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Escape Hatch

A ski vacation isn't what it used to be. Most of us lead lives focused on high-pressure work weeks, leaving us precious little time to balance family and friends, let alone the ultimate luxury- a ski vacation. Often the best we can do is stretch out a precious weekend and hope it performs the same miracle of relaxation that vacations did when we were kids. For a 2001 weekend getaway, two nights are adequate, three nights are good, but four nights can feel downright luxurious.

By definition, "weekend trip" implies a quick getaway that doesn't require a lot of planning. Packages are an easy way to keep it simple-and inexpensive. Package prices to ski resorts haven't changed much in the past couple of years. The average tab for a four-night, air-inclusive weekend deal to some of North America's best resorts is about $880 per person, based on double occupancy. That's not bad, considering it includes lodging, lift tickets and a ground transfer or rental car. If you're close enough to the mountains that you don't have to fly, driving vacations can run half that.

To get you started, we've pulled together a detailed 24-trip chart. All of the weekend package deals listed work as last-minute getaways, thanks to contract airfares impervious to price fluctuations and booking restrictions. And e-tickets mean you don't have to worry about getting paperwork in time for takeoff.

To maximize your long ski weekend, aim to travel in January. It's traditionally the quietest mid-season month at any ski resort. It's easier on the wallet, too, because prices are trimmed back to meet slower demand after the Christmas and New Year's blowouts. You have a four- or five-week window to take advantage of lower rates and less crowded skies and slopes. To increase your chances of getting a great deal, take an affordable Thursday evening flight. If you're an East Coaster, you can get in a full day of work, depart at 6 p.m. and still get into Denver by 8 p.m. You can ski Friday, Saturday and Sunday, squeeze in a few runs on Monday morning and get home that night.

If you don't mind doing the planning yourself, you may even be able to pull together a weekend that undercuts a package deal. The easiest way is to shop around on the Web. Check out airfares on expedia.com or travelocity.com. The cheapest flights are usually to the larger airports that serve multiple resorts, such as Denver or Salt Lake City. More remote airports that require connections can be more expensive, but not always. And if you have a stash of frequent-flier miles, January can be an opportune time to use them, since it's virtually free of blackout dates.

For lodging, smaller properties such as motels and B&Bs near resorts offer the best deals. Many chamber-of-commerce sites feature discounted lodging information to help smaller properties fill last-minute vacancies.

As for resort hotels and condos, call a resort's central reservations office or log onto its website. Like those chamber sites, many resorts now offer liquidation deals that can range from merely good discounts to true fire-sale prices on room inventory that just hasn't moved.

Finally, if you are an Eastern skier within driving distance of the mountains, there are plenty of quaint inns in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire that routinely put out their vacancy signs in January.

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