Learning to ski at Stratton Mountain in Vermont

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services

“Nice turns,” my handsome ski instructor says, as I ski up to him, taking in his reassuring smile and the million-dollar view of the mountains of Utah from the Park City Mountain Resort.


It’s early December and my first day out on the slopes this season. For the first time, I’m starting a ski season by taking a lesson instead of trailing behind my kids — expert skiers all — each beseeching me to, “Ski faster, mom!” (That’s my payoff for all those years of schlepping them to ski school).


No wonder I’m smiling. If you thought heading to the slopes this winter would be a budget buster or no fun for mom, think again. Large and small resorts across ski country are pulling out all the stops for families, featuring increased programming off the slopes as well as on, free or discounted lift tickets and even free flights. Look for family snow festivals around the country like Kidtopia at Keystone Resort (www.keystoneresort.com) with its awesome mountain top snow fort, the children’s festival at Sunday River, Me., (www.sundayriver.com) or Mount Snow, Vt., (www.mountsnow.com).


There’s also the chance to soak in hot springs (Steamboat, Colo., www.steamboat.com) and for the kids to ride mini-snowmobiles (www.stratton.com), try out a pint-sized climbing wall (in Snowmass’ Treehouse Children’s Center, www.aspensnowmass.com), learn to snowshoe (Appalachian Mountain Club, www.outdoors.org), explore a mountaintop nature discovery center (www.vail.com) or an ancient pueblo (www.taoskivalley.com). You can even have breakfast with a mountain mascot (Northstar, www.northstarattahoe.com). Tubing hills and ice-skating are de rigueur it seems at ski resorts these days. Ditto for spas that are just the ticket for parents’ aching muscles. The spa at the just-opened Montage in Deer Valley is a standout (www.montagedeervalley.com).


January is National Learn a Snow Sport Month and more than 200 resorts are offering free or discounted ski, snowboard, and cross-country ski and snowshoe lessons for beginners. Find packages and deals at www.skiandsnowboardmonth.org. You can also follow on Twitter and Facebook.


Receive a free ski or snowboard lesson, free equipment and free beginner terrain lift tickets at Vermont (www.skivermont.com) and New Hampshire (www.skinh.com) resorts Jan 3 through Jan. 9, 2011.


I love that in California, Northstar offers kids’ single-day lift tickets that are valid for two out of three consecutive days and, if you enroll the kids at any two-day Ski and Snowboard School lesson — except during the holidays — you save 50 percent on the second day.


I also love that Park City Mountain Resort (www.pcski.com) promises there won’t be more than five children in your kid’s ski or snowboard class (three kids per instructor for the preschoolers) and in adult classes, as well. At other resorts, you pay a premium for small classes. (Check out Park City Mountain Resort’s new site, www.snowmamas.com, designed so real snow-loving moms can give you tips on making the most of your trip to mountain climes. Full disclosure: I’m helping to oversee the site, which is the first of its kind in the industry.)


Kudos also to Okemo (www.okemo.com) where first-time skiers and snowboarders can take part in the free program that includes a lower-mountain lift ticket, beginner group lesson and rental gear — available for ages seven and up every Monday through Friday.


If any in your family face special challenges, there are many affordable adaptive programs around the country, including the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., (www.nscd.org), the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (www.boec.org), also in Colorado, the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah (www.discovernac.org) and Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports (www.vermontadaptive.org).


Ski.com’s Dan Sherman suggests that there are more lift ticket specials in general than in past seasons, especially tied to lodging — close to 1,000 listed on their site — but the key is to choose wisely to maximize your ski buck. For example, at The Canyons in Park City (www.thecanyons.com), certain packages include free lift tickets, in Aspen book the right package and kids ski free in March and April. And they ski free all season at Steamboat (www.steamboat.com).


Cheapflights.com has created a list of the Top 10 Ski Destinations in the U.S., Canada and Europe, along with a helpful guide on “How to Pack for a Ski Vacation,” which also features a table outlining the costs of carrying skis on flights on various airlines. (I typically ship ours via UPS or FedEx ground — easier as well as cheaper.)


If everyone in your gang is a beginner, consider smaller mountains near where you live — Hunter Mountain in New York (http://www.huntermtn.com), for example; Crystal Mountain in Michigan (www.crystalmountain.com); Brian Head Resort in Utah (www.brianhead.com); Bolton Valley in Vermont (www.boltonvalley.com) and Mount Rose on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe (www.skirose.com). At Ski Sawmill in North Central Pennsylvania (http://www.skisawmill.com/) Friday nights are “family nights with adult lifts for just $17; kids tickets for $15 and rentals for $15. Stay at the new Mountain Inn and get free lifts!


Several states also offer “passports” all season for kids of certain ages, allowing them to ski free — once you have filled out the paperwork and paid a small processing fee. Check out the list at http://www.kidznsnow.com/7954. The passports are available for fourth-graders in New York (www.44free.com), fifth-graders in Colorado (www.coloradoski.com) and Vermont (www.skivermont.com/events-and-deals), fourth- and fifth-graders in New Hampshire (www.skinh.com), fifth- and sixth-graders in Utah (www.skiutah.com), and fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders in Maine (www.winterkids.org/passport).


Just be forewarned: the kids will beat you down the mountain before you know it.


Ready for that lesson now?