“Take a trip for only $7!” Not today.
There are many stories out there that will tell you how to travel super cheap. That’s not this story. I am a middle class professional, without a lot of disposable income, so I need to make sure I spend it wisely. I haven’t flown in a while and started to get that itch. You probably know it. Where you feel that you need to be airborne again. I had no trips coming up for AirlineReporter and even if there were, my schedule was tight, so making something work was unlikely. I finally decided to try and set up a weekend trip on my own.
I was talking to a friend (let’s call her Brittany — turns out to be her name) about wanting to fly and she shared the sentiment. We decided to take a trip, with a few requirements: 1) Somewhere not too far away from Seattle (SEA), to have meaningful time on the ground; 2) Fly on a Bombardier Q400 (she had never flown on one); and 3) Some place where we could wear our cowboy boots (yea, I guess you can wear cowboy boots anywhere, but we wanted to go somewhere it made sense). We were up for the challenge and decided on a great location!
Taking the Dash-8 (aka Q400) helped make our decision easier with less destination choices. Luckily Alaska Airlines / Horizon Air, based in Seattle, has quite a few… but where did they fly? My good friend (and super AvGeek) Jason Rabinowitz created me a map (thanks buddy!). Then I started looking at schedules and prices. After quite a bit of comparing and contrasting, Brittany and I decided on flying to Missoula, Montana (MSO). Neither of us had been, so it seemed like a legitimate place to rock some cowboy boots. YEE HAW!
The flight schedule allowed us to land at about 10:30am local time on Saturday and take off at 8:30pm on Sunday — meaning we had plenty of time both days for some adventure.
We arrived to SEA at about 6:00am and security was a total breeze. We headed to the Alaska Airlines Board Room and helped ourselves to some pancakes using their sweet machine (I think it is one of the coolest lounge amenities).
We didn’t stay in the lounge too long, since we arranged to pre-board to get photos for the story. We were escorted to the ramp and able to get some photos before heading on to the Q400, which had the Oregon State University livery. It is always nice getting onto a plane with no passengers. Feels so much more personal and one can connect better with the machine.
After we met the flight crew, the passengers started to board and we made it to our seats in row 14 — I wanted to sit under the wing to see the engine and gear raise and lower. But I forgot how little view you have looking straight out because of that wing, gear, and engine (especially when you are being the nice person and letting your friend sit at the window).
Before we were ready to head out, the captain came on and let us know that one of the tires was flat and we needed to de-plane. Because the Q400 is smaller and Alaska uses both the front and rear doors, it took very little time to be back in the terminal. They ended up doing a plane swap and only 15 minutes after we got back in the terminal, we were boarding again and on our way. Nicely done!
I really love the Q400. That engine start, takeoff, high wing views, and seeing the gear raise. Yes… the seat doesn’t recline, there is no sun shade, and the cabin is a bit tight, but this was only a 90-minute flight – smaller aircraft allow airlines, like Alaska, to increase their network to smaller airports in a cost effective way. Plus, you get free beer and wine (we did not partake, but others did — even at 9:00am).
Even though we just had pancakes in the lounge, we needed our energy to take on Montana. We had a chance to try two of the boxed meals — we were impressed with both. They are simple enough; a combination of snacks, but they were nicely paired. The flight went quickly and soon we landed at the small, cozy, and (shall I say it) cute airport.
When booking the rental car, I could have gone with the cheap econobox, but decided to spend a bit more and get a full-size SUV. Why? Montana and cowboy boots, of course! No question, that extra money ended up being well spent.
This might be a good time to point out that we didn’t do much planning — on purpose. Not an easy task since we are both sort of planners. We had a hotel reserved two hours north (by Glacier National Park), but our goal was to mosey on north, smell the roses, and see what happens. This turned out to be the right call… mostly.
We stopped at a gas station to get some snacks and while chatting with the cashier, she mentioned Garnett, which is a ghost town a few miles down the road. We had our first mission.
Garnett did not feel like a tourist trap (which I hate). It felt real, and its history was very accessible. Then there were smaller, less marked ghost towns on rough logging roads throughout the area. This is where the SUV came in. We were driving through these dirty/muddy roads (I was aiming for all the puddles), seeing ruins, but not seeing one another person or car. It was awesome.
The views were breathtaking and our cowboy boots allowed us to do some exploring. We didn’t end up seeing any bears, goats, or elk, but we did see cows.
We made our way back to the pavement and continued north. We were hoping to hit Glacier National Park on Saturday, but we had too much fun in the hills, so decided to make our way to the hotel and do some relaxing before the next day. Although no researching and flying by the seat of our pants had worked out great so far… this is where some planning might have been better.
We had no idea what Glacier National Park was going to be like. We both had been to plenty of other state/national parks, but at most you can do a quick drive or there’s a visitor center to check out. Not at Glacier. It’s huge. Really huge. By the time we arrived, we had four hours before we needed to head back south to the airport. Turned out that was not nearly enough time. We made it work and it was still worth going for the four hours, but we would have liked more time there.
After doing a short (but few hour) drive into the park, we started to head back south to the airport — still making a few stops on the way. By the time we arrived, we were tired, the rental car was muddy, and we had some really amazing memories. We sat in the small waiting area at the gate and boarded on time.
As I looked out the window and watched the last of the sunset over Missoula’s rolling hills, I knew this was a great trip and the right call. I know I had always been hesitant to spend so much money on just a weekend. I felt pressure to plan every second to get the most value out of my money. But really, value can be found in the smaller surprises. Good planes, good location, good people, and good times.
Overall the trip broke down to about $450 per person. Not super cheap, and I know this might not be possible for everyone. But this has surely motivated me to not spend my money as much on other things and put them towards future trips. Sure, with some additional planning, flexibility, and patience you can do a trip like this for much less. But don’t let that stand in your way. If you have been thinking about a trip like this, I say saddle up!