Savvy Traveler: Last-Minute-Trip Tips

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When financial consultant Richard Banziger wants to go skiing, he looks at his schedule on Monday. If his work week looks manageable, he heads off to Vail on Thursday night for three days of skiing. The only thing remarkable about this is that Banziger lives in McLean, Va., not the Rockies.

"I'm the king of last-minute ski trips," he says. "I try to get in the most ski days for the least amount of work missed."

That means that Banziger takes a United Airlines flight at 6 pm on Thursday from Washington Dulles that arrives in Denver at 8 pm, where he picks up his rental car and heads to Keystone, Arapahoe Basin or Vail. He skis hard for the next three days and leaves on Sunday at 6 pm, landing in Washington at midnight.

"I get in three days of skiing and miss one day of work," he says with satisfaction. "Sometimes, I even extend it through Monday."

Despite his lucrative position in the financial world, Banziger doesn't want or have to spend a fortune to do this. For starters, he doesn't contact United or any other airline directly, where he'd be greeted with a full-fare economy ticket of $1,700 or more with less than seven days' notice. He works with a tour operator, Any Mountain Tours of Alexandria, Va. Like all ski tour operators and central reservation offices, Any Mountain utilizes "contract airfares" or negotiated rates, which are impervious to price fluctuations and advance-booking restrictions. Last winter, the fares ran him $300-$400 round-trip, about as good as it gets during high season. And the fact that United utilizes e-tickets made paperwork superfluous.

But to get a contract airfare, Banziger has to purchase at least one more travel component from Any Mountain Tours. To satisfy that requirement, he always books his car through the company, and the rate is competitive with or better than any he could get by calling direct. Sometimes he stays with friends, other times he has Any Mountain book his hotel. With just a couple of days' notice, they've landed him rooms at the Peruvian Lodge in Alta, Utah, non-stop flights on Delta to Salt Lake City and rental cars for the 45-minute drive.

"If it's a nice place, that's fine," Banziger says. "If it's not, as long as I can shave and shower, I'm fine. I'm just there to ski."

And that sums up the attitude of a successful last-minute road warrior. Banziger enjoyed 35 days on the slopes last season, planning no more than four days in advance at any time.

The urge to suddenly hop a plane and head for the mountains of Utah or Colorado is the dream of many skiers and snowboarders. The good news is that it's easier than ever to do. With the exception of Christmas and Presidents' Day weekend, the entire season is fair game for a last-minute trip at a price that won't inflict bankruptcy. One of the clear advantages to traveling at the last minute is that you are less vulnerable to the weather and can make the most of your limited skiing time.

Russ Gerson, president of an executive search firm in Manhattan, agrees. He's dedicated to Snowbird, Utah, and books his trips west within 48 hours of takeoff. "I keep my eye on the Weather Channel and the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center on the web (www.wasatch.com)," he confides. "My trips are based upon my workload and the snow conditions. So I typically make my decision on Wednesday or Thursday to go skiing on Friday night."

Gerson then calls Ski Vacation Planners to grab an inexpensive fare on Delta to Salt Lake City, taking the 6 pm JFK flight, which arrives in Salt Lake City at 9 pm. He has a rental car waiting and arrives at the Cliff Lodge in Snowbird by 10:30.

"I ski all day Saturday and Sunday until 3 pm," Gerson says, "then I head down the mountain to catch the 4:35 back to JFK. I land at 10:30 pm, and I'm home sleeping by 11:30."

Gerson, who says he never pays more than $400 for a round-trip ticket, used to do this as many as 20 weekends a year, though work now limits him to six or seven weekends. The ClifLodge runs him anywhere from $100 to $200 a night, but his smartest move may well be his investment in a seasonal ski locker at Snowbird. He stashes his equipment there so he can fly with just a carry-on.

Some ski tour operators do promise skiers that they can get them to the slopes within 24 hours of making a reservation. That's certainly possible, but if airline tickets or hotel vouchers need to be sent to a skier via overnight mail, that can make such short-notice trips difficult. Most planners, then, can't promise such a quick turnaround. The minimum amount of time needed to book last-minute Western ski trips, from either the East or West Coast, is typically three days. The cost, believe it or not, is usually the same as it would have been three months out, plus FedEx charges.

Ironically, in the age of Web travel, last-minute ski vacations may be one of the last vestiges of an established system that relies on travel agents, ski tour operators or a ski resort's central reservations office to make travel plans. There are two reasons this route works: time and airfare. Most last-minute travelers don't have time to research a place, make calls and check availability. And the conventional airfare that's out there is pricey and restricted. Those much-touted late-breaking e-fares that American and other carriers offer can be phenomenal deals, but you'll be hard-pressed to find one to Denver or Salt Lake City during the ski season.

