surfer on ice in Alaska

This post is inspired by fellow Alaskans we’ve met, both transplants and born & raised, that weren’t savvy on what we see as essentials for managing life in Alaska. So without further ado, here are a few of our favorite tips to make life in the last frontier a little easier.

1. Work the mileage system.

Especially, but not only, Alaska Air. Alaska Air takes very good care of its Alaskan residents in our opinion and is one of the nicest airlines for coach travel. Their credit card is a great source of miles. We have three. By running our business and personal fixed expenses through our credit card we rack up miles for money that we would spend no matter what. If you are not good at credit card management we recommend caution, but we also put most of our food and other misc household expenses on the card dedicated for that and therefore continue to gain miles for necessary purchases. When you buy your plane tickets you get double miles. The initial sign-up bonus is often enough for a round-trip ticket. We get three $100 companion fares/year (three cards) and we use them (having a companion is nice too). We try to make the most of this by doing a three-leg ticket i.e. ANC –> PDX –> HI –> ANC. You’ll pay full fare for one traveler then $100 + taxes for the second. AND you both get miles.

Don’t limit yourself to Alaska Air miles. We also have a United card that gets us perks like free checked bags + miles.

Multiple credit cards do help us keep our bookkeeping organized but this only works if you ALWAYS pay off your entire balance each month AND pay attention to the annual fees ($75-$100).

It’s good to have an escape plan.

2. Know how to  drive comfortably in the snow and ice.

Alaska winter drivingIt’s surprising how many folks feel trapped in the winter due to discomfort driving on the snow and ice. Yes, snow and ice + dark = more challenge, but there are benefits like much less traffic and beautiful sunrises that last half the day.

Have AWD or 4WD, good tires and then practice and apply knowledge. My favorite winter driving tips:

  1. Stay off the brakes. Overly cautious people can get into trouble by having a tendency to step on the brakes. Plan ahead so that you don’t have a need to step on the brakes and RELAX.
  2. No sudden moves. Again the more relaxed you are the less likely you are to make the kind of sudden moves that will send you into a skid. I think ‘no sudden moves’ is a great mantra while driving in the winter.
  3. Keep your eyes peeled for moose. Slow down when they are around and you’ll greatly reduce your chances of needing a sudden move. Moose tend to feed along the highways, especially during the winter months and at dawn and dusk.
  4. Know what a slide feels like. We are lucky here, not only are there empty parking lots, but here in Homer an empty LAKE that we can play around on. Get used to the feeling of a slide, turning into it, and the ever-important not over-correcting. Get used to the feeling (and sound) of your ABS brakes (to which you should apply steady pressure, not pumping like old school brakes).
  5. Pay attention to changing conditions. Keep an eye on the temperature and also on cues like spray from the cars in front of you or passing by that help you determine whether it is freezing or not.
  6.  A confident, conservative and relaxed driver is a great winter driver.
  7. Apply common sense and be sure you know the features of your car- ABS? AWD vs 4WD? All weather or studded tires?

3. Get good at getting out.

Leaving Alaska isn’t always easy, especially with the distance most of us live from Anchorage International. What to do with our car was always the million dollar (or at least $100) question. Enter the little known Park, Ride & Fly lot at the Anchorage Airport and the problem was solved. The $35 for a whole week is soooo much less than any other on or off-airport parking or taxi rides from a friends house. It is surprising how few folks know of this option; it has been in place for over four years and the shuttlebus drivers still refer to it as ‘the new lot’ which I think speaks to its slowness at making it into the collective consciousness! You use the regular airport shuttle, just give it a little extra time (10-15 min has always been plenty for me) at pick up. One driver suggested I just call  (529-2577 or 677-0670) when I am a few minutes from the airport but I always like the extra time to get organized anyway.

4. Winter is for work AND play.

Erika Klaar nordic skiing in Homer, Alaska.Winter in Alaska is when we get more work done in the office and on the computer and inside the house in general. These are the kinds of things that can be hard to do in the summer when the endless light is always begging us to be outside and endless opportunities for work and fun abound. All work, however, would equal one long winter. Nordic skiing, downhill skiing, snowmachining, surfing, hockey; find your niche (or learn a niche) and then throw yourself into it. For me group fitness is best so I am part of a nordic ski master’s team. Scott is much less organized with his outdoor activities but if a couple of days go by and he hasn’t been out, it becomes a priority.

5. If at all possible make your own schedule.

We think there would be nothing worse than going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark, and and not being able to get out during the peak of the daylight. Or when there is surf. The more that you can go with the flow of the Alaskan seasons the less you will resent them. Having the freedom to go skiing at 11 am, surf whenever possible, or in the summer hit a 4 am salmon dip-netting tide and then nap afterwards makes life here much more satisfying.

6. Spend less = work less.

We see lots of people get in what we guess is an “I work hard so I’m going to pay myself back with this expensive ______”. We aim to spend less so there is less pressure for us to earn more. For us this is a great system and we are able to live a lifestyle that is much richer than our income would indicate. Elements that help this are having lifestyle businesses and being economical in areas where it is easy for us to do so.

7. Develop a support system.

It’s great to have the kind of people that you can just call up and ask a favor. This seems to come automatically with family but takes more cultivation with friends and neighbors. But people do love to help (and accrue favors themselves) so don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. We love that we have great neighbors who call us when they run out of gas or need a ride to the airport. And who help us jump start a dead battery or lend us tools. A friend recently told me she almost called me when she was in a child care bind. This is very good, hopefully next time she will call! Cultivation works both ways though, asking for help yourself makes people more likely to ask you later (and don’t forget everyone loves to help).

8. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses (in the lower 48).

Take advantage of the fact that you can make do a little longer with technology or gear before upgrading. Trends take a while to make it this far north and here function matters more than form. You’re also less likely to be inundated with desire-inducing experiences like trips to REI or B&H Photo or the Apple Store (or Nordstroms).  You’ll probably feel more comfortable getting a few more years out of your car as well.

9. Seek out adventure.

Hiking in Kachemak Bay State ParkIf you live the same lifestyle in Alaska that you would in Texas you are missing something. We are happiest that we live here when we are out enjoying the beauty of Alaska. This means getting out on a daily basis but also getting out in a bigger way too. Seek out opportunities for boating, flying and back-country adventures. This can be challenging but use the support system (above) and get creative. Look for volunteer or low-cost opportunities like the volunteer Trails Day in Kachemak Bay State Park (early June) or helping out with HoWL (Homer Outdoor Wilderness Leaders).

10. Make hay while the sun shines.

When the weather is good, don’t assume it will be tomorrow or this afternoon. Get out. This goes 10-fold for the finicky surf in Alaska. It’s likewise easy to to take the sweet light of winter for granted but the endless sunrises and sunsets do come to an end. Make the most of them while they are here.

11. Amazon, Amazon, Amazon.

Free shipping from Amazon is the greatest invention ever for Alaskans. If you are curious where it came from, it turns out that early on the company decided to put their marketing budget into free shipping in hopes that their marketing would take care of itself.  It did. We have a Prime membership which affords us free standard shipping (instead of just super saver) free streaming of some movies and tv and a free kindle book to borrow every month. And one membership covers both our accounts. Such a deal. It’s not just for books; we order (and save money on) everything from camera equipment to replacement toothbrush heads to specialty foods to our whole-house water filters. Orders almost always come faster than estimated and the free shipping even applied to heavy items like our dehumidifier and the wool rug in our bedroom.