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Fill 'Er Up

Before gas prices jumped to more than $3 per gallon, volunteer ski patroller Alyson Dutch thought nothing of driving 150 miles each way to California's Mountain High resort every Saturday and Sunday. That is, until she paid $65 to fill her tank en route to a patroller meeting. The Los Angeles resident realized something had to change. So she and other patrollers rented a house near the mountain, eliminating the six-hour commute.

By staying close to the hill, Dutch and fellow patrollers will save gas money and, as a side benefit, have more time to ski and socialize. "Patrolling is already the world's most expensive volunteer job," says Dutch, "so anything we can do to cut our travel expenses makes sense."

The recent jump in gas prices has caused many skiers to scrutinize their transportation costs. The good news is that ski areas from Maine to California are rolling out incentives this season to soften the blow of rising energy costs.

At Maine's Shawnee Peak, skiers who fill up at participating gas stations get $10 off lift tickets. Shawnee started the promotion last year but expanded it this season to include more stations in North Conway, N.H., where most of the ski area's guests stay. "We can't put our heads in the sand regarding high gas prices," says resort spokeswoman Melissa Rock. "We all need to take steps."

At Attitash, N.H., skiers who book three-night lift and lodging packages receive $25 gas cards for Mobil stations. "It's a little thing to sweeten the deal at a time when people are taking a longer look at their gas tanks," Attitash's Alex Kaufman says.

Pacific Northwest skiers can also take advantage of new resort incentives. Customers who buy 10 gallons or more at Shell stations get various two-for-one lift ticket vouchers good at two dozen areas including Idaho's Schweitzer Mountain, Washington's The Summit at Snoqualmie and Oregon's Mount Hood Meadows. Washington's Stevens Pass offers the discount for Monday and Thursday nightskiing, when two people can ski for $30. "Everybody is trying to make their dollar stretch further," says Tom Stebbins of Ski Washington, who expects the program to top $1 million in redemptions this season.

Crystal Mountain, Wash., anticipates record numbers this winter on the weekend buses it runs from Tacoma and Seattle. For $67, adults get a lift ticket and round-trip bus ride. "I expect those buses to be filled to capacity," says Crystal's Tiana Enger. At Aspen, Colo., resorts, among other incentives to cut energy use, drivers of hybrid cars park free.

Resorts are also encouraging skiers to carpool. At least a dozen areas nationwide have signed up with AlterNetRides.com, a website that helps drivers connect with individuals seeking rides. The service is especially popular in California, where Squaw Valley, Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar, among others, have carpooling links on their home pages. Visitors post their target dates of travel, inviting others to ride shotgun in return for gas money. AlterNetRides founder Mark Evanoff expects business to take off this winter.

[NEXT ""]Despite high fuel prices, industry officials say skiers, so far, have shown little inclination to cut back on trips. By late fall, bookings were up at many resorts. At Oregon's Mount Bachelor, reservations were 12 percent over last year. Even so, Bachelor executives were prepared to offer incentives in the event gas prices rise above $3 per gallon. Such moves appear to be gaining steam: About half of the respondents to an online poll by trade magazine Ski Area Management said they planned to offer gas-related promotions this season. And in a twist, 14 percent of them said their ski areas would consider opening their own company gas stations to help customers.

It wouldn't be the first time resorts have jumped into the fuel business. During the1970s energy crunch, a number of areas, including Vermont's Mount Snow and Stratton Mountain, opened company gas stations to customers. "WWe dedicated two pumps as a way to assure skiers that they would be able to get gas to drive home," says Stratton spokeswoman Myra Foster.

Like their customers, resorts are preparing for higher costs. Stratton, Park City, Utah, and others have ramped up investments in energy-efficient snowmaking and grooming equipment. These measures are important to skiers because lower resort energy costs help offset the need to raise ticket prices. Because ticket prices are set in the summer and fall, there don't appear to be major lift-ticket price hikes in the offing this season due to the jump in energy expenses.

And one resort's problem is another's opportunity. Managers at regional resorts are expecting a bump in business. "The high cost of driving could mean a big year for us," says John Sellers of Loveland Ski Area, the closest resort to Denver.

How fuel prices will affect airfares remains to be seen. But Bill Tomcich, president of Aspen's central reservations service, is bullish on flying. "The cost of driving is going up, so I expect the demand for air travel to increase," he says. Budget airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue have forced major carriers to keep ticket prices low to major destinations, such as Denver. And the cost of flying to resort airports has remained steady for five years, he says.

Nevertheless, increased demand sparked by the desire to fly rather than drive could cause bargain fares to sell out quickly. Skiers looking for the best prices should fly on Tuesdays (the airlines' slowest day), arrive on the earliest morning flight and depart on the last evening flight, Tomcich says. "I expect this year to be status quo for skiers who fly."

But even skiers who fly often must rent cars. There's help at that counter, too. Hertz is offering a $50 discount on one-week SUV rentals and $20 on weekend rentals in selected ski towns. Anyone driving an SUV or another large vehicle in Maine receives a bonus: Shawnee offers a Monday Carload Dayz deal, when the resort charges a flat $59 per vehicle to ski, no matter the number of occupants (buses and vans excluded). "With today's gas prices," says the resort's Rock, "it may be one of the last reasons to own an SUV."

ROAD AID
There's help out there. Here's a sampling of what you can do to trim travel costs.

Get $10 off a ticket at Shawnee Peak by filling up at participating gas stations; shawneepeak.com.

Book a three-night lift and lodging deal at Attitash and get a $25 prepaid gas card; attitash.com.

Ski two-for-one inWashington, Oregon and Idaho when you buy 10 gallons at aShell station; skiwashington.com.

Practice your lift-ride conversational skills by carpooling to the slopes; go to alternetrides.com.

Get $50 off ski-town SUV rentals through Hertz by mentioning promotion code 971946; hertz.com.

Fill up three times at an Irving Oil station and get a $10 coupon for resorts throughout the Northeast.

Take your ski rack off when not in use, pump up your tires and get a tune-up! This may improve your mileage up to 40 percent.

JANUARY 2006

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