What you will find on the Web are last-minute ski trips through central reservation offices and tour operators who utilize the Internet to get rid of inventory. They package contract air, with an unsold hotel room and a rental car and promise immediate availability.

To find these unsold deals, the best strategy is to avoid flying on Friday, take whatever airline is available and be flexible. Very flexible. When Banziger plans, he says, "I play off all three airports in the area to see who has the best airfare."

Central reservations offices of every major ski area are geared to act as clearinghouses for unsold rooms. They know which hotel or condo has a last-minute cancellation or who may be offering a discount during a slow week. They can be especially helpful to skiers who are driving to their destination, whether it's Colorado's Summit County or Vermont's Green Mountains. In fact, without airfare to worry about, there's a huge amount of choice. New England skiers will find that last-minute room rates are generally the same as advance booking rates. To increase your chances of getting a great deal, plan to arrive Thursday night and leave Monday morning.

You stand a much better chance of getting into ski resorts with large numbers of beds, such as Vail or Killington, than you do at smaller resorts such as Big Sky, Mont., or Taos, N.M. And then there are places where your money's no good. Even skiers who can afford pricier lodgings, such as The Sonnenalp in Vail, Colo., or The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., may find that they're in such demand that they're all but impossible to get into at the last minute. But with flexible expectations, it's possible to find accommodations in a place that's decent and comfortable.

For those who are flying, and assuming that cost is a consideration, the cheapest flights are usually to the larger airports that serve multiple resorts, such as Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno, Nev. All of these airports benefit from direct flights and airline competition. Getting to ski areas such as Aspen, Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Telluride, Colo., is more problematic. A two-flight destination means purchasing two last-minute tickets, perhaps on two airlines, which sharply reduces the odds of getting a good price or even getting on a plane. There's also the time factor to consider. Many last-minute trips are just three or four days long. An extra flight eats into skiing time and greatly increases the chance of weather-related delays.

Waiting to see what snow conditions are like in Europe dictates a last-minute decision to ski the Alps or the Dolomites. But you'll need a minimum of two weeks to organize such a "last-minute" trip, and the fastest way to do so is through ski tour packagers such as Lindenmeyr Travel and Adventures on Skis. Go for larger destinations such as Innsbruck, Austria, or Interlaken, Switz., which have many hotel rooms, rather than smaller resorts such as St. Anton, Austria, or Verbier, Switz. And once again, be flexible. As Russ Gerson knows, Snowbird can be your local mountain even if you live in Manhattan.

Tried and true ski tour operators include :

Adventures on Skis, (800) 628-9655, www.advonskis.com ;

Any Mountain Tours, (800)296-2000, www.anymtn.com ;

DamanNelson, (800) 343-2626, www.dnai.com ;

Lynx Ski Travel, (800) 422-5969, www.colorado.net/lynx ;

Lindenmeyr Travel, (800) 248-2807, www.lindenmeyrtravel.com ;

Moguls Ski and Snowboard Tours, (800) 666-4857, www.skimoguls.com ;

Ski Vacation Planners, (800)822-6754, www.skivacationplanners.com .
Also, SKI Magazine's official website, www.skinet.com , offers a new last-minute Internet-only deal every week.re like in Europe dictates a last-minute decision to ski the Alps or the Dolomites. But you'll need a minimum of two weeks to organize such a "last-minute" trip, and the fastest way to do so is through ski tour packagers such as Lindenmeyr Travel and Adventures on Skis. Go for larger destinations such as Innsbruck, Austria, or Interlaken, Switz., which have many hotel rooms, rather than smaller resorts such as St. Anton, Austria, or Verbier, Switz. And once again, be flexible. As Russ Gerson knows, Snowbird can be your local mountain even if you live in Manhattan.Tried and true ski tour operators include :

Adventures on Skis, (800) 628-9655, www.advonskis.com ;

Any Mountain Tours, (800)296-2000, www.anymtn.com ;

DamanNelson, (800) 343-2626, www.dnai.com ;

Lynx Ski Travel, (800) 422-5969, www.colorado.net/lynx ;

Lindenmeyr Travel, (800) 248-2807, www.lindenmeyrtravel.com ;

Moguls Ski and Snowboard Tours, (800) 666-4857, www.skimoguls.com ;

Ski Vacation Planners, (800)822-6754, www.skivacationplanners.com .
Also, SKI Magazine's official website, www.skinet.com , offers a new last-minute Internet-only deal every week.