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oct 29 2009

Thanks for your Ask Trip Coach ski questions

Why is it impossible to find a cheap flight into Jackson Hole? I'll tell you why, and address a bunch of other issues too.

Among the Ask Trip Coach questions from readers, several involved requests for help getting cheap airfare into Jackson Hole, Reno, or other smaller ski-friendly airports.

Well, the numbers explain a lot about why it's so difficult to get an inexpensive flight: There are only ten daily flights into Jackson Hole, with non-stop flights offered from just seven U.S. airports. Two of Colorado's skier-friendly airports have even fewer options. Non-stops to Eagle County, near Vail and Beaver Creek, are only available from Denver and Dallas, while Aspen's airport connects directly to Denver alone. Reno-Tahoe, the closest airport to Sierra-Nevada resorts like Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, seems big by comparison, with non-stops from 16 airports. All of these snow gateways are tiny compared to Salt Lake City, a hub for Delta Airlines, which alone accounts for nearly 600 daily domestic flights into the airport that's within 45 minutes of nine resorts that are all magnets for fresh powder. The chances of getting inexpensive airfare are better if you're going to Salt Lake City or Denver simply because these big airports have more flights and more competition, especially due to the presence of promotion-crazed carriers like Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest. More often than not, travelers must make one or more connections to fly into smaller airports like Jackson Hole, and they pay a premium because there are often only one or two airlines monopolizing service and calling all the shots in terms of fares.

That said, deals are not entirely unheard of for flights into smaller gateways. Packages that include lodging, airfare, and lift tickets can be extraordinary values, especially when considering what you'd have had to pay just for the flight into a pricey airport. To find out about air-inclusive packages, check out the websites for the resort and the airlines that serve the nearest airport; the airport website or a simple fare search will reveal what carriers offer service. Jackson Hole's site recently had two worthwhile packages: one with free lodging, flights, and lift tickets for kids, the other a four-night package with flights from New York starting at $839.

Some other skier issues:

A newbie wants to know if Boyne Mountain, Mich., is a good spot for a first-time ski trip, noting that flights are expensive into the area. A first-time skier doesn't really need much in terms of terrain. You need a simple hill. You can learn almost anywhere. Mom-and-pop ski areas are great for beginners because they're less crowded and less expensive. But honestly, no offense to any ski resorts in the Midwest or East Coast, but if you're going to pay to get on a plane to go skiing, head out West. You don't need all the terrain that ski areas in the Rockies or in the Lake Tahoe area offer, but no matter if you're a first-timer or a grizzled vet, everybody appreciates the amazing mountain scenery in these parts of the country.

Now is the time to snag early-season promotions and special passes. Many ski resorts sell packs of lift tickets or discounted frequent skier cards, and they're only available for purchase early in the season. Hesitate and you'll miss out.

For example, Loveland, in Colorado, is selling a 4-Pak for $119. You get four tickets that can be used by anyone, any day of the season, and because walk-up lift tickets can cost $59 normally, you're saving about $20 per day. The 4-Pak is on sale through November 22 only.

Also in Colorado, a 4-Pak for Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, costs $139. There are some date restrictions (the passes can't be used on holidays and peak ski weeks). Another bummer: These passes can't be purchased online. You must buy them at specified retail locations in Colorado, including spots in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder. These passes are on sale only through November 15.

These are just a couple of examples. Check out your favorite ski resorts' websites to see if they have similar buy-early deals available.

For lots more skier advice and answers to ski questions, stay tuned to upcoming issues of Budget Travel.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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