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SPECIAL ISSUE / WINTER GETAWAYS : Skiing: Packages

Cool Ways to Save : Group tour deals help keep trip costs down

December 08, 1996|BILL STALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Planning a ski trip sometimes seems to take more time and energy than is left for the skiing itself. Where to go? How to get there? Where to stay? What will it cost? Should I trust the room photo in the glossy brochure, or is that part of a suite I couldn't afford anyway?

Or, to heck with it, I'll just go back to the same old place.

But the sensible, economic and convenient option is to book a package through a ski tour operator. And, for certain, there are ski packages to match any skier's desires and pocketbook.

The ultimate tour might be this: Ski Dreams offered by Warner Ski Productions of McAfee, N.J., for one week of skiing as much as $7,447 a person, single occupancy. With Warner, you spend a week in luxury at a resort of your choice--Taos, N.M., Crested Butte, Colo., or Blackcomb, Canada--skiing each day with former World Cup or Olympic skiers. On departure, the brochure promises, "Each guest receives a complete photo album, signed by the pros, and a video tape capturing their week at Ski Dreams."

By the way, air fare is not included. If you had to ask, this is probably not the tour for you. If you didn't have to ask: Ski Dreams, telephone (201) 209-1151.

At the lower end of the economic ladder may be the penultimate bargain in ski accommodations--the ultimate being snow camping or holing up in an old VW van--from $8 to $25 nightly at one of 34 lodgings run by Hostelling International American Youth Hostels near ski areas throughout the country.

This does not constitute in itself a "package," but lodging, along with food, normally is the most expensive element in a ski trip. For budget-conscious people willing to rough it a bit, booking a hostel may be the money-saving move that makes a trip possible.

The newest HI-AYH hostel is in Sonora, Calif., near the Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley ski areas on the west side of the Sierra Nevada. Overnight fees are from $12 to $15.

Don't be deterred by the name: The hostels are for travelers of all ages. Private rooms are available at some locations, and most hostels have fully equipped kitchens, dining rooms and common rooms. For information: Hostelling International, tel. (202) 783-6161.

Between these extremes, scores of ski tour operators offer hundreds of variations of tours for the vast bulk of skiers and winter vacationers.

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The first thing to know about ski tour packages is that the skier need not be connected by Velcro to 20 other tour group members from muesli at breakfast to apres ski toddies at night.

You can go on a package and be entirely on your own but still enjoy the savings provided by the operator's bulk purchase of airline tickets and hotel rooms. In the process, the skier also benefits from the tour operator's expertise and experience.

A consumer's guide provided by the Ski Tour Operators Assn., an industry trade association, describes the tour company's role this way: "It is a company that . . . negotiates with ski resorts, airlines, lodges, rental cars and other components to obtain the best possible rates for their clients. They are able to do so because they book a large number of ski trips so the travel suppliers work with them as 'preferred partners.' "

Indeed, the major advantage of booking through a tour operator rather than going on your own is the savings, as much as one-third of the total price, according to a consensus of operators contacted.

But that is just part of it, says Leo Demelbauer, who along with his wife, Mary-Claire, owns and operates Adventures on Skis out of Westfield, Mass. Their firm is one of the largest that specializes in tours to Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France.

"I think the key issue is peace of mind," said Demelbauer, a native of Austria. "If something goes wrong they have somewhere to go to fight for them."

Another operator, Penny Smith of Daman-Nelson Travel, a major California firm, says, "Our goal, basically, is to help the ski areas get their word out and to help skiers get to the areas they want."

Daman-Nelson, now in its 34th year, sends staff members out to major ski resorts to check on improvements, look for special bargains, assess new hotels and maintain lines of communication with the retailers. Most of the firm's customers are from California and about 80% are repeat customers, said Smith, who works out of the firm's San Diego office and is a former president of the Ski Tour Operators Assn.

Skiers today are looking for more value, she said, and are more likely to take several shorter trips in a season rather than booking a single winter holiday of a week or more.

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For Californians, this may mean a long weekend or a four-or-five day trip to Aspen, Vail, Sun Valley, Whistler-Blackcomb or resorts in Utah. While most of the company's business is within North America, "Europe is becoming more popular because the price of a European trip is not that much different," Smith said.

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