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Top 10 ways to save on your winter vacation

SmarterTravel

Whether your winter vacation plans involve embracing the cold or escaping from it, you’ll find yourself running into high-season prices and crowds. A ski vacation or an island getaway can be equally expensive, as many people take advantage of school breaks and long holiday weekends to do some traveling. Sky-high prices and packed resorts will only add unnecessary tension to your relaxing winter break.

However, we’ve discovered that with a bit of research and strategic timing, you can keep your vacation costs from snowballing. We’ve outlined the top 10 ways for you to find the best deals on your winter getaway, whether you’re hitting the slopes across the U.S. or following the sun to a Caribbean island.

Saving on the slopes

The cost of a ski vacation can quickly add up, once you factor in accommodations, transportation, parking, lift tickets, and equipment rentals. But if you can be flexible with your travel dates and choice of mountains, you can carve the fat off your travel budget. Here are our top five ways to save on ski vacations:

1. Avoid the busiest days

Although all of the winter ski season is considered peak, certain times are more peak than others. Nathan Rafferty, director of communications at Ski Utah, breaks the ski season down into four mini-seasons. The busiest times are the Christmas and President’s Day holidays, followed by February and March school vacations. January, especially early in the month, is a slower time, with the weeks preceding Christmas as the quietest time. If you stick to less crowded weeks in November, early December, and January, you’ll find more deals and shorter lift lines.

Midweek also tends to be less crowded than the weekends. While lift tickets may be the same price on any day of the week, resorts and other accommodations will often offer lower prices for midweek stays.

2. Stick to smaller mountains

Head for the less well-known mountains, and you’ll often find the same quality skiing as at the larger resorts, but with lower prices and fewer crowds. Plus, some of these off-the-beaten-path ski areas are located in funky or historic towns that provide a great home base for apres-ski activities.

In the East, some smaller Vermont mountains include Burke Mountain, Pico, Suicide Six, and Bromley. If you’re skiing out West, try one the eight Colorado Gems: Arapahoe Basin, Eldora, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, Ski Cooper, SolVista, and Sunlight. These smaller resorts will have fewer frills and ski trails, but are usually less expensive than Vail and Aspen, devoid of crowds, and family friendly.

For example, for $57 per person per day, you can purchase a package that includes a lift ticket to Sunlight Mountain, a free pass to the hot springs pool, and accommodations in Glenwood Springs. Or, when you buy two days/nights of lift tickets and lodging at SolVista, you’ll receive the third day/night free. Plus, you can order the free Colorado Gems Card, which offers discounts on lift tickets and other members-only benefits.

3. Book a package deal

If you’ve got to ski the big-name mountains, or even if you just want a great value at a smaller resort, check for package deals. Even during peak holiday times, some resorts will offer specials. Look for them online at each mountain’s or resort’s website or at state ski sites such as SkiUtah.com, SkiVermont.com, and ColoradoSki.com.

Here is a sampling of some of the deals we found at press time:

  • Colorado’s Winter Park Resort is offering lodging and lift tickets for $79 per person per night between January 2 and 29.
  • Maine’s Sugarloaf is offering three nightsÃ?Â? accommodations in the Grand Summit HotelÃ?Â?s mountain condominiums, three day lift tickets, health club access, and free daily adult Perfect Turn clinics for $133 per night through December 25, or $153 per night for stays through April.
  • Vail is offering 25 percent off lodging and lift tickets for midweek vacations. You can book three nights of lodging and two days of skiing for $242 per person (based on quadruple occupancy in a two-bedroom condo) between January 4 and February 8.

4. Commute to the slopes

Ski towns can be overpriced, but stay a few minutes away and you’ll find accommodation prices decrease significantly. Rafferty has two suggestions for Utah vacationers. “Stay 15 minutes away from the resort towns,” he advises. “You’ll find cheaper chain hotels there, and they all run shuttles to the slopes.” Or, he recommends staying in Salt Lake City, which is only a half hour from the mountains. “Salt Lake is a business destination that empties out over the December holidays, so hotels are cheap at this time. You can stay in the city and get a SuperPass, which gets you a discounted lift ticket and free transportation to the mountains.” With a variety of accommodations available, you can choose to stay at a Motel 6 or a five-diamond property in the city.

You can find additional transportation-plus-lift ticket deals from cities across the country from $47 to $103 per trip.

