Frugal Families

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The pre-dawn rush to bolt your Cheerios and pile into the back of the family station wagon ... Mom clutching the scruff of your parka on the chairlift, even though the safety gate is down ... Daring your little brother to take that big jump, then laughing yourself dizzy when he sticks it-and Dad doesn't ...

These are the kinds of memories shared by those of us who grew up in skiing families-and the kinds of memories we want to create for our own budding families. But in the age of 60-hour workweeks, two-career families, cell phones and e-mail, finding time to get away can be daunting. What's more, paying for a family's equipment, skiwear, lift tickets and meals-whether for a day at the local hill or a six-day trip out West-can leave you feeling like a pauper.

Still, millions of families do take to the slopes, presumably without mortgaging their homes. What do they know that you don't? We decided to find out, asking visitors to SKI's website-SkiNet.com-to e-mail us their best strategies. Knowing what a great motivator the word "free" is, we promised free skiing for the five most frugal families, and were swamped with responses. Here are the stories of the winners-five families who raise skiing-on-the-cheap to a new level-as well as a compilation of the best tips received from all who wrote in. We hope you learn as much as we did.

J. Leigh Daboll, 40; Briar Campbell, 38; Jacquelin, 13; Jonathon, 9Ridgeville, Ont.

Like the baseball fanatic who can name the second-string third baseman for the '92 Red Sox without hesitation, J. Leigh Daboll spews ski trivia. He recites the vertical footage of Colorado's top 10 resorts, which day of the month 20 resorts offered two-for-one lift tickets and where you can find free weeks thrown in on time-share deals.

It's not something that the Ontario attorney is particularly proud of, this borderline obsession with saving a buck. But when you spend an average of 30 minutes a day, year-round, reading ski publications, scanning the Net and brain-picking the experts, it pays off.

"Call me a tight-wad-I don't care," says Daboll, who lives and skis with his partner, Briar, daughter, Jacquelin, and son, Jonathon. "I'm looking for ways to make skiing affordable, just like the next guy," he says. "We've never paid full, walk-up price for a lift ticket. Never once."

Last season, Daboll managed to get in one five-day trip with the kids, a second five-day trip for adults only, one or two family ski weekends and a bunch of outings at local resorts. Thanks to his relentless research, the total cost for each child's lift tickets last season was about $120, while each adult paid about $350 for nearly 30 days of skiing.

How does he do it? Daboll seeks out "second-tier" resorts that offer first-tier experiences. He looks for accommodations that include meals, or, at the very least, breakfast. And he knows how to balance the good with the bad, as in weathering a two-hour time-share pitch in exchange for a weekend of skiing. Most important, he's not afraid to ask for a better deal, whether talking to a resort operator, a hotel owner or an airline reservationist. "It never hurts to ask," Daboll laughs, recalling the time his family got a free half-day of slope time on the arrival date of a multi-day stay. But he's always wary when he finds a deal better than the one he has already negotiated. "If they're willing to go lower, you haven't done your job. You should already be at the bottom of the price barrel."

At the Toronto Ski Show last season, Daboll found an all-inclusive show deal at Owl's Head Resort in Quebec's Eastern Townships. The program included a multi-area lift package interchangeable between four local resorts. The five-day package for his family of four, including slopeside accommodations, tickets and a five-star meal plan, cost about $605.

Later in the year, he studied brochures, surfed the Web and finagled a five-day trip to New Hampshire that included a hotel suite with fu breakfast included. Total price: $180 per person. He said he discovered that the first Monday of each month at Wildcat last season was two-for-one (or $19 each); Shawnee on every Tuesday was $18; Wildcat on Wednesdays was $19; Cannon on Thursdays was $14; and a five-dollar discount on Fridays brought Cannon down to $23. Total for the week: $93 per person. Not bad, considering most places these days cost $40 or more per day.

Daboll actually abandoned the New Hampshire trip when Briar bought him a trip to Whistler for his 40th birthday. But even though all expenses were part of the gift, he couldn't squelch his frugal nature. He sneaked out to a time-share pitch that earned him $200 worth of "Whiskey Day dollars," which they used to eat for free the entire week.

Mark Stevens, 43; Jamie Stevens, 43; Jack, 10; Claire, 7Great Falls, Va.

Packing warm bodies into a rented ski house is one way to cut costs on a ski vacation. But why not consider plowing a little extra money into a second home, then renting the place to pay for skiing?

