"It's the economy, stupid," is an old saw that pushes trends at your favorite ski resorts and towns. The recession and slow recovery toward the end of the new millennium's first decade means plenty of hot deals are readily available. But, things tend to change rather quickly.
OnTheSnow asked three experts to provide information on trends in booking reservations today and to offer their tips as you plan your ski and snowboard vacation.
Our experts are: Ralf Garrison, director of MTRiP (Mountain Travel Research Program), a firm that tracks and analyzes reservation trends at mountain resorts; Jonathan Frank, reservations supervisor at Stratton Mountain in southern Vermont; Bill Tomcich, president, Ski Aspen/Snowmass; Darcy Nealis, manager of Heavenly Tahoe Vacations, Heavenly Resort's on-mountain travel agency; and Pam Planck, reservations manager for Boyne Resorts in the Midwest.
"The changing economy and competitive marketplace will create both early and late booking windows for consumers searching for the perfect deal, but their choice will ultimately depend on their flexibility in time, budget, and destination," Garrison says.
"Resorts rolling out their best offers early are a good match for families, whose travel dates are limited to certain vacation times or school breaks. Skiers and riders with more flexible travel schedules and preferred destinations -- especially if they are price sensitive -- may opt to roll the dice, gambling that by waiting until the last minute booking window, they will score a special deal," he explains.
Tomcich agrees, noting a changing pattern. "While it's well known that many hoteliers have offered more and more last minute discounts in recent years, there has been a recent shift in trends where many are now offering their best deals to those who book early," he says.
Stratton's Frank has another take on the "booking early" game. "Those who book early at Stratton, and increasingly at other resorts, enjoy a relaxed cancellation policy and price protection. Taking advantage of booking those prime properties and prime dates instead of waiting for last minute deals can be something worth doing."
Boyne's Planck is adamant about booking early. "Media has taught us to wait last minute for the best deals. Not so. Call the second you have a firm date. Rates often go up as demand and occupancy increases. By planning and booking early, you'll get a better deal. Pre-season deals are offered at the best rate of the season, guaranteed."
Frank suggests investigating different types of accommodations, rather than "always booking a hotel room because the initial price is lower. Take a second look at a condominium, especially with children."
"Yes, you'll have more space to relax after a day on the slopes or enjoying all the winter activities from ice skating to snowmobile tours," he said, "but you will save money by having some meals in the condo. You can also be sure that your kids' favorites will be on the menu and you never need a dinner reservation."
Frank notes that singles and couples wanting to take full advantage of the nightlife might want to go in the other direction. "If you want to make sure to hit every bar, pub and restaurant on the mountain, a hotel room may be perfect."
Look for value-added goodies when researching places to stay or go. "Explore properties for their low cost, no cost activities," Planck says. "Sleigh rides, bonfires and s'mores, ice skating, tubing, children's story time and movies, and live music, are just a few low or no cost attractions that can add to your vacation experience."
Heavenly's Nealis stresses the need to make sure the reservation agent is savvy.
"When you're booking your vacation, you want to make sure the person on the other side of the desk or the other end of the phone really knows the destination," says Nealis. "At a place like Heavenly, which is massive, there are different ways to access the mountain and different recommendations we can make based on those locations. It's all about customizing your trip."
Frank concurs. "Reservation agents' goal is to satisfy your needs, all while trying to give you the best deal possible. We create packages to give our guests all they would need at the best price, and we want to make it easy."
Tomcich recommends booking a complete package for five days or more. "There are many promotions offered that effectively offer a fifth night of lodging and a fifth day of skiing for free with the purchase of a four-night package, with additional substantial savings on lift tickets and flights when all booked together."
Then there's the airline part of the vacation, assuming your destination is beyond a comfortable driving distance from home.
"Be flexible with your dates and travel times to find the best airfares. Sometimes a one- day shift of a five-night stay can cut cost of the flight portion of a package in half, Tomcich says.
He suggests flying inbound to Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (ASE) Sunday through Wednesday and outbound Tuesday through Friday to get the best fares to his Rocky Mountain destination. He also notes early morning inbound flights and late evening outbound flights generally offer the most seats at discounted fares.
But, he adds, "If you must travel in or out at peak times, consider alternate airports or even ‘open-jaw' itineraries." An "open jaw" is when you fly into one airport but out of another.
Tomcich offers up this example of how travel day choices affect the cost of airfare:
"Let's say you wanted to book a five day trip to Aspen/Snowmass over a long weekend arriving on a Friday evening, departing the following Wednesday. Your initial fare search into the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport returns some rather pricey options. What most don't realize is that it's probably just the Friday inbound leg that is driving up the cost of the itinerary.
"The Wednesday return flights might be wide open and very reasonably priced. You might consider flying into nearby Grand Junction instead, which is located a very easy two hours from Aspen/Snowmass. But you can still fly home from ASE. The savings on the cost of your flights may literally be five times what you will need to pay for a one-way car rental to get you from Grand Junction to Aspen/Snowmass and you can be virtually assured your flight will not be diverted or cancelled," he explains.
Planck agrees on the flexibility issue, and it's not only when booking air travel. "Holiday periods and peak weekends will drive up costs. If you can shift your trip midweek, earlier or later in the season, it can provide big savings."
Finally, some destinations have snow guarantees that are an extra inducement. Nealis notes the Lake Tahoe region generally has lots of snow. But, there is a snow guarantee anyway.
"If less than half of our runs are open seven days prior to your arrival," he says, "we will refund your trip or change your dates. The guarantee is good between Dec. 15 and March 31," he says.
Now, it's up to you. But do your homework to save time, money, and to enjoy a more relaxed vacation.