If you've never considered buying a ski vacation package from an airline, tour group or travel agency due to an assumption that the bundled prices disguise poor value, think again.
Tour operators who peddle ski trips work like operators in other areas of travel: by taking discounts from suppliers, melding the parts and marking up the final sum, in most cases enough to make the agency money and give you a decent deal. Most frequently discounted: air tickets and lodging. Most ski resorts have little trouble selling lift tickets at full fare, so lift passes are rarely tucked into packages at below face value.
Now, if you're a bottom-feeding bargain hunter, unsatisfied with anything but the lowest of the low and willing to suffer such inconveniences as multiple flight connections and packing five people into a double room, stop reading now and return to your Internet search for "Motel 6 locations in Salt Lake City"; there's nothing in this piece for you.
But if you typically find yourself in mid- or upper-range accommodations, maintain active airline mileage accounts and want to streamline your planning processes while saving a little money, read on. Note, however, that exceptions to the rules exist, as we found in some of our price comparisons (see trips at right).
Compared with, say, Caribbean islands, which have a lengthy high season and therefore find themselves with empty rooms during desirable seasons, prime skiing season is short, running essentially Christmas through March. As a result, the tourism crush in snowy locales is squeezed into a few months, making lodging deals harder to come by than in sunny climes, especially if you want to wake up near the chairlifts.
Enter the package vendors, who not only present decent prices but also can spare you the research time involved in seeking affordable, convenient lodging in a near-sold-out ski town. Even when lift tickets aren't part of a deal, agencies often can arrange for tickets to be waiting for you upon arrival. Add to that the benefit of one-stop shopping for such peripherals as airport transfers and travel insurance, and these deals start to look pretty attractive.
To prove our theory, we found five ski packages to popular resorts in North America and Europe, then assembled the components ourselves to see if we could beat the package rates. In four of the five cases, the packages were either cheaper or comparable to piecemeal shopping (one of those four was cheaper than the package from BWI but more costly from Reagan National)
That's not to say that every package is a steal: An American Airlines Vacations rep told us--after we asked, of course--to shop around on air fares to ensure that her bundled rate was the best. "If you catch a great sale fare, you might beat the package," she said. And, as shown in our breakdown of American's package to Squaw Valley, she was right. Even when you find a killer air fare, you can often save additional money by buying a land-only package from a dealer (remember, they get discounted lodging). Yes, you sometimes can do better by researching and booking each component of a ski trip--including air, lodging, transfers (or rental car) and lift tickets--yourself. But remember that by doing so, you sacrifice the knowledge of the packagers.
Notes: Room rates quoted are for the same categories that are included in packages and are per person, based on double occupancy. Prices reflect mid-January departures and were valid in late October, but air fares fluctuate dramatically, affecting package prices.
TRIP 1: Five nights in Squaw Valley, North Lake Tahoe, Calif.
PACKAGE: American Airlines Vacations' (1-800-321-2121, www.aa.com) price of $852 (from BWI) or $910 (from Reagan National) includes round-trip air (with one connection) to Reno, Nev., and five nights in the ski-in/ski-out Squaw Valley Lodge. Package buyers also get 20 percent off a ski rental package and 20 percent off snowshoe rental, as well as 3,000 bonus frequent-flier miles per online booking (meaning that if a couple or a family buys the deal online, only the "lead passenger" gets those miles). Not included: lift tickets ($52 per day or $180 for a four-of-six-day pass), rental car (around $145 for five days) or shuttle from Reno Airport ($32 one way/$62 round trip on No Stress Express, 1-800-426-5644). Total, including airport shuttle and lift tickets: $1,094 (BWI) or $1,152 (National).
DO-IT-YOURSELF: I found a $220 round-trip fare from BWI (TWA, one connection) that was less than half the $474 quoted from Reagan National. Lodging at Squaw Valley Lodge came to $533 per person for five nights. Total: $995 (BWI) or $1,249 (National).