5. Look for online deals and discounted passes

You can often find discounts on lift tickets, combination passes, or other slopeside activities online. Ashley Boyden, Colorado Ski Country USA media relations coordinator, tells us that many Colorado resorts have multiday passes that you can buy online in advance at a discounted price.

Or, East Coast skiers who want to try a variety of mountains can purchase a multiday pass from Ski Vermont (call 802-223-2439). The Vermont Ski Pass costs $125 for three single-day, non-holiday lift tickets or beginner packages, and the Vermont Ski Pass Plus costs $200 for a similar five-day pass. Both passes are valid at 16 Vermont ski resorts.

Cutting costs in the Caribbean

Surprisingly, many of the same cost-cutting techniques used for a ski vacation can be applied to a Caribbean vacation as well. With a little bit of flexibility and advance research, you can have a luxurious island vacation for less. Here are our top five ways to save on Caribbean vacations:

1. Avoid the busiest days

The Caribbean experiences its busiest weeks during the December holidays, followed by President’s Day week and the March spring break period. However, the slower travel period in January tends to have the best combination of climate and price. If you can be flexible with your travel dates, you may be able to find the best resort and airfare deals during the first month of the year.

2. Choose your island and accommodations wisely

Not all Caribbean islands are priced equally, and budget travelers will want to avoid the playgrounds of the rich and famous. Mike Hobbs, vice president of business development for CheapCaribbean.com, says that the Dominican Republic is one of the most popular destinations for budget-conscious travelers. Whether you choose the resort hotspots of Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, or Santo Domingo, you’ll benefit from a local currency that is extremely weak against the dollar. Even all-inclusive properties are extremely affordable. He also recommends The Bahamas and St. Maarten for budget-friendly winter destinations.

In addition, the Caribbean islands offer a wide variety of accommodation types at a similarly wide array of prices. Hugh Riley, the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s director of marketing for the Americas, suggests seeking out smaller inns and guesthouses rather than heading to deluxe resorts or villas.

Also, think twice before booking an all-inclusive resort. Hobbs recommends all-inclusive packages for people who plan to eat and drink a lot and want to spend the majority of their time at the resort. If you want to venture into town or go on excursions, you will get better value with a less inclusive package.

3. Book a package deal

Riley also recommends that first-time Caribbean tourists book a package vacation for the best prices. “You’ll find the best value in packaged vacations,” he told us, “and 65 to 70 percent of Caribbean vacations are packages.”

You can find many of these deals on DoItCaribbean.com and CheapCaribbean.com, as well as on SmarterTravel.com’s Vacation page. Though package prices vary by departure city and accommodations, Hobbs says that for a winter vacation with an East Coast departure, the cheapest all-inclusive rates will range from about $900 to $1,100 per person and the cheapest non-inclusive prices will be about $700 to $900 per person.

For example, at press time, we found a CheapCaribbean.com deal offering a seven-day air-and-hotel package at the all-inclusive Grand Paradise Bavaro Beach Resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, from $799 per person.

4. Watch the airlines for fare wars

Airfare makes up a large percentage of package prices, so when airfares plummet, so do package prices. Even if you want to book the air and land portions of your vacation together, you’ll do well to watch the airfare sales, so you’ll know when it’s a better time to book your package.

And luckily for you, there is enormous competition in the Caribbean market. JetBlue has recently added Nassau, The Bahamas, to its growing list of Caribbean destinations; you can fly the low-cost carrier to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as well. And American has increased flights from Florida to the Caribbean this season. Bankrupt US Airways also has a large presence in the Caribbean, so look for sales as it attempts to drum up business.

For example, at press time, JetBlue had sale fares to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, from $79 one-way, and to Nassau, The Bahamas, from $99 one-way. And, US Airways is offering winter Caribbean fares from $158 round-trip.

5. Take a Caribbean cruise

A cruise can be an affordable way to see many Caribbean destinations in one trip. Your cruise price will include accommodations, onboard meals and entertainment, and transportation between islands. With many cruise lines competing for your vacation dollars, prices can often drop to under $100 per person per day.

For example, we recently found four-day Caribbean cruises on Carnival from $279 per person, seven-day cruises on Royal Caribbean from $599 per person, and 11-night cruises on Celebrity from $950 per person. For more cruise deals, visit SmarterTravel.com’s cruise section.

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