Denali Explorer
Alaska Cruisetour Review

We did a 7-day Alaska cruise on the Coral Princess
followed by a 6-day "Denali Explorer" land tour.
Here's my review of the land portion, with LOTS of photos and videos:

Click here to go to my main page

All of these photos and videos were shot with my Canon EOS 70D digital SLR camera
and are the copyrighted work of Jim Zimmerlin.
Please do not use these photos without first obtaining my permission.

I'm assuming that you already read the review of our 7-day cruise on the Coral Princess
This story picks up where that one left off!

At the end of our 7-day cruise, the ship docked in Whittier, Alaska...  which is on Prince William Sound, about 75 miles southeast of Anchorage.  Whittier is a deep-water port that doesn't freeze over during the winter...  and it played an important part in World War II.  Almost all of the troops and supplies that poured in to Alaska during World War II (to defend us from attack via the north pole) came in through the port of Whittier.

It was a gray, rainy morning in Whittier, and this was the scene on the dock...  as seen from our balcony that morning:

the dock in Whittier Alaska

At the very bottom of the picture, you can see a blue thing...  which is a covered gangway leading off the ship.  That leads to that green gangway, which is uncovered and exposed to the weather.  Then there's a very short 15 or 20 foot walk until you reach that long walkway with the white awning over it.  From there, you are under cover and out of the rain for the rest of the walk to the train, which will be waiting for you.  It's great that they have all those awnings to protect you from the rain...  but awkward that they have that one open section between the blue awning and the white awning where you're exposed to the rain.  I had a small umbrella with me, but others were not so lucky.

This next photo shows what's off to the right of that last photo...

train boarding area in Whittier Alaska

You can see that the awnings continue all the way to that big set of awnings near the hillside...  which is actually where the train tracks are.  The train hadn't actually arrived yet at the time I snapped this picture, but it was waiting for us when we did get off the ship.  The train takes you to the first of the Princess Lodges for the land tour.

Before I start talking about the train and all the fun we had on it, let's go back a bit and talk about the process of getting your luggage from the ship to the Princess Lodges.

The ship actually arrives in Whittier somewhere around midnight, to facilitate unloading all the passengers' baggage.  They ask that you have all your luggage ready to go the night before by 7:30 PM, except one small carry-on bag per person.  What they tell you is that there will be very limited space on the trains and busses, so you have to keep it down to one carry-on item no thicker than five inches.

Unlike all the other cruises we've been on, there was no option to do a self-assist luggage transfer where we could keep all of our luggage with us until the very last minute...  and then just roll it off the ship ourselves.  This created a bit of an awkward situation.   I needed to have my CPAP machine in order to be able to sleep that last night, so that meant the CPAP machine was going to have to be my one carry-on item.  Therefore, I was going to have to pack ALL of my clothes and personal hygiene products and give them up the night before...  and therefore, it was pretty much impossible to take a shower and put on a fresh set of clothes in the morning before getting off the ship.

The other awkward aspect was that you are only allowed to have ONE suitcase (per person) meet you at the first Princess lodge.  On a Caribbean cruise, we're able to keep it down to one suitcase per person...  but for an Alaska cruise there was simply no way.  In order to have clothes for ALL possible types of weather, and because of all the camera gear I was going to need, Kellyn and I each brought two suitcases.  So, I was only going to be able to have one suitcase meet me at the first Princess lodge, and I wouldn't get the other back until the last Princess lodge, in Fairbanks.  This created the awkward task of having to comb through everything I brought with me and come up with half of it that I wasn't really going to need for the next four days.  I didn't like doing that at all, and if I could change one thing about our entire Alaska vacation it would be for Princess to come up with a way that all luggage could travel with you during every stop of the land tour.

Anyway, we did it their way and each of us divided our stuff up in to a "meet me tonight" suitcase and a "meet me in Fairbanks" suitcase.

