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Ten great American ski bargains

SmarterTravel

After all is said and done—after you’ve shelled out $75 for a lift pass, $40 for equipment rentals, and likely hundreds of dollars more for your airfare and slope-side accommodations—a simple ski trip can add up to a mountain of expenses. With the harsh reality of alpine prices in mind, I set out to find the season’s best deals. What I ended up with is a variety of offers at resorts from coast to coast on everything from lessons to lift tickets. I can’t prove these are the best deals out there, but I’m confident no bargain-hunting skiers or riders will be disappointed by any of them.

These deals aren’t listed in order of quality or preference because their desirability will vary from person to person depending on their situation. For a mom flying the family to ski in Colorado, Steamboat’s free airfare for kids offer will rank at the top. If you’re a Vermonter who wants to ski as cheaply as possible, Mad River Glen’s day of $3.50 lift tickets might make skipping out on work worthwhile.

$3.50 lift tickets

It’s at Mad River Glen in Vermont, the country’s only cooperatively owned ski area, that we start. The idea behind Roll Back the Clock Day, on which adult full-day lift tickets are priced at the absurdly low rate of $3.50, is time travel. But this isn’t science fiction. It’s a trip back to the good old days, specifically 1949, when Mad River Glen opened and it cost three and a half bucks to ski all day long. In the 2006-2007 season, this annual special is slated for Tuesday, January 30 (it’s always the final Tuesday in January).

Just how good of a deal is this? Well, Mad River isn’t normally the most expensive place to ski, but this one-day rollback beats standard prices by $50.50, or 94 percent. To put it another way, your ski-lodge cheeseburger will likely cost you more than your entire day of skiing.

My experience at Mad River Glen this past season just happened to coincide with Roll Back The Clock Day, so I have a couple of pieces of firsthand advice to pass along if you want to take advantage of this offer. First, get to the mountain early to beat the parking and lift-ticket rush. Ironically, my second recommendation is to be patient after the initial rush, especially if the lift lines are long. Remember, you only paid $3.50 for your ticket.

NEXT >> A week of $9 ski days is still only $45

A week of $9 ski days

It’s not $3.50, but $9 is nothing a savvy snowboarder will sneeze at, either. From Monday, December 18, through Friday, December 22, another Vermont ski area, Bolton Valley Resort, is offering lift tickets for nine bucks, one-fifth of its $45 regular-season rates.

For the maximum slope time at the minimum price, go to Bolton that Wednesday through Friday, when the lights come on and it’s possible to ski after hours. On those days, your $9 will allow you to ride the chairlifts from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. That’s technically just 75 cents an hour, but who’s counting?

If there’s enough snow this early in the season, it’ll be hard to beat this offer.

Free Nordic or alpine skiing

Across the border, a New Hampshire resort is enticing visitors this season with a new free-skiing offer to all who book lodging for January . The Balsams is a four-star property listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Guests at the Balsams can stay for as little as $158 ($79 per person per night, double occupancy) and may choose between free Nordic or Alpine skiing. Stays must take place Sundays through Thursdays in the month of January. The primary winter appeal at the resort is for Nordic, or cross-country skiers, as the Balsams is located on 15,000 private acres and boasts 59 miles of cross-country trails. However, a modest Alpine (downhill) ski area on the property contains 16 trails and five glades.

Free lessons

I also have recent experience with this next deal. Northstar-at-Tahoe offers free clinics for intermediate and advanced skiers and riders on Sundays through Fridays (except for peak periods). The classes meet at both 1:30 and 3:00 in the afternoon at the top of the Comstock chairlift. Lessons are available on a first-come, first-served basis. You must have a lift ticket or season pass to participate.

A beginner/intermediate group lesson will run you $54 and private instruction for any level starts at $119 for one hour. This makes the free clinic ideal for the good skier who wants to improve her skills and doesn’t feel like taking out an educational loan to do so.

When I skied Northstar last March, I had the opportunity to take part in a free lesson. Our instructor was everything you’d want in a ski teacher: patient, knowledgeable, and flexible. He tailored our clinic to both the snow conditions and our specific ability levels.

