Is Swoop Airlines Your Ticket to the Northern Lights?

One challenge of being a traveling family is deciding what the littlest person in your family is ready to experience. With a nearly 4-year-old, we’re trying to figure out a few things: Is she ready for the huge crowds of Tokyo? Is she ready to deal with motor scooters zooming every which way – even on sidewalks and staircases – in South Korea? Is she old enough to be completely mesmerized by the aurora borealis?

That last one is particularly on my mind. I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, and I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I honestly do think the little person is ready – but a few serious issues remain. First, will she be able to handle a frigid northern latitude night, which is part of seeing the aurora? And then there’s just getting there.

We live in metro Phoenix. Since I love long flights, my preference would be going back to Tromso, Norway (obviously not in summer, this time). But from here, that’s a minimum of two legs aloft, and more likely three. Traveling with a small person adds some complications with that many legs.

swoop airlines 737
A Swoop Airlines 737. (Courtesy of Swoop Airlines)

Swoop Airlines – Is it the Ticket North?

Right now, though, there’s a possibility of making it one leg. Swoop Airlines is flying from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Edmonton. And Edmonton is a solid jumping-off point to some areas with nice, dark skies that are perfect for seeing the aurora.

Swoop Airlines is owned by WestJet, which I flew a few years ago to Toronto. At the time, WestJet advertised itself as a low-cost carrier. While the fares were reasonably priced, the experience onboard was quite a bit nicer than legacy carriers. I’ve been looking for an excuse to give WestJet more business ever since.

Ultra Low Cost — But a Better Version?

Think of Swoop Airlines as the ultra-low-cost type of carrier. You pay for everything you want, and nothing you don’t. That puts it right in the same classification as carriers like Allegiant and Spirit, which I absolutely refuse to fly.

Swoop’s association with WestJet, though, makes me willing to take a shot at them. Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport increases our travel time to the airport from about 10 minutes to 30. On the other hand, it also changes the parking and security situation for the better.

I decided to get an idea of what a quick Northern Lights getaway on Swoop Airlines would take.

swoop airlines
Here’s a look at the Swoop Airlines Route map.

Swoop Airlines Pricing and Schedule

I priced two adults and our little flyer for a flight departing Dec. 22 and returning Dec. 26. Swoop Airlines only has two flights a week from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Edmonton, which limits possibilities. The base price of the tickets is $1,153 USD.

Unfortunately, we can’t go any further from there to get an exact fix on price with seat choice and extras included; the website wants to enter traveler information at that point. I did backtrack a bit to the front page of the site, where the FAQs reveal a few optional fees. The food and snack options are reasonably priced, as are the fees for picking seats.

The same itinerary on American Airlines is $1,800 for economy class seats. These days, you don’t get much on American Airlines. Economy class on American is pretty much an ultra-low-cost carrier dressed as a legacy carrier. American also flies a regional jet as opposed to the Boeing 737-800 that Swoop Airlines flies.

Just in case you’re wondering, Phoenix to Edmonton is about 3-and-a-half hours.

On the Ground

I figured a simple keyword search like "edmonton aurora" or "edmonton northern lights" would get me started. But no. It seems like every sort of business in Edmonton is called Northern Lights Whatever -- Northern Lights Properties, Northern Lights Festival, Northern Lights Cemetery, Northern Lights Racoon Removal (I’m only slightly exaggerating here). Most other results were the sort of tourism and chamber of commerce stuff I disdain.

I really didn’t find any recommendations for hotels our tours that made me say "a-ha!" But maybe I don’t need to: This terrific blog post from Robin on the Cantankerous Mule blog is proof that seeing the Northern Lights in Edmonton is pretty easy to do yourself. This is exactly why I prefer getting my information with bloggers who share their personal experiences rather than commercial websites or anything like tripadvisor or travelpod.

Edmonton Oilers Lisa Gansky Swoop Airlines
I’d love to see an Edmonton Oilers game. (Photo by Lisa Gansky)

Chasing the Aurora

Be ready for weird hours, have your camera gear packed and get moving! Robin even included some nice photography tips that I will keep handy. Apparently, the Aurora Watch website is also a must. Edmonton isn’t a huge city at short of a million, so it should be easy to get to the darker outskirts according to what aurorawatch.ca recommends.

Aside from the aurora, I’d have to schedule around an Edmonton Oilers game. They were one of the teams I grew up watching during the rise of the Gretzky era. I consider Edmonton fans a serious bunch of hockey people, and it would be great to watch a game with that crowd. (And let me know if you have other ideas for what to do while visiting Edmonton in the winter.)

Is Swoop Airlines the Way to Go?

The price is more than competitive. I have high hopes for the onboard experience. The airport is further away for us, but might be a wash with security lines being shorter. It would be nice to have service more than two days a week. I am more than interested in trying Swoop, so we’ll see if I can fit it into the plans when the time comes!

Best of British Columbia – Vancouver

 

raccoons, stanley park, vancouver
Raccoons out for a stroll in Stanley Park.

