Family skiing isn't cheap, and booking pre-Christmas ski trips can often be a dodgy proposition due to iffy snow conditions.
But not this year.
It's shaping up to be a terrific early season in much of the West, and now through the third week of December, you can score some of the best family deals of the winter. Even if you can't sneak away in the next three weeks, at most resorts, kids six and younger ski free all season, and if you're willing to do some snooping, there are plenty of ski-and-stay-free packages to be had at ski.com and resorts' websites. Because the next best thing to powder days are free days, especially when the gang's all there.
Crested Butte, Colorado
Looking for something to do today? Throw the skis and the kids in the car and consider road tripping to CB for opening day, November 27. In keeping with the resort's tradition, everyone skis and rides for free on the first day of the season. Come in costume—this year's theme is "Blizzard of Oz."
Arapahoe Basin, Colorado
This Summit County ski area is known for pushing the season, with some of the earliest opening days in the country and lifts often running as late as Memorial Day. This year, A Basin opened October 19—half a lifetime ago already—so although conditions are hardly early season, the deals still are. From December 1-20, kids 14 and younger ski free, with absolutely no strings attached, no lodging required or purchase of any kind necessary. Stay down the road at Keystone or Breckenridge. It's an easy drive, or hop on the free Summit County shuttle for service to the ski area.
Taos, New Mexico
Thanks to a major weekend storm that dumped 26 inches on Taos in the past five days, the resort will open on Thanksgiving Day with a 37-inch base. To lure skiers and riders, Taos is opening with a flurry of stay-free ski-free bargains through December. Kids' lift tickets are $40 through December 20, and the resort's Ski Free Stay Free program is giving away free nights and lift tickets when you book three nights' of lodging all season.
This family-friendly resort in Summit County knows how to roll out the welcome mat for little rippers. At Keystone's River Run Condos, kids ski free and receive 50 percent off on lodging from November 28 through December 25. The five-night package starts at $344 per night in a two-bedroom unit, and includes two four-day lift tickets for adults. Book through ski.com.
With a 34-inch base at the summit, Steamboat is gearing up for opening day on November 27. Book any of the Early Rewards Packages for stays between now and April 13, and you'll save 20 percent or more on four nights of lodging, as well as lift tickets and lessons and—brace yourself—free night skiing! American Airlines and others are discounting their fares to Steamboat now through November 30 (roundtrips from New York starts at $409 and Chicago, $331). You'll also get $50 in resort credit for each ticket. All season, kids 12 and under ski for free the same number of days as their parents or grandparents with the purchase of a five-day adult lift ticket.
Big Sky Resort, Montana
Kids ten and younger stay and ski free when adults reserve three nights of lodging through Big Sky Central Reservations, as part of the resort's Ski and Stay promotion. Families get their choice of five lodges (including the swanky slopeside Summit at Big Sky and the Beaverhead condos, with full kitchens, located next to the beginner run) starting at $114 per person per day, including two days of lift tickets for the adults.
Deer Valley, Utah
Take the clan to the Lodges at Deer Valley for three nights between December 7 and15, and your kiddos will ski free. As part of the Family Value Package, you'll save 20 percent on lodging and ski rentals. Sweet perk: free breakfast buffet everyday.
Chairs started spinning this week at the largest ski area east of the Rockies. Book a minimum of two nights' ski-and stay package by December 16, and children 12 and younger ski free.
In Colorado, resident fifth and sixth graders ski free all season, thanks to a couple of sweet deals. As part of Vail Resorts' "School of Shred", fifth and sixth graders get four freebie lift tickets at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin, plus a one free lesson and gear rental good from December 2-15 and January 5-31 (a copy of your child's Colorado report card is required).
The Colorado Passport offers three days of free skiing at 20 resorts around the state, including Aspen, Copper, and Winter Park; sixth graders can get in on the action with four free days at 20 resorts, for $99.
With Utah's Fifth Grade Passports, 11-year-olds get three days of skiing and riding at all 14 of the state's resorts for $30; sixth graders get one-day free at each resort for the same price. New York and New Hampshire have similar programs.