It's a good thing I'm used to getting up at 4:30 in the morning for my job back home, because we had to get moving very early the morning the ship arrived in Whittier.  We had been instructed to be in the Explorer's lounge at 6:10 AM for disembarkation.  So, we woke up about 5 AM and had breakfast.  It's one thing for me and my wife to be up and ready to go at the crack of dawn...  we're used to getting up that early.  I was a little worried about whether all my siblings would be ready at that hour!  But they made me proud, and were all set to go exactly as scheduled that morning.  We finally made it on to the train a little before 7 AM, for the six-hour train ride to Talkeetna.

One of the things I worried about the night before was getting a good seat on the train.  I had seen pictures of Alaska rail cars that had two levels...  including a domed upper level with beautiful views.  Since I had never been on an Alaska cruisetour before, I didn't know how they decided who got to sit in the upper level with the great views and who had to sit downstairs.  It turned out I was worried over nothing.

When we got on the train in Whittier, there was only one level to the rail car...  and every seat had a spectacular view out a glass domed roof.  Not only that, but there was assigned seating, so there was no jockeying for seats...  it was all very orderly and well organized.

Princess Alaska train dome car

If you're travelling with a group of people in multiple cabins on the ship, be sure to call Princess before your cruise and tie all the reservations together.  This way, they know who is travelling together...  and they'll make sure that you all have the same disembarkation time from the ship and they'll also make sure that you all are assigned seats together on the train.  It worked out perfectly for us.

I was surprised to find, once we settled in to the train, that there was more room for carry-on bags than we were led to believe.  We definitely could have brought something a lot thicker than five inches and still fit it under the seat...  and it would have been no problem to bring two small carry-on items per person.

Alaska train from Whittier to Talkeetna
I think trains are very cool, so I really enjoyed the train ride from Whittier to Talkeetna

 

Sally Smith Alaska train
My sister, Sally, posed for a photo-op along the way to Talkeetna

 

Here's a map that will help you visualize the land portion of our cruisetour...
Map of Princess lodges in Alaska
We disembarked the ship in Whittier
Took the train to Talkeetna
Spent two nights at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge
Took the train to Denali National Park
Spent two nights at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge
Took a bus to Fairbanks
Spent two nights at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge
Flew home from Fairbanks

The map also shows two Princess lodges that we did not stay at:  the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge.  There are all sorts of ways you can arrange the land tour portion of a Princess cruisetour, depending on which locations you want to visit and how long you want to stay.  If you're in the early planning stages of an Alaska cruisetour, the best way to get started is to have Princess send you a printed brochure.  That will help you to sort out all the possibilities.

Talkeetna Alaska train depot sign at railway station
Notice the Talkeetna train station sign says "M.P. 226.7"
That stands for milepost 226.7
Seward is MP 0, Anchorage is MP 114, Denali National Park is MP 347, and Fairbanks is MP 470

The train ride from Whittier to Talkeetna moves along at a very relaxed pace.  That's a polite way of saying that the train moves slowly and makes frequent stops to let other traffic go by.  So, just relax.  Get yourself out of any sense of "hurry up" and talk yourself in to a "I'm on vacation and getting there is half the fun" frame of mind.  Make friends with your fellow passengers, take in all the beautiful scenery, and enjoy the commentary provided by the tour guide on each train car.  You can also purchase various breakfast, lunch, and snack items on the train.  I would not recommend holding out for lunch at the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge because it will be mid-afternoon before you get there...  after the train ride to Talkeetna, it's still another hour on a bus before you're actually at the lodge.

One thing you definitely don't have to worry about is the bathroom situation.  There are nice bathrooms on the train, and there's even a reasonably decent bathroom on the bus to the lodge.  Also, notice all sorts of luggage space along the bottom of the bus.  If you were to break the rules and bring a large carry-on (like some people did) it would have caused no problem at all.  I guess it would only be a problem if everyone did it!

Princess Alaska motorcoach bus

Something that really impressed me about the land portion of our cruisetour was the amazing bus drivers they had!  Driving the bus was only part of their job description...  the real talent comes in play because your bus driver is also your tour guide.  It was obvious to me that Princess very carefully selected their bus driver / tour guides and only used the most friendly employees with the most outgoing personalities.  Every day of the land portion of the tour we were impressed with another great bus driver who kept us informed and entertained during the journey.

