Recession Obsession

Travel
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It's hardly surprising that the economic downturn and the uncertainty following the terrorist attacks have consumers tightening their financial belts. As a result, entire industries-from manufacturers to airlines to resort operators-are bracing for the worst. The only upside is that this season is shaping up as a fine one for bargain hunters.

"The very competitive environment, in fact, could be a bonanza for skiers, as resorts and hotels seek to lure business with value and pricing," says Terry Murphy, general manager of The Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel in Steamboat Springs, Colo. "The best deals will be with off-peak packages that include both accommodations and lift tickets."

TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Choosing when to go skiing is probably the single most important factor in determining what you're going to pay. Forget holidays, including Christmas and President's Day Weekend, which are traditionally the highest-priced periods. Instead, consider skiing early season, which this year ends about Dec. 22.

"Early season is a great time to visit because prices are at their most reasonable and crowds are minimal," affirms Emily Jacob of Beaver Creek, Colo. "In addition, many restaurants run great dining deals, and retailers still have last season's leftovers on sale." In fact, 50-percent-off deals on lifts and lodging are abundant at this time of year. For more reliable snow, consider Jan. 6 through Feb. 15 (excepting Martin Luther King Jr. weekend). January has long been considered the secret low season within high season. Finally, spring skiing has long been the bargain no-brainer. At Winter Park, Colo., Joan Christensen says that "spring prices are typically 25 to 33 percent lower than during busier periods."

You should also think midweek. Every ski resort gives a good price break on lift tickets and lodging if you can ski from Sunday through Thursday. Beyond multinight package deals, many resorts offer one-day getaways. Take Bretton Woods' Two-for-One Wednesdays, where two people can ski or ride the New Hampshire resort for $44-the price you usually pay for a single midweek lift ticket.

NEVER PAY FULL PRICE
Deals abound if you know where to look and when to strike. "Buy season passes early for the best prices," advises Craig McCarthy of Brian Head, Utah. He's right: If you had bought a Steamboat, Colo., season pass before Aug. 15, you would have paid $845; until Dec. 2, the going rate is $1,075; after that, you pay $1,205. For day tickets, the key is knowing the ropes. In metro ski markets such as Denver and Salt Lake City, lift tickets can be had for up to 25 percent less at grocery stores, gas stations and other outlets than you'd pay at the resort ticket window. No time for a side trip? Check into frequent skier and snowboarder programs; most resorts have them. For example, buy the Hunter Mountain, N.Y., Frequent Saver Card for $29, and save between $8 and $10 per ticket all season and enjoy free skiing in April.

THE INSIDE SCOOP
For a mere $15 per year, impecunious Northeastern skiers subscribe to The Ski Cheap newsletter (www.ski-ridecheap.com), which reports on virtually all Eastern bargains. Lake Tahoe skiers tune into "Sliding on the Cheap" (www.slidingonthecheap.com), a free email newsletter that reports on deals at Tahoe resorts.

GETTING THERE
Packages that combine air with hotel remain the single most reliable way to save big, but if you're going for airfare alone, plan on flying in and out of ski resorts on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Check out alternative airports when you're booking, and use the Web extensively to hunt for low fares. Search out deals on low-cost carriers such as JetBlue and Southwest.

USE YOUR MILES
Unlike a good pinot noir, frequent-flier miles don't get better with age. Use them now, for tickets, upgrades or even hotel nights and vacation packages. A visit to www.webflyer.com provides solid ideas for turning your miles into ld.

STAY IN A CITY, NOT A RESORT
Salt Lake City is one of the world's most affordable ski destinations. There are plenty of inexpensive lodging options that are within driving distance of 10 world-class mountain resorts. Add in the $20.02 Olympic promotion lift-ticket discount offered at all Utah resorts all winter, and you have yourself one screaming deal.

GET WIRED
If you're not using the Web to plan ski vacations, you're missing out. Many resorts now post unadvertised specials on their websites. They also distribute emails with special deals to those who have taken the time to sign up for them. "I look at the 6,000 subscribers on our lists as our best, most loyal guests, and I try to take care of them, "says Sally Johnstone of Jiminy Peak and Brodie Mountain in Massachusetts. Not only are those subscribers loyal, they boost her bottom line: Emailing deals is a lot cheaper for resorts than advertising them in local papers. The emails are also where you'll find rooms and discounts that arise from cancellations.

BE PROACTIVE
The economic hiccups we're experiencing mean that it's a prime time to negotiate a lodging deal. A central reservations office may have lots of vacancies, but its agents may not have the ability to haggle over prices. For the best shot at getting a lower price, call hotels directly and be flexible on your dates. If you can fill in a vacancy for the hotel, the reservationist often has leeway to offer a good deal.

GO CONDO
For parties of four or more, it's always more economical to stay in a condominium than in a hotel. The math is simple: One two-bedroom condo for four is cheaper than two hotel rooms. And it's typically a more spacious option, too. Another added benefit of a condo, of course, is that it includes a fully equipped kitchen, meaning you can save hundreds in restaurant bills.

