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How to Handle the Slippery Slopes of Choosing the Right Ski Vacation : Packages: There are many deals available as resorts and airlines compete for business. Skiers should define their needs and ask plenty of questions.

For the uninformed, purchasing a ski vacation may be as complicated as purchasing a vehicle. Many considerations cloud the dream.

With more than 25 major resorts in the West alone, and with a variety of packagers competing for the skier’s dollar, skiers should know which questions to ask so they won’t be disappointed when a resort doesn’t turn out to be what was expected.

“It’s important to know what you want out of a ski vacation and articulate that when purchasing a package in order to make an appropriate choice,” says Holly Rouillard of the Colorado Tourism Board.

Do you want a self-contained ski community designed for the skiing family, where every expense can be charged to the room and where nursery and teen centers help free parents to enjoy their vacation? Or is big name glitz and night life as important as the skiing?

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Do you want a taste of the Old West, perhaps a mining town-turned-resort with Victorian relics tucked in the Rockies, remote from the fast lane and immune from lift lines? Or do you want to station yourself in the center of several ski areas where you can ski a different resort each day?

When you know your own needs, the next step is to learn the options. In the fall, most metropolitan areas have consumer ski shows where ski areas and trip packagers display their offerings. Ask them about the ambience of the town, the vertical drop of the ski area, the ratio of beginner to intermediate and advanced runs, the percentage of the mountain groomed nightly, the average weekend lift line wait, child-care facilities, the months when good skiing is expected--and begin making comparisons of what you find.

Ski packages generally fall into three categories:

--Resort packages covering lodging, lift tickets and possibly lessons, sold directly by the resort;

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--Ground packages covering lodging, lift tickets and transfers to and from an airport;

--Complete packages, including air fare.

The last two types are packaged by airlines or travel wholesalers and sold directly at consumer ski shows, through travel agencies or by calling toll-free numbers advertised in newspaper travel sections and ski magazines, sporting goods stores and ski shows.

Although all full-service travel agencies can book ski packages, smaller ones may book so few that they may not be too familiar with the variety offered. More important, they may know very little about ski jargon--for example, whether a 1,500-foot vertical mountain would be challenging to an advanced skier for a full week or would completely bore him or her by the second day.

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Thus, it might be better for the skier unfamiliar with a resort to book through a specialty packager and get information directly from the ski industry.

Ski packagers usually offer slightly reduced air fare and accommodations because they deal in volume.

Colorado and Utah have marketing associations that disseminate a wealth of information in their ski planning guides. The guide produced by the Ski Utah group covers 14 resorts, while Colorado Ski Country describes 28. Information listed includes location and distance from airport, terrain description, season schedule, elevation and vertical drop, average snowfall, lift ticket and lesson rates, special services such as nursery and children’s ski school, and lodging options. “The average savings of trip packages over individually priced items is generally 5% to 10%, but that increases dramatically for trips booked far in advance or at the last minute, when there is additional discounting,” said Marty Melcher, director of Advance Reservations, a Park City, Utah-based ski trip packager.

For example, a three-night package at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley, Utah, including lift tickets, air fare, ground transportation and lodging, is priced at $649 until next Sunday. Priced separately, the same items total $1,005.

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According to Melcher, on a weeklong trip the average skier pays $170 per day on individually priced items, compared to $140 per day for the average package.

“But more than price, the advantage of ski packages is in the simplicity,” says Andrew Mathieson, senior product planner for United Airlines, which packages a number of ski trips primarily in the West, called “Instant Vacations Ski Packages.”

Skiers should make sure that they understand any packager’s cancellation policy. Although there is no industry standard for cancellations, here are some things to remember:

--If the major portion of the resort is not operational due to lack of snow, the resort usually refunds that part of the package covering lift tickets.

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--As for the accommodations themselves, cancellations rarely occur without charge. Policies generally depend on length of prior notice. Some may not offer refunds; others may charge an administrative fee of $100 and refund the rest only if they can re-book the room. Still others give a credit for future use, a policy often followed by airlines, too.

--In order to eliminate potential difficulties, most trip packagers advise taking out cancellation insurance. For a nominal fee ($20 for a typical $500 ground transportation package), the insurance carrier will grant full refunds if the buyer shows proper cause--usually a medical or business emergency, not just poor snow conditions.

--If air fare is included in the package, a credit is usually given rather than a full refund, even with insurance.

Skiers should be aware of the risks when booking the early or late season. Unfortunately, it is precisely those high-risk times that are good buys. Many resorts have four price ratings for accommodations, depending on time of season.

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It’s important that skiers always ask these questions before booking a ski package:

--What exactly is included? Lessons? Interchangeable lift tickets? Airport-to-resort transportation? Lodging tax?

--Is there a refund for unused lift tickets? What non-ski activities are available?

--How convenient are the lodgings? Is it a ski-in/ski-out facility where no transportation is needed? If so, how far a walk is it? Uphill? Should one rent a car? If so, is the car part of the package? Is it “winterized?” Is there a free shuttle to the lifts? Does the lodging have free airport pickup service?

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--What amenities are available at the lodgings? Ski lockers? Jacuzzi and pool? Teen game room? Maid service? Laundry? Is there a grocery store and range of restaurants within walking distance? Or is there only a lodge dining room? In the mountains, especially without a vehicle, one must not assume anything.

--Is equipment rental included in the package or is a discount offered with the package?

--For packages that include air transportation, if the plane must land elsewhere due to storms, who pays the additional ground transportation costs? Who pays for overnight lodging if any is needed? If a day’s skiing is missed, is there a refund of lodging and lift tickets?

--How reputable is the packager? It all adds up to this: The more you know, not only before you go, but before you choose where to go, the better time you’ll have. Be aware that terms such as “deluxe,” “close,” “ski-in/ski-out,” “some obstacles on the slopes” and “just cause for cancellation” have no standard interpretation.

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For more information:

Ski Utah, 307 W. 200 South, Suite 1003, Salt Lake City, Utah 84101, (801) 534-1779.

Colorado Ski Country, 1560 Broadway, Suite 1440, Denver, Colo. 80202, (303) 837-0793. Ask for its Consumer Guide.

Continental books its “Grand Destinations for the Rockies” packages to 18 resorts. Call (800) 225-7995.

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United Airlines’ “Instant Vacations Ski Packages” can be booked through travel agents or by calling United’s tour sales center at (8OO) 328-6877.

Delta’s Vacation Center books “Dream Vacations” at (800) 872-7786.

Advance Reservations Inc., a travel wholesaler, will customize a ski package for a single person or a group. Call (800) 453-4565. Their “Ski Planner” is available by writing P.O. Box 1179, Park City, Utah 84060.


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