Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The high cost of getting here

Valley’s flights don’t stack up to the competition

Express Staff Writer

Express graphic by Coly McCauley
A search on the Web-based travel agency Orbitz showed that flights from New York City to Sun Valley are significantly more expensive than those to two of the resort’s major competitors, Aspen and Jackson Hole. With relatively low prices into Boise, the state capital could see an increase in popularity as a travel hub for Sun Valley.

It's no secret that it can be difficult to get to Sun Valley in winter.

While some may praise the difficulties in accessibility for keeping Bald Mountain's lift lines and slopes clear of the crowds that flock to competing resorts, this touted feature comes at a price in regard to both the wallet and convenience. It's a price that may especially influence visitors' travel decisions during a slowed economy.

A search on the popular online travel agency Orbitz showed that flying into Hailey's Friedman Memorial Airport is consistently more expensive than flying to two of its most similar competitors, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Aspen, Colo.

In addition to being world-famous ski resorts, these three destinations also share the characteristic of having small airports frequently affected by bad weather in winter.

All of these resorts are a significant distance from a major metropolitan area. While Sun Valley is about a three-hour drive from Boise, Jackson Hole is about five hours from Salt Lake City, and Aspen is about 3.5 hours from Denver.

With this in mind, it's not surprising that travelers are willing to spend the extra money to fly directly to the regional airports that service the resorts.

To get to Sun Valley, however, they are spending even more.

Using New York City as the departure point, Sun Valley was the most expensive ticket when compared to tickets to the three resort destinations during Christmas holidays, mid-February and the end of March.

The cheapest ticket available from on Monday for a weeklong trip from Dec. 20-27 cost $827, including taxes, to fly round-trip from the Big Apple to Sun Valley. That's $200 more than a similar flight to Jackson Hole and just under $400 more than a flight to Aspen.

A romantic getaway in Sun Valley for Valentine's Day may help a relationship, but it could, in turn, hurt finances, as the cheapest round trip ticket for Feb. 14-21 is $851, compared to $575 to Jackson Hole and $635 to Aspen.

The late-season fares are much closer, though Sun Valley remains the most expensive. Tickets for a trip from March 21-28 cost $590 to Sun Valley, $448 to Jackson Hole and $472 to Aspen.

However, in addition to the expense, travelers also have to take into consideration the potential for being rerouted to an alternate airport during the snowstorms that frequent the West.

"For some reason, it seems that we've had bad weather and a lot of snow during Christmas and President's Day weekend, especially for the past few years," said Rick Baird, manager of the Friedman Memorial Airport. "The bad weather during these peak times could easily lead someone to have a bad experience that causes them to plan a vacation somewhere else in the future."

That bad experience Baird references is the typical flight diversion to Twin Falls, followed by a two-hour bus ride north to Sun Valley.

"At least we're one of the few airports that provide bus service when this happens," Baird said.

This is one area in which Sun Valley has a distinct advantage over air travel to Jackson Hole.

While Jackson Hole Central Reservations did not have the exact number of flight that get diverted in winter, the figure was deemed to be "substantial."

"The fate of the travelers is generally determined by the airline," said Kate Foster, a spokesperson for the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. "Many flights come from Idaho Falls and if they cannot land here, they will return to Idaho Falls, only a two-hour drive. However, if the plane comes from Denver, the drive is nearly 12 hours. Many people wait for room on later flights, but some get rental cars and drive into town."

As with Jackson Hole, data on the percentage of flight diversions for the Sun Valley and Aspen airports were not available at press time, but representatives from both said it is a fairly common occurrence.

Like Sun Valley, Aspen is taking measures to make the best out of a bad situation, as Sky West, the major carrier into Aspen, began providing bus service last winter from Grand Junction Airport, a two-hour drive in decent weather.

Francey Jesson, assistant director of operations at the Aspen airport, said Frontier Airlines will begin serving Aspen for the first time this winter, She said she hopes that airline will follow the same procedure for diversions, since the drive from Denver can take up to six hours during storms.

As deliberations on the location for a replacement airport for Friedman continue, both the cost and number of diversions are likely to be part of the arguments put forth by proponents.

However, it's conceivable that the state capital could become an increasingly prominent hub for travelers to Sun Valley, especially if Sun Valley Co. begins regular bus service to Boise during the winter, a plan under consideration.

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