It's time to put the Atomics on the roof rack and get behind the wheel. The current political and economic environment has made the air a little turbulent for some skiers, which means driving to a favorite ski area hasn't seemed this appealing in years.
Not long after Sept. 11 and the subsequent military action in Afghanistan, Colorado Ski Country USA conducted an email survey of more than 5,000 skiers to find out if they'd still be flying this winter to ski. Approximately one in five respondents indicated that "their method of travel for winter trips has been impacted. Of those, almost 80 percent would be 'more likely' to drive." The greatest shift, the survey found, was in the metropolitan areas of New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Ski tour operators have also noticed this sea change. While Mark Uhfelder of Aspen Ski Tours is enjoying brisk business with traditional air/hotel packages, he points out that, "there's a lot more interest in driving. In the old days pre-Sept. 11, skiers might have driven 300 or 400 miles. Now they'll drive 600 miles and maybe take two days each way."
Add a recession to the mix, and driving to the mountains is more alluring than ever. Consider that the average airfare to the mountains, even so-called wholesale airfare that's bundled into ski packages, is around $350 roundtrip. That's $700 for two skiers.
On the driving side of the equation, you're looking at lower gas prices. The American Automobile Association recently reported that gasoline costs have declined by an average of 50 cents per gallon since pump prices hit record highs in mid-May 2001.
It seems like a good time to rediscover the joy of road trips, so we've compiled a chart that outlines long-weekend escapes from eight metropolitan areas. There are 24 driving trips in total, most of them four-night getaways. These are classic road trips, with destinations that are well worth the drive, combining the promise of great snow and comfortable places to relax at night.
Most involve taking a long weekend, not only to maximize skiing, but also because driving on Thursdays and Mondays makes traffic less of an issue. A few others are bona-fide midweek getaways and, as with all midweek ski trips, lower prices are the incentive. (If you take our "long weekend" trips midweek instead, they'll likely come in at 10 to 20 percent less than the prices quoted.)
We also aimed for March. That's when a season's worth of snow, warming temperatures and longer daylight make for arguably the best skiing of the year. Longer days also mean less time spent driving in the dark. These prices are all pegged for early and mid-March. If you wait until later in the month, when spring-skiing season hits, prices will drop another 20 percent or more.
In planning, we found that a four-night stay and four days of skiing average out to about $415 per person, or $104 per night. Not bad for a road-trip vacation. If you want to make up your own itinerary and choose another property, call the central reservations office at any of these mountains. They'll have a list of vacancies, and if you call close to your travel date, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you can get. Of course, that kind of spontaneity is another aspect of what makes the road trip so appealing.Not sure your vehicle is up to the trip? Consider a winter-worthy rental. Not only does it save wear and tear on your own car, but the cost of renting a winter-equipped car in your hometown may well be a lot less than it would be in a mountain town. And it pays to shop around: Compare prices on rental-agency websites and on travel sites such as Expedia and Travelocity to get the best deal.
Alas, some of you simply won't be able to drive to the snow. As Christa Graff, spokesperson for Deer Valley, Utah, says, "We're fairly confident that the majority of our destination skiers will continue to fly."
Flying is necessary to reach certain American and Canadian Rockies resorts that are justt too remote for any but regional residents to drive to. But there is an alternative to flying or packing into the family van: Brian Schott of Big Mountain, Mont., reports an upsurge in skiers who are considering taking Amtrak to his resort, which is one of the best rail-served ski areas in the country. And Vermont resorts expect similar growth in the number of skiers who ride the rails to Rutland.
So how far will you go? We've kept these drives to reasonable lengths, with a few exceptions for the diehard road warriors who will literally go to the end of the road for fresh powder.
As a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, $43 billion in spending by domestic and international travelers is expected to be lost during 2001. Source: Travel Industry Association of America.