Web-Wise Planning

Travel
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Travel

While the Travel Industry Association (TIA) reported that 6.7 million Americans actually booked their trips on the Internet in 1998, there were few skiers among them. For now, most skiers still pick up the phone to finalize reservations. That's because the ski resorts are lagging behind other e-commercial industries. And for skiers who already buy and sell stocks on line, and have everything from airline tickets to CDs delivered to their door without ever picking up the phone, that can be frustrating. So what exactly is the holdup? Why can't you just log on to book a long weekend in Squaw Valley, Calif., or Copper Mountain, Colo.?

It comes down to variables. "On-line booking remains limited for skiing because it is a complex travel product," explains Fiona Swerdlow, an analyst in the digital commerce group of Jupiter Communications, which monitors the Web for Wall Street. "People do a lot of research on-line, but with complex travel you have multiple variables to book."

It's the various elements in a ski vacation, or what the travel industry calls "complex travel," that makes point-and-click ski vacations problematic. Yes, you can now book hotels in Tahoe, Vail or Aspen, courtesy of an on-line booking service called World Res. And you can purchase a plane ticket on American, Continental or United without ever picking up the telephone. But don't let the rapid response fool you.

"We call it the 'sneakernet,' not the Internet," explains Bill Tomcich, president of Aspen Central Reservations. "It may be on-line to the guest, but behind the scenes, a lot of work is still done manually."

The biggest issue is one of technology. Even progressive resorts such as Aspen are still scrambling to incorporate the intricate and expensive software that factors in complicated bulk-rate airfares. Only once that software is up and running will full on-line booking become a reality for skiers. The goal is to get live confirmation, so that when the customer says, "I want this," she gets it instantly.

"In six to nine months, you'll start to see it happen," says Swerdlow. "For now, companies may not get a lot of bookings, but their websites are educating the consumer."

No doubt about that: Virtually every resort with a website is reporting a surge in traffic. Indeed, the TIA reports that some 33.8 million Americans researched their vacation trips on the Internet last year. And the Ski Tour Operators Association says that its 26 members saw their Internet inquiries jump anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent in 1998-99 over the previous season.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in on-line usage," reports Kelly Ladyga, a spokesperson for Beaver Creek, Colo. "We find that people thoroughly research their trips on the Web, and then they call us. They're now more sophisticated, and they know what they want."

In fact, for many skiers, research is the No. 1 reason to access the Web. For Cari Gray, a Toronto public relations executive, it means that "I can get really up-to-date information on snow conditions from resorts such as Tremblant and Lake Louise. I need to know this before I look at Air Canada's website for their last-minute websaver fares for a long weekend."

Making the leap from on-line research to on-line purchase, however, can be risky, as New Yorkers Lisa Greenberg and her husband, Paul, discovered. Veteran skiers, they booked a Park City, Utah, house for their extended family of seven adults and three children on-line through an independent website (not Park City's official site). The picture and description promised a wonderful place. What they found, says Lisa, was a "dirty, ill-equipped house in a shabby neighborhood. The oven door fell off, the hot tub had a dreadful smell, the place was missing light bulbs. It was a shocker. It was high season, so there was nothing else available for a group our size, and we were there for a very long week."

WHERE DO YOU WANT TO SKI TODAY?
Right now, e Internet is best used as a research tool to check out snow conditions, lodging and trail maps. Nearly every ski resort in the country has a website with lodging information and a certain amount of booking capability, as well as ski school and conditions reports. But when it comes to finding the best flights, no matter how hard you work, chances are that the lowest fares you'll find are likely higher than the bulk-rate fares that a ski area's central reservations office has available.

When you're hunting down airfares, there's a chance that auction sites such as SkyAuction (www.skyauction.com) and Priceline (www.priceline.com) will work, but only if you have a flexible schedule and time to spare. They're not effective if you have to leave after work on Friday and return by Monday morning. Here are some great sites that should help you plan your next ski trip.

