Feb. 16, 2013 -- Skiing ... cheap? Impossible, you say? Well, not if you know how to frugalize your ski vacation. There are many skiers who don't pay a penny more than necessary to support their skiing habit.
"My son and I like to go to Tahoe skiing, but we're not made of money, so we have to stretch the dollars," says Andrew Urbaczewski, an avid skier and professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
For example, Urbaczewski says he never pays full price for a ski-lift ticket and visits sites such as SlidingOnTheCheap.com and Liftopia.com for deals of 15 percent to 80 percent off. He also looks for lift-ticket coupon specials from sites such as SkiFreeDeals.com and from discount stores such as Costco.
Getting a great deal on lift tickets should be your No. 1 goal, but there are several other ways to indulge your inner ski bum without breaking the bank.
Here are six tips to ski on the cheap this winter.
1. Plan ahead
It's fun to head to the slopes when the mood strikes and the snow flies, but you'll pay a steep price for spontaneity. To save money, make sure you plan ahead.
"Many people wait until the snow starts falling to book. That's a mistake," says David Cronheim, general counsel and editor for Ultimate-Ski.com. By booking your lift tickets early -- before Labor Day -- you can save more than 20 percent, he says.
Booking early also will help you score cheaper airfare if you have to fly to ski, says Wayne Dunlap, travel TV host with his wife, Pat, on "Plan Your Escape" on the CW network and travel columnist with The Huffington Post.
In addition to checking travel booking sites that cover airlines, hotels and cars, be sure to look for airline fare deals directly on websites for domestic budget airlines. "Many people do not know that domestic budget airlines like Southwest Airlines do not participate with the major travel booking websites, so you may miss out on some good deals on flights," Dunlap says.
2. Go with a crowd
To save cash, travel in packs. "Traveling with a group can save you lots," says Marek Zareba, a team member at Crowdtilt.com, a crowdsourcing site for groups of friends to pool their money together for a specific purpose. "Groups of 20 or more enjoy huge discounts on lift tickets, lessons and rentals almost everywhere."
Urbaczewski says renting a big house and splitting the costs with a group of friends or family is much cheaper than renting separate hotel rooms or condos. He recommends visiting sites such as Vrbo.com or HomeAway.com to find individual homeowners who live near a ski resort. "(The homeowners) are often willing to negotiate, particularly the further in advance you inquire," he says.
Traveling with a group also can help you save on food costs, particularly if you rent a house with a fully equipped kitchen. "We have our meals planned out for the week while we are killing time on the plane and stop at the grocery store on the way (to the resort) from the airport," Urbaczewski says.
3. Stay at the right time in the right place
"Here's my best tip: Ski and stay midweek," says Marti Mayne, a spokeswoman for the Mt. Washington, N.H., Chamber of Commerce. "(That's when) you'll always find the best deals on the ski slopes."
Smaller inns and bed-and-breakfast lodgings often have jaw-dropping midweek deals on lift tickets. For example, you can get a lift ticket for any of the major ski resorts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for only $5 if you stay at the Covered Bridge House in Glen, N.H., for two nights, Sunday through Thursday. Sugar Hill Inn, in Sugar Hill, N.H., has a similar package running midweek for a three-night stay, with free lift tickets to one of the major ski resorts in the area.
You might also want to plan your ski vacation to coincide with special events at a particular ski resort.
"Some offer free skiing once a year if you dress up like Santa during the holidays, or nearly free skiing to those who drive hybrid cars," Mayne says. "A quick look at your favorite resort's event calendars, and you're sure to find special deals there."
4. Go in the off season
"Understand what peak (season) and shoulder season really mean," says Neil Hastings, director of sales and marketing for Mountain Lodge at Telluride, Colo.
The most expensive time to visit a ski resort -- its peak season -- is between Christmas and New Year's Day. But many people don't know that the least expensive time can be the weeks leading up to Christmas or just after New Year's Day, he says.
"Similarly, spring break prices can be sky-high ... but when spring break takes place can vary from resort to resort," Hastings says, adding that you should check your time frames and prices carefully. "If you're able to plan your trip with just a little flexibility, you can save significantly."
Cronheim says he books six months in advance for his ski vacation in early January during "dead low season. Our lodging costs are often less than one-third the price we would pay during holiday periods." He advises skiers to avoid not only Christmas week but also the Presidents Day and Martin Luther King Day weekends.
5. Beg, borrow or "steal" equipment
If you are a first-time skier, you won't have all the equipment necessary for the slopes. You can rent equipment at the resort, but it will be pricey. Instead, see if you can borrow equipment from friends or neighbors. You also can buy used equipment online through eBay or Craigslist.
Another option is to rent ski equipment from a local ski shop for the duration of your stay. "Even if you don't save a ton of money, you'll save yourself the headache of waiting in the (resort) rental line," Cronheim says. And, he says, your gear will fit you, "making you a better skier and enabling you to enjoy your hard-earned ski vacation."
Heidi Emery, owner of The Blue Angels, a youth ski and snowboard coaching program in Walnut Creek and Del Mar, Calif., says that many larger ski and snowboard shops now offer seasonal leasing programs for equipment.
"This is a great way to gear up with the latest equipment without making a big investment, especially with growing kids in the family," Emery says. Prices range from $150 to $199 for the season, which translates to three or four days' worth of rental equipment at many ski resorts, she says.
6. Fly smart to reach the slopes
If you have to fly to a ski destination, consider multiple airports near the mountain, and don't forget the cost of renting a car or using an airport shuttle, Cronheim says.
"Flying into Denver may be cheaper than flying into Vail-Eagle (Colo.), but be sure to factor in a pricey shuttle," he says.
If you're not renting or leasing equipment at your destination, you'll need to factor in the cost of lugging along all your ski equipment. Cronheim estimates that for a family of four, checking a suitcase and ski equipment can add almost $500 to the cost of a vacation.
To save money, Cronheim suggests utilizing your carry-on allotments to the max. "Pack your entire ski outfit -- most importantly, your boots -- in your carry-on luggage. That way, even if your bags don't make it, you'll rest easy knowing you'll be all set to ski the next day. Nothing starts your vacation off on a worse note than rental boots." He notes that several manufacturers make special ski-boot backpacks that meet the carry-on requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Then there's the question of where to put your ski helmet. "Often, airlines will turn a blind eye to passengers who clip a helmet to their backpack," Cronheim says.