Arno Balzarini / AP file
When Bill Getty helped organize a ski trip for fellow MBA students at Northwestern University, he told them to leave one thing behind — their skis.
"We had 25 people," Getty said of a trip to Argentina in August, when it was winter in the southern hemisphere. "That's a lot of baggage fees."
Since last ski season, airlines have imposed new fees on checking luggage that could boost the cost of a family vacation significantly.
On American Airlines, for example, a coach customer checking skis, a boot bag and a suitcase for apres-ski clothing would pay $40 each way in luggage fees.
Skiing was already an expensive hobby, and the airline charges are giving skiers even more reason to reconsider their plans.
Some say they are cutting back to fewer trips this winter, while others are scouring the Internet for deals on lodging or lift tickets that might offset the higher cost of getting there.
Matt Cohen, who works in finance for a housing developer in San Francisco, had planned two trips to Utah this winter — an annual outing with his brother, and a friend's bachelor party.
"For financial reasons, I can't do both, and I'm not going to miss the bachelor party," Cohen said.
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Airline baggage policies
Baggage policies differ by airlines. Read the rules on the carrier's Web site or ask an agent before you fly. Here are fees that some leading U.S. carriers charge for a first, second and third checked bag, plus special rules for ski equipment on domestic flights. Note that most airlines waive baggage fees for elite members of frequent-flier programs, first- and business-class travelers and full-fare coach passengers.
Delta Air Lines:
A breakdown of revenue at the average U.S. ski resort:
Lift tickets, 46.1 percent.
Food and beverage, 13.3 percent.
Lessons, 10.6 percent.
Retail, 6.1 percent.
Rentals, 4.2 percent.
Snowplay and tubing, 1.9 percent.
Property leases, 1.3 percent.
Other, 6.8 percent.
So Cohen is looking for lodging for "a bunch of guys who don't really care how nice the place is." He will pay the airline fee to carry his skis while cutting down on all his other baggage for the four-day trip.
"I'll wear my ski boots on the plane if I have to," Cohen said, his voice giving only the slightest hint that he might be joking. "It's not a cheap trip, and we're all scared about losing our jobs."
The move by airlines to impose baggage fees may have the unintended consequence of helping another industry — ski resorts, which depend on rental shops to augment the money they make from selling lift tickets.
Traditionally, advanced skiers and even intermediates used their own skis. Rentals were considered cheap, entry-level gear. Wearing a pair meant advertising that you were a novice from the flatlands.
But particularly in the Rockies, rental shops have been adding high-end skis. Winter Park in Colorado spent $250,000 on new rental equipment. Other areas offer concierge-like service, delivering skis and snowboards right to guests' hotels and condos.
The resorts sell the rental service as an added convenience for fly-in vacationers because it isn't always a cheaper alternative. The cost of renting basic skis ranges from $20 to $30 and up a day, and could quickly eclipse the airline baggage charges. The resorts are touting rentals as a no-fuss alternative to buying a new pair that might be used only one week a year.
"There might be a silver lining in all this for us," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. "If you live in Dallas or Greenwich, Conn., you don't need to replace your skis. Just grab your boots and jump on an airplane."
Berry admitted that his resort members initially looked at airline baggage fees as a big problem, adding to the burden of selling a pricey sport during a weak economy. About half of all skiers fly to the slopes, according to a survey by his association.