Another thing to point out about the land portion of the cruisetour was how well organized everything was.  It was obvious that Princess had been doing these cruisetours for a long time and had long ago worked out the kinks.  Everything happened exactly as it should.  The only problem we ran in to during the entire time was that one day there was a breakdown of the cargo truck that moves the luggage between the Princess lodges.  This delayed the arrival of our luggage by a an hour or two in Fairbanks.  Other than that, they had an excellent plan for all the logistics and they executed that plan perfectly, as far as I could tell.  It was impressive.


Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge

Mt McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge

This was the first of three Princess lodges that we visited during our cruisetour, and if given the chance to stay for an extra day at any of the three...  this would be the one I would choose.  I really enjoyed it there.  We arrived in the mid-afternoon and it rained steadily for that entire day.  There was no view of Denali through those clouds on that first day...  so, we just enjoyed settling in to the lodge and having a nice dinner that evening.

If you read the full story of the cruise, you may recall that on the last night I bought a bottle of Malibu rum in the ship's gift shop...  for less than it would have cost me at Costco back home.  So, it was fun to enjoy a few rum & cokes on a rainy night at the McKinley Princess Lodge.    Also, we had been up since 5 AM that morning...  so between the exhaustion and the rum, we went to bed pretty early that night!

When we woke up the next morning, it was still raining and there was still no view of Denali...  which was disappointing, for sure.  But after a few hours, the weather cleared up...  and by the afternoon we were treated to some spectacular views of the mountain!

Denali Mt McKinley

 

Dan Zimmerlin Liz Stern Denali Alaska
My brother, Dan, and his wife, Liz, posed for a photo with Denali in the background

 

McKinley Princess Lodge deck
It was fun for all of us to sit out on the lodge's large deck and enjoy the beautiful view

 

Judy Klaustermeyer Princess Alaska lodge Denali
My sister, Judy, posed for a photo-op at the lodge

 

hanging flower baskets in Alaska
One thing I noticed at the lodge was that there were hanging baskets of flowers EVERYWHERE

 

owl closeup

During our two days at the lodge, we enjoyed several presentations in the main lodge building.  One was a PowerPoint presentation by a helicopter pilot, and another was a lecture by a woman from a wildlife rescue organization.  She brought along an owl that they had rehabilitated.

Let's talk about the food for a minute.  At the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, you're an hour bus ride from Talkeetna...  so you're pretty much captive as far as dining options go, unless you happen to go in to Talkeetna for an excursion.  We ate several meals at the 20320 Alaskan Grill, which is named after the height of Mt. McKinley.  I thought the food was fine...  nothing spectacular...  and a little higher priced than I would prefer...  but a step above the food you get on the ship.

Here's a video I put together that gives you an overview of the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge...

 

Since we had two nights at the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, we had a full day to explore Talkeetna and to have some fun.  We explored the town, and had a nice lunch on the patio of one of many restaurants there.  The weather was gorgeous by this point.

I heard about a place in Talkeetna, along the shores of the Talkeetna river, where there were excellent views of Denali.  They weren't kidding about the excellent views!

Denali Mt McKinley Talkeetna river
Of all the pictures I shot during our Alaska vacation,
this was certainly one of the best.
At my office at work, I have a big wall where I've placed prints of my best vacation photos.
This is one of two representing my Alaska vacation.

 

Later that day, we did an excursion to Sun Dog Kennels, where we got to see Iditarod sled dogs in training.

Sun Dog Kennel tour Alaska Iditarod sled dogs

My wife and I were dog breeders for 15 years, so she really enjoyed meeting a litter of puppies they had...

puppy kisses sled dogs

Still photos don't really do justice to our excursion to Sun Dog Kennels.
I can give you a much better look at it in this video...

 

 

After our two nights at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge,
we got on the train again for the trip to the Denali Princess Lodge.