ALL SKIING, ALL THE TIME
SkiNet www.skinet.com SkiNet (this magazine's affiliate) is the most comprehensive ski site, offering original material, snow reports, stories from the current issues of SKI and Skiing magazines, as well as archives of previous content. Read in-depth profiles of more than 1,000 resorts, or use the interactive ResortFinder (www.skinet.com/resortfinder) to search for a resort based on its ranking in SKI Magazine's Reader Resort Survey. SkiNet also offers the ability to plan and book a trip, and buy and sell gear through a message board. Finally, SkiNet spotlights pass and package discounts and offers dozens of "Internet only" deals, which can be booked on-line.

SkiCentral www.skicentral.com
This well-designed site is a good resource for information about resorts, snow reports and trip planning.

AMI News www.aminews.com
Log on to this site if you're in search of a rental home in ski country¿it's the best finder of its sort.

Go Ski www.goski.com
This site has links to 2,000 resorts, as well as to ski tour operators, but it suffers from an amateur tone.

DO-IT-YOURSELF TRAVEL AGENCIES
These sites will let you book your entire vacation¿from airfare to lodging to car rentals¿but airfare is their resounding strong point. They all offer sale fares and specials, feature fare-finders and have the ability to locate consolidator fares, track frequent-flier miles and keep records of seating and airline preferences.

BizTravel www.biztravel.com
This site has quickly made a name for itself among laptop-toting road warriors everywhere. For do-it-yourselfers who enjoy booking their own flights, finding their own hotel accommodations and choosing restaurants from a remarkably diverse and well-informed database, this is one of the best sites out there. Flying into DIA and need to find a gate for a connecting flight? Log on and call up a map, which will also pinpoint the nearest restrooms, phones and ATMs. It also can keep track of your miles, plan a trip using an effective low-fare fare-finder and monitor previous trips and favorite routings.

MSN Expedia www.expedia.msn.com
Visit here for destination content and mapping services, as well as access to more than 200 travel agents via a toll-free number 24 hours a day, seven days a week, who will answer questions and provide assistance while you're en route. Its free FareTracker sends you weekly e-mails with fares for destinations you specify.

Preview Travel www.previewtravel.com
Numbers show that this is the preferred site of AOL users. It's not specifically geared toward skiers, but it's good for finding airfares and comparing car-rental rates.

Travelocity www.travelocity.com
Winner of The People's Voice award at the Webby's in 1998 and 1999, this site has a Winter Sports page with ski packages and custom pages devoted to major U.S. and Canadian resorts. It features nice touches, such as the Lanier's Travelguide.com with B&B listings, to help you steer clear of chains. The only drawback is that you must call a toll-free number to book such small hotels, which generally don't feature on-line booking capability.

TheTrip www.thetrip.com
This site has low-fare notification and a speedy fare-finder, which also lists flights' on-time records. That's handy if you have to rely on close connections. This site also tells you, in real-time, where a particular flight is. Its newest upgrade is intelliTRIP, which enables users to simultaneously query multiple airline websites for fares and get a reply in 90 seconds.

1travel www.1travel.com
New on this website is the Airline Savings Toolkit, which lists alternate airports in proximity to major cities, a list of discount airlines that fly out of them, a comprehensive database of alternate flight routes, as well as directions and distances to major cities. It also has Flight Check, which provides up-to-the-minute flight arrival and departure times. Its Express Round Trip planner is the fastest around.

lp you steer clear of chains. The only drawback is that you must call a toll-free number to book such small hotels, which generally don't feature on-line booking capability.

TheTrip www.thetrip.com
This site has low-fare notification and a speedy fare-finder, which also lists flights' on-time records. That's handy if you have to rely on close connections. This site also tells you, in real-time, where a particular flight is. Its newest upgrade is intelliTRIP, which enables users to simultaneously query multiple airline websites for fares and get a reply in 90 seconds.

1travel www.1travel.com
New on this website is the Airline Savings Toolkit, which lists alternate airports in proximity to major cities, a list of discount airlines that fly out of them, a comprehensive database of alternate flight routes, as well as directions and distances to major cities. It also has Flight Check, which provides up-to-the-minute flight arrival and departure times. Its Express Round Trip planner is the fastest around.