Winter snow sports enthusiasts, like all travelers, face a dizzying and annoying set of airline charges for taking on a vacation the very things which make the vacation possible - clothes and, in our case, skis and snowboards.

Policies and rules change, almost always in the airlines' favor, which makes this an eternal pain.

We can drive, of course - although, say, Toronto to Whistler, or Boston to Crested Butte, Colo., would cut into already precious vacation time, and entail costs of a different sort.

An airline's baggage policies, no matter how odorous, probably aren't going to stop us from skiing or riding somewhere special, but it pays to do some research.

It's easiest for beginners. Just rent good equipment, either at the mountain or in a nearby town. Most beginner learning packages include equipment, lessons, and lift tickets, anyway.

Those with some serious snow time under a particular snowboard or set of skis and bindings may be loathe to leave it or them home. Nonetheless, it's worth seeing what's available where you're headed.

Perhaps, this is a chance to demo some gear you've heard good things about or are considering buying. Most ski resorts have high end rentals available.

Even before all the hassle and charges, experienced skiers often brought their boots into the cabin as carry-on in case checked luggage went astray. Nothing's happy if your feet aren't happy.

Another old trick, especially heading home, was to stuff everything possible, especially dirty laundry, into the boot bag around the boots or the ski bag around the skis. Some airlines now, though, charge extra for this practice and weight might become a factor.

There are exceptions, of course, to the rules described here. These apply to economy class passengers. Those in business or first class enjoy more privileges, as do those with tons of miles, whether called gold, silver, or elite members.

 In no particular order, let's look at what applies as the season began to open.

United Airlines: On flights within North America, United imposes a fee on the first checked bag and a larger fee on the second, with discounts available if you handle check-in online before arriving at the airport. On overseas flights, United permits one checked bag free, then charges. There are the usual weight restrictions, 50 lbs or 23 kg, and linear dimension rules, 62 inches which is 157 cm. (Length plus width plus depth.)

United does allow you to count your ski bag or snowboard bag as one of the checked pieces. "One ski bag, containing one pair of skis and poles, plus one boot bag, containing boots and bindings only, are allowed in place of one checked bag." (I have to guess the person writing this description did not really mean you should remove the bindings and pop them into your boot bag.) "If the combined weight of ski bag and boot bag exceeds 50 pounds, an overweight fee applies. If more than one set of ski equipment is checked, each additional set will be counted as one special item and associated fee(s) will apply."

United's regulations for snowboards are similar: one board per snowboard bag and one boot bag count as one checked item, with the caveats that snowboards be 53 to 72 inches (135-183 cm) and the boot bag must be separate from the snowboard bag. 

Air Canada: Passengers within Canada are allowed to check two bags free; between Canada and United States, one bag free, fee for a second bag; between Canada or the United States and Europe, one bag. Counted as one item are any of the following: one or more sets of skis in the same container, one snowboard, one helmet, one pair of either ski or snowboard boots.

Continental: The airline charges for a first and second bag on domestic flights; the first bag is free on trips to Europe. Continental accepts one item of ski equipment per customer as checked baggage. Ski equipment must be securely encased in a suitable container, which meets the 62 inches rule. An item of ski equipment consists of up to two pairs of skis and associated equipment in one bag and one boot bag. If the boot bag contains other items in addition to or in place of boots, it will be subject to applicable baggage fees or excess baggage fees. For snowboards, the rule is up to two boards per bag.

SouthwestSouthwest allows two pieces of checked luggage free per passenger. Skis are accepted when enclosed in a suitable container. Southwest Airlines provides free plastic bags for ski equipment. These bags are used to prevent the various components of ski equipment from becoming separated. The skis will be conditionally accepted unless they are being transported in a hard, plastic case or standard ski bag. Snow ski equipment consists of one pair each of skis, ski poles, and boots.  Snowboard equipment includes one snowboard and one pair of boots.

When substituting ski equipment for a free bag, Southwest Airlines allows up to two bags (containing one set of snow skis, ski poles, and ski boots) to count as one item, even if they are packed and tagged separately.

American Airlines: On flights within the United States and between the U.S. and Canada, there are charges for each bag, but, again, a ski or snowboard bag and a boot bag count as one item. On international flights, American permits one free checked bag.

Lufthansa and Swiss Air: Lufthansa allows two pieces of free checked baggage, as does Swiss Air between Canada and Europe or the United States and Europe. One of these pieces can be a ski bag.

United States to Switzerland, Swiss International Air Lines also offers a so-called Fly Rail service, complimentary for First Class and 20 Swiss francs for economy passengers. Guests can check skis in at check-in, and pick them up at their final destination rail station. For example: if someone is headed to St. Moritz, he or she can check the skis in at JFK, and pick them up at St. Moritz train station. This is not available flying back to the United States. 

Austrian Airlines: You are allowed two bags between Europe and the U.S. or Canada. "One ski or snowboard equipment is free of charge."

Air France: You are allowed one piece of checked baggage free. Skis or a snowboard count as a checked bag.