Alaska Princess rail car train dome

The train car we were on for the trip to the Denali Princess Lodge was totally different than the one we had been on two days earlier.  Instead of being a single-level car, this one had two levels.  Once again, we all had assigned seating in the observation area with the big glass windows at the top of the car.  But unlike the other train car we had been on, meals were not served up there.  If you wanted to have a meal, you went down to the lower level.  It was a tiny bit awkward because everyone on the train wanted to eat at around the same time, but there wasn't enough room in the dining area to support that.  So, some of us had a little later lunch than we might have preferred.  But that wasn't a very big problem, and I think it may have been the only problem we encountered that whole day.  So, life is good.

Alaska train McKinley Princess curve railroad

Dan Zimmerlin Elizabeth Stern Alaska train
My brother and his wife relaxing in the upper level of the train

 

Alaska train observation deck
There was a very large observation area at the back of the train.
Because there were no windows back there, it was a great place for photographers.
Shortly after I got this photo of it all empty,
all the other photographers discovered it and it filled right up.

 

Alaska fish wheel
This was an interesting thing we saw along the way.  It's called a fish wheel.
Basically, it's an automatic fish-catching machine.
Powered only by the flow of the river, a basket spins around and picks up fish
and deposits them in a container...  to be harvested by the native American fishermen.
I found a video someone posted to YouTube of one in action.

 

Sally Smith and Judy Klaustermeyer Princess Alaska train
My sisters were feeling quite relaxed and happy by the time we got to our destination!

One cool thing about travelling is that you get exposed to a lot of things you would never experience at home.  Just as an example, I had never seen a cottonwood tree before.  I guess we don't have them in California!  There were a LOT of cottonwood trees in Alaska, and they were in bloom.  When the breeze picked up, the cotton-like petals would fill the air and it looked like it was snowing!

Cottonwood tree
One of many Cottonwood trees we saw in Alaska

You can very clearly see the "cottonwood snow" effect in this video I put together
about our two-day journey on the Alaska railroad from Whittier to Denali...
starting at about one minute in to the video and most noticeable at two minutes in to it:


Denali Princess Lodge

My expectations were totally off regarding the Denali Princess Lodge.  Based on the name, I assumed that it would be our closest encounter with Denali...  also known as Mt. McKinley.  But I had that totally wrong!  The name comes from Denali National Park...  which is a huge wilderness area to the north of Mt. McKinley.  As far as the mountain goes, we were actually much closer when we were in Talkeetna and at the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, which is within Denali STATE park.  You couldn't even see Mt. McKinley at all from the Denali Princess Lodge.

Not to imply that there weren't mountains all around the Denali Princess Lodge!  There were, and I got a pretty good look at them during a 45-minute helicopter excursion.  I shot video during the entire helicopter tour, and couldn't decide how to trim the 45-minute video down to just a few highlights...  so I didn't!  Here's a video of the entire helicopter tour.  I don't expect anyone will watch it all the way through, but feel free to browse through portions of it to get a look at the scenery...

Jim Zimmerlin helicopter Alaska Denali
After the helicopter tour, the pilot snapped this photo of me

 

Prior to the cruise, I bought an Alaska sweatshirt on eBay and it was so perfect
that I probably wore it at some point just about every day for two weeks straight during our vacation!
Kellyn bought a pink parka during a winter closeout at Dick's Sporting Goods
and it turned out to be perfect for Alaska in June, too.

Jim and Kellyn Zimmerlin Alaska
Kellyn and I at the Denali Princess Lodge

Regarding the meals at the Denali Princess Lodge, you are not totally captive like you are at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.  There are some off-site options that I'm sure would have been a little lower priced.  Not a lot of options, but there are a few on the other side of a busy highway.  We ate all our meals in the on-site restaurants at the Denali Princess Lodge, though.  The one that really stands out in my mind was lunch at a pizza restaurant they have there.  It was pretty good pizza...  not fantastic...  but I enjoyed it.


Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge

My expectations were totally off regarding the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge, too.  I had seen photos of it, and it just looked like any hotel in any city, USA.  It was definitely not a wilderness lodge, and I didn't expect much.  They sure totally exceeded my expectations!

The thing about the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge that totally blew me away was the food.  It was incredible!  They must have had some amazing chef and kitchen staff at this location, because the food was better than anything we had at the other two Princess lodges or on the ship.  I really don't know what they did, or how they did it, but these folks sure had a way with cooking.  It's not like I had anything unusual, either.  One night I had a French Dip sandwich...  which was simply the best French Dip I had ever had in my life.  Kellyn had a Thai steak salad that she totally RAVED about!  The next morning, I had an omelet, which was also way better than average...  as were the breakfast potatoes that came with it.  We also had a great waitress at dinner...  which combined with the great food just totally blew past anything I had expected from the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge!  I was so impressed that I wrote a glowing review on TripAdvisor.com

Our Princess cruisetour package came bundled with a no-additional-charge excursion in Fairbanks.  Two excursions in one, actually...  called the Gold Dredge #8 and Riverboat Discovery tour.  My expectations were fairly low for these tours...  partly because they were included at no additional charge, and partly because it just sounded like a somewhat hokey tourist experience.  Boy, were my expectations way off once again!  This turned out to be a great tour, and a lot of fun!

As I mentioned, it's really two tours in one.  The first part of the tour is visit to Gold Dredge #8.  Gold dredge 8 is a machine that extracted millions of ounces of gold out of the soil near Fairbanks between 1928 and 1959.  The old mining site where gold dredge 8 is located is fairly large, so they use a little train to take the tourists through it all.  It's really ingenious how they've set this whole tour up...  you can tell they've been doing it a long time and they've really perfected it.  It very much reminded me of what a gold mining tour would be like if run by the Disney organization.

Fairbanks Alaska gold dredge 8 train engine

Each train car had several large flat-screen TVs hanging from the ceiling so that you could see the tour guide in the first car who was talking over the speaker system.  During certain portions of the train ride, the tour guide would step aside and an entertainer would perform a few songs.  I shot a short video of the entertainer, Earl Hughes, performing the old classic "Orange Blossom Special"...

The highlight of the Gold Dredge 8 tour was a learn-by-doing lesson on panning for gold.  The setup they had for this, and the number of people they could bring through at one time, was amazing and impressive.  They even went to the trouble of setting the whole gold panning facility up with heated water...  because tourists don't like putting their hands in frigid Alaska water!  Like I said, they've obviously been doing this a long time and have really perfected this experience for tourists.  It was beautifully organized, and each of us ended up with some gold to take home.   Watch this video of my siblings panning for gold, to see how it's done...

Alongside the gold panning facility is a large building that operates as both a museum and a gift shop.  You could buy all sorts of Alaska tourist stuff there.  To get you in a money spending mood, they entice you with free chocolate chip cookies!  I had no shame and made a total pig of myself...  I have no will power when it comes to chocolate chip cookies.

Their big money-making operation was an offer to take the gold you had just gotten during the gold panning lesson and turn it in to a jewelry item for you.  It's was a totally low-pressure sales pitch...  and I noticed a lot of people went for it.  I bet they make a lot of money, and I think they deserve it because it's such a great little spot for Alaska tourists.  Well done, Gold Dredge 8 team!

old telephone switchboard
I mentioned they had a bit of a museum, too.
This was one of the museum items that I found interesting.
I bet people of a certain (young) age would have no idea what this is!
Kids:  it's a telephone switchboard from the early 1900s.

The trans-Alaskan oil pipeline actually runs across the property, so at the end of the gold dredge tour they stop at the pipeline and spend a few minutes telling you all about that.  The part I found the most interesting was how the pipe itself is mounted on a bracket that can slide from left to right as needed to absorb shocks from earthquakes.  I work at a nuclear power plant that is heavily reinforced to protect against earthquakes, so this fascinated me.

trans-Alaska oil pipeline
Those fins that stick up in to the air on top of the red poles are designed to dissipate heat.
The oil in the pipeline is fairly warm, and they don't want the heat getting transmitted
down the poles and in to the permafrost below.

