How to save on ski trips

This Friday is the winter solstice, marking the official start of the season. In many places, skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing are already underway. According to SnowSports Industries America (SIA), consumers spent $3.4 billion on apparel, equipment, and accessories during the 2011-2012 snow sports season. Kid-specific gear alone brought in $312 million in retail sales.

Winter sports can be a costly pursuit, so U.S. News turned to the experts for tips on enjoying these activities on a budget:

Travel. If you don't live in an area with nearby mountains, transportation costs can add up quickly. One way to defray those costs is by carpooling. In Colorado, for instance, SkiCarpool.org helps skiers find shared rides to resorts throughout the state. The website also organizes shared rides in other states as well as a few foreign countries.

If you're planning to fly, keep in mind that you'll typically need to pay extra to check your gear--unless you have elite status with the airline or choose an airline that offers free checked bags. "On most airlines, your skis will count as one piece of luggage towards your baggage allowance, so pack accordingly if you're flying with your gear," says Coupons.com consumer savings expert Jeanette Pavini. "Depending on the length of your trip and your airline's baggage policy, it could be cheaper just to rent it."

Finding budget-friendly meals and accommodations is also key. "The cheapest alternatives we usually find are to stay in a condo, off-mountain, with full kitchen facilities," says Kathy Bechtel, a ski instructor in Sugarloaf, Maine, who also leads ski tours in Italy. "Eat a big breakfast, bring your lunch, and eat late. You'll find more room in the base lodge if you can wait until 1 p.m. or so to eat, and you'll have the slopes to yourselves during the busy lunch hour. Carry [snacks] in your inside jacket pocket to tide you over ... inside, so it doesn't freeze."

Lift tickets. The price for lift tickets can vary depending on where and when you go. "If you have flexibility, save with a midweek season pass or lift ticket," suggests Pavini. The slopes will often be less crowded because most people work during the week and ski or snowboard on the weekends. Another way to save is to ski during weekends when others are distracted. "Hold off until Super Bowl Sunday, a popular day for lift-ticket discounts, because resorts know most people are glued to their big screens," Pavini says. Warehouse clubs and websites such as Liftopia.com are also good places to find discounted lift tickets.

Also consider hitting less-popular mountains. "Not only does that burger cost $15 bucks at a mega-resort, you're also looking at spending almost $100 for a day of skiing," says Jeff Howard, a public-relations account coordinator who, in his younger years, was a self-proclaimed "ski bum" in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "There are great smaller mountains all over the country that provide the same amount of service but at a fraction of the price--and half the wait in a lift line." He recommends Arapahoe Basin in Colorado or Bear Valley in California.

Equipment. Your height, weight, and skill level all figure into how you interact with sports equipment, so Ryan Alford, editor-in-chief of Snowshoe Magazine, suggests renting equipment before buying. "It allows you to not only try out the sport but test different types of equipment and different brands," he says.

Consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch recommends looking for equipment rentals near your home instead of renting at a resort. "Any time you rent skis on the mountain, it's going to be more expensive," she explains.

Once you're committed to a sport and a brand, consider buying last year's skis or snowshoes, since the technology doesn't change dramatically from year to year. Thanks to last winter's less-than-ideal snow conditions, a lot of retailers have a surplus of last year's models, which are likely to be marked down, according to Alford. Some flash-sale sites like The Clymb specialize in sports apparel and equipment, he adds.

Buying gently used apparel and equipment is another way to save. Bechtel says ski academies typically upgrade their equipment each year, so "you can get a great deal on a lightly used pair of last year's skis." Alford says sports resale stores, eBay, and Craigslist are also good resources for reasonable prices on used equipment--but inspect it carefully before hitting the slopes.

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