Alright, it’s time to wrap up my look at British Columbia. I can’t thank Teresa from MtnBikingGirl.com enough for all her help. She had info that some schmoe like me who’s in town for a few days couldn’t find on his own. Be sure to visit her blog. If you’re late to the party, check out our posts about Whistler/Squamish and the Victoria area!

Justin’s Quick Hits

Yes, Vancouver is really as cool as everyone says it is: a big but friendly city that’s progressive but not snooty. There’s a blend of old-school and new architecture. You’ll find awesome parks like Stanley Park, and you might catch some trials riders hopping around the beach areas. My favorite thing to do was just to walk. We’d pick a direction and go. You’ll find plenty of things to do, like the Granville Island Public Market and Chinatown.

Vancouver is pretty at night - view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel

We stayed at the Lonsdale Quay Hotel, which became my favorite hotel in Vancouver. The staff was friendly, it has great views and it’s perched atop a very awesome marke. It’s also close to a ferry stop, which offers a nice ride to the downtown area (a novelty for a desert guy and his ex-sailor wife). Vancouver has a very international population, so you’ll find any sort of cuisine. I’d be thrilled to have such a glut of awesome Asian food in my hometown. And watch for the fresh fruit. I got a hold of some life-changing blueberries.

I know Teresa will yell at me about this, but I’m not a big fan of Tim Horton’s – neither the donuts nor the coffee.

I'm hunting for wild blackberries - this is seconds before I fell into the bush and got ventilated by thorns.

If you’re a futbol fan, see if you can squeeze a Vancouver Whitecaps match into your schedule. It begins its first season in Major League Soccer this summer. Yes, I know it’s not exactly the Champions League --

Teresa Tells It All

What?! You don’t like Tim Horton’s?? Oh no!! Well, the good news is Vancouver has really good coffee with Artigiano’s and Delaney’s topping my list. Both are local coffee chains that take pride in their coffee. The owners of Artigiano’s actually spent time in Italy to learn how to do it right before opening their first location on the corner of Pender and Thurlow in downtown Vancouver.

A trials rider hops on the logs in Vancouver.

But enough about coffee … let’s talk about riding! Mt Fromme is found in North Vancouver and one of the more popular places to ride, along with Mt Seymour where you’ll find the trail Severed Dick. Severed Dick is one of the original North Shore trails and is a good intermediate trail with minimal stunts. A word of caution, even the easy trails here may be much steeper and technical than what you’re used to. Trail maps are found at all of the local bike shops, I really like Obsession Bikes. They have a really helpful staff and will point you in the right direction if you need trail recommendations.

The sky gets dark over Vancouver.

There is a great bed and breakfast at the base of Mt Fromme that caters to mountain bikers that I highly recommend. Lynn Valley Bed and Breakfast has a secure area to store your bikes and an area to wash them as well. A great place to stay that’s close to the trails.

Well, this concludes the “Best of British Columbia” series. Come back soon!

Lonsdale Quay Hotel: Three Things to Know

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A few years ago, I visited Seattle and uncovered a love of the Pacific Northwest that I didn’t know I had. And many people, including my longtime friend Big Frank, insisted that I’d like Vancouver even better.

With that in mind — and despite the fact that the Canucks NHL team had been my

Clouds build behind Sarah.
Clouds build behind Sarah.

Blackhawks’ playoff nemesis in the 80s — Sarah and I booked a trip that would give us a little taste of attractions in Vancouver, Whistler, Victoria and a side of Squamish.

I’ll get to all those at some point, but today’s focus is on the Flight Centre Lonsdale Quay area. This is a bit of a haul from the airport and will probably be a $50 cab ride. You could take buses, but that’s up to you.

Our view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel.
Our view from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel.

I’m a very big fan of the Lonsdale Quay Hotel. Since it’s across a bay from Vancouver proper, it’s very reasonably priced. Three other things work in its advantage:

1. The SeaBus connects directly from the Lonsdale Quay Hotel to downtown Vancouver, with easy access to all the fun that area.

It’s also a nexus for bus transport.

2. The first few floors are an awesome marketplace.

All the food you need, plus an extremely friendly coffee shop called Bean Around the World.

A trio of Stanley Park racoons.
A trio of Stanley Park racoons.

3. The Lonsdale Quay Hotel staff is friendly and eager to help.

And determined to be even better – for example, I filled out the customer comment card when we checked out. A few weeks later, the hotel’s GM sent a letter my way mentioning specific comments I had (an idea to stock rooms with more pillows, praise for a particular front desk staff person). I’ve never had that happen before!

Wandering Justin picks wild blackberries
Wandering Justin picks wild blackberries

Now, about that SeaBus – be sure to hop on. You’ll get off near the cruise ship terminals. For there, a sturdy walker can accomplish a lot: Chinatown, the under-construction Olympic Village, the southern portion of Stanley Park, probably a bit of Granville Island.

Get out there and walk, and then hop the SeaBus back to Lonsdale Quay when you’re ready to relax. Also, the bus service is excellent throughout Vancouver. In any case, just picking a direction and walking is a solid strategy. You’ll have a great chance of finding something fun.

A totem pole in Stanley Park
A totem pole in Stanley Park