It's that time of year again—time to gather the kids around the ski-condo fireplace with steaming mugs of cocoa, to catch first chair on Christmas Day while everyone else sleeps off the eggnog. Unless, of course, you forgot to book this year's trip. Or maybe you thought you'd wait and see how the snow reports look. Regardless, the kids are clamoring for a ski week and, well, what's a guilty parent to do? Book one, of course.
It's too late, you're thinking—we'll pay top-dollar with only a few weeks until Christmas. The truth? "It's far from a lost cause, says Mark Uhlfelder, president of ski.com, a ski-tour packager that offers dozens of short-notice packages through its website. "There are definitely options for last-minute travelers. According to Uhlfelder, the offerings change from year to year depending on which resorts are popular and how the early-booking numbers look. This season, he says, expect the market to be a bit tighter for last-minute skiers, as early bookings have surged—due to last season's relatively good snow year, he says—but "there are always deals to be had. You just have to know where to look. Heed our advice and you'll be putting skis to fresh snow faster than you can whip up another batch of rum-spiked nog.
[NEXT ""]Hopeful Holidays
What to know before getting startedLest you become flushed with images of the kids roughhousing by the pool at Vail's Sonnenalp Resort, be reasonable in your expectations. The condo unit or hotel room you always stay in—or even the entire property—may have long been booked for the holidays (optimal time to book for Christmas week, Uhlfelder says, is by August). Does that mean you're relegated to an outdated condo with shag carpet and Formica countertops? Not necessarily. As the holidays approach, properties that haven't reached capacity, airlines that have seats to fill and car-rental companies with extra inventory look to get rid of it any way they can. Although the pickings will always be slimmer—this is when families with school-age kids are forced to travel—this extra stock often gets peddled to one of three places: ski-tour packagers, your local travel agent and do-it-yourself travel-booking sites such as expedia.com and site59.com. And those are the places you should look.
Consider a ski-tour packager.If you're trying to throw a last-minute ski trip together, there are several reasons why seeking out a ski-tour operator might be in your family's best interest. Time. You don't have much of it. The packagers specialize in bundling the components of your trip (flight, lodging, rental car or shuttle, even lift tickets). Service. The people answering the phones for ski-tour packagers have visited the resorts they sell and can help you customize a trip to your family's needs. Got a toddler? You'd rather stay at a place near ski-school headquarters than lug two sets of skis and a testy 3-year-old a mile from the condo.Cost. Prices are always higher around the holidays, but ski-tour packagers can get the 21-day advance-purchase fees waived on flights and negotiate their own deals with vendors up to 20 percent off the lowest published rate.
Also, one of the biggest problems you can expect to run into booking last-minute isn't on the slopes at all: Rental car inventories at ski-gateway airports tend to diminish around the holidays—especially when it comes to SUVs. That's another place ski-vacation packagers prove their worth, as they have access to inventories and weekly rates that the Web surfer doesn't.
But far more important than cost, says Uhlfelder, is the personalized attention delivered by someone familiar with the resort—something you won't get with do-it-yourself travel. "What's the cost of having a better time, in accommodations that are suited to you—while simultaneously saving yourself 20 hours of surfing on the Internet? he asks. "You can't put a price on that.
[NEXT ""]Traveling SoloPrefer to do your own dirty work? Know this before you click.
You like to research your own travel options, and maybe you know exactly where you want to go, but when choosing a last-minute destination, you'll want to home in on the resorts that will yield the best possibility of finding a room during the industry's busiest season. This boils down to larger resorts with lodging they can't always fill. You also need to consider where you're coming from. Do you live near an airport that flies to gateway ski cities such as Denver, Salt Lake City or Reno-Tahoe? Snagging a short-notice flight to a heavily served airport is far more likely than landing one to smaller ski-town airports such as Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Gunnison, Colo. (Crested Butte), which have limited flights to begin with.
Colorado's Breckenridge, Keystone and Copper Mountain resorts, all within two and a half hours of DIA, fit the bill. In Lake Tahoe, think Heavenly and Squaw Valley, within an hour of Reno-Tahoe Airport. Driving from the New York Metro area, Vermont's Killington and Stratton and New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee can almost always accommodate last-minute drive-ins from the New York City and Boston areas. And central reservations should be your first phone call.
"There will always be last-minute deals, says Susan Rubin-Stewart, director of reservations for Vail Resorts.
But, she emphasizes, the more flexible you are—with your dates and the type of unit—the more likely you'll get a room. "The best question you can ask is 'What do you have available?' she says. Usually, the most available dates are the two to three days before Christmas, says Rubin-Stewart. "Most people prefer to be home for Christmas, then travel afterwards.
Once you know there's something out there for you, put a hold on it (but because it's short notice, it may be pay-now-or-lose-it) and move onto airfare.
Flights of Fancy
Booking last-minute fares onlineThe proliferation of air-travel websites has made it easier to snag short-notice fares—and more confusing. To score a good fare within the three-week advance-purchase limit, follow these steps:
Download sidestep.com. The king of all travel search engines, Sidestep compares prices on flights between vendors such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity as well as the airline websites. Translation: It saves a whole lot of surfing. Once you find your flight, book it directly through the site offering it.
Hit the airline websites. It's all in the timing. New deals and fare sales are updated around midnight on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Even during holidays.Sign up for email updates. Do it at your favorite airline's site, or click on smarterliving.com and get a personalized list of sales out of your local airport.
Once your fare is locked in, book your room, pack your bags and pray for a white Christmas.
Want to make a deal?
These websites cater to the last-minute deal-seeker. What are you waiting for?
ski.comOffers vacation packages including airfare, lodging, rental car, lift tickets and equipment rentals. Check the site for last-minute deals good for within three weeks of your intended departure date. 800-525-2052
expedia.comGeneral online travel site, also offers pre-set ski packages—many last-minute—to resorts in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Vermont and Montana. 800-397-3342
moguls.comOffers last-minute deals on their website to most Eastern and Western U.S. and Canadian ski resorts, plus Europe. 888-894-9725
site59.comSpecializes in general last-minute travel packages, which can be booked from two weeks to three hours prior to departure. Click on the site's ski-travel section for packages to many of the U.S. ski resorts. 800-845-0192
libertytravel.comA travel agency that offers last-minute packages and customized packages to North American ski resorts. 888-271-1584