WINTER VACATION IDEAS

Ski Resort Survival Guide

Even if you've never been skiing—or never even considered it—our expert advice on eliminating hassles, saving money, and having a blast may inspire you to hit the slopes this winter. Hey, it's all downhill from here!

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello, Tuesday, Nov 12, 2013, 12:00 PM

Friends skiing at Big Mountain in Whitefish, Montana.
(Courtesy Big Mountain Whitefish)

Psst! I have a confession to make. I've never skied. Seriously. All my friends are doing it. Geez, even their kids are doing it. But I've never quite mustered the right combination of guts and know-how necessary to try it. I dunno. Maybe it's because for me the word downhill brings to mind an ill-advised—and ill-fated—sledding stunt I attempted when I was 11. It involved a slight, um, cliff. And a second or two during which I was completely airborne. All these years later, I distinctly remember how my (relatively brief) life flashed before my eyes, and how it felt to finally hit the ground and walk away (lucky for me) with just a few bruises. Well, it turns out skiing at a good resort is waaaaay safer than my rogue sledding expedition.

Those of you who have also never been skiing—or those skiers who feel you haven't yet gotten the hang of booking and getting the most out of a ski resort—are in luck. I've decided that this is the year I take the plunge, and I thought it would be the ideal opportunity for me to reach out to an authority—About.com's skiing expert, Mike Doyle, to help me and my family get started on our adventure.

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CHOOSE THE RIGHT DESTINATION

"Before you can start planning, you'll need to think about two main factors: where the group wants to ski, and where the group can ski," says Doyle, an award-winning ski journalist who covers downhill and cross country skiing and has the brag-worthy distinction of dividing his winters between Park City, Utah, and Killington, Vt. "Set a budget for transportation costs and then decide how far you want to travel; once you have a location determined, look within that area for a ski area that best fits what you're looking for."  Doyle notes that your number-one concern should be what kind of terrain that resort you're considering offers: "Are there enough beginner trails to keep the newbies occupied, enough intermediate runs and groomers to engage those who are advancing in their skills, or enough expert terrain to satisfy the long-time skiers? Obviously, what you're looking for depends on the skill set within your group, but you want to make sure everyone will be entertained.

Also keep in mind lodging options; nightlife activities; childcare opportunities, if necessary; and lift ticket cost. If you run into a roadblock and can't decide, research ski resort reviews to get a feel for the true experience."

GET GOOD DEALS

"The number-one way to snag a deal is to start planning now," Doyle advises. Getting started well ahead of ski season gives you time to compare prices, and booking early can also allow you to get some nice discounts. "If you buy an all-inclusive lift ticket and lodging package in advance, you'll likely spend a lot less than if you found a place to stay last minute and bought a lift ticket each day." As with other kinds of travel—especially to popular areas and resorts—avoid winter holidays and "peak weeks" when school is out. These are the busiest times and also the most expensive, and Doyle predicts, "You'll end up paying more just to stand in long lift lines." And while most ski resorts don't offer "flash promotions" independently (the way theme parks might), you can find similar deals online. (In fact, we unblushingly recommend BudgetTravel.com's Real Deals for winter getaway packages!) "It's pretty rare to see lift tickets on sale," Doyle notes, "but you can usually find great lodging deals."

RENT OR BUY EQUIPMENT?

I've always been a bit puzzled by how much ski gear can cost. (Okay, I'll admit my idea of "gear rental" is bowling shoes or ice skates. Needless to say, skis, boots, and poles scare me a bit.) "Renting vs. buying is a very personal decision," says Doyle. "It all comes down to how often you think you're going to use the equipment. If you're only going to ski once or twice a year, renting is the best bet. Usually, you can rent nicer skis and boots (which will make your day a lot more enjoyable) for less money than you can buy baseline, entry-level equipment. I generally recommend that new skiers rent for the first few times even if they think they're going to be skiing a lot, so they can get a feel for the sport and what kind of skis they prefer."

WHAT IF THE WHOLE FAMILY ARE BEGINNERS?

In my case, no one in my family has ever been skiing. So a ski resort visit will involve two adults, an 11-year-old, and a 6-year-old learning. How can that possibly work? "Regardless of the age of the children, the best bet is for separate lessons," says Doyle. "The techniques to teach children skiing vary from how adults are taught. I would recommend that the adults take a lesson together, while the children are in their own lesson. Then, once the adults are comfortable, the family can start taking runs together on the beginner trails."

WHAT SHOULD WE PACK?

"Before you head to the resort, make sure you have all your gear in advance, including less obvious items, like hand warmers and a neck gaiter," Doyle recommends. "If you forget to pack something, many of these accessories are available to buy at ski resorts, but at a significantly higher price." That can go for food as well. A ski resort cafeteria can charge $12 for a hamburger and $5 for a bottle of water! "Multiply that for each member of the family, and you're looking at a lot of unnecessary costs."

WHAT WILL MY SKI-RESORT DAY BE LIKE?

So, I know my family and I will be taking some ski lessons, breaking for a packed lunch, and attempting the beginner slopes together. But what else will our days at a ski resort involve? "Many resort towns offer fun winter activities like ice skating, dog sledding, snowmobiling, or sleigh rides," says Doyle. "Do your research before you arrive, so you know what to expect. If you're into resort nightlife, one of the best times to hit up the aprés ski bars is when the lifts close, around 4 p.m. Many offer happy hour discounts on both food and drinks."

ARE THERE ANY UP-AND-COMING—OR BUDGET—SKI REGIONS?

At Budget Travel, we're always looking for what's next, and I wondered if there are new ski regions on the rise in the U.S. "Not really," is Doyle's surprising answer. Although there are certainly areas that are perhaps underappreciated as excellent ski destinations, such as West Virginia, there really aren't new ski areas being developed. The exception, Doyle points out, is expert terrain that is being expanded into what's called "sidecountry," which means experienced skiers can venture outside the resort boundaries via "gates" that are accessible from the lifts. "Revelstoke Mountain Resort in British Columbia, for instance, is going into its sixth season, but it's pretty remote." As for destination ski vacations, Doyle recommends Park City in Utah: "It has three world-class ski areas all within a free bus route, and offers all the variety, abilities levels (including beginner-friendly), and is only 35 minutes from Salt Lake City airport. The town offers a wide range of lodging and dining that will fit any budget." With Doyle's advice ringing in my ears—and a brother-in-law in Park City—I hope to introduce my family to the joys of downhill skiing this winter.

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