The second part of our two-part tour was the "Riverboat Discovery" tour, which begins and ends at Steamboat Landing, along the Chena river.  Discovery refers to the name of the steamboat you can see in the right side of the picture.

steamboat landing Fairbanks Alaska riverboat tour

This was another one of those beautifully organized tourist experiences that managed to handle huge numbers of tourists with all the skill of the Disney organization.  The tour starts with a free lunch, served in a huge dining room inside the Steamboat Landing building you see in that picture above.  The way they got such large numbers of people seated, fed, and out again was incredible.  After lunch, it was on to the steamboat for a river tour.

One clue that these folks had been doing these tours for a LONG time and had long ago worked out the kinks and perfected it all was found in the name of the steamboat.  It was the Discovery III.  We saw the much smaller Discovery II docked nearby, and the much much smaller original Discovery steamboat docked a little further down the river.  These tours obviously started a long time ago and over the years they've ploughed a lot of the profits right back in to expanding and improving everything...  including two newer versions of the steamboat.  Totally impressive.

hanging flower basket

Remember how I mentioned earlier that I noticed hanging flower baskets all over the McKinley Princess Lodge?  It turns out that it's not just a Princess Lodge thing...  it's an Alaska thing.  We ended up noticing them all throughout our Alaska land tour.  This particular one was at a replica of a native American village that was part of the Riverboat Discovery tour.

native Alaska winter coat
Another thing we enjoyed seeing at that village was this native American coat.

 

Alaska moose

One last thing from that replica of the native American village...  this stuffed moose.  I took this picture of it, and when I got home and reviewed all my photos, this one kind of jumped out at me because it sure looked like the real thing!  With the woods in the background, and the slightly fuzzy focusing, it looked like I had stumbled on a moose in the woods and snapped a picture of it.  The prankster in me couldn't resist taking advantage of this.  I posted the picture to my Facebook page and made up a story about walking out the back door of a Princess lodge and nearly running right in to this moose.  It was funny how all my Facebook friends totally believed it!  (Yes, I did later set the record straight.)

A highlight of the Riverboat Discovery tour was when it pulled up alongside the Trail Breaker Kennels facility on the banks of the river.  Trail Breaker Kennels raises dogs for the Iditarod dog sled race.  They put on a nice little demonstration of how they exercise the sled dogs during the summer...  which was easily viewed through the windows of the riverboat or on one of the many large flat screen televisions throughout the riverboat.  I got some nice video when they brought out "the next generation" of puppies...

Our combined gold dredge 8 and riverboat Discovery tour was nearly eight hours long...  but I can't imagine a better tour for someone visiting Fairbanks.  I totally loved it.


If You Have Mobility Problems

If you have problems walking, and especially if you have problems climbing stairs, be sure to contact Princess in advance of your cruisetour.  Many of the lodges are two-story buildings without elevators.  By letting Princess know in advance of your mobility problems, they can make sure to assign you to a first-floor room in each of the lodges.  The best way to notify Princess if you have mobility issues is to send them an email to accessoffice@princesscruises.com   Be sure to give them your booking number, name, and a brief description of your mobility issues.


The Worst Part Of Our Alaska Vacation

They say getting there is half the fun.  In our case, flying up to Vancouver at the start of the cruise and flying home from Fairbanks was where all the problems happened!  We had a great vacation once the cruise started and all the way through the last day in Fairbanks, but the air travel was sure a nightmare.  I'll give you a summary:

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) closed two of its four runways for the entire summer of 2014 in order to perform federally mandated safety upgrades.  This really screwed things up at SFO!  If I had known anything about this in advance, I never would have booked my flights through SFO.  I could have easily gone through Los Angeles instead.  But, I didn't find out about the problems at SFO until the very last minute, and by then it was too late to do anything about.

