Tackling a double-black-diamond mogul field is nothing compared to getting caught in a snowstorm at LaGuardia, missing a connection in Minneapolis or suffering through a mechanical delay in Jackson Hole. But arm yourself with a little knowledge and some planning, and you can avoid many of the common problems that air travel can present. Here are 13 ways to improve your next flight to the mountains.
1. TAKE THE FIRST FLIGHT OF THE DAY
One of the last truisms left about the airlines is that the first flight of the day is the one least likely to be delayed. And you want to be on it. That's no doubt why early morning favorites like the 7:10 Delta flight from JFK to Salt Lake City seem to be perpetually full. And if there are weather-related delays? You've got an entire day to sort out the flying options. The other benefit, of course, is that you get to the slopes earlier. That Delta flight lands at 10:40. You'll be pounding Utah powder by lunch.
2. MAKE IT A NONSTOP—OR AVOID O'HARE
Take one flight if possible. A single flight minimizes delays and eliminates the possibility of missed connections. But if you must make a connection, try to avoid airports where winter storm delays are common. Chicago's O'Hare is at the top of that list, and Minneapolis ranks just below it. Dallas, Houston and Salt Lake City are all better bets.
3. DON'T TAKE THE AIRLINE'S WORD ON CONNECTIONS
If you're purchasing a ticket with a connection, look closely at the connection time. Online travel agencies, such as Expedia, and airline websites are programmed to sell tickets with layovers of as little as 30 minutes. But just because the computer thinks this is reasonable doesn't mean that it actually is, given that mechanical issues, weather delays and air traffic problems aren't factored in. Even if your first flight arrives on time, you may have to sprint to make a gate change at vast airports such as Denver International or the always hectic O'Hare. So plan on an hour, minimum—or even 90 minutes—for a connection. Better to cool your heels over a cup of coffee than scramble to get on a later flight with everyone else who missed theirs.
4. FLY INTO THE CLOSEST AIRPORT...
If you plan to ski Beaver Creek or Vail, Colo., and it seems more expensive to fly into tiny Eagle regional airport than Denver, it still pays to crunch the numbers to see where the best value lies. Factor in the extra three hours or so of travel time by car, the cost of a long shuttle ride, rental car fees or the additional cash you'll be shelling out for gas. Not to mention driving I-70 in winter, an endeavor that's not for the faint of heart.
5. OR FLY TO A DISTANT AIRPORT...
In certain situations, it can be wiser to fly to an alternative airport and drive. Skiers from Los Angeles often bag the pricey flight into Jackson Hole, Wyo., which can have serious weather issues, and choose Idaho Falls, Idaho, instead. Yes, it's 90 miles from Jackson, but the cost can be a lot less, the weather a lot better, and traffic's not an issue in wide-open Wyoming.
6. ASK FOR AN EXIT-ROW SEAT
Always ask at the gate for an exit-row seat, the common man's first class. Depending on the aircraft, these seats nearly always have more legroom than other seats in coach. The exception is when you're traveling with a child, since passengers in exit rows must be at least 15 years old.
7. USE YOUR PHONE TO CHANGE YOUR TICKET
What do you do if you're at the airport and your flight is canceled or severely delayed? Use your cell phone to reschedule or get waitlisted. Program the airline's toll-free number into your phone before you go and call while you're waiting in line to reschedule. A two-pronged attack has better odds for success.
8. CARRY ON ESSENTIAL SKI CLOTHES
With more people checking luggage than ever before (thanks to the strict TSA rules regarding carry-ons), more of it is going missing. In just the first three months of 2007, more than one million lost or delayed baggage claims were filed with the airlines. So be proactive. Always carry your boots on board along with essentials like long underwear, ski pants, fleece, socks, hat and goggles. Wear your jacket on board. While it can take days for your misplaced bag to find you, airlines such as American, United and Delta will cover the cost of daily rental skis until your boards arrive.
9. SHIP YOUR SKIS
Don't want to take a chance with your gear? Ship your skis and bags before you fly. Companies such as Sports Express (sportsexpress.com; 800-357-4174), Luggage Free (luggagefree.com; 800-361-6871), FedEx (fedex.com; 800-463-3339) and UPS (ups.com; 800-742-5877) pick up your gear and ship it to your hotel before you leave home. Figure $50 for Sports Express to send skis from Chicago to Vail, one way.
10. TAKE THE CASH IF YOU VOLUNTEER TO GET BUMPED
Airlines are flying at or over capacity these days, which means your chances of getting bumped are pretty good. In the first quarter of 2007, the 18 major U.S. carriers bumped nearly 20,000 passengers and offered compensation to almost 159,000 other fliers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. If you decide to volunteer, go for a dollar voucher, not a "free ticket. Those tickets are heavily restricted; a dollar voucher can be applied to any airfare.
11. BREEZE THROUGH SECURITY
Want to get through security faster? Before you go to the airport, check out the historical wait times that the TSA compiles at security checkpoints at major airports around the nation. Say you're flying out of Miami International at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in January. Visit the TSA's site (waittime.tsa.dhs.gov/index.html) and you can see how long the wait usually is, hour by hour, concourse by concourse. True, there's not much you can do to cut down on your wait time, but it's better to be prepared and arrive early than to get caught off guard.
12. USE MILES FOR A SEAT
Here's how to book a seat to Denver or Salt Lake or Reno using miles during ski season: Request that seat 330 days in advance of your ski trip. Yes, that's almost a year in advance, but it's when the airlines release their mileage award seats and if you want a crack at one, or an upgrade, in a competition where there are now approximately 14 trillion unused miles out there, you have to act fast and plan far ahead.
13. JOIN THE JET SET
Do you envy those people stepping off private jets at Aspen's Sardy Field? Join their ranks with the Marquis Jet Card, a prepaid lease offering 25 hours of flight time on NetJets' seven-person Citation V Ultra. It'll run you a cool $120K, but it beats a middle seat any day of the week.