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Planning A Family Winter Ski Weekend
By Nancy Schretter

Thinking about travel to the slopes for a weekend family ski and/or snowboarding vacation this season? A little research and advance planning can make big difference in the success of your family trip. This is even more important if you're considering travel over a major holiday weekend in January or February, or during popular school holiday vacation weeks.

Some families have already found the perfect ski area for their family, and continue to be happy with their choice each year. We have found that as our children got older and became better skiers, however, our needs and requirements changed. It became more important for us to carefully evaluate our options before selecting a weekend destination. Barbara Thomke of family-friendly Smuggler's Notch Resort suggests that parents think about what their families are looking for, as well as the abilities of their group and geographic constraints, before selecting a resort for a winter weekend getaway.

If your family is considering a trip to the slopes this winter, research possible destinations and consider the following factors in making your choice:

* Difficulty of the ski slopes. Each resort has a mix of easy, intermediate and expert slopes. Try to match the skill levels of your family members to the resorts' mix of slopes. If most of your family are beginners, for example, try to choose a resort with a greater percentage of beginner to moderate slopes. Tables and profiles on the ski area's website will give you the information you need to make an informed decision.

* Types of accommodations available and cost. Lodging at the slopes can range from inexpensive hotel rooms to multi-bedroom condos and houses with kitchens. Often larger resort areas will have a variety of choices in each accommodation class. Prices will vary dramatically based on the type of accommodation and its distance from the slopes.

* Travel time from your home, and travel budget. Most families tend to drive to the slopes for a long skiing weekend. If this is your plan, determine how long a drive you (and the kids) can tolerate. If your travel budget is more elastic and you live in or near a big city, you may want to consider flying to one of the major resorts within an hour's distance of a major airport.

* Facilities for snowboarders. While many ski resorts also cater to snowboarders, there are still some areas that do not allow snowboarding. If you have boarders in your family, it will be important to research the types of terrain and facilities available at each potential destination. Your weekend vacation will be much more enjoyable if you choose a ski area that will be equally fun for all members of your family.

* Availability of winter activities other than skiing and snowboarding. Many resorts have added a wide variety of diversions to tempt their guests, including tubing, snowmobiling, tobogganing, dog sledding, bobsledding, sleigh rides, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and other activities. Make sure to check on the availability and prices of these activities, and reserve times in advance if possible during popular holiday weekends.

* Variety of amenities and off-slopes activities. Even though a ski weekend is short, you and your kids may not wish to spend each waking minute on the slopes. This can also be a big factor in the success of your trip if the weather does not cooperate, and rain or warm weather affects slope conditions. If other activities and amenities are important to you, check out the availability of health clubs, indoor swimming pools, children's programs, teen centers, video/game rooms, nightlife, restaurants, and more. If your kids are older, talk with them to determine the types of activities they'd like to do. For vacations during holiday weekends or at popular destination resorts, make your dining reservations in advance. Popular family dining times tend to be booked early by parents with young children.

* Quality of the ski school and types of programs offered. If you'd like your kids to learn to ski or brush up on their skills, make sure to learn more about the resort's ski school and instructors. Ask questions about such things as: age groups served; how children are grouped; the types of ski/snowboarding programs offered; ratio of children to instructors in each group; and the amount of experience instructors have had with children.

* Types of children's programs and babysitting available. Many families have children who are too young to ski or don't want to ski for the entire day. In response to this need, many resorts offer a variety of childcare programs for children from infants through twelve-year olds. At some resorts, in-room babysitting is also an option. Ask about the credentials of the resort's programs and childcare providers; how the children are grouped by age; ratio of children to caregivers; and types of activities offered. If you'd like to go out in the evening, find out whether "Kids Night Out" programs or babysitters are available.

* Equipment rental costs. If you're planning to hit the slopes and don't have your own equipment, rental costs can eat up a large portion of your vacation budget. Compare rental prices at local ski stores with those at or close to the resort, and weigh any potential savings against the "hassle factor" of lugging all the equipment on your trip. Some families like to rent at the resort in case something turns out to be uncomfortable, but resort ski rental shops can be very busy during weekends and holiday periods.

If you are considering a winter ski vacation over a school holiday weekend, Barbara Thomke of Smuggler's Notch suggests planning early. "Families considering a vacation over Presidents' Weekend should book their trip by Thanksgiving", says Thomke. If you are one of the many families planning a last-minute holiday ski trip, take a look at www.vrbo.com, www.cyberrentals.com, www.10kvacationrentals.com, or www.greatrentals.com for listings of vacation homes for rent by owner. These sometimes are available close to the holidays or have last minute cancellations. Also consider calling the resorts for last minute availability.

Some of Barbara Thomke's other recommendations for making family winter ski weekend trips go more smoothly include:

* Try to reserve as many programs in advance as possible. With one phone call, resorts like Smugglers' Notch allow parents to reserve lesson times, children's programs, rentals, and other services.

* If you will be arriving on Friday evening, pick up your equipment rentals at that time. On Friday evenings, the rental office at Smugglers' Notch is open until 8 p.m. to allow guests to pick up equipment.

* Bring a cooler with your own breakfast food for Saturday morning. Planning ahead will allow you to hit the slopes early.

* To get to your destination as quickly as possible, request travel directions from the resort.

* Bring the resort materials in the car or on the plane so that you can review them prior to arriving. Becoming familiar with the property and the ski map in advance will save you time, and allow you to plan your weekend before arriving.

* If your trip coincides with a school vacation or busy holiday weekend, make your dining reservations in advance.

* Encourage your children and teens to take a lesson at the start of your vacation. At Smugglers' Notch and other resorts, free lessons are included in your package price. Participating in a lesson will allow teens and others to make friends on the slopes, thus avoiding the "I don't know anyone here" complaint.

Some resorts give special preferences to guests who rent accommodations through the resort and have different policies for those who rent directly from homeowners. This VIP treatment can make a major difference over crowded holiday weekends, so it's important to find out more about these policies.

For instance, at the Wintergreen Resort in Virginia, guests renting through the resort can pick up their equipment rentals and keep them all weekend. Those who have not purchased their accommodations through the resort have to return their equipment rentals each evening. Since Wintergreen's selection of skis and boards is somewhat limited, resort guests have the edge in both getting the best equipment and eliminating waiting in long lines over the weekend. "We use equipment rentals as one of the ways of controlling the numbers of people on the slopes," said Wintergreen's Dave Zunker. "Preferential treatment for equipment rentals is also a special amenity we can offer our Wintergreen resort guests."

Many ski resorts have these types of policies, which can include anything from access to resort transportation to preferential treatment in dining, equipment and entertainment reservations. Renting directly from homeowners is a particularly popular option over weekends and holidays, as resorts accommodations can be much more expensive or in short supply. Make sure you understand any resort restrictions, however, and plan accordingly.

If your family includes a teen, consider allowing them to bring along a friend for the long weekend or holiday. We did this on our last weekend ski trip, and it certainly made the vacation more enjoyable. Teens enjoy skiing or boarding with other teens, as well as having the opportunity to hang out with someone their own age in the evenings. On a short ski trip, it can often be difficult for teens to meet others their own age. Having a "built-in friend" with them can solve many of these problems and make the trip more fun for everyone.

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