That's what Mark Stevens decided to do. Ten years and two houses later, Stevens believes that a nominal real estate investment and some eager friends are a sure-fire way to keep skiing costs to a minimum. "Plus," he says, "I don't have to pick up the phone to find a great rental every time I want to get away."

After graduating from college in 1977 Stevens got an advertising job in New York. Eager to swap his three-piece suit and briefcase for skis and a parka each weekend, he coerced eight of his pals to go in on a seasonal rental home at Hunter Mountain. In return for paying a percentage of the six-month lease, the partners avoided the hassle of hotel stays and had a home each weekend. It seemed like a sweet deal.

But after two years of renting, Stevens determined it would be cheaper to buy a cabin of his own. In 1980, he found just the place about a mile from Hunter-a fixer-upper for $15,000. To pay for the house he borrowed from his family, took out a second mortgage and rented shares to friends for the next eight years. Many bartered for their stays by helping with renovations.

Stevens sold the cabin in 1988 and put the profit into a two-bedroom condo at Vail, Colo. Managed by Vail Resort Rentals, it attracts a steady flow of renters, but for one hallowed week each winter, Stevens and his family move in. Because he breaks even on rentals, lodging for that week doesn't cost a dime. He uses frequent-flyer miles to fly the family out and buys discount lift tickets at Gart Brothers.

Though Realtors warn that Stevens' success might be hard to replicate in today's high-priced market, he says it has been the difference between giving up skiing and managing to stick with it. "A week's vacation ends up costing a fraction of what it would normally cost, and I'm guaranteed a good time," Stevens says. "My kids have been skiing since they were 3, and we wouldn't have been able to afford it without a little place of our own like this. The initial investment wasn't much, but it's turned out to be one of the best I've ever made."

William Hahnenberger, 52; Marcia Maurycy, 53; Maura, 16; Treu, 19Niskayuna, N.Y.

What have William Hahnenberger and Marcia Maurycy done to save money skiing? The question should be, what haven't they done.

They've joined ski clubs, volunteered as gatekeepers, worked as club advisors and hit up resort officials for anything that might be free. When they discovered Tide detergent was offering a two-for-one promo for Snowbird tickets, they bought dozens of boxes. They've test-driven a car and even donated blood.

"We take skiing seriously," said Maurycy, an associate professor of sociology at The Sage Colleges in Albany, N.Y. Seriously is right. They ski 40 to 60 days a year, and finding good deals has become an art form.

Each year the family orders the Ski Card International (three for $30), the World Ski Card ($7.95) and local and Utah Entertainment books ($29.95; all card prices vary according to when-and where-purchased). They comb these books for two-for-one deals on tickets, lodging and meals. Two years ago they found a deal (now discontinued) for five free ski days at Stratton, Vt.

They attend ski shows with an arsenal of pre-pasted self-address labels to sign up for discount programs, drawings, mailing lists and resort information. Throughout the season, they watch for offers from companies such as Mobil, Phillips Petroleum and Chittenden Bank, which advertise special ski promos at certain times of the year. They scan soda cans and cereal boxes and call their local TV and radio stations for promo information.

All the amassed literature and information is then deciphered, sorted into envelopes and filed meticulously in a special ski filing cabinet. A calendar lists all discounts, special resort promotions, club trips, race nights, kids-ski-free days and family ski nights by date for easy reference.

"I can tell you," says Marcia, "that very little goes to waste. And what we pay for 40 days of skiing is what many families pay for 10."

Frugal Families, Part 2

Frugal Families: Tips & Tricks ent books ($29.95; all card prices vary according to when-and where-purchased). They comb these books for two-for-one deals on tickets, lodging and meals. Two years ago they found a deal (now discontinued) for five free ski days at Stratton, Vt.They attend ski shows with an arsenal of pre-pasted self-address labels to sign up for discount programs, drawings, mailing lists and resort information. Throughout the season, they watch for offers from companies such as Mobil, Phillips Petroleum and Chittenden Bank, which advertise special ski promos at certain times of the year. They scan soda cans and cereal boxes and call their local TV and radio stations for promo information.All the amassed literature and information is then deciphered, sorted into envelopes and filed meticulously in a special ski filing cabinet. A calendar lists all discounts, special resort promotions, club trips, race nights, kids-ski-free days and family ski nights by date for easy reference."I can tell you," says Marcia, "that very little goes to waste. And what we pay for 40 days of skiing is what many families pay for 10."

Frugal Families, Part 2

Frugal Families: Tips & Tricks