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Cheap Lift Tickets Are In The Cards

Lift ticket prices go only one way, and that's up. This year, Aspen is again leading the pricing pack, with the cost of an adult daily lift ticket rocketing to just a buck shy of $60. Sunday River is asking $47 on weekends, Stratton charges $50 and Vail wants $54 for the privilege of skiing China Bowl. With other resorts close behind, it's no wonder that skiers everywhere are wondering if they can still afford to ski as much as they used to.

Yet buying a lift ticket at full price is not unlike paying full-fare for an airline ticket. Sure, people do it, but with a little forethought, they could have paid a lot less. The same principal applies to lift tickets. With minimal research, you can lower the cost of skiing at even the most expensive resorts in the country.

If tour operators or central reservations offices plan your vacations for you, you probably don't know exactly what you're paying for lift tickets because costs are bundled together with airfare and lodging. Heading west? If you buy a package that includes a four-day lift ticket, you can assume you're paying roughly 25 percent less to ski than you would if you walked up to a ticket window and bought the equivalent.

But if you prefer to custom plan your vacations, or you make day trips, it's worth investigating ski discount cards. While you'll have to pay an up-front fee for most of them, many come with one day of free skiing and they all end up paying for themselves after a few days. At Stratton, for example, the Express Card provides savings of 25 to 50 percent off the $50 weekend price and the $47 weekday price. At $59 before October 31 and $79 thereafter, the card pays for itself after three uses or so.

If you ski Killington, Sunday River, Attitash, Bear Peak, Sugarloaf, Sugarbush or Mount Snow, the Magnificent Seven card is your ticket to price breaks. The adult cards, good on all weekends and holidays, cost $299.65. That cost covers seven days of skiing at $39.95 per day. For $20 extra, skip the ticket window and go directly to the liftline, where your pass is scanned and your credit card is instantly charged. You can buy as many extra days as you want at $39.95 each. The pass is also valid, though not for direct-to-lift, at the American Skiing Company's newest resorts-The Canyons in Utah, Heavenly in California and Steamboat in Colorado. Because it's valid for one year from the date of purchase, the card is worthwhile for both frequent and occasional visitors.

Other resorts are breaking down the traditional rules and offering new flexibility. At Park City, where a one-day lift ticket costs $52 this year, skiers can take advantage of the Flex Pass, which isn't restricted to consecutive-day use. Buy a four-day pass, for example, and use it any four days throughout the season. Like all such passes, the more days you invest in, the bigger the savings. A three-day pass is $147, or $49 a day; a six-day pass is $258, or $43 daily.

The Colorado Card, which formerly served just Vail and Beaver Creek, has combined with Keystone and Breckenridge's Ski 3 Card to create a brand new Colorado Card. It will offer tiered pricing to the four ski areas, with different pricing for Eagle and Summit counties. The savings will be up to 45 percent off published prices, and the Card will include direct-to-lift access. (See chart for details.)

Another incentive to use the Colorado Card is the Peaks Program-an activity-based rewards system. Similar to airline frequent-flyer programs, the more you do, the greater the payback. Visitors receive points for skiing and for staying at affiliated lodges. Points can be redeemed for lift tickets, lessons, lodging and food, and skiers can keep track of their accounts on-line (www.snow.com).

Skiers who want to muffle the fiscal blow of lift ticket prices nationwide should take a look at Ski Card International, U.S. Ski Team Passport and World Ski Card. These cards also offer lift ticket discounts, although primarily for middweek days. They often have two-for-one offers, particularly for early- and late-season skiing. The price for these cards tends to be modest, but their benefits tend to be modest, as well. Expect a 10 to 20 percent discount on lift and lodging deals; only occasionally will you see steeper savings of up to 50 percent. Before buying one of these cards, determine if it will fit into your skiing plans. Does it offer discounts at mountains that you want to visit this winter, during the periods you want to ski?

Your best bet is to go with mountain-specific cards. And now that most resorts offer some sort of discount card, there is no reason to ever pay full price for day skiing again. There are still a few areas, such as Alta, that don't offer such card programs. But then at $28 a day for a lift ticket, Alta offers a price most of us can live with.

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