Off to the Wilderness: Orlando, Florida to Fairbanks, Alaska

Off to the Wilderness: Orlando, Florida to Fairbanks, Alaska
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Image courtesy: Analogick
 

Trip Information

PointsAway reader Brenda wants to fly with one companion to Fairbanks, Alaska from Orlando, Florida. She’s in the early stages of planning, as this would be a trip for sometime next year, lasting about a week.

Current Program Status

Brenda has a balance of miles with American and Ultimate Rewards, but would prefer to find a new source of miles for this trip and is willing to consider a card with a sign-up bonus to make it happen, saving her existing points balances for future trips to Europe.

Our Take

Sometimes lesser known programs can offer incredible value. We found an option that fits the bill perfectly for this trip for 99% off the cheapest cash rate! Jump on in to learn more.

How to Fly

Scoping out the competition, it appears Alaska Air and Frontier Air are the two best options. American’s fares are simply less convenient, more expensive itineraries that code-share the segment to Fairbanks with Alaska Air, and flights on United and Delta are both much more expensive.

Looking at Alaska Air’s rate calendar, the cheapest rates were actually in the near future, departing on August 31st and returning on September 4th. That’s an awfully short trip, and Brenda would likely prefer a longer stay given the distance of the travel, but for our purposes, we’ll give Alaska its best shot to be competitive by using these rates.

Including taxes and fees, Alaska’s lowest rate works out to $667.10 per person. Understandable, given the sizable distance and relatively remote destination, but still quite expensive.

Thankfully, there’s a better way!

Frontier Air

Frontier offers seasonal service to Fairbanks out of its hub in Denver, with the last flight for the season coming up on September 7th. Unfortunately, Frontier’s booking calendar only goes up to March of next year at the moment, so it’s not possible to tell precisely when their summer service resumes. Happily, their best rate is found on the same days as Alaska Air’s, from August 31st until September 4th. Frontier’s rate works out to $557.10 per person, which is a $110 savings as compared to Alaska.

Of course, we can do better than that!

As compared to some other frequent flyer programs, Frontier’s EarlyReturns® program can seem like a breath of fresh air. The program offers one-way and roundtrip redemptions, with each way costing just 10,000 or 20,000 miles depending on availability. This is for any domestic Frontier route, which includes Alaskan destinations.

Compare this to American and Delta, each of which require 25,000 miles at minimum for the roundtrip flight (Delta doesn’t even offer the option of a discount for one-way) and are likely to require a step up in miles for Medium or High level flights as part of the itinerary. Indeed, Frontier’s award chart looks pretty promising! But surely, flights from Orlando to Fairbanks are destined to fall into the higher cost award tier, right? Wrong!

With so little time left in the travel season to Fairbanks and given the fact that Frontier’s booking chart doesn’t go out to next Summer yet, it’s impossible to know if it’s simply a fluke, but availability exists even on short notice for two passengers at just 10,000 miles per person each way, from August 28th to September 4th.

At 40,000 miles and $10 for two passengers to travel from the heart of Florida to the heart of Alaska is an incredible value, saving well over $1,100 during the same time period or any other time period we could find. Now, how do we get those points?

Earning the Points

There are two great paths to the miles we need. One is directly through Frontier, and the other is through American Express Membership Rewards.

Membership Rewards transfer on a 1:1 basis to Frontier in 1,000 point increments. That means the 50,000 point sign-up bonus from the American Express® Business Gold Rewards Card® after $5,000 in purchases would cover the trip with plenty of points to spare. With no annual fee, this is the cheapest option, and the one we’d recommend to anyone eligible for a business card (You may be! Check our primer for details.)

For those not qualified for a business card or uncomfortable with such a high minimum spend, a second sweet solution exists. Barclays offers a Frontier Airlines World MasterCard® with a sign-up bonus of 40,000 points after just $500 in purchases. This card requires a $69 annual fee that is not waived for the first year, but even so, it’s a small price to pay for the over $1,100 in free travel it unlocks.

Our Recommendation

This trip provides two important lessons.

First, it once again proves the value of the flexibility offered by point programs like Membership Rewards and, although it doesn’t offer a transfer that makes sense in this specific case, Ultimate Rewards.

Second, it shows the value that can be found in a lesser-known airline’s frequent flyer program. Much like Alaska and Hawaiian Air, Frontier is in fact a large carrier that offers many routes throughout the US, but also like those, it is often overlooked when it comes to plotting trips.

Frontier’s value isn’t limited to Alaskan destinations, either; the airline’s chart for redemptions to South America is competitive and its service to Las Vegas, for example, may offer just as good of a value for some travelers as Fairbanks does given the elevated costs of flying in and out of Vegas.

We would recommend Brenda opt for the AmEx given its waived first year annual fee in order to minimize the cost of the trip, but Frontier’s card offers tremendous value for its $69 annual fee in this case, should she prefer to keep open the AmEx as a possibility to help fund future adventures.

Trip Component Cash Price Points + Cash Savings
American: MCO -> FAI, 2 Adults: 08/28-09/04 $595.19 on Frontier roundtrip per person. 20,000 Frontier EarlyReturns Miles (Transferred from Membership Rewards) + $5 flight fees per person. $585.19 per person.
Total: $1,190.38 for 2 Adults. 40,000 Frontier Miles + $10 fees. $1,180.38 + 15,000 Membership Rewards Points at minimum towards future travel.

Happy travels!

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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