What Are You Waiting For?

Ski Traveler 0503

Did you hear the one about the skier who bribed the phone reservationist $100 to get a room at Christmas?

"Believe it or not, it's not uncommon for people to show up with a $100 bill and hand it to the person who found them a room for Christmas at the last minute," says Taylor Middleton, general manager of Big Sky Resort in Montana. "Desperate people will do almost anything based on the theory that there's always a room in the inn somewhere."

Anyone who has tried to book a room for the winter holidays and come up empty-handed can sympathize. But why wait until bribery is your only option? The best time to book your winter holiday vacation is when the bikes and golf clubs first come out of the garage in April. If you didn't already book it in December, that is. "We have customers who come year after year during the same period. They book for the following year as they're checking out," Middleton says. "Some of our lodges will guarantee the current rate for the following year if you book a year out." That can translate into a 3- to 5-percent savings. Not a bad bonus for planning ahead, considering that the winter holidays are the most expensive time of year for a ski vacation.

Lodging properties count on making a sizeable portion of their annual revenue during this period.

Resorts charge top dollar for lift tickets. Airfares are at their highest. No one wants to give you a break. That's true no matter when you book-early, late or right now.

So why bother booking now? The single best reason is choice. If you want to spend the holidays with extended family, you'll need multiroom lodging, and it's the two-, three- and four-bedroom condos that get scooped up first. House rentals go early, too. They offer the most space and-even at inflated holiday rates-can work out to be relatively reasonable when split among a group. "In the post 9/11 world, we see a lot of extended families who want to hang out together in a big ski house," says Julie Hickory, sales supervisor at Stowe Area Association in Vermont.

At most ski hotels, the winter holidays are usually a sellout. In Aspen, the Little Nell is famous for its waiting list, which regularly numbers more than 500 names. And at many other top hotels, like the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, luxury is at a premium. "Our specialty suites and connecting rooms are claimed first," says Sonya Hwang, the hotel's director of public relations. "Then it's the Fairmont Gold rooms on our concierge-level floor. By mid-February, about half of the rooms on the Fairmont Gold level are sold out for the following Christmas."

And it's not just rooms that sell out. The same applies to restaurant reservations, ski school classes and kids programs, such as babysitting and ski school. "Our children's programs are usually at maximum capacity, so if you want to get your kids in, you need a reservation long in advance," says Pam Cruickshank, director of public relations at Okemo, Vt.

So is there any way to save money when booking a winter holiday vacation? Airfares are your best recourse. "Booking now is an opportunity to get a competitive price," Middleton says. "That gives you a six- or seven-month head start to shop around for the best airfare."

Because most properties require a five- or seven-night minimum stay during the winter holidays, coordinating flights with lodging during some of the busiest travel days of the year takes careful planning. It's not uncommon for flights to Aspen or Eagle-Vail or Bozeman to be booked solid months in advance of peak travel days. And thanks to airline yield management, you know you'll be paying top dollar if you wait until the last minute to book flights.

OK, say you can't book your trip now. Is there any hope of finding a decent room last-minute? The answer is a qualified "yes." Despite the best efforts of ski resorts to run at capacity during the holiday season, the sluggish economy has left them with rooms to fill. If you wait until the last minute-ssay, three weeks out-you won't see much price slashing, even in this market, but there could be an upside. "You might see some resorts dropping their minimum stay or lowering it," says Hickory of Stowe. "But don't look for them to drop their nightly prices."

Still, it's tough to recommend waiting as a strategy. There's little chance of landing your first choice in lodging and airfare will be outrageous. But if you do wait, Hickory says that calling a central reservations office is your best bet. "We know who has what rooms available and what their minimum stay is or if they might lower it to fill in a gap," she says. "You could make 50 phone calls to every inn and lodge in town and they'd all have different policies. We've got it all here."

There are a few other tricks that can lower your costs. For example, look into lodging that's not slopeside. Some of the best values at ski resorts are several miles from the slopes (see the chart on the next page).

Holidays are also the time of year when you'll pay full fare for lift tickets-unless you buy a lift-and-lodging package. That's about the only way you can get a break of any kind on lift prices (multiday tickets are only marginally discounted at this time of year).

Finally, choose your days carefully. The highest rates at most ski resorts tend to be Dec. 26-Jan. 1. That's because a lot of families want to spend Christmas Day at home and arrive the day after. "At Big Sky, we have a 95 percent occupancy rate from Dec. 26 onward," Middleton says. "But the week before Christmas, it can be anywhere from 60 to 90 percent. At many resorts, the reservation centers feel that they have to discount pre-Christmas week to sell it out. So you might pay 10 or 15 percent less that week than from Dec. 26 through New Year's."

Can't bring yourself to think of sleigh rides, Christmas trees, turkey dinners and snowmen in spring? Put aside your mountain bike for an hour, pretend it's snowing, and you might find yourself with the best-planned ski vacation you've ever had.

It's a Fact
Of the 59.1 million Americans who traveled during the 2002-03 winter holidays, 4.1 million went to the mountains, 45.9 million drove and 11.2 million flew. Source: American Automobile Assoc.