STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. -- Just like skiing in jeans or falling while waiting in the lift line, renting gear for a visit to the slopes used to be a sure sign of a novice skier.
Not anymore. Increasingly, experienced skiers see renting as an opportunity to use the latest skis -- chosen for that day's snow conditions -- all while avoiding airline baggage fees.
Sue Killoran is one such convert. Last year, at the end of a business trip (her public relations firm reps some of the ski industry), her husband and their two teenage kids joined her in Utah. All expert skiers, they brought to Alta the skis that they enjoyed so much at home in Vermont.
"It was a waste of money and effort," Killoran said. "Never again will we do that."
Her son's skis were too narrow to float on the Rocky Mountain powder, so they ended up renting him wider, high-performance skis.
"It was really convenient," she said. As conditions changed, "he could switch them out. He was much, much happier."
Just as geography and snowfall can challenge skiers, so too can staying on top of the latest innovations.
As a result, some destination skiers -- those who ski primarily when they're away from home -- think it's more convenient and even economical to rent than it is to drop $500 to $1,000 buying a pair of skis, said Sean Mirus, marketing director for Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Idaho.
"Instead of buying a ski and using it for their one vacation a year, now people travel to a resort, pay $40 or $50 a day and get the best, top-of-the-line new gear," he said. "You go the next year and again you have brand new gear, and you don't have to worry about taking it on the airplane."
Overall, about 20 percent of those who skied three or more times last year rented at least once, according to the SnowSports Industries America trade group. Even among hard-core skiers who spent at least nine days on the slopes, 7 percent rented for at least a week.
To stay current, many stores upgrade their rental gear on a regular basis. Schweitzer, for instance, has an agreement with the ski manufacturer Rossignol to rotate skis every three years.
As competition heats up among retailers, skiers get more services. Some retailers allow online reservations or provide a free shuttle to their store. Others will bring an assortment of gear to your hotel for you to try.
At the Yampa Valley Regional Airport that services Steamboat Springs, bids are being taken to allow rental companies to work with visitors while they wait for their bags, said airport manager Dave Ruppel.
The airport isn't large enough for a storefront, but employees will be able to record visitors' measurements and preferences.
"It goes into the system before the person even leaves the airport," he said. "It shortens up the process later on."
Ruppel said most people vacationing in Steamboat arrive with at least two bags, and sometimes three. That can end up costing hundreds of dollars in airline baggage fees.
"For not much more, maybe even less, than it would cost to bring your skis on the airplane, you can get a top-of-the-line demo package," he said. "It's a good deal."
One challenge experienced skiers may face is finding a store that has gear at their level. Here are some tips:
• Since boot fit is so important, consider bringing your own ski boots as carry-on.
• Many people look for convenience when they rent, opting to deal with locations close to the mountain or their hotel. But other stores -- those in town that might cater to locals, for instance -- may offer different manufacturers or more experienced staff.
• Ask if the outfitter does custom boot fittings. Even if you don't need boots, you'll know the shop is serious about the sport and may offer better customer service.
• Ask about demo skis, which are the current-model "test" skis that stores hope you will buy, as well as high-performance rentals.
• Reserve ahead, especially during busy ski weeks.
• Ask the shop how often rentals are swapped out.
• If you have a favorite ski, check the company's website for a list of shops at your destination that carry the brand.
• Skis change year to year, and just like cars, they may keep the same name even when the design changes. Don't reserve based on name alone without checking that it is the style of ski you want.
• Look for discount coupons online and in local magazines, and ask about promotions like free kids' rentals.
For Killoran, her family's experience at Alta changed their way of thinking about packing for a ski strip. "There are so many fun skis out there now," she said. "If it's a powder day, you want a big fat board. And if it's not you might want a narrower ski or a twin tip. The options are wide open these days."