Amtrak, Operators Team Up to Get Skiers on the Right Track

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Reed Travel Features

WASHINGTON -- Travel agents can help skiers reach many of their favorite resorts this winter via Amtrak while earning 10% commissions on all elements of the ski vacation package.

Amtrak is offering a number of inclusive packages in conjunction with ski tour operators throughout the U.S.

"Our primary focus for ski packages is the Western ski market and the Northeast," said Kathleen Gordon, Amtrak's National Service Center senior director of sales.

"Our ski rail packages are ideal from the perspective of at least two markets, the first of which is families."

Noting that skiing increasingly has become a family sport, Gordon said that train travel with children can be part of the adventure.

One misconception about overnight travel is that sleeping accommodations are small and too crowded for families, she said.

In fact, Gordon said, there are a number of options available that would suit most clients' needs.

First class travelers aboard the superliners in the West, for example, can opt for a family bedroom, which sleeps four; a deluxe bedroom, which sleeps two and features a private sink, vanity, shower and toilet, or a standard bedroom for one or two passengers, such as teen-agers.

The superliners also offer specially equipped rooms for travelers with disabilities.

All rooms feature one or two large windows, a sliding door and curtains, individual climate control, reading lights, a fold-down table and an electrical outlet.

"Another aspect of family travel aboard Amtrak that travel agents might not realize is that children ages 2 to 15 go for half price while those under age 2 ride free," she said.

The children's rates are available year-round.

Another important ski market targeted by Amtrak is the ski club or college ski market, Gordon said.

"These groups like to party, and because they can book exclusive occupancy of an entire car, they can have their party on the train and not worry about other passengers or about driving," she said.

Skiers who worry about not having transportation when they arrive at the ski destination will find that most of the resorts offer transportation from the train station directly to the ski lodge.

"This is nice for people who want to avoid the hassle of driving in the snow," she said.

Gordon suggested that clients who do not plan to rent a car upon arrival select one of the many resorts where a car is not needed. The train to Winter Park in Colorado, for example, stops literally at the foot of the ski slopes.

Another misconception among people who are unfamiliar with train travel is that there is nothing to do but watch the scenery.

Amtrak offers movies on most of its long-distance trains as well as lounge cars where passengers can play cards, watch television or socialize.

An attendant is available to assist first class passengers with turn-down service, wake-up calls, in-room morning coffee or juice and a newspaper.

Dining car meals are included in first class ticket prices.

One of the biggest barriers to selling Amtrak ski packages, according to Gordon, is that most agents don't think to suggest them to their clients.

"Agents tend to assume that skiers are committed to driving to ski resorts," she said.

"According to our research, however, 43% of people we surveyed said they had never taken a train trip but would consider it."

Because only 6% of the population has traveled by train, "this indicates that there is a huge market out there," Gordon said.

One reason agents might not be tapping into that market is that they have not experienced train travel themselves.

"We find once they do, they get excited about it, and they get excited about selling it," she said.

Agents interested in learning about the products can take advantage of familiarization trips or travel independently using the same discounts airlines offer agents.

"We also need to point out the scope of available tours in terms of where we go," Gordon said.

Ski destinations in the East include Mount Snow in Vermont and Lake Placid in New York.

In Colorado, Amtrak serves Aspen, Vail, Winter Park, Glenwood Springs, Silver Creek and Steamboat Springs.

Other ski destinations are Big Mountain in Montana, Schweitzer in Idaho and Angel Fire in New Mexico.

Amtrak works with a number of ski tour operators around the country to put together packages that feature a range of accommodations from ski-in/ski-out hotels or condominiums to cozy lodges.

In addition, the trains are specially equipped to transport skis, boots and other gear.

And since transportation and lift tickets can be included, agents have an opportunity to increase their commissions.

"You have the budget travelers as well as the higher-end market looking for more luxurious packages, and we can accommodate both," Gordon said.

"Packages can range from $300 per person, double, for three nights up to packages in the thousands of dollars."

Gordon suggested that opportunities to sell inclusive packages are "just what agents are looking for, particularly since we still pay 10% commissions."

Another advantage is that agents do not have to be Amtrak specialists to sell the packages, she said.

"They just need to use the travel planner to find out what the routes are and call the operators directly," she said.

"This is especially helpful for agents who shy away from the ski market because they feel uncomfortable putting something together."

Travelers on the East Coast could take the Vermonter, for example, she said, which runs from Washington to St. Albans, Vt., located in the heart of ski country.

The train features a baggage car that can handle up to 40 sets of skis and 20 snowboards, all stowed for free.

The cafe car menu serves such Vermont fare as Catamount beer, local cheeses and fresh-baked desserts and breads.

Perhaps the biggest draw is the scenery along the Connecticut River to White River Junction through the Green Mountains to Montpelier, Burlington and St. Albans.

The Ethan Allen Express is a new service that runs from New York to Rutland, Vt., daily.

The schedule was arranged so that skiers can arrive in time for an afternoon on the slopes.

The five-hour trip runs along the Hudson River valley to the Green Mountains.

A free shuttle bus will greet the train on arrival to transport skiers to their hotels.

Passengers on their way to Killington ski resort can take a special 15-minute shuttle ride for $5 each way.

Skiers who opt for Custom Class will receive guaranteed seating and a complimentary beverage.

The California Zephyr is one of the most popular options on the West Coast for skiers, thanks to the scenery.

The train climbs to Big Sky Country through the Rocky Mountains and into the Sierras.

Passengers will travel along the Colorado River, through the infamous Donner Pass and across the Continental Divide.

A sample American Rail Magic Tours Amtrak package from Chicago to Big Mountain in Montana costs about $1,650 for a family of four.

The price includes Amtrak roundtrip coach fare from Chicago to Big Mountain in Montana, four nights' accommodations and three days of skiing.

For additional information, call (800) TEL-TRAK.

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