Planning a ski trip sometimes seems to take more time and energy than is left for the skiing itself. Where to go? How to get there? Where to stay? What will it cost? Should I trust the room photo in the glossy brochure, or is that part of a suite I couldn't afford anyway?
Or, to heck with it, I'll just go back to the same old place.
But the sensible, economic and convenient option is to book a package through a ski tour operator. And, for certain, there are ski packages to match any skier's desires and pocketbook.
The ultimate tour might be this: Ski Dreams offered by Warner Ski Productions of McAfee, N.J., for one week of skiing as much as $7,447 a person, single occupancy. With Warner, you spend a week in luxury at a resort of your choice--Taos, N.M., Crested Butte, Colo., or Blackcomb, Canada--skiing each day with former World Cup or Olympic skiers. On departure, the brochure promises, "Each guest receives a complete photo album, signed by the pros, and a video tape capturing their week at Ski Dreams."
By the way, air fare is not included. If you had to ask, this is probably not the tour for you. If you didn't have to ask: Ski Dreams, telephone (201) 209-1151.
At the lower end of the economic ladder may be the penultimate bargain in ski accommodations--the ultimate being snow camping or holing up in an old VW van--from $8 to $25 nightly at one of 34 lodgings run by Hostelling International American Youth Hostels near ski areas throughout the country.
This does not constitute in itself a "package," but lodging, along with food, normally is the most expensive element in a ski trip. For budget-conscious people willing to rough it a bit, booking a hostel may be the money-saving move that makes a trip possible.
The newest HI-AYH hostel is in Sonora, Calif., near the Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley ski areas on the west side of the Sierra Nevada. Overnight fees are from $12 to $15.
Don't be deterred by the name: The hostels are for travelers of all ages. Private rooms are available at some locations, and most hostels have fully equipped kitchens, dining rooms and common rooms. For information: Hostelling International, tel. (202) 783-6161.
Between these extremes, scores of ski tour operators offer hundreds of variations of tours for the vast bulk of skiers and winter vacationers.
The first thing to know about ski tour packages is that the skier need not be connected by Velcro to 20 other tour group members from muesli at breakfast to apres ski toddies at night.
You can go on a package and be entirely on your own but still enjoy the savings provided by the operator's bulk purchase of airline tickets and hotel rooms. In the process, the skier also benefits from the tour operator's expertise and experience.
A consumer's guide provided by the Ski Tour Operators Assn., an industry trade association, describes the tour company's role this way: "It is a company that . . . negotiates with ski resorts, airlines, lodges, rental cars and other components to obtain the best possible rates for their clients. They are able to do so because they book a large number of ski trips so the travel suppliers work with them as 'preferred partners.' "
Indeed, the major advantage of booking through a tour operator rather than going on your own is the savings, as much as one-third of the total price, according to a consensus of operators contacted.
But that is just part of it, says Leo Demelbauer, who along with his wife, Mary-Claire, owns and operates Adventures on Skis out of Westfield, Mass. Their firm is one of the largest that specializes in tours to Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France.
"I think the key issue is peace of mind," said Demelbauer, a native of Austria. "If something goes wrong they have somewhere to go to fight for them."
Another operator, Penny Smith of Daman-Nelson Travel, a major California firm, says, "Our goal, basically, is to help the ski areas get their word out and to help skiers get to the areas they want."
Daman-Nelson, now in its 34th year, sends staff members out to major ski resorts to check on improvements, look for special bargains, assess new hotels and maintain lines of communication with the retailers. Most of the firm's customers are from California and about 80% are repeat customers, said Smith, who works out of the firm's San Diego office and is a former president of the Ski Tour Operators Assn.
Skiers today are looking for more value, she said, and are more likely to take several shorter trips in a season rather than booking a single winter holiday of a week or more.
For Californians, this may mean a long weekend or a four-or-five day trip to Aspen, Vail, Sun Valley, Whistler-Blackcomb or resorts in Utah. While most of the company's business is within North America, "Europe is becoming more popular because the price of a European trip is not that much different," Smith said.
"This time of the year, the air fares are incredibly low. And as people get a little bit older, they find the ambience of Europe quite attractive."
A major difference between packages to the Alps and to U.S. and Canadian resorts is that European trips normally do not include ski-lift passes. But these packages often do include both breakfast and dinner, a considerable savings. European packages also usually include round-trip air fare, ground transportation from the airport to the resort and taxes. A rental car may be included for resorts that are not easily accessible by bus or rail.
I compared the cost for two people to take a ski vacation on their own from Los Angeles to Zermatt, Switzerland, using the same airline and hotel, with a package offered by Swissair's travel subsidiary. The package turned out to be $700 less.
There's got to be a hitch someplace, isn't there?
