Paying to play
Aspen has a reputation for being cruelly expensive for people flying into town during the busiest periods of the ski season.Research by The Aspen Times shows the reputation is well-deserved. It is considerably more expensive to fly into Aspen during the heart of spring break than it is to fly into other popular airports serving Western ski resorts.It costs hundreds of dollars less to fly into Salt Lake City, for example, because that metropolitan airport has hundreds more flights to offer. But prices for a busy Saturday in March are also considerably lower at comparable destinations like Eagle County and Jackson Hole, the Times found.A traveler using popular websites like Expedia or Orbitz might suffer from sticker shock when investigating airfares into Aspen, even when looking six weeks in advance.”I think there are some people that it prevents from coming here, but it’s a small percentage,” said Stan Hajenga, general manager of the Mountain Chalet and a lodging representative on the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors.
If vacationers dig beyond the first price they find on those websites, they can find better deals into Aspen, sometimes slicing hundreds of dollars off the expense of getting here.”That’s probably the overwhelming lesson,” said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen/Snowmass, a central reservations business. “You have to look beyond that first price you find.”Tomcich suspects that nearly all travelers conduct Internet research themselves into airfares and other expenses for their vacations. In Aspen’s case, he admitted, some would-be visitors will give up when they see what it costs to fly here.But those who keep digging on the Internet or enlist help from travel agents often find better fares, Tomcich said.The test Using Expedia, The Aspen Times checked available airfares from six major U.S. cities to Aspen and to three other resort-oriented airports. The website’s search engine seeks the lowest fare on specified days.The three other airports were Eagle County (near Vail, Colo.), Jackson Hole and Salt Lake City, which is used by skiers visiting Park City, Alta and several other Utah resorts.
Our hypothetical travelers came from Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago, Miami and New York City. The vacation started on Saturday, March 19, and ended Saturday, March 26. That spring-break week is the second-busiest period of the ski season, behind only the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, according to Tomcich.We first checked airfares roughly six weeks before the trip, on Feb. 3. That is an eternity these days for savvy travelers who book as late as possible so they can check snow conditions. We rechecked fares on Feb. 15.The Times also asked Tomcich to shop for airfares and to suggest travel tips that a layman might not otherwise consider.Supply and demand haunt AspenIn most cases, the law of supply and demand drove up Aspen airfares between Feb. 3 and 15. High demand for a limited supply of seats on a busy Saturday during March sent prices higher.Fares increased over that 12-day period between Aspen and Phoenix, Houston, Miami and New York City. Prices from Los Angeles and Chicago dropped.Tickets from Houston increased the most, from $611 round trip on Feb. 3 to $1,160 on Feb. 15.
Airfares from Phoenix also came close to doubling, from $635 to $1,126.Fares from Miami and New York City started high on Feb. 3 and stayed high. As of Feb. 15, the price to fly from Miami was $1,269, and it was $1,175 from New York.It was a different story from Chicago and Los Angeles. On Feb. 3, the best price from Los Angeles to Aspen shown on Expedia was $974. That dropped to $956 on Feb. 15. From Chicago, the fare dropped $10 to $703.Tomcich said there were 1,581 total seats available on aircraft flying into Aspen on March 19. That includes 13 flights from Denver and one from Los Angeles on United Express; six nonstop flights from Minneapolis and Memphis on Northwest; and one nonstop from Phoenix on America West. Those flights are more than 95 percent sold out at this point, Tomcich said.How Aspen comparesOut of 36 comparisons using Expedia, airfares into Aspen beat airfares into the other airports only twice. In both cases, the airfare was cheaper between Chicago and Aspen than it was between Chicago and Eagle County Airport.
It was $288 cheaper to fly to Aspen from Chicago when prices were checked through Expedia on Feb. 3, and $123 cheaper on Feb. 18.In all other cases, Aspen got creamed by the competition. For example, it was $713 cheaper to fly to Eagle County from Los Angeles than it was to Aspen when prices were compared on Feb. 15.Price comparisons also showed that it cost $703 to fly to Aspen from Chicago compared to $443 from Chicago to Jackson Hole.To reach Jackson Hole from New York City, the price available through Expedia was $842 on Feb. 15. It was $1,175 to get to Aspen.Salt Lake City is in a league of its own on airfares. Flights from Phoenix to Salt Lake City were at $171 as of Feb. 15, compared to $1,126 to Aspen. Fares from Houston to Salt Lake City were $339, compared to $1,160 to Aspen.Competition can perform wonders in reducing Salt Lake airfares. Tomcich noted that Eagle County Airport benefits from subsidies paid by Vail Resorts. The resort operator pays the airlines to provide some of the service, which keeps fares lower.Tomcich also said that Aspen’s airfares are affected more drastically at the busiest times than other airports serving ski resorts, due to its limited number of flights. In other words, the price differences are skewed when looking at Saturday, March 19, the second-busiest travel period of the year.
“Were this comparison made for midweek to midweek travel, I am certain that [Aspen’s] fares will be a lot more competitive in most cases,” Tomcich said.He used data from the U.S. Department of Transportation to prove his case: The average airfare for all flights in 2003 wasn’t drastically higher for Aspen than it was for Jackson Hole and Eagle County.The round-trip average in Aspen was about $584, compared to $517.50 in Eagle County and $516 in Jackson Hole, according to Tomcich’s research.Can a travel agent help?The explosion of Internet use has turned travel agents into the forgotten professionals, as many travelers look for their own bargains. Tomcich insisted it’s usually a mistake not to enlist help.”I think everybody tries for themselves, then they call us for help,” he said.Travel agents have the advantage of access to airline seats that aren’t offered on travel-planning websites. When searching for the lowest airfare to Aspen, Tomcich beat the best that could be found on Expedia for all six test cities.
The range varied from just $4 less for a flight from Chicago to $479 less for a flight from Houston.However, even the best fares he found from Miami and New York City still topped $1,000.Tomcich said his top advantage is working with people on alternative travel plans. First and foremost, he said, he would try to get people to consider traveling on a Friday or Sunday instead of Saturday, when demand is highest.The round-trip price between New York and Aspen can be cut by $200 if traveling on Friday instead of Saturday, according to research on Expedia.Sometimes travelers are locked into Saturday-to-Saturday trips because of the lodging properties where they stay. That’s less of a problem than it was just a few years ago, according to Tomcich.But assuming travelers are locked into Saturdays, Tomcich said he could still offer a “travel professional’s tip” that could save them money.To get to Aspen from Los Angeles on Saturday, March 19, Tomcich would advise a client to fly American Airlines nonstop to Eagle County Airport for $238.40, then either rent a car or take door-to-door ground transportation on Colorado Mountain Express.
CME charges $54 one way for the 65-mile trip between Eagle County Airport and Aspen for an individual. The price drops per person when more than one is traveling.Even with the extra ground transportation cost, flying into Eagle County Airport is more than $500 cheaper from Los Angeles than flying direct into Aspen on that same day.As an alternative to paying $647 for a direct flight from Phoenix to Aspen, Tomcich’s pro pick would be to fly America West Airlines nonstop into Grand Junction for $440 round trip and rent a car for the two-hour drive to Aspen.He even had a suggestion that made travel from New York reasonable. Tomcich recommended taking a nonstop flight to Denver for $360, and then plowing the $716 savings into ground transportation to Aspen.Tomcich said travelers using the airline and travel-planning websites can also find cheaper alternatives if they’re willing to spend some time looking.”You need to do a fair amount of work,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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