So, the flight to SFO out of our little regional airport got severely delayed.  This started the vacation on a very bad note!  For a while, it looked like we were totally going to miss our connection in SFO.  Luckily, the flight we were scheduled to get on in SFO was also delayed by the runway construction.  So, we did make our connection...  but that wasn't the only problem with our short flight to SFO.  We also had a screaming baby onboard, who screamed for the first 20 minutes of our 45 minute flight.  I shot some video of our takeoff from our local airport in San Luis Obispo.  Make sure your sound is turned on, and listen to the kid screaming throughout the whole video...  and imagine that going on for 20 minutes straight, just a few rows behind you!

The flight up to Vancouver was a piece of cake compared to what happened to us coming home from Fairbanks!

The travel nightmare began on our last night in Fairbanks, about 12 hours before we were scheduled to fly home.  I got an email from United Airlines saying that a segment of our planned flight home had been CANCELLED!  It was the segment from SFO to our local airport in San Luis Obispo...  a victim of the SFO runway closures.

This put me in to a frenzy of research on the United Airlines web site...  trying to find an alternate way to get home.  Keep in mind, this was the evening before I wanted to fly...  so trying to find flights with seats still available was tricky.  In this day and age, planes usually fly full.

I was lucky, though, and did manage to find a flight to San Luis Obispo that had two available seats.  It would involve flying from SFO down to Los Angeles, and then from Los Angeles up to San Luis Obispo.  That's going quite a bit out of the way, but at least it would get us home...  and only a few hours later than our original plan.

Right around the time I figured all this out, I got a second email from United Airlines...  informing me that, due to my cancelled flight to San Luis Obispo, they had automatically come up with an alternate arrangement to get us home to San Luis Obispo.  They booked us to Las Vegas, where we would have to wait overnight and then the next morning get on a flight to Los Angeles and finally a flight after that to San Luis Obispo.  This was a VERY roundabout way to get home, and it meant waiting overnight in Las Vegas...  with no mention of whether that would be in a hotel at their expense or not.

At this point, I called United Airlines, hoping to convince them that my plan to go through LAX was better than their plan to go through Las Vegas and then LAX the next day.  That's easier said than done!

I literally spent 45 minutes on hold before reaching an agent.  Then it took awhile to convince the agent that there was a better way to get from SFO to San Luis Obispo than through Las Vegas and waiting all night for a flight out of there.  First she tried to convince me that there were no available seats on the flights I had suggested.  However, she told me this so quickly after I suggested them that I knew she hadn't even bothered to check.  I think she was just trying to get me off the phone.  Anyway, I finally convinced the agent to re-book it my way.  This solved the biggest problem ahead of me, but there were still a few hurdles ahead.

One problem was that I was mixing airlines in order to get home.  I was on an Alaska Airlines flight from Fairbanks to SFO, but then switching to United Airlines for the rest of the way.  Everything with Alaska Airlines was fine...  the flight was a "go" as scheduled, and I had a boarding pass.  But I needed boarding passes for the United segments later in the day.

At the Fairbanks airport the next morning, at the Alaska Airlines check-in terminal, the Alaska airlines clerk could see that I only had a boarding pass for their flight but no boarding passes for any of the United segments later in the day.  She wanted to resolve this (or perhaps she was required to resolve this) prior to letting me through.  So, she tried to call United...  and just as happened to me the night before, she got put on hold for a LONG time.  We ended up having to wait at the Alaska Airlines check-in counter for something like 30 or 45 minutes while they tried to resolve it.  In the end, she wasn't able to resolve it.  She told me that the person she talked to at United was totally incompetent, and so that we wouldn't miss our flight, we would have to just get on the Alaska Airlines flight to SFO and resolve the situation in person at SFO with a United Airlines rep.  She arranged for our luggage to go all the way to San Luis Obispo, even though we didn't yet have boarding passes for the final two legs of our flights.  I think she may have stretched the rules a bit for us.  Thank you, Alaska Airlines, for the good customer service!

