For skiers who want to make more than just an occasional trip to the slopes this season -- and who doesn't -- the cost in this inflation-racked era ranks right up there with the monthly mortgage payment.
Consider the couple planning a weekend trip to a nearby resort:
A room at the lodge on Saturday night: $75.
Two days' lift tickets at $18 each per day: $72.
A tank of gas: $18.
Meals: Roughly $80.
If they have to rent skis, boots and poles: $10 each per day.
If they want group lessons: $7 each per day.
The total: A $313 weekend -- a big bite out of almost anybody's budget. Bring along the kids, and the cost skyrockets.
Are all but the rich being priced out of skiing?
These prices may make it seem so. But avid skiers -- those who still make it to the slopes almost every week from December to mid-March -- have learned how to cut their costs.
"I tend to feel that ingenuity comes out in a time of duress," says Carolyn Marra, a Georgetown University nurse who is president of the 5,000-member Ski Club of Washington. "Where once you would not think twice about plopping down money for a three-day trip," she suggests, you now start thinking of alternatives "such as night skiing, which is becoming popular."
"If you shop around, you can do it if you want to," echos ski-tour leader Ellen Mack, who met her husband on a ski club trip and whose three-year-old son Danny is just learning the sport.
Here are tips for getting yourself dressed, equipped and down the slopes on the cheap: SKI MIDWEEK: For the Monday-through-Friday worker, that's easier said than done, but at most resorts the weekday costs plummet by $2 to $6 per lift ticket. And you get more skiing in for the money because you don't have the long weekend liftlines.
"Nobody I know skis on weekends with families," says Mack. She looks for such mid-week opportunities as "teachers' day off" to scoop up neighborhood mothers and children for a day on the snow. Another coming possibility -- Inauguration Day, Tuesday, January 20. SKI NIGHTS: You're not going to get the sun's warming rays on the ride up the mountain, but you can ski from 6 to 10 p.m. for $8 at nearby Ski Liberty. That's $6 cheaper than the daily rate. If you can get off work after lunch, ski afternoon and night at Massanutten's "twilight" rate of $12, a $6 saving from the weekend price. Most resorts offer similar off-hours lift-ticket savings. JOIN A SKI CLUB: Washington has several. The saving, says Marra -- whose organization has bought its own condo office to save on rent -- is in the group rates you get for transportation, lifts and lodging.
The Ski Club of Washington has scheduled about 40 bus trips and 10 flights this season. One popular package is the regular Friday-night trip to Ski Liberty for $19 per person. It includes bus from Columbia Island Marina, lift ticket, a 1 1/2-hour lesson for beginners and beer and wine en route. TRY ALTERNATIVE LODGING: If you have a large family, or you can form a group of six or eight skiers, consider renting a condominium instead of individual rooms. The cost may be less, divided among several people. An added saving is that you can cook some or all of your meals.
If money is tight, pick a ski area such as Blue Knob near Bedford, Pennsylvania, or Elk Mountain near Scranton, where there is a variety of motel and hotel accomodations in a range of prices within an easy drive. Lodging at the resort generally is much higher than a motel a few miles down the road. Find one that admits children free.
Dorms sleeping six or eight to a room at big savings can sometimes be found.Popular mostly with younger skiers, adults might give them a try, if -- as one woman who has done so puts it -- "your stomach can take it. It's a real experience." BROWN-BAG IT ON DAY TRIPS: You save $2 or $3 per person by bringing your own lunch -- and you avoid yet one more line. Advises Marra: "Take a bota bag of wine, bread and a block of cheese up the mountain in a backpack or fanny pack." DRESS DOWN: Skip the designer outfits: That's especially true if you're a beginner. Why pay $200 or more for pants and jacket you may never wear again? Instead, suggests Den Drumwright, president of the Blue Ridge Ski Council, you need only "take a look at your existing wardrobe."
Wear the wool sweaters already in your closet, he tells students at his annual series of dry-land ski schools. Buy "a pair of $8 longjohns" and spray your jeans with a $3 can of water repellent. Just remember to brush off the snow" before it melts when you take a tumble. Rather than glamor, "invest in gloves, goggles and a good warm hat." LOOK FOR BARGAINS: Many local ski organizations offer swaps on used equipment, usually at the beginning of the season. If the articles aren't so outdated or heavily worn as to be dangerous, this can be a good way for families to outfit children who grow out of skis and boots every year or two.
Ski shops offer alternatives to buying new equipment. Earl Allen in Georgetown leases new boots to children for $15 a year, after a one-time introductory fee of $15. A pair of high-quality boots may run $45 to $65, they say, "and rarely fit for more than a season." The cost for skis and bindings in the same program is $60 to $75 after another first-time fee of $15. b
At the Ski Haus in Rockville, if you buy a child's boot new this year, you can trade it in for half-price on a new pair next year.
Many shops also sell used equipment. Often, says Ski Haus owner Bill Montag, you're better off buying good used equipment than cheaper new equipment. He recently sold one women a complete outfit of quality-brand used equipment -- skis, boots, poles and bindings -- for $170, less than the price of some pairs of new boots. CONSIDER CROSS-COUNTRY: "A lot of people have switched to cross-country with their kids," says Mack. "There are no lift tickets and the equipment is cheaper."
As prices climb, the search for ways to cut costs goes on.
Next year, the Ski Club of Washington is planning its first "budget" trips, says Marra, which will include lower-priced night and midweek flights.
One club member, to save airfare, reportedly takes a group by van to the Rockies each year -- each rider sharing gas and driving chores in the nonstop trip.
A couple gave up one- and two-day trips for one full-week vacation. They figure they save money by taking advantage of the midweek package deals at many resorts. Many such packages are aimed particularly at beginning skiers.
And one family with two teen-agers saves "all our money and time to go skiing in the winter."
Says Marra: "The tougher things get moneywise, the more these economy methods are going to get plugged in."