequent flyer miles.

'Oddball' flights

First, under the "oddball" category, United Airlines offers a great $427 roundtrip airfare between Anchorage and Williston, ND. That's right: smack in the middle of North Dakota's new oil patch. The connections are good, taking advantage of United's new year-round nonstop between Anchorage and Denver. Oh, don't get your hopes up for a deal to Denver. Take out the Denver-Williston segment and the bill for your flight to Denver is a whopping $722 roundtrip. Mm-hmm. 

United offers a couple of other bargain rates for travelers this winter, including a great rate from Anchorage to Boston for as little as $479 roundtrip. The fare drifts a little higher to $482 some days -- but it's still the least-expensive ticket to the East Coast. The best fares and routings are via United's Anchorage-Denver nonstop.

The other "right now" great rate on United is between Anchorage and Phoenix. United is charging $468 roundtrip. This is a great high-season rate for some fun-in-the-sun. 

Cheapest ticket out of Anchorage: $411

US Airways is offering the cheapest ticket out of town right now: $411 roundtrip between Anchorage and Long Beach. Your first flight is Anchorage-Phoenix nonstop. Then, catch your connecting flight over to Long Beach. Choose your flights carefully or you could end up with a 12-hour layover in Phoenix on the return.

The "show me" state of Missouri keeps popping up on our list of winter bargains. Between Anchorage and St. Louis, Delta offers the best rate: $450 roundtrip. Between Anchorage and Kansas City? That's Alaska Airlines territory: $458 roundtrip. 

The next round of bargain air fares doesn't pop up until mid-April, when Alaska Airlines launches a new nonstop flight from Anchorage to LAX. And what a great flight it is! First of all, flight 156 departs Anchorage 11:30 a.m. instead of midnight. This is huge. The arrival in Los Angeles: 5:44 p.m. The return flight, #149, leaves at 6:45 p.m., getting into Anchorage at 11:05 p.m. The price? Just $328 roundtrip. 

Brace for May bargains 

The real airfare party starts in mid-May. That's when Frontier Airlines, jetBlue and Condor resume their seasonal Alaska service. Add Icelandair to the mix for some international drama and we have enough airline competition to fuel some great adventures. Let's review:

• JetBlue has an awesome lineup starting May 17. The Anchorage-Seattle flights are pricing out as low as $256 roundtrip. There's just one flight per day. And it's a red-eye. If you want to fly mid-day, Alaska Airlines has plenty of flights available, for $645 roundtrip. 

• JetBlue also offers a nonstop flight between Anchorage and Long Beach, starting at $328 roundtrip. It's a red-eye as well. 

• Using these two flights, jetBlue also offers great rates to connecting cities, including Anchorage-Boston for as little as $364 roundtrip (I found outbound seats on May 20, returning June 13, 2013.). The return flight from Boston to Anchorage is same-plane service (with a stop in Seattle). Two other great destinations also are available between mid-May and early June: Anchorage-Sacramento ($394 roundtrip) and Anchorage-Las Vegas ($394 roundtrip). 

• Like last year, Alaska Airlines is matching jetBlue's rates to Long Beach on its flights to Los Angeles/LAX. Right now, the prices in May and early June are a little higher, at $339 roundtrip. But Alaska also is offering great rates between Anchorage and Orange County, Calif., as low as $350 roundtrip. This year, Alaska also is matching jetBlue's price between Anchorage and Seattle on select red-eye flights: as low as $256 roundtrip. I think prices between Anchorage and Seattle will stay low all summer.

• Frontier Airlines again is offering great rates on Anchorage-Denver red-eye flights starting May 16. I found seats through May 24 for as little as $416 roundtrip. Frontier also is offering great rates on its Fairbanks-Denver nonstops. Between May 17-23, seats are available for as little as $361 roundtrip. 

• On the international front, Icelandair starts flying between Anchorage and Reykjavik, Iceland on May 16. You can fly from May 16-26 for as little as $688 roundtrip.

• Condor Airlines resumes its seasonal service on May 7 between Anchorage and Frankfurt. Seats are available for as little as $912 roundtrip. 

Of course, all prices and availability are subject to change without notice. And boy, do they change. All the time. But the key component is that new airlines are serving the Alaska market -- trying to carve out a niche to serve travelers to and from the Last Frontier. And when airlines are fighting for  travelers, the travelers win with better service and better prices. 

Online resources:

Frontier Airlines: www.flyfrontier.com

jetBlue Airways: www.jetblue.com

Icelandair: www.icelandair.com

Condor Airlines: www.condor.com

USAirways: www.usairways.com

United Airlines: www.united.com

Delta Air Lines: www.delta.com

Alaska Airlines: www.alaskaair.com

Methodology

I checked all rates on respective airlines' websites for availability and price. To find the best rates, I often use the "Where to Go" map from FareCompare.com  (http://www.farecompare.com/maps/). There's also an interactive map at Kayak.com (http://www.kayak.com/explore/). The maps give an adequate general overview. Then, I usually drill down on some specific dates using Google's Matrix Airfare Search tool (http://matrix.itasoftware.com/search.htm). After confirming the air fare actually exists on a certain date (a common problem), I then go to the airline’s website to confirm availability.  Your travel agent typically has more robust tools that can quickly cut through the clutter -- and they'll charge you accordingly. But these are methods that work for me. 

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website atwww.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.