Lift tickets at $100 and airline fees for skis and bags have skiers on a slippery slope
NEW YORK (Associated Press) - When Bill Getty helped organize a ski trip for fellow MBA students at Northwestern University, he told them to leave one thing behind _ their skis.
"We had 25 people," Getty said of a trip to Argentina in August, when it was winter in the southern hemisphere. "That's a lot of baggage fees."
Since last ski season, airlines have imposed new fees on checking luggage that could boost the cost of a family vacation by several hundred dollars.
On American Airlines, for example, a coach customer checking skis, a boot bag and a suitcase for apres-ski clothing would pay $140 each way in luggage fees. Skiers who can cram all their clothes into a boot bag _ and keep it under 50 pounds _ can avoid the $100 fee for the third bag.
Skiing was already an expensive hobby, and the airline charges are giving skiers even more reason to reconsider their plans.
Some say they are cutting back to fewer trips this winter, while others are scouring the Internet for deals on lodging or lift tickets that might offset the higher cost of getting there.
Matt Cohen, who works in finance for a housing developer in San Francisco, had planned two trips to Utah this winter _ an annual outing with his brother, and a friend's bachelor party.
"For financial reasons, I can't do both, and I'm not going to miss the bachelor party," Cohen said.
So Cohen is looking for lodging for "a bunch of guys who don't really care how nice the place is." He will pay the airline fee to carry his skis while cutting down on all his other baggage for the four-day trip.
"I'll wear my ski boots on the plane if I have to," Cohen said, his voice giving only the slightest hint that he might be joking. "It's not a cheap trip, and we're all scared about losing our jobs."
The move by airlines to impose baggage fees may have the unintended consequence of helping another industry _ ski resorts, which depend on rental shops to augment the money they make from selling lift tickets.
Traditionally, advanced skiers and even intermediates used their own skis. Rentals were considered cheap, entry-level gear. Wearing a pair meant advertising that you were a novice from the flatlands.
But particularly in the Rockies, rental shops have been adding high-end skis. Winter Park in Colorado spent $250,000 on new rental equipment. Other areas offer concierge-like service, delivering skis and snowboards right to guests' hotels and condos.
The resorts sell the rental service as an added convenience for fly-in vacationers because it isn't always a cheaper alternative. The cost of renting basic skis ranges from $20 to $30 and up a day, and could quickly eclipse the airline baggage charges. The resorts are touting rentals as a no-fuss alternative to buying a new pair that might be used only one week a year.
"There might be a silver lining in all this for us," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. "If you live in Dallas or Greenwich, Conn., you don't need to replace your skis. Just grab your boots and jump on an airplane."
Berry admitted that his resort members initially looked at airline baggage fees as a big problem, adding to the burden of selling a pricey sport during a weak economy. About half of all skiers fly to the slopes, according to a survey by his association.
For the half who drive, the price of gasoline has been plunging. With jet fuel prices also falling, airlines have been offering ski deals, such as $99 one-way tickets between Dallas and Steamboat, Colo. Hotels, worried about soft bookings because of the economic downturn, are cutting prices too, and resorts are offering discounted travel packages.
According to the resort owners group, skiers and snowboarders bought 60.5 million days of lift tickets last year, a record. Berry said the resorts could have a solid year, perhaps 58 million visits, even with the weak economy.
"If the snow is great, we think we're going to have a good year," he said. Heavy snowfall "is the single biggest factor in determining how we do, even in bad times."
Evan Reece, co-founder of the discount ski-travel Web site Liftopia, said the higher cost of flying will prompt some Californians and New Englanders to drive to nearby slopes instead of going to Colorado or Utah. And costly lift tickets _ Vail and Aspen could push $100 at Christmas _ will force many to pick smaller mountains.
"Some areas have bigger reputations nationally, but there are smaller and midsize resorts that often have awesome skiing but they aren't as well-known because they don't have the same marketing budget," Reece said.
Reece, whose business has ticket-selling tie-ins with more than 60 ski areas, said airline fees have added to the perception that skiing is too expensive, and that the effect can be seen in advance bookings.
In September, Vail Resorts Inc. Chief Executive Rob Katz said the sale of season passes at his company's four Colorado resorts fell 8.4 percent from a year ago and that advance lodging bookings were down twice as much.
"We try to convince people who think skiing is out of reach that there are options for them too," Reece said. "It's a challenge."