Unraveling The Web

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Travel

The Internet has emerged over the past year as an important tool for shaping ski vacations. Virtually every major ski resort now has a home page on the Web, and tour operators and airlines regularly update their sites with information on the latest deals and liquidations. In addition, many sites now allow you to arrange childcare or book lessons with a favorite instructor, all with a simple key stroke.

That is the upside. The downside, of course, is that because virtually every company now has a web site, the Internet can seem like a giant mailbox stuffed with travel brochures. And once you locate what you need, you may be frustrated to find that only a handful of companies accept credit card payment on the Net. But don't let that dissuade you from giving on-line vacation planning a try. The tips and addresses that follow could just lead you to your dream vacation.

Ski Resorts
The best resort sites, such as those for Steamboat, Vail and Aspen, provide everything from lift-ticket and ski-school information to photos of hotels. Airline information and packages are usually linked directly to central reservations systems. Just fill out the provided form, and e-mail it back to have your request processed. Then take care of the remainder of the transaction, including payment, by phone.

The major advantage of resort web sites is that they allow you to quickly compare costs and amenities between resorts. And unlike their printed counterparts, on-line brochures are interactive and frequently updated. If the thought of doing a resort-by-resort comparison bores you, look up Resorts On-line (www.resortsonline.com). Bargain hunters beware: This site features up-scale properties only.

To compare terrain, visit the Map Archive (www.skimaps.com), where trail maps for every mountain from Whistler to Sunday River are posted.

This year, Vail Associates is making all four of its mountains available on one site (www.snow.com), but spokesman Ken Payne estimates that on-line booking capability is still a year away. Meanwhile, come October, Aspen's site (www.skiaspen.com) will let you use your credit card to book air and hotel reservations, lessons and lift tickets.

Be forewarned: While site producers strive to be complete, you won't find every restaurant or hotel in town listed, especially those at the lower end of the pricing scale. Similarly, condos listed for rent may only feature properties connected with a resort's central reservations system. Many resort towns post web sites through the chamber of commerce or tourist information bureaus. To access those on-line, it's just a matter of hunting down related web sites by doing a keyword search.

Ski Reports
The Internet allows you to quickly access snow reports from around the globe. If you're considering a Western ski trip, for example, you can find out how deep the base is at Telluride or peruse Park City's grooming report. And for you last-minute planners, up-to-the-hour local weather forecasting can let you know if a temperamental Nor'Easter left a foot of snow on Killington or missed the mountain by 10 miles. Suspect a ski area's publicity machine of hyperbole? Simply cross-check the information on the Weather Channel's site (www.weather.com).

What is true for the U.S. and Canada is also true for Europe, New Zealand and South America. The ever-expanding Web is shrinking the world. Daily ski and snow reports are available, in English, from Cortina to Courchevel.

Ski Tour Operators
Companies such as Moguls Ski & Snowboard Tours (www.skimoguls.com) function as specialized on-line ski tour operators. Such companies do the work for you and also uncover special deals. An airline might unload some seats from Denver to Newark in early December because of slow sales, or central reservations might notify tour operators that availability is wide open three weeks down the road.

Many skiers are tapping into such resources. Moguls owner Bruce Rosssard estimates that his web site brought him $500,000 in sales last year. Visitors to Moguls' site just fill out and e-mail back a form with the particulars of their trip. A Moguls representative calls back within 24 hours with preliminary suggestions and a ballpark price. Other on-line ski specialists include Lynx (www.colorado.net/lynx/home.html) and Daman-Nelson (www.d-n-travel.com/d-n.html).

Airlines
There are two sites-Worldspan (www.worldspan.com), owned by Delta, Northwest and TWA, and Easy Sabre (www.easysabre.com), owned by American Airlines-that allow you to effortlessly access fares, schedules, and even check a flight's on-time record. Both sites require that you enter basic profile information but not your credit card number. Tickets are booked through a participating travel agency, which you can find by using a search that enlists your zip code. Locating a cheap fare can take time, but tenacity reaps benefits. As of this writing, five major airlines were offering weekly specials, posting them on their web sites or via e-mail subscription.

Another contender, American Airlines (www.americanair.com), has one of the best sites around. It posts and e-mails Net SAAver Fares every week. International fares go out on Monday, domestic fares on Wednesday. Some restrictions apply, and most flights originate from America's hubs in Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago. Other airlines offer similarly discounted fares with comparable restrictions. Most flights can be paired with car rental deals from the major rental companies.

Dedicated car rental sites, however, are not very useful, and most are incapable of handling discounts such as those obtained through AAA. It's much easier to book a car by calling a central reservations office, packager or airline.

The Web may leave you bleary-eyed, but try it and chances are you'll plan your next trip with more confidence than ever before. At the risk of sounding self-serving, a good starting point is SKI's own SKImag.com (www.skimag.com), which offers customized gear-and resort-finders, information on tour operators, updated snow reports and links to other ski-related web sites.