The economy may be sputtering, but there's a silver lining in mountain country: better bargains for skiers.
"There are so many deals now, more than we normally see,'' said Dan Sherman of www.ski.com, one of the largest sellers of ski packages. "It's a great opportunity for travelers.''
Late fall is always when the best ski deals are offered, "but this year there are even more than usual,'' Sherman said.
New incentives are coming in many forms — later book-by dates, free days of skiing, free spa services, added values, resort credits. Each can reduce the total cost of a ski vacation, and more deals may surface as the season goes on. A few properties are even discounting holiday stays, which usually remain at high levels.
Some resorts have put together airline deals to make travel to ski country more affordable, said Colorado Ski Country's Jennifer Rudolph. Crested Butte, for example, has a Friends and Family Fly Free package where every third ticket is free (toll-free 1-800-810-7669, www.skicb.com), she said, and kids fly free to Steamboat Springs (toll-free 1-800-922-2722, www.steamboat.com/kidsflyfree). Vail and Beaver Creek have a deal under which American Airlines offers one free child's ticket (ages 2-12) with each paid adult fare when flying into Vail/Eagle Valley Airport Dec. 2 to 12 or Jan. 4 to Feb. 13, with certain restrictions, including days of travel (toll-free 1-800-859-8242, www.snow.com; search air deals). All these deals require purchase of a ski package.
Then there's the matter of airline charges for baggage, a particularly onerous fee for travelers bringing ski equipment. Some lines now are imposing a fee for the first bag, some for the second or both. "So resorts have gotten creative,'' Rudolph said. "Some will reimburse skiers for baggage fees. Some are enhancing ski rentals, so travelers don't have to bring their own equipment.''
Coming off a record ski season last year, ski resorts are optimistic about the season, but much depends on how the economy fares. Bolstering their outlook, several resorts are opening major developments this year.
A spectacular new feature debuts in December at Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia, the Peak 2 Peak Tram. Connecting the two mountains, it will travel a world record 1.88 miles unsupported between two towers at a world record 1,427 feet above the ground. The 28-person tram is the final component in Whistler's preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and for U.S. skiers it's especially affordable, as the currency exchange has turned favorable for Americans. The U.S. dollar now brings about 1.18 Canadian.
Another major new tram will be making news this season. Starting up Dec. 20, the bigger and faster Jackson Hole Tram replaces the old one, a Wyoming icon that closed two years ago. The 100-person cars will reach the top in nine minutes — very fast considering the rise is 4,139 feet.
Meanwhile, Colorado's Telluride is opening a new terrain, Revelation Bowl, together with a new high-speed lift. The Alps-like region, above the tree line, offers advanced and expert skiing and adds an additional 400 vertical feet to the resort. Arapahoe Basin also will be showing off new terrain this winter with its 400-acre Montezuma Bowl, which opened in March.
Winter Park's new base village, its first, opens in December as the park owned by the City of Denver continues its transformation into a destination resort. The village offers new restaurants, shops and lodging, an ice-skating pond and better access to free parking via the Village Cabriolet, capable of moving 2,800 people per hour. Sixty-seven miles from Denver, Winter Park is reachable by car or Amtrak train.
Breckenridge, too, is opening a new base village at Peak 7, its first new one since 1971. The new area offers high-end lodging, ski school and services and a restaurant. And at Snowmass in Aspen, this season's openings at its ongoing Base Village development include nearly 100 new ski-in/ski-out lodgings, four dining and entertainment venues and new shops.
At Buttermilk, home of the ESPN Winter X Games, the biggest super-pipe in the West has recently been completed. The pipe is 85 feet wide and almost 500 feet long with a 21-foot depth.
Those are some of the more distinctive new features on this season's skiscape. Many other resorts, however, also have made improvements, from refurbishments and enhanced services to new lodging and facilities.
A few ski areas are already open. Most will open in the next two weeks.
It all depends on the weather.
Jay Clarke, the former travel editor of the Miami Herald, is a freelance travel writer based in Coral Gables.