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The Last Frontier: How a Mileage & Milk Run Led Me to Juneau, Alaska
The same circumstances that took me to Alaska 12 years ago brought me back this month, but this time I arrived with a wheelchair.
This month 12 years ago, I took a trip to Alaska that, even now, ranks as one of my top 5 trips of all time. I didn’t have a disability then and enjoyed the thrills of hiking and kayaking in the Alaska wilderness. One day, I hope to do a deep dive into Alaska, cataloguing what I am sure are the many wheelchair accessible things to do there. Zin the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about what Wheelchair Travel readers have done there, check out these guest blog posts:
Guest Post: Wheelchair Accessible Cruise to Alaska, by DeeDee Poston
Accessible Fishing on Alaska’s ‘Shark Tank,’ a story about Capt. Jack Finnegan
When I share photos of my earlier trip to Alaska, people assume that I spent a week or more in the state — but I was actually only there for 48 hours. The purpose of that trip wasn’t even to explore, but rather to earn frequent flyer miles and status points in an airline’s loyalty program. It was, as aviation geeks like to call it, a “mileage run.”
What is a mileage run?
Back in the day, airline loyalty programs would award one frequent flyer mile for each mile flown — the greater the distance traveled, the more miles earned for award tickets, upgrades, and elite status.
As an undergrad and graduate student at Florida State University, I spent many weekends in the air, flying on cheap fares to earn miles and to elevate my status. In 2011, my last full year at FSU, I spotted a fare that I could not pass up — a $300 round-trip ticket from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Anchorage, Alaska.
By routing through both New York and Minneapolis, I was able to add extra miles to the trip, hauling in about 10,000 reward miles before my elite status bonus. The $300 airfare would have been worth it to me for the miles alone, but my 48-hour stay yielded an unforgettable trip that is still difficult to beat. As it stands and all these years later, only my wheelchair accessible Kenya safari has amazed me more.
Returning to Alaska as a wheelchair user and the famous Alaska Airlines “Milk Run”
About a month ago, I was alerted to an airfare deal with Alaska Airlines — $488 for a round-trip ticket from Atlanta, Georgia to Juneau, Alaska… in first class! For this travel addict and aviation geek, I had to take advantage!
As I began to piece together the itinerary, I booked a routing from Atlanta to Juneau via Seattle and Ketchikan. I hoped my 5-hour layover in Ketchikan would allow me to explore the city, but poor weather left me stuck at the airport (where I met Willie, the affable bartender who I am told everyone knows). I shared with him that I would be returning to the lower-48 a few days later via the “Milk Run” flight — he wished me luck and gave me a sticker that read, “The milk run was a bad choice.”
So, what is this infamous “Milk Run?” In an article on its website, Alaska Airlines describes the Milk Run as a “daily circuit of Alaska Airlines flights that hop between towns in Southeast Alaska, serving as a lifeline for the communities that aren’t always connected by roads to the outside world.”
While there are various Milk Run routes, I took what is perhaps the most popular, departing from Juneau and connecting in Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan before continuing on to Seattle, Washington. Each of these remote towns rely on the daily Milk Run flights to bring in people and supplies, and the flights truly can serve as a lifeline. After landing in Petersburg (population 3,043), I watched a container with a supply of donated blood offloaded from the aircraft.
The joke in that sticker given to me by Willie the bartender is that, unless you’re starting or ending the trip in one of those small towns, the Milk Run is not an efficient way to travel from Juneau to Seattle. A non-stop flight takes less than 2.5 hours, but a journey on the Milk Run journey can take more than 6 hours. Many tourists unintentionally book the milk run, unaware of the lengthy journey ahead. As for me, my booking was intentional and I loved every minute of it (even though my departure was delayed more than 2 hours due to weather).
Three days in Juneau
Just as I did during my 2011 mileage run to Anchorage, I planned to stay a few days in Juneau. The constant rain precluded me from enjoying many of the city’s outdoor activities, but I did visit some museums, enjoyed local bars and restaurants, and surveyed the accessibility of three different hotels while I was there. When the rain clouds parted, I got a peek at the beautiful mountains surrounding the city.
Here are a few brief notes on accessibility in Juneau:
The city bus system, Capital Transit, is wheelchair accessible and offers regular service across a number of routes. Strangely, the bus stop closest to the airport is several blocks away from the terminal and off airport property — it wasn’t fun getting soaked on the way to check-in for my flight. Rides are just $2.
Cruise ships dock right at the heart of downtown Juneau, and the city center is easy to navigate, with well maintained sidewalks and curb ramps throughout.
Most restaurants and shops have an accessible entrance, though not all have a properly accessible bathroom. Be sure to take note when you find one that works for you, as you may want to return to it later.
I enjoyed my time in Alaska’s capital city, but definitely visited out of season. I look forward returning during the summer, when I’ll hopefully find an abundance of clear skies and breathtaking views!
It’s a small world and what’s next —
On Sunday, I attended Mass at the Catholic Cathedral in Juneau — the parishioners were extremely welcoming and invited me to join them for a potluck lunch after the service. There, I met Carl and Maria, who I learned through conversation share a friend with me. We took a photo, sent it to our mutual friend, and reflected with gratitude on our chance meeting. If there is one thing I advocate for, it is to never turn away from a “hello” — amazing things can happen when we connect with one another!
Today, I’m writing this newsletter from an airplane — I’m flying to Reno, Nevada with three friends… we weren’t supposed to be on the same flight, but I was able to join them after a missed connection. From Reno, I’ll travel to Lake Tahoe for ZorkFest, a gathering of points, miles and casino loyalty enthusiasts. I look forward to reconnecting with friends, acquaintances and folks who will enjoy hearing about my mileage/milk run! I hope you did too.
After Lake Tahoe and a very quick stop in San Francisco, I’ll be shipping back
up, over, home to Boston where I have a lot of work to do. I’ll be sharing some exciting content from my favorite city in the Northeast!
A reminder and an opportunity —
Really, two opportunities!
The first I announced in an email earlier this week. This Friday, October 13 at 11 a.m. ET, I’ll be hosting an Accessible Travel Chat with special guests Michele Erwin and Alan Chaulet, the President and Vice President of the non-profit organization All Wheels Up. They’re committed to getting a wheelchair space on airplanes, and I’m excited to chat with them.
To attend the live virtual event, which will include an opportunity for Q&A, please complete the Accessible Travel Chat registration form. After registering, you’ll receive an email with a link to connect via Zoom.
Last but not least — Readers frequently ask me to give them a call to answer questions or help plan an accessible trip. I’d love to speak to everyone, but time is short and I do have to work on things that will pay for the cost of maintaining this website and keeping a roof over my head.
If you’d like to schedule a chat with me, consider purchasing a paid subscription — Readers who join at the Founding Member level are entitled to a one-hour video or phone call with me each year. While I know not everyone can afford to subscribe, any support you are able to provide is greatly appreciated! Don’t forget you can also gift a subscription to a friend or family member, or donate one to a Wheelchair Travel reader who cannot afford one! All gifts can be anonymous.