Seasoned penny pinchers know that spring is the most affordable time of year to ski. When the daffodils start pushing through the grass, ski areas still have deep bases and vacant condos. So they discount like mad, starting about the third week of March, in a last-ditch attempt to get you to the slopes before Easter, the season's traditional last hurrah. And because Easter comes late this year (April 12), ski resorts will be staying open longer than usual to accommodate the influx of Easter vacationers.
When a friend of mine landed a New York-to-Denver round-trip fare for $240 in early April on United, the writing was on the wall. That's about half the standard winter fare. Next, he found an exceptional spring-skiing deal at The Snowmass Lodge and Club: $126 per room, per night, including two lift tickets. Doing his math, Aspen-style, he quickly realized he was paying $8 for the room in the land of the $59 lift ticket. And while the reservationist explained that the weekend rate was higher ($178 per night), she sweetened the deal because my friend was staying for nine nights.
"Most resorts are offering value rates around the end of March. Then, toward April 6 or 7, they'll be offering late-season rates," explains Gary Nicoll of Ski Vacation Planners.
As Nicoll points out, you can expect an avalanche of discounts after Easter, with reductions of up to 50 percent by season's close. But prices drop at different times at different resorts. Even within a resort, the discounting isn't necessarily uniform. "Steamboat has condos that substantially decrease in price as early as March 25," says Nicoll, "but other room discounts vary by management-some are holding out until April 3."
At Vail, large numbers of well-heeled Mexicans and Argentines make a yearly pilgrimage for their traditional two-week Easter vacation-creating a convincing financial argument for the resort to stay open longer. The good news is that these skiers don't fill every room. So while Vail and other resorts keep running lifts in anticipation of this last surge of winter revenue, they have a long spring season to book as they await Easter's arrival.
"On a five-night midweek package, you can save as much as $400 per person if you travel during February or March," says Bruce Rosard, president of Moguls/Tour de Sport. Rosard cites five-night, air-inclusive deals to resorts such as Taos for less than $700 per person.
In fact, buy a package from Any Mountain Tours, and you can vacation at a resort such as Beaver Creek for less than $850 from the East Coast or the Midwest. That includes airfare, three nights' lodging at the deluxe Inn at Beaver Creek, transfers and lift tickets. And you can get similar three-night packages at Vail from the East Coast or Midwest for less than $740.
To get in on this year's spring skiing bonanza, here's what you need to know. Rule number one: Be flexible. Sure, go to Vail or Aspen if you have your heart set on them. But if you just want to ski a season's worth of snow, and price is a major factor, you'll get the best results by shopping around. Rule number two: Go where the empty rooms are.
Obviously, airfare is a major consideration, too. Cheap seats usually mean looking to hub cities such as Denver, which has a surfeit of United flights, or Salt Lake City, which is well served by Delta. April is shoulder season and therefore a bargain hunter's delight. At this time of year, you can find airfares to the West Coast that beat the wholesale fares that ski-tour operators offer.
But beware of smaller ski town airports. The downside to low season is that with fewer skiers, there are often fewer flights. That means smaller carriers accessing these mountain resorts may still want a relatively large chunk of change for flying into them.
As for lodging, come late spring, you can often beat the packagers at their own game. By mid-April, you'll find slopeside hotels offering rooms at half the price they charged in Januarry.
Remember, don't jump on the first price someone offers you for a hotel room or condo. Bargain a little, and ask if they can do better. Maybe you're booking five or seven nights, or you're coming with your family or a group of friends. Use that as bargaining clout. And if they can't give you a price break, maybe they'll be willing to upgrade you to a larger room or suite.
If bargaining gets you nowhere, tell them you're considering Brand X resort down the road. They may sweeten the deal. If they don't, you have to put your money where your mouth is and be willing to walk. If you can't get the deal you want at Killington, for example, then call Okemo or Stratton or Mt. Snow. Everyone is eager to fill rooms at the end of the season.
You should also consider staying outside the resort. Budget-minded skiers heading to Purgatory can economize by staying down the road in Durango. West Vail, Minturn and Avon offer cheaper alternatives than Vail and Beaver Creek. Heading to Utah? Consider staying in Salt Lake City and taking the bus to Snowbird or Alta.
If you must stay within a ski village, opt for a condo or hotel that isn't ski in/ski out. A short walk or a shuttle bus ride can lower your lodging costs. And choose your unit carefully. A one bedroom with a loft functions as well as a two bedroom for many families and costs less than a bona fide two bedroom.
You should also consider skiing midweek. It works just as well in April as it does in January. Those already discounted rates will be 10 to 20 percent cheaper during the week. And ski-free deals at resorts such as Crested Butte come back into the mix. The catch, of course, is that you still have to ante up for lodging. But because the price of condo and hotel rooms will be lower anyway, this can be a true money saver.
You might also think of Canada. With the U.S. dollar worth about $1.40 against the Canadian dollar, our neighbor to the north is often a good bargain. But not everywhere. Banff, for example, is one of the few resorts that will extend its high rates through Easter, not dropping them until April 15. But Whistler/Blackcomb and Tremblant, drop their prices precipitously.
And note that Skican once again is offering a "Snow Guarantee" at Banff and Lake Louise from April 1 to 22 and Whistler/Blackcomb from April 1 to 19: If there aren't 2,500 vertical feet to ski, Skican will refund your lodging and lift ticket costs.
Finally, if research isn't your idea of fun, you should be able to go spring skiing without a great deal of planning. The East is filled with deals for impulsive skiers. So is the West, although if you're flying to your destination, the minimum amount of time you'll need for a fun getaway is three days. Stay in touch with your ski-tour operator, check web sites to compare snow conditions, lodging availability and airfares and then make a play-you're sure to find a deal.