On Top of the World With No Place to Stay

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I wonder how many folks think Jeanne and I must be making some of this stuff up. Yesterday my hotel (one of only 3 in Barrow, Alaska) had a fire only hours before I was due to arrive. Which meant I didn’t really have a place to stay that night. It all worked out in the end, but really? REALLY?? The night before my dream trip to the tip of the world, and there’s a terrible fire…

Pepe's Top of the World Hotel fire property of HeelsFirstTravel.com

Fortunately there were no casualties and everyone was ok. And selfishly I guess I’m glad it didn’t happen the night I was staying there. But wow. Nothing like finding out an hour before you land that you don’t have a place to stay in sub-freezing temperatures.

I had just reached Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse) on my Anchorage-Fairbanks-Deadhorse-Barrow itinerary when I saw I had a voicemail. It was the Top of the World hotel. There had been a fire and the hotel was not able to accommodate guests, they were sorry for the inconvenience, and I could call them with any questions.

What!? Ack! There’s only 3 hotels in Barrow. I called back and got voicemail. I then proceeded to look up the number for my other choice – King Eider Inn — only to discover they were sold out. That hotel helpfully gave me the numbers for the Airport Inn and an alternative housing option – the Upkik Nest.

Airport Inn was sold out. The Upkik Nest could squeeze me in, but the proprieter kindly advised me it was dormitory style with shared bathrooms (though separated by gender) and typically construction workers, etc.

I hadn’t packed for that (night shirt instead of PJs and no shower shoes). Still, that was better than my current vision which was me homeless with temperatures below freezing, looking for a 24 hr store that I could sit in until my flight out the next morning. I was also frantically texting Jeanne to see if she still had connections in Barrow who could take me in.

In the meantime Top of the World had called me back, and the day tour was still operating.

I thought, maybe I could just pay a change fee and get out on the evening flight that day. I could still see Barrow even if missed a shot at the Northern Lights AND easily get accommodations in Anchorage. I didn’t have time to call the airlines before we took off, but the second we landed in the stark, but beautiful Barrow landscape I was on the phone to Orbitz to see who I needed to talk to.

landing in Barrow Alaska

They gave me both the Alaska Airlines number and the American Airlines number (my flight to the lower 48 was on them) just in case. Called Alaska, who said there was room on the evening flight, but that because my itinerary had started on United, they “owned” the reservation and I’d need to go through them.

Oh no! I could just picture United telling me that I’d have to call Alaska or because I’d finished the leg of the journey that was tied to my United flights, it wasn’t their problem. I shouldn’t have been that cynical though, because I quickly got a United phone agent who bent over backwards to help me out, particularly once he found out my hotel had been on fire.

He jumped through hoops, calling Alaska, calling American, and doing who knows what on the backend to get it straightened out. I would be on the evening flight back to Anchorage and there was no change fee.

Feeling much relieved I headed out to find the tour. Once in Barrow, I realized how well the hotel was handling the whole situation. The fire had started at 2, so when they called me at 8AM, they had just finished figuring out what to do with the guests who had already been staying at the hotel.

The tour guide dropped us off at the iconic Sam & Lee’s restaurant where breakfast was being covered by the hotel.

Sam & Lee's Barrow Alaska

While we waited and ate, they came around to check on everyone and make sure people had found accommodations, or if not, that they could get rebooked on the evening flight where the hotel would then pay for a hotel in Anchorage. They were also not charging the $150 tour fee for anyone who had reservations at the hotel.

I probably could have pushed to have them cover my hotel in Anchorage, but since I’d just booked the Sheraton on points and the hotel was run by locals and not a major corporation, I didn’t want to take up any more of their financial resources than possible.

Since the weather was cold with thick cloud cover, I wouldn’t have been able to see the Northern Lights anyway, so other than extreme stress and fear I had enroute to Barrow, things actually worked out. I mean, technically I had saved $400 and avoided a 5 hr layover in Fairbanks from my original itinerary.

Keri HeelsFirsttravel barrow alaska

Still, not quite the dream trip I had envisioned…


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Heels First’s Travel Advice–Sophisticated Travel, Uncomplicated Advice. The travels and tribulations of two frequent flyers jumping into the world of travel, sharing their travel advice. Join Keri and Jeanne as they tackle mileage runs, elite status, and of course–the perfect travel accessories.

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Living for the little (and big things) that make life so fun, especially mistake deals and crazy last minute weekend mileage runs across the world. www.twitter.com/klatravel


  1. Barb

    September 1, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Yikes! You just can’t make this stuff up. Thank goodness no one was hurt, but what a shame for the town to lose the Mexican restaurant and have damage to the iconic hotel. I hope you enjoyed your tour .. you still did reach the edge of the world! Looking forward to hearing the report. Barb

  2. Yrrab

    September 1, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    That’s how great stories are born.

  3. DaninSTL

    September 2, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Nice. What are the odds. Sounds like a true adventure. What’s next? Falkland Islands? St. Helena Island?

    Thanks for the post. I’d love to see more photos of Barrow.

  4. alex

    September 2, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Sad to hear about Fran’s Mexican restaurant, Pepe’s North of the Border. She still sends me a holiday card each year from only one visit. Normally I’d reserve some doubt when an 83 year old woman says she’ll rebuild after a fire like that but that woman has some crazy energy. Enjoy your memorable stay!

  5. jackal

    September 3, 2013 at 1:57 am

    “I probably could have pushed to have them cover my hotel in Anchorage, but since I’d just booked the Sheraton on points and the hotel was run by locals and not a major corporation, I didn’t want to take up any more of their financial resources than possible.”

    The Top of the World is owned by the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a billion-dollar very profitable enterprise rife with corruption. I’m pretty sure they could have afforded to pay out a couple hundred bucks towards your hotel in Anchorage. 🙂

    • Keri Anderson

      September 3, 2013 at 8:57 am

      That’s a good point 🙂 I didn’t realize that — the other hotels were locally run and I felt bad for the frantic manager trying to handle everything.

  6. Silly Rabbit

    September 5, 2013 at 3:18 am

    What a great start. Should have stayed with the constructions workers and given the story legs.

  7. Joey

    September 5, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    I think staying at the dorm-style place would be a neat experience! When I went to Longyearbyen, Norway (another city above the arctic circle), the cheapest accomodation was a locally run lodge originally built for the construction workers and miners in the area. Pretty cool experience and it was easier to meet locals that way too!

    • Keri Anderson

      September 5, 2013 at 5:14 pm

      Had I brought appropriate attire for dorm style housing I would have been all over it! But showering barefoot in shared showers and sleeping in my jeans wasn’t quite what I was going for this time. 🙂

  8. Janine Todd

    October 15, 2013 at 4:32 am

    Keri, we enjoyed getting to meet you in Barrow and appreciate that you gave us a quick heads-up on the room at the hostel. See you next time you come to Alaska!!

  9. Mark

    July 2, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    i would like to see it again just for its beauty and hospitality of hotels in barrow alaska

  10. Tauna M Powell

    September 29, 2019 at 8:32 pm

    What a mess! but sure glad no injuries. I was just googling to find the date the hotel burnt and stumbled onto you site. My son and i stayed 3 nites at the new Top of the World hotel and took the tour. It was one night too long, but we did have a good walkabout town visiting with locals and learning more about the community. Cloudy and rainy during our stay end of August, 2019.

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