BOTTOM LINE: Flying from BWI, doing it yourself beats the package by $99; out of Reagan National, the package is a better deal by $97 ($1,152 vs. $1,249). In either case, if you go it alone you'll forfeit such perks as discount ski rentals and bonus miles.
TRIP 2: Four nights in Vail/Beaver Creek, Colo.
PACKAGE: GoGo Worldwide Vacations (offered by GoGo tour dealers such as Quality Travel of McLean, 703-556-9010, www.accesstravel.com) has a trip for $861 that includes round-trip air fare to Vail from Reagan National (United, via Chicago), four nights in the West Vail Lodge (two miles south of Vail Village), a three-day lift ticket and airport transfers. Free shuttles run between lodge and resort. Total: $861.
DO-IT-YOURSELF: Round-trip air fare from Reagan National (on American, via Dallas) to Vail is $290, with restrictions. West Vail Lodge charges $279 per person (plus 8.5 percent tax) for four nights. A three-day lift ticket costs $183 per person, and an airport transfer is $58 round trip per person. Total: $833.70.
BOTTOM LINE: The self-serve deal beats the package by $27.30 ($861 to $833.70), but that $290 air fare is a pretty hot deal, so you could easily pay more.
TRIP 3: Seven nights in Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C.
PACKAGE: Lynx Ski and Golf Vacations (1-800-422-5969, www.lynxski vacations.com) is charging $1,070 (plus a 3 percent fee for credit card payments) for this trip, including round-trip air fare from Dulles to Vancouver, a shuttle bus to the resort (a three-hour ride), seven nights' lodging at the Delta Whistler Village and a six-of-seven-day lift pass. Total: $1,070. (Prices quoted in American dollars.)
DO-IT-YOURSELF: Round-trip air fare to Vancouver (on United, from BWI) is $401; round-trip shuttle bus to resort, $98; seven nights' lodging at the Delta Whistler Lodge, $689 per person; six-of-seven-day pass, $210 (due to great exchange rate on Canadian dollar!). Total: $1,398.
BOTTOM LINE: The package ($1,070) beats the itemized version ($1,398) by $328.
TRIP 4: Seven nights in Val d'Isere, France
PACKAGE: Ski Europe's (1-800-333-5533, www.ski-europe.com) price of $1,295 includes round-trip air fare from Dulles to Geneva (on KLM/Northwest, via Amsterdam), lodging at the Hotel Mercure Village (including breakfasts and dinners), seven-day car rental (from Der-Switzerland, including insurance and taxes), airplane accident insurance, local taxes and service charges (in Europe). It also throws in a cancellation penalty waiver, meaning you get a refund (minus a $50 service charge) if you fall ill or are hospitalized and can't make the trip. Not included: Six-day lift ticket, about $170; airport fees for rental car, about $15; mandatory air taxes, $50 to $70. Total: about $1,540.
DO-IT-YOURSELF: Round-trip air on Swissair or British Airways from Dulles is $509; seven nights at Hotel Mercure Village, $672 per person, including breakfast and dinner; seven-day car rental (stick shift), $204 (from Europcar, including taxes, fees and mandatory insurance); six-day lift ticket, about $170; airline accident insurance, $5. Total: $1,560.
BOTTOM LINE: Doing it yourself is only $20 more than the package, but there are advantages to using Europe-savvy agents (to wit, we wouldn't have known where to begin searching for lodging had Ski Europe not told us the name of the hotel).
TRIP 5: Seven nights in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
PACKAGE: United Vacations' (1-800- 328-6877, www.unitedvacations .com) package price of $993 includes round-trip air fare (on United, via Denver) from Dulles, lodging at Snow King Resort (12 miles from Jackson Hole), airport transfers and six-day lift pass. Shuttles to slopes are $2 each way ($24 for six ski days). Total: $1,017.
DO-IT-YOURSELF: Round-trip air fare on American (via Chicago) from National is $387; lodging at Snow King, $458 per person; six-day lift ticket, $280; airport transfers, $20; shuttle, $24. Total: $1,169.
BOTTOM LINE: Try as we might, we couldn't beat the package deal. It won by $152.