MEAL DEALS
Scoring a great air/hotel package is only half the bargain hunter's work; next you have to learn to keep an eye on your wallet once you're at the resort. At Vail, for example, Beaver Creek guests staying in a Vail Resorts-owned or -managed property receive a 25 percent discount during family dining hours at Toscanini restaurant between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. nightly. On the mountain, the "Early to Lunch Saves a Bunch" promotion offers a 15-percent discount at such Beaver Creek on-mountain restaurants as Spruce Saddle, Red Tail Camp or Broken Arrow Cafe between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Bar menus at Aspen, Colo., restaurants such as Olives Aspen, Cache Cache and L'Hostaria can be 40 to 60 percent less than regular table service. And, of course, in the long-standing tradition of New England ski resorts, you can always be a thrifty Yankee and brown-bag it.

HOP ON THE BUS, GUS
Always check out the public transportation options to avoid rental-car expenses. If you're staying in Salt Lake City, for example, grab the bus to Park City or Alta or Solitude. All four Vail resorts (Beaver Creek, Vail, Keystone and Breckenridge) offer extensive, free bus service both within and between the resorts. Aspen and Steamboat in Colorado also have exemplary free bus services that connect the mountains to the towns. The same logic holds true about getting from the airport to the resort. Hop a Colorado Mountain Express shuttle; then sit back, relax, and let the driver worry about I-70 traffic.

SKI ON A FULL STOMACH
Look for lodging accommodations that provide a complimentary breakfast or complimentary après-ski appetizers. Either way, that's one less meal to pay for.

SLEEP DOWNVALLEY
If ski-in/ski-out lodging proves too pricey, stay a few miles down the road. Even at Beaver Creek and Vail, skiers and riders can often find less expensive lodging options in Avon, Minturn, Arrowhead or Edwards. Accommodations at all four are served by public transportation. In lieu of booking a room in spendy Aspen, consider staying downvalley in low-key Basalt, Carbondale or Glenwood Springs.

BLUE JEANS, NOT BOGNER
Because small resorts are less glamour-oriented, they're usually less expensive, too. If they position themselves as "family-friendly," there's reason to believe that you'll find bargains. In the East, resorts such as Mad River Glen, Vt., Saddleback, Maine, Ascutney, Vt., and Wachusett, Mass., qualify. In the West, Bridger Bowl, Mont., Brian Head Resort and Powder Mountain in Utah, Durango Mountain Resort (formerly Purgatory), Wolf Creek and Ski Sunlight in Colorado are all good examples.

HALF MEASURES
Consider taking a truly relaxing ski vacation by skiing-and paying-for half-days. With high-speed lifts, you can still get a lot of runs in. And at resorts such as Squaw Valley USA, Calif., for example, you get free nightskiing with a $39 half-day lift ticket, meaning you can rack up a total of eight hours on the slopes.

JOIN A SKI CLUB
Membership in a ski club, which can be as little as $30 a year, usually comes with a price break on lift tickets, accommodations, transportation and even ski equipment. The easiest way to locate a ski club is through the National Ski Council Federation (518-589-6610; www.skifederation.org).

WAIT UNTIL THE LAST-MINUTE
It may go against everything you were ever told, but following this final piece of advice can save you money. Last-minute skiers can take advantage of distress sales, as hotels and condos attempt to fill rooms. Even ski-tour operators such as Moguls Ski & Snowboard Tours (800-666-4857; www.skimoguls.com) and Ski Vacation Planners (800-822-6754; www.skivacationplanners.com) offer last-minute deals. And virtually every ski resort website posts last-minute liquidation specials. If you don't see what you like, pick up the phone, call them directly and tell them what you're willing to pay. Remember, they're not making any money on an empty room.wnvalley in low-key Basalt, Carbondale or Glenwood Springs.

BLUE JEANS, NOT BOGNER
Because small resorts are less glamour-oriented, they're usually less expensive, too. If they position themselves as "family-friendly," there's reason to believe that you'll find bargains. In the East, resorts such as Mad River Glen, Vt., Saddleback, Maine, Ascutney, Vt., and Wachusett, Mass., qualify. In the West, Bridger Bowl, Mont., Brian Head Resort and Powder Mountain in Utah, Durango Mountain Resort (formerly Purgatory), Wolf Creek and Ski Sunlight in Colorado are all good examples.

HALF MEASURES
Consider taking a truly relaxing ski vacation by skiing-and paying-for half-days. With high-speed lifts, you can still get a lot of runs in. And at resorts such as Squaw Valley USA, Calif., for example, you get free nightskiing with a $39 half-day lift ticket, meaning you can rack up a total of eight hours on the slopes.

JOIN A SKI CLUB
Membership in a ski club, which can be as little as $30 a year, usually comes with a price break on lift tickets, accommodations, transportation and even ski equipment. The easiest way to locate a ski club is through the National Ski Council Federation (518-589-6610; www.skifederation.org).

WAIT UNTIL THE LAST-MINUTE
It may go against everything you were ever told, but following this final piece of advice can save you money. Last-minute skiers can take advantage of distress sales, as hotels and condos attempt to fill rooms. Even ski-tour operators such as Moguls Ski & Snowboard Tours (800-666-4857; www.skimoguls.com) and Ski Vacation Planners (800-822-6754; www.skivacationplanners.com) offer last-minute deals. And virtually every ski resort website posts last-minute liquidation specials. If you don't see what you like, pick up the phone, call them directly and tell them what you're willing to pay. Remember, they're not making any money on an empty room.