Ski vacations that tread lightly on the family budget

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The economy may be recovering; inflation may be down. But skiing is still expensive, no question. However, there are ways to make a ski vacation affordable for many who otherwise would be excluded.

Fortunately, a number of aggressively competitive resorts are beginning to package more affordable skiing. Here are some examples.

Many skiing families could vacation at Steamboat in Colorado this season for only the cost of what mom and dad would pay, plus food for the kids. This is how it would work: TWA has a kids-fly-free fare for any youth (2-18 years old) flying with an adult who buys a TWA air-ground package. Like several ski resorts , Steamboat does not charge for children staying in the same lodge room with their parents. Unlike many resorts, Steamboat also lets children 12 years and under ski free if their parents buy five- or six-day lift tickets. By my tally, that means the cost of the kids' vacation should be about a week's worth of pizza. (Children of parents renting equipment also get free rentals.)

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A growing number of resorts, in collaboration with specific airlines on certain routes, are ''buying down'' (discounting) air fares. Skiers must also buy the resort's land package, which sometimes can be for as few as four days. Keystone in Colorado is a leader in this development, with four-day, five-night land packages (lifts, lodging, ground transportation to and from Denver) starting at $288 a person. Round-trip air fares on Frontier Airlines are as low as $178 from Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, and Los Angeles - and on other carriers as low as $188 from Washington; $256 from Newark, N.J.; and $279 from Hartford, Conn. Some 80 cities are included. Copper Mountain resort in Colorado has arranged special rates for 75 cities on United Airlines.

Many resorts offer significantly discounted packages before Christmas, in late spring, and sometimes in January. Two resorts are even offering free air transportation. Sugarloaf, Maine, will pay back the $70 Newark-Portland, fare (on People Express Airlines) for those staying in one of the resort's condominiums for five days during January. Reduced-rental car or ground-transportation rates from Portland are also available, and Sugarloaf will discount the five-day $85 lift ticket by $10.

Skiers staying at the Purgatory ski resort or in Durango-area lodging can fly from Denver to Durango (in southwestern Colorado) on Frontier Airlines for free. Many lodges also provide free ground transportation.

There are some good deals out there. You just have to hunt them out.

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