From auctions of last-minute packages to online equipment rentals and lift ticket sales, ski-related Web sites are touting a blizzard of new features, deals and advice this winter.
At the same time, the number of sites devoted to the downhill contingent continues to grow at a dizzying rate. A specialty search engine dubbed Ski Central (http://www.skicentral.com) lists 7,400 ski- and snowboard-related possibilities and is adding more than 250 a month, compared with a few hundred sites when the directory launched five years ago.
Although more skiers and boarders are researching their winter getaways online, most still rely on old-fashioned technology to book them.
"This is a high-touch business with a greater number of options and variables than almost any other kind of vacation, and [online booking] is still early in its evolution," says Skip King, spokesman for the American Skiing Co. (http://www.peaks.com), which owns nine resorts in California, Colorado, New England and Utah.
Cases in point: Though American Skiing's new multi-day, multi-resort lift ticket can be purchased online, skiers are advised that the "mEticket" will be "mailed to you within 14 days of purchase."
Cyber-schussers who accept Expedia's (http://www.expedia.com) home page invitation to "carve your own path down the mountain," meanwhile, are directed to a ski section that lists two dozen resorts where users can "shop for terrific vacation values." But click on one of the resorts, and you'll see only sample prices along with a request to call a toll-free number for booking or more information.
Such caveats notwithstanding, here's a sampling of intriguing sites geared to the snow set:
* If you can make it past the cluttered home page with its avalanche of annoying, blinking ads, SkiNet (http://www.skinet.com) shapes up as one of the industry's most comprehensive resources. Launched by Ski, Skiing and Freeze magazines, the site incorporates such print-based features as Skiing's annual gear guide. Among this year's new features: live resort cams and snow reports.
* Looking for insider advice about close-to-home resorts? Mark Bixby's exhaustively detailed Southland Ski Server (http://www.skisocal.org) can't do anything about the snow level, but it does provide resort information (including trail maps and rate sheets), road and weather updates, and firsthand reports for 16 ski areas in Southern California mountains and the Eastern Sierra.
* West Coasters, take note: Thanks to a strong dollar, a week of carving turns across the Atlantic and refueling with French wine and fondue can cost the same as a one-week trip to the Rockies. Ski Europe (http://www.ski-europe.com), run by a North America-based tour operator, lets you research more than 50 resorts in five countries. To book, you'll need to phone or submit a request by e-mail.
* SkiTown's "Virtual Village" (http://www.skitown.com) links to a variety of ski-related sites, from a guide to more than 50 heli-ski and Sno-Cat operators to job listings at North American resorts and ski towns. The "Last Second Club" incorporates last-minute lodging offers in 10 states plus Alberta and British Columbia.
* Boulder, Colo.-based Moguls Ski and Snowboard Tours (http://www.moguls.com) launched a new real-time, interactive auction section this winter. A check in early January showed slim pickings: a handful of lodgings in Sun Valley, Idaho, Crested Butte, Colo., and Jackson Hole, Wyo. But a past auction winner landed a four-night stay for two in Big Sky, Mont., including lodging, breakfasts and lift tickets, for $375, a savings of more than $500.
Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is LSBly@aol.com.