Hunting bargains in snow country

Strategies

January 09, 2000|By Syd Kearney | Syd Kearney,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

Cheap is not a four-letter word.

And while "cheap" is rarely associated with a winter sports vacation, its cousins "affordable," "inexpensive" and "bargain-priced" are increasingly well-known at North American resorts.

With that is mind, here are our B.E. C.H.E.A.P. tips for a budget-minded ski or snowboard holiday.

"B" is for "Be flexible": Flexibility is the bargain hunter's best tool.

After New Year's, even ritzy resorts such as Aspen, Colo., will cut a deal. An Aspen Value Deal, good until Jan. 30, packages a six-day lift ticket and seven nights at the St. Moritz Lodge for $714 per person (double occupancy).

Be flexible, too, in your choice of destinations.

In Colorado, skiing costs significantly more at Vail ($59 for a one-day lift ticket) than at Loveland ($29 per day). But the resorts are close enough together that a vacation in the Loveland area can include a day of skiing at a pricier resort such as Vail, Copper Mountain ($55 per day) or Breckenridge ($53 per day).

You will almost always pay less for a midweek stay. At Vail, for example, you'll save at least 15 percent if you book a Sunday-through-Thursday vacation through the resort's central reservations office.

And don't overlook the Canadian Rockies, where our neighbors' dollar has been at an all-time low for the past couple of years. A seven-night early-season package that covers lodging and a five-day lift ticket starts at $290 per person (double occupancy) at Alberta resorts.

"E" is for "early or late": The best deals are offered early and late in the snow season.

The early season starts on opening day (generally mid-November) and lasts until about Dec. 17. The late season varies by resort, but most bargains will be found from the last week of March through closing day. Traditionally, closing day for most resorts has been mid-April, but with Easter falling on April 23, expect some resorts to remain open through the end of the month.

Late season can be particularly enjoyable, with its long, sunny days and nonexistent lift lines.

Crested Butte, Colo., unabashedly calls its early- and late-season bargains "the greatest ski deal on Earth." Free lift tickets (no asterisks or fine print here) are available April 2-16. The rest of the season, a daylong pass will set you back $52.

"C" is for "Compare packages": Packaging your vacation can prove especially economical. Packages can include air fare, ground transportation, lodging, equipment rental, lift tickets, meals and more.

You'll find ski/snowboard packages through a variety of outlets: in newspaper and magazine ads, through resorts' central reservations services, through area hotels, and from travel agents and reservationist specialists, both traditional and online.

Compare prices and amenities carefully. Condominium accommodations may cost more than a hotel room, but access to a kitchen can save money on meals. Ask about the location of lodging, shuttle availability and distance from night-life and shopping.

Don't be enticed by amenities such as hot tubs and fireplaces if you won't be using them.

"H" is for "housing matters": Vacationers shell out a lot of bucks for ski-in, ski-out, slope-side lodging. Instead, look for accommodations away from the ski/snowboard areas. Large hotels and resorts often have shuttle services to the slopes, making a rental car unnecessary. And many towns cater to tourists with free transportation on buses equipped with ski racks.

If you don't mind a commute, terrific lodging deals are available in towns near the slopes. Many come with discounts on lift tickets.

Salt Lake City has scores of hotels in all prices ranges and lies within 35 miles of 10 ski and snowboard areas. Public buses run to Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton; private shuttles make regular stops at the Park City-area resorts.

Another city embraced by budget skiers and snowboarders is Carson City, Nev., which is within 30 miles of more than a dozen Lake Tahoe ski areas. If you're headed to the resorts along Colorado's Interstate 70, consider Frisco, Dillon and Silverthorne for budget lodging.

For those who really want to save on lodging, check out the hostels in places such as Aspen, Vail, Purgatory and Breckenridge, Colo.; Taos, N.M.; and Salt Lake City. Prices at the Glenwood Springs Hostel, near the Colorado resorts of Ski Sunlight, Aspen, Vail and Snowmass, start at $12, or $39 for four nights.

Most Hostelling International-American Youth Hostel accommodations are priced at less than $25. All offer separate dormitory-style lodging for men and women of all ages. Some hostels have rooms for couples and families.

Prices quoted are for HI-AYH members; nonmembers pay about $3 more. Membership, good at more than 4,000 hostels worldwide, costs $25 (free for ages 17 and younger). For a list of ski-area hostels, call 202-783-6161 or access www.hiayh.org.

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