Peter Walker of Telluride, Colo., a veteran operator of summertime inn-to-inn tours in the Alps, said the prices that tour operators are able to negotiate "are mind-boggling."
But Walker added: "The only disadvantage I've noticed regularly is the quality of the hotels and stuff you get. The hotels are selling the tour operators stuff they can't sell easily on their own."
Considerable savings are also possible on domestic packages to Colorado, Utah or California. Southwest Airlines, through its tour operator Mark Travel Corp., offers round-trip fares as low as $34 between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, if skiers go on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday and return on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday. The fare goes up to $74 round-trip for weekend packages.
Daman-Nelson Travel operates charter flights--with Alaska Airlines planes--for 12 weeks during the ski season from Los Angeles to Colorado and Utah.
One key to getting the best deals is to book early--Daman-Nelson's Smith said the firm's brochure goes out each August and that 85% of the tours are booked by November--but tour operators often come across unbooked rooms or airline seats as the season progresses and can be in a position to offer last-minute bargains.
Some other pointers and tips from the experts:
* The best rates are available early and late in the season. Avoid holiday periods if you are looking to save money and avoid crowds. A Daman-Nelson seven-day tour to Aspen costing $885 in the low season runs $1,053 during the peak.
* Going "off season" does not necessarily mean the skier runs the risk of poor skiing conditions. Walker said of Telluride: "One of the best times to come to this area is closing week in April. There are ridiculous amounts of snow then." And virtually no one else on the mountain, he said.
* All tour operators urge customers to buy trip insurance in the event they are forced to cancel because of illness, a business emergency or some other reason. The cost is reasonable. A few operators now automatically include insurance as part of the package.
* Insurance does not cover a trip spoiled because of the lack of snow. However, the chance that your trip will be ruined for this reason is less likely than just a few years ago because so many resorts now have extensive snow-making facilities.
* Smith said Vail, Colo. has received a lot of bookings this season because the resort has gotten considerable attention for construction of new lift facilities and its purchase of two nearby ski areas.
* Demelbauer said Switzerland is rebounding in popularity because the dollar has strengthened against the Swiss franc over the past year and "the Swiss hotels realize the price has to be more attractive."
But Demelbauer said the big French resorts--Val d'Isere, Chaminox and Les Trois Vallees--remain the most popular for avid American skiers. The French have excelled at ski trail grooming and installation of modern lift facilities, he said.
Stall is a Times editorial writer.
* DISCOUNT DIGS: Low-cost lodgings at youth hotsels. L16
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Here is a sampling of packages to popular ski destinations, put together by some experienced tour companies (all prices are per person, based on double occupancy):
Vail, Colorado: Round-trip air fare from Los Angeles, ground transportation from airport to Vail, seven nights lodging at a choice of 15 different hotels or condominiums, room tax, and four-day lift tickets at Vail and Beaver Creek. Low season (generally, January): $984 to $1,610, depending on housing selection. Regular season (generally February and March): $1,061-$1,981. Daman-Nelson Travel, telephone (800) 343-2626.
Snowbird, Utah: Air fare plus hotel transfer, three nights at the Cliff Lodge, three days of lift tickets for Snowbird, Alta or other nearby ski areas, $453 to $662 (depending on month, and based on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday departure). Southwest Airlines Fun Pack Vacations; tel. (800) 423-5683.
Sun Valley, Idaho: Round-trip air fare and ground transportation, seven nights lodging, hotel room and taxes, five-day lift tickets. Low season at Sun Valley Lodge, standard room, $780; at Sun Valley Inn, $702. Regular season rates are $989 and $849, but options include deluxe rooms at both the Lodge and Inn, or in nearby condominiums or Lodge apartments. Daman-Nelson Travel, tel. (800) 343-2626.
Whistler-Blackcomb, British Columbia: Seven nights accommodations at the Listel Hotel, all local or provincial taxes, minimum five days of ski lift passes, ground transportation from and to Vancouver airport (but does not include air fare), $919 during January and late March through April; $999 the balance of the season. Holidaze Ski Tours, tel. (800) 526-2827.
Zermatt, Switzerland: Round-trip air fare from LAX to Geneva or Zurich, local transportation, taxes, seven nights lodging in a standard room at Zermatt's four-star Schweizerhof Hotel (including breakfast and dinner, but not including lift tickets), $1,960. Swisspak (the tour operator for Swissair), tel. (800) 688-7947.
Cortina, Italy (in the Italian Dolomites): Round-trip air fare from LAX to Venice, local transportation, seven nights in the three-star Royal Hotel (breakfast included, but not lift tickets), $895-$1,125. Adventures on Skis, tel. (800) 628-9655.
Other major packagers offering ski deals include: Sportours (the tour operator for Sports Chalet stores), tel. (800) 660-2754; and Aspen Ski Tours, tel. (800) 525-2052.