NEXT >> Unlimited rentals for $119

Unlimited rentals for $119

Northstar and its sister resort Sierra-at-Tahoe share another great deal: the Limitless Rentals Season Pass. This $119 pass entitles the bearer to standard equipment (ski or snowboard) rentals for the entire season. It’s valid every day at Sierra and every day except holidays at Northstar.

As a point of comparison, renting skis, boots, and poles at Sierra costs $36 per day for an adult. At that rate, the pass would pay for itself in less than four days. It’s an excellent value for anyone who plans on skiing multiple days at either or both of these resorts. Whether you’re driving to Tahoe from the Bay Area and don’t want to haul your equipment or flying in from elsewhere and hate the idea of checking all of those heavy items at the gate, limitless rentals is a real bargain.

Free child airfares

With children older than infants counted as adults by the airlines, Steamboat’s Kids Fly Free offer is highly attractive for budget-conscious families.

Here’s how the offer works: Book a two-night minimum stay, buy lift tickets, and purchase adult airfare and you’ll receive airfare to Steamboat for one child 12 or under per adult. The catch is that you do have to pay taxes and fees for the child’s airfare. The offer is valid for midweek travel on three airlines: on American and United from January 3 through February 15, 2007, and on Northwest from January 1 through February 16.

Note that this is not the only family-oriented offer Steamboat runs, and multiple promotions can be combined for one vacation. For more about the Kids Ski Free and Kids Rent Free offers, visit Steamboat’s website.

Free skiing, stays, gear, and lessons

Across the country at Maine’s Sunday River, just about everything but airfare is provided free to kids during one special five-day period. Sponsored by Nickelodeon, January 7 to 11 is Kids Ski Free Week, during which children ages six to 12 get not only lift tickets, but also lodging, equipment rentals, and Perfect Turn clinics (90-minute lessons offered twice daily) with the purchase of at least three nights’ accommodations. Sunday River lists nightly rates starting from $85, not including 18 percent tax. On a per-day basis during this part of January, a child’s lift ticket and equipment rental (to say nothing of lodging or lesson costs) ring up at $70, which is no small amount, particularly when multiplied by several days.

In addition to the free items mentioned above, there are family-friendly events taking place at Sunday River throughout Kids Ski Free Week. These include appearances by Spongebob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer, fireworks, karaoke, and a torchlight parade, to name a few.

NEXT >> More free stuff (much more) for kids

More free stuff (much more) for kids

Steamboat may have originated “kids fly free” promotions, but that hasn’t stopped the competition from getting in on the act. One of the best offers of this kind comes from Steamboat’s Colorado counterpart Crested Butte, which has thrown all of the most expensive components of a ski vacation into its Kids Fly, Stay and Ski Free promotion. This offer is good on both American and United from January 8 through February 15, 2007, and is based on quadruple occupancy (two adults and two children) and subject to availability.

Uncle Sam wants you … to ski free

At Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley USA, kids are certainly welcome, but it’s military personnel who get the red-carpet treatment: absolutely free skiing and snowboarding. Yep, all active-duty members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard who visit Squaw Valley need only head over to the Special Tickets Office and present a valid military photo ID and a second photo ID to receive a free lift ticket. The ski-free offer is good seven days a week, all season long, with the exception of the following dates: December 26 to 31, 2006; January 13 and 14, and February 17 and 18, 2007. There are also military discounts on rental packages.

Stay for a season pass

Smugglers’ Notch is a Vermont resort that caters to kids and parents in a million ways, but perhaps its most compelling deal this year isn’t family-specific. “Smuggs” will issue a 2006-2007 season lift pass to all guests staying five or more nights this winter. Conveniently, the pass doesn’t expire until December 16, 2007, so you might even get a day or two of slope time early next season, too. If you think you’ll be in the area enough this coming season, it may be worthwhile to stay at Smuggs for a week early on and ski for free the rest of the year. To check accommodations rates, visit the resort’s website.

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