Alaska done my way: Frugally and wonderfully

Jen Miller

This Memorial Day Weekend, I wasn't celebrating the start of the summer season with a cookout in my backyard. I was wrapping up a weeklong trip in Anchorage, Alaska.

It was one of the most stunning and breathtaking trips I have ever taken, even trumping a week in Italy's wine country.

Best of all, I spent less than $1,000 for the entire trip, plus a lot of my frugal moves allowed me to splurge on what was important to me.

Here's how I did it:

Snagged an airfare deal. I found it through Twitter. A friend who has also been tracking Anchorage flights retweeted a $450 offer found on @airfarewatchdog. A few clicks later, I had an itinerary ready to go.

It also helps that I'm flexible and had time in advance to plan.

I'd been meaning to go to Anchorage for some time, but the flights were always too expensive, so I pounced when I saw the round-trip fare for $450, including taxes and fees.

Now, it wasn't perfect. I saved by going a wee bit before the height of tourist season in June, though that worked to my advantage — high temperatures were in the 60s and 70s for my entire trip.

To get to Anchorage, I had to fly from Philadelphia to Houston, then to Alaska. That schedule meant more than 13 hours in the air or boarding lounges (which became 15 hours with delays).

But to save a few hundred bucks? Worth the extra air time (and fortunately the flight back was through Chicago, which meant only nine hours of travel time when I was most exhausted).

Didn't check a suitcase. That's right. Seven days in Alaska with a carry-on bag.

I brought jeans I could rewear, only two pair of shoes (and one of those I wore on the plane), one jacket and rolled everything else so they packed small and tight. I didn't bring a laptop or makeup or a toiletries bag. I even had enough room to take home some souvenirs.

What I couldn't take on the plane — Ulu knives (www.ulu.com) and some salmon that my hosts had canned themselves — I shipped home in a flat-rate box from the U.S. Postal Service. That cost a lot less than a checked bag fee.

Crissy and I at the Seven Glaciers restaurant

Stayed with a friend. The reason Anchorage was on my radar in the first place is that my college roommate Crissy has lived there for seven years.

Staying in her guest room saved me a boatload in hotel costs and a car rental. My father says that houseguests are like fish — after three days, they start to stink.

But I knew that wouldn't happen here. After living together in a sardine can for a year in college, I figured we'd be OK, especially since we didn't need to share a bathroom with two other women.

Had a guide. The former roommate, of course. This saved me a lot of money in picking the right tourist attractions, restaurants and souvenir spots, and avoiding day trips that wouldn't have been worth it.

Crissy showed me the right place to get a reindeer dog (M.A.'s Gourmet Dogs), which museum would get me the most bang for my buck (Anchorage Museum) and took me on a scenic drive of Seward Highway.

We also did a lot of things that were fun and free, such as checking out a lot that had Alaska bush planes for sale, some dating to the 1930s.

It helps that Crissy is frugal too. When we booked an overnight at the Alyeska Resort, she was smart enough to see that the romance package — even though no romance was involved — would get us a free bottle of champagne and breakfast in bed for a very small fee over the regular room rate.

Ate in when we could. Crissy and her husband are entrenched in the Alaska lifestyle. That means they spend much of the summer fishing for halibut and salmon that they freeze, pickle or can.

Most of the best dinners we had were at their dining room table. I helped them clear out what was left of last year's catch because her husband started fishing for a new stash of halibut over Memorial Day weekend.

Oysters at the Bubbly Mermaid in Anchorage

Oysters at the Bubbly Mermaid in Anchorage

I did splurge a few times, mostly on dinners:

That last bill came to $74 with tip. Don't ask about Seven Glaciers. But I budgeted for the trip that way.

By not paying for things like a hotel room, car and baggage fees, I had the money to splurge on good food that is making my mouth water as I write this.

I can't wait to go back.