So, we flew to SFO...  where we had about an hour until our connection on United.  An hour didn't seem like a very long time to get from the Alaska Airlines terminal over to the United Airlines terminal...  especially since we had to find a United rep and get boarding passes during that time.  It got further complicated when we discovered that at SFO, there's absolutely no way to get from the Alaska Airlines terminal to the United Airlines terminal without going out of the security area and then back through airport security again.  Nightmare!  There was a LONG line to get through airport security again, and at that point we were pretty sure we were going to miss our next flight.

We hurried as best we could...  finally got through security...  and then tried to find a United rep who could print boarding passes for us.  That was harder than it should have been...  but we finally got it done...  with just enough time to make it to our next flight.  At that point, we breathed a big sigh of relief.  As we settled in to our seats for the flight to Los Angeles, it seemed like everything was going to be OK.

We made it to Los Angeles as planned and then we even made it on to our final flight...  from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo.  At this point, with just a 45-minute flight left to go, we figured that everything was going to be OK.  But before the plane even took off, the pilot made an announcement that the San Luis Obispo airport was experiencing very strong crosswinds and that there was a chance we wouldn't be able to land.  He said he would fly up there, take two attempts at landing, if necessary, but that if the winds were too strong he would have to fly us all back to LAX.  There's actually another local airport in Santa Maria that isn't too far from our house...  if we had to land there it wouldn't take much of a cab ride to get home...  but the pilot very specifically pointed out that if we couldn't land in San Luis Obispo we would be returning to Los Angeles.  We started imagining a scenario where we would have to spend the night in the Los Angeles airport before getting on the first flight to San Luis Obispo in the morning.

Luckily, either the winds had died down a bit by the time the plane got to San Luis Obispo or the pilot was quite skilled at cross-wind landings.  Maybe a little bit of both.  Our plane landed in San Luis Obispo on the first attempt.  I think it was 10 PM.  We had been up since about 5 AM.  After a whole lot of hassle and a whole lot of worrying, we had made it home.  But there was still one more surprise waiting for us!

Perhaps I should say we were surprised by something that WASN'T waiting for us...  our luggage!  Out of the four pieces of luggage we had checked in at Fairbanks, not a single one made it to San Luis Obispo.  I walked over to the United Airlines counter and got in a line of several other people whose luggage had not arrived.  After a long wait in line, I was informed that the luggage had never successfully made the switch from Alaska Airlines to United Airlines in SFO.  The curse of SFO strikes again!  They promised to look in to it for me, and we finally drove home.

The next day, we went to Walmart to buy a few things that had been in our lost luggage...  things like deodorant, that we would need until whenever they finally found our luggage.  I figured it could easily be days.  The United Airlines web site said not to even call them until at least FIVE days after filing a report of missing luggage!  Then, an hour or two after getting back from our Walmart run, something wonderful happened.  Our doorbell rang, and there was a guy delivering all four pieces of our luggage to us!  The nightmare was finally over...  and I've already put it way behind me and choose to only dwell on all the fun we had on our vacation.  It was totally worth the problems we experienced in getting there and back!


The Cruise Ships We've Been On

If you've enjoyed this page, you would probably also enjoy reading my web pages about:

September 2015 back-to-back Caribbean cruises on Carnival Breeze
The largest cruise ship in the world: Allure Of The Seas
The best cruise ship we've ever experienced: The Norwegian Getaway
Our first cruise with Princess!  January 2014 Sapphire Princess
2014 back-to-back eastern/western Caribbean cruises on the Carnival Glory
The completely refurbished Carnival Sunshine
The newest ship in the fleet, the Carnival Breeze
The second newest ship in the fleet, the Carnival Magic
Our 2013 cruise on the Carnival Conquest
One of the oldest ships in the fleet, the Carnival Inspiration
Our first Caribbean cruise:  the Carnival Glory
Our many cruises on the Carnival Spirit
Our February 2010 cruise on the Carnival Splendor
Our April 2009 Carnival Paradise cruise
Our January 2008 cruise on the Carnival Elation
Our April 2008 cruise on the Norwegian Star
Our first cruise!  1996 on Carnival Cruise Line's MS Holiday

 

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