Don’t let the name fool you. Alaska Airlines doesn’t just fly to The Last Frontier. In fact, the airline claims to fly the most nonstop flights from the West Coast. And after consistently being ranked among the top airlines in the U.S., Alaska Airlines should be on your radar.
Tips for Traveling on Alaska Airlines
In this step-by-step guide to flying Alaska Airlines, I’ll go over how to book and what to expect onboard America’s 5th largest airline.
What to Know Before You Book with Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines primarily serves West Coast cities with major hubs in Seattle (SEA), Portland (PDX), San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), and Anchorage (ANC). After acquiring Virgin America, it has expanded its network to many major cities along the East Coast and the Midwestern U.S. The airline also has a few flights to Canada, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
Alaska Airlines isn’t a part of any major airline alliance, but it does have plenty of codeshare partnerships across the world, which allow it to sell tickets to more locations throughout the world. Some of Alaska’s codeshare partners include British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Icelandair, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, and even domestic rival American Airlines. If you are flying on a shorter regional route, it’s likely your flight will be operated by Alaska’s sister carrier Horizon Air.
Alaska Airlines competes on service and price with the other major carriers like American, Delta, United, and Southwest. As such, all of its economy fares include a normal carry-on bag plus a personal item. Checked bag fees on Alaska Airlines start at $30 each way for the first checked bag and $40 for the second. This is the same as all other major U.S. airlines except Southwest, which includes two free checked bags in all fares.
Related: How to Fly Southwest Airlines (And Get the Seat You Want)
Saver vs Main Fares on Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines recently introduced its version of Basic Economy, which it calls a “Saver” fare, to better align its fares with the competition. These fares tend to have many of the same restrictions as the major airlines, but have their slight differences. The lowest fare you see on Alaska Airlines will most often be its new “Saver” fare. These fares have the same baggage policy as its “Main” fares, but there are differences when it comes to seat selection, boarding priority, and flight changes.
One advantage Alaska offers over its competitors in this fare category is that Saver fares do include limited seat selection in the back of the plane. However, since there are only a very limited number of seats to choose from when booking a Saver fare, you may find it hard to actually pre-book seats next to your traveling partner unless you book a Main fare. If you choose not to select seats on a Saver fare, they will be randomly assigned for free during check-in.
The major drawback to booking a Saver fare is that changes or cancellations are not permitted more than 24-hours after booking. This means your ticket will have no value if your plans change and are no longer able to take the flight you originally booked. You’ll simply have to eat the cost and purchase a new ticket. Main fares allow ticket changes and cancellations, but any changes are subject to additional fees.
The only other difference that applies to all travelers is that passengers on Saver fares will be the last to board the aircraft, hence, have last dibs on overhead bin space and may be required to gate check (for free) any bags that do not fit in the overheads. And while miles are earned on all fares, there are a few limitations to elite members when traveling on Saver tickets. Elite Mileage Plan members still receive waived bag fees, bonus miles, and priority boarding, but any ticket changes, including upgrades or same-day confirmed changes, are not allowed on Saver tickets.
The upgrade from a Saver fare to a Main fare on Alaska Airlines is usually less than an upgrade from Basic Economy to standard Economy on other airlines. If you are trying to avoid Basic Economy entirely, you may find that flying on Alaska Airlines on a competitive route to be cheaper than flying on other major carriers.
Related: How to Fly JetBlue
How to Book a Flight with Alaska Airlines
There aren’t any real tricks to booking a flight with Alaska Airlines. You’ll find its fares on all the major OTAs and prices are generally the same across the board. If you’re booking an international itinerary that may include flights on other airlines, you’ll find more options when searching third-party sites that might not appear when searching directly on Alaska’s site. As always, compare by searching multiple sites for the best deals.
Alaska often has an advertised sale on a weekly basis. Most of the time, these are standard price drops, but on occasion, Alaska has 24-hour or 48-hour flash sales where prices are drastically lowered on cross-country trips and flights to Hawaii. Sign up for fare alerts to be in the know when Alaska has its better sales.
When booking on Alaska’s website, you can choose to search from the main search tool on its homepage or you can navigate to a flexible date calendar search by choosing “all search options”. After choosing your dates on the calendar and clicking continue, you’ll be given the option to choose between a Saver, Main, or First Class fare. If you choose a Saver fare, a popup will appear asking you if you want to accept the restrictions of the Saver fare or upgrade to a Main fare. Once you’ve made your flight choices, just click “add to cart”.
