Don't wait until the snow starts falling to get your family ready for fun on the slopes. With the cost of lift tickets, lunch and transportation, just one day of skiing or boarding for a family of four can cost more than $200, and that doesn't include all the gear you need. To save some dough on the snow, now is the time to scoop up deals and make plans for the season.
1. Buy and sell gear at a swap. Growing kids need new gear almost every year, and swaps are a great way to outfit them at a fraction of retail cost. Swap pros estimates a parent can fully equip a child with gear and clothes for $100 to $150. If you have gear to sell, you can recoup around $60 of that cost. Although most swaps take place in November, a few stragglers continue through the season. Craigslist acts like a round-the-clock ski swap and is another good place for families to score good deals. For Seattle-area merchandise, go to seattle.craigslist.org.
2. Trade in old gear for new gear. Check with a local ski shop about trading in your gently-used ski gear. Many offer 20 to 30 percent discounts on new gear for used trade-ins. Others accept consignments, including Sturtevant's Ski Marts (www.skimartnw.com), or sell overstocks from their regular retail stores at a 30- to 70-percent discount. Some, such as Play It Again Sports (www.playitagainsports.com) buy and sell used gear.
3. Rent gear. For new skiers, renting can be a good option. You'll get a professional fit and gear recommendations without the expense of buying new. You'll also have peace of mind knowing that if your child's foot grows during the season, or a ski instructor says the gear isn't right, you can trade it in at no additional expense.
If your family plans to ski often, rent for the season. Junior season ski rental packages generally run around $140 and up, but Sports Authority (www.sportsauthority.com) stores are offering rentals for $109.99. The Summit at Snoqualmie offers a $119 season rental package. They'll fit you on your first visit. For subsequent visits, make sure you call in the day before to let them know you're coming. They'll have your gear ready and waiting so you can skip to the head of the line.
If you plan to ski only once or twice, pick up a day rental package at a local ski shop the night before. Day rentals average $30, but you'll save money at some ski shops by renting on a weekday instead of a weekend. Ski Mart (www.skimartnw.com) offers junior skis for a reduced price Monday through Friday. You can also rent at the ski area the morning of your arrival. If you rent on the mountain, arrive early. You don't want to waste the money you spend on a lift ticket waiting in line.
If you're learning to ski, the best rental deal is to combine it with a lesson and lift ticket package (see tip No.10).
Lastly, many shops exhaust their season rental supplies by early December, so rent early.
4. Ski for free. Kids 10 and under ski for free this season – yes FREE – at Crystal Mountain. Fifth-graders can apply for free skiing at Mt. Baker (see www.mtbaker.us/2009-10-prices/5th-graders-free for details).
If a ski vacation is in your family plans, at least five ski resorts in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho offer free ski programs for fifth-graders (www.ski-inlandnorthwest.com), as well as many Colorado (www.coloradoski.com), Utah (www.skiutah.com) and East Coast resorts. You do not have to be a state resident to apply. Colorado and Utah also offer free ski days for sixth-graders.
5. Buy a season pass. The best savings on season passes are offered in September and October, but if your family plans to ski often, a season pass might still be the best value. Research your options to buy the right pass for your needs. Where and when do you plan to ski? Are there beginning, intermediate or advanced skiers in your family?
The Summit offers four different season passes. The most expensive lets you ski Summit slopes, plus 15 days of skiing at other mountains. The least expensive is for night skiing only. Visit www.summitatsnoqualmie.com.
You'll save nearly $200 on an adult season pass at Crystal Mountain if you ski mid-week, instead of weekends and $100 on a youth pass for ages 11 to 17. Visit www.skicrystal.com.
Stevens Pass offers a significant discount on a Weekday Pass over its Everyday Pass ($879 adults, $669 students 13 to 18, $579 youth 7 to 12). Both passes for kids age 6 and younger are $89. It also offers an Advantage Pass that will save you money if you plan to visit one to three times. The $89 pass includes your first lift ticket free and discounts on subsequent trips ($10 off weekends, $15 off weekdays). Visit www.stevenspass.com.
6. Start ‘em young. The younger the child, the cheaper the lift ticket. Kids age 6 and younger get the best deal at Mt. Baker and Crystal – they're free. At Stevens, they're under $10. At the Summit, under $15.
7. Ski a half day. Most ski areas offer discounts on lift tickets purchased after noon or 1 p.m., and a half day is often more than enough for young children.
8. Check resort Web sites for discounts. Stevens Pass offers a discount for reloading lift tickets online. All resorts have discount and deal offers on their Web sites.
9. Teach or help a ski class. Some local parents have received lift tickets or discounts on season passes in exchange for teaching or helping a ski class. These deals are getting harder to come by, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
10. Find the right lessons for your child. Whether you sign your kids up for group lessons, private lessons or teach them to ski yourself depends on the skiing ability and personality of your children. Dozens of ski schools offer daily and multi-week lessons. Mid-week or Friday evening lessons tend to cost less than weekend lessons. All of the local resorts also offer starter package deals for new skiers. With names like Learn to Ski 1-2-3 and EZ 2 Learn, they include lessons, rentals and lift tickets. Visit resort Web sites for details.
Some families say private lessons are a better bargain. While more expensive initially, children will learn faster with more attention and time on the slopes.
Other parents teach their children to ski themselves, especially during the preschool years when they might not yet be comfortable in a group lesson. One dad taught his 4-year-old son how to ski using a $40 ski trainer harness and leash, and $10 tip clips. The harness gave him the peace of mind to control his son's speed. The tip clips kept the child's skis in a wedge position – a stance that can be difficult for little legs to hold.
11. Bring your lunch and a thermos. Resort food can be costly.
12. Bring a lock to secure your skis and boards instead of paying to use the ski check.
13. Plan ahead for next year. Some of the best ski deals are available long before the first snowflake falls. Buying a season pass in early fall can yield significant savings.
Julie Deutscher is a Web editor for Seattle's Child and a mother of two who has been skiing with her children since they were preschoolers. Thanks to local skiing parents Tom Baumgartner, Don Meyer, Paige Ryan and Roger Coote for sharing their money-saving tips.