Bleary-eyed but smiling, thousands of Virginia Tech fans staggered off 22 chartered jets here today, pleased with nearly every aspect of their whirlwind trip to New Orleans, nevermind the heartbreaking loss suffered by their beloved Hokies in Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Travis Felts, of Franklin. "Just seeing Tech in the national championship game was amazing. We've been to other bowl games, but the atmosphere in New Orleans had a totally different feel."

Previously unbeaten Tech lost to No. 1-ranked Florida State University, a perennial football powerhouse, 46-29, in the game, played in the Louisiana Superdome.

Many Tech fans were surprised that they appeared to vastly outnumber FSU supporters, whose backers didn't seem to descend on the Big Easy until game day. Most of the Bowl packages arranged by travel agents here departed Roanoke Regional Airport on Sunday, with the first flights back arriving shortly after 3 this morning.

Twelve hours later, more than two dozen fans pressed up against the glass windows of the airport concourse as the Hokies' charter arrived, hoping for a glimpse of their gridiron heroes. But the team plane stayed far from the terminal, and the players quickly boarded a bus and were whisked back to Blacksburg without acknowledging the tiny knot of supporters.

The minor snub didn't diminish the enthusiasm of Billy and Billie Hurd, of Roanoke, who got back from New Orleans about 1 p.m. today, picked up their two young sons and headed back to the airport in hopes of cheering their team one more time.

"I'm too keyed-up to sleep," Billie Hurd said. "We've been going to all the games since 1973. It's been great to see the turnaround."

Harland Brown, of Blacksburg, also wanted to honor the Hokies' record season. "We don't want 'em to feel like they let us down" by not bringing home the national championship, he said.

The Thomas family, of Monroe, Va., looked exhausted after stepping off their return flight. "We want to go home and sleep for the next two days," Kay Thomas said. Daughter Carrie, 18, was still in the bright orange Tech shirt she wore on Bourbon Street, where she was so bedecked with Hokies paraphernalia that strangers asked to have their picture taken with her.

"The highlight," Carrie Thomas said, "was being able to walk down the street and yell 'Go Hokies!' and have a dozen people yell back."

Though disappointed by Tech's loss, Carolyn Ratcliffe, of Pilot, Va., said: "It was a fantastic time. You always have a fantastic time in New Orleans." As for the game, Ratcliffe said the noise level inside the Superdome "was unreal."

Carrie Frye, of Charlotte, N.C., described the postgame mood of Hokies fans as "somber but proud, because it had been such a good season."

Not everyone arriving at Roanoke airport today rode in on a plane. Andy Henritze and two friends who lucked into game tickets last week rented a car at the airport Monday and began their Sugar Bowl journey about 5 p.m. They made it as far as Tuscaloosa, Ala., that night in their Mercury Grand Marquis and continued on to New Orleans on Tuesday, arriving a few hours before kickoff.

Holding his Pat O'Brien's souvenir glass today, Henritze, a dentist, said: "It was great. We had a fantastic time on Bourbon Street, and we outnumbered them [Florida State fans] at least 4 to 1." His friend Lee Johnson added, "It was worth being there just for the third quarter alone," when Tech rallied from 14 points down to take the lead briefly.

The men were going to stay in New Orleans if the Hokies won. When they didn't, the three piled back into the Grand Marquis and drove straight through to Roanoke, a 13-hour trip. They were unshaven and unsteady as they waited for their ride today, but "it was a great time," one said.