You’ll then be asked to fill in your passenger info and be given the option to continue or “skip seats”. It’s always a good idea to check and see what seats are available to book. Even if traveling on a Saver fare, you may get lucky and be able to pre-book seats in the back of the plane for free. If there aren’t any seat choices you like, just choose to skip seats and take your chances on a better seat assignment during check-in or upgrade to a Main fare for more choices.
On the final payment screen, you’ll be asked to purchase “highly recommended” travel insurance. I personally think these travel insurance add-ons by airlines are a scam since I’ve heard stories that it’s very difficult to actually receive any benefits when you need to make a claim. Make sure you read the plan details closely if you decide you want it, otherwise, just decline the insurance and complete your purchase.
Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you’ll have 24 hours to cancel for free — even on a Saver ticket — as long as your flight is more than 24 hours from the scheduled departure time. And if your flight happens to be wholly within Alaska, there are no change fees on Main fares even after the 24-hour risk free period.
Related: Strategies to Get a Refund on a Non-Refundable Airfare
Check-In and Boarding an Alaska Airlines Flight
Online check-in is available starting 24 hours before your flight. During check-in, you can pay for any checked bag fees or change your seat selection. Regardless of whether you have checked bags or not, you must be checked in at least 40 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time for domestic flights and at least 60 minutes prior to departure for international flights. If you are checking bags, this means your bags need to be dropped off by these cut-off times. If you have carry-on only, make sure you at least check-in online prior to these cut-off times.
This cut-off time is even earlier for flights departing from Guadalajara, which requires you to be checked-in 90-minutes prior to departure. And flights from Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia require you to be checked-in 45 minutes before departure.
Alaska Airlines starts boarding around 40 minutes before departure. There is pre-boarding for disabled passengers needing more time to board, families with children under the age of 2, and active military. General boarding starts with First Class passengers followed by Elite Mileage Plan members. Main cabin passengers holding a Main ticket then board from the back half of the aircraft to the front. Finally, the last passengers to board are those traveling on Saver tickets. If overhead bin space is full and you are in the last boarding group, be prepared to gate-check your bag to your final destination. There will not be a charge for this service.
The Alaska Airlines Inflight Experience
Once onboard, Alaska Airlines offers a comfortable flying experience with an average seat pitch between 31-32 inches. Complimentary snacks and soft drinks are included for all passengers and if you happen to be flying on Horizon Air Q400 aircraft, you’ll even get a free beer or wine. On regional flights, you can purchase premium snack packs, and on longer flights, there are also light meals available for purchase. On certain flights, you can even reserve your meal before you fly by using Alaska Airlines mobile app.
Alaska offers inflight WiFi on select aircraft and has plans to install it on the majority of its fleet by the end of 2020. On flights equipped with WiFi, you can enjoy free texting throughout the flight and free streaming entertainment. Just download the Gogo Entertainment App before you fly. If you don’t travel with your own device, Alaska also rents out an inflight entertainment tablet on most coast-to-coast and all Hawaii flights.
For a little extra legroom, complimentary cocktails, beer, wine, and premium snacks, you can upgrade to Premium Class on select flights. Premium class can be purchased during booking, while checking in, or at the gate. Upgrades can start as low a $15 a flight and can really enhance your flying experience if you’re able to snag a good deal on a last-minute upgrade. Keep in mind that Saver tickets are not eligible for upgrades.
First Class on Alaska Airlines is pretty run-of-the-mill for domestic standards. You’ll get a larger, more comfortable seat with 40” of leg room and a free meal onboard. Unfortunately, there isn’t a premium product for coast-to-coast flights on Alaska Airlines that competes with lie-flat seats on other carriers like American, Delta, United, and JetBlue.
Related: How to Fly American Airlines
If you’re looking for an overall pleasant flying experience that is comparable or better than the major airlines, Alaska Airlines is a great choice. Since the airline isn’t as large as the big three U.S. carriers, it can feel like a more personalized experience similar to its biggest competitor, Southwest Airlines. If you prefer this style of travel, but like the idea of choosing your seat ahead of time, Alaska Airlines could be the airline to choose for your next flight.
Here’s a list of current fares on Alaska Airlines to locations throughout the U.S. and abroad
Featured image by Vacclav / shutterstock.com