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Get a lift ; Hitting the slopes doesn't have to be a budget buster

When you add up the costs of clothing, equipment and lift tickets, the prospect of hitting the slopes on skis or a snowboard -- can be financially daunting.

But it doesn't have to be.

Odds are that most Western New Yorkers already own snow pants and jackets. If not, basic versions are sold at discount retailers for a fraction of what specialty shops charge (about $25, compared with $100, more or less, for basic pants).

Newcomers to skiing or snowboarding would be wise to rent equipment -- from the ski areas themselves or the shops nearby. The cost is usually under $30 and it gives you a chance to try different types of skis before buying.

When you are ready to buy gear, you can spend hundreds of dollars -- or more -- on the latest products, or save hundreds by shopping at annual fall swap meets. They are a great place to find equipment that's been outgrown, is considered outdated or has been discontinued by manufacturers.

And there are lift-ticket options to fit everyone.

Four hours. Eight hours.

All day. Nights.

Weekends. Holidays.

Beginners. Juniors.

Adults. Seniors.

Military.

"Our pricing changed to 'a la carte' as a way to please the customer," explained Carrie Longstreet, creative director at Peek'n Peak Resort and Spa in Findley Lake.

"When tickets used to be issued in sessions and a guest arrived near the end of a session time, then they got less time on the slopes," Longstreet said. "With the specialized pricing, when a guest arrives and purchases a four-hour lift ticket, the time starts from the time of purchase and their time isn't limited to a specific session."

Flexible ticketing has been offered at Holiday Valley since computerized tickets were introduced there in the 1990s, according to Jane Eshbaugh, director of marketing at the Ellicottville resort.

"This marvel of modern technology allowed us to automatically place the expiration time on each ticket sold. The benefits were even better than we expected," Eshbaugh said. Among them: no more bottlenecks at ticket windows or on the roads leading to the resort, because the starting time is when you get there.

Season passes and multiticket packages make more sense for someone who intends to get out on the slopes often.

But the thing is, the best deals are offered in the waning days of summer, and prices only go up as ski season approaches.

At Kissing Bridge in Glenwood, for example, an adult season pass for the current season could be had for $395 before Sept. 15. It jumped to $525 after that, then to $580 after Nov. 15.

Similarly, a "10 Pack" of lift tickets started at $260, increased to $355 and now stands at $405.

"It really does pay to sign up early," said Mark Halter, KB's president. "What we're looking for is commitment."

Mother Nature influences that level of commitment.

Last winter was cold and snowy, Halter noted. "Our renewals following a winter like that are always up," he said.

For some ski areas, particularly "destination" resorts where visits span several days or weeks, discounts that allow skiers or snowboarders to lock into date-specific, nonrefundable tickets can be found on the Internet.

So far, Holiday Valley is the sole local partner in Liftopia.com, a site that offers discounted lift tickets for ski resorts across North America.

Ron Schneidermann, co-founder of the San Francisco-based company, said he used to work at Hotwire.com, a travel website that works with industry suppliers -- hotels, airlines and car rental agencies -- to sell unsold inventory at a discount.

"It just struck us how much opportunity there is to apply that model for skiing," Schneidermann said. "What we wanted to do was create a similar platform," where ski areas could adjust their prices based on fluctuation of demand.

"The resort can control, on a per-day basis, what the price point is and how many are available," he said. For consumers, it can mean a savings of up to 90 percent on the cost of a lift ticket.

Thinking of giving skiing or snowboarding a try?

National "Learn to Ski & Snowboard Month" began Jan. 3. With some date restrictions, Kissing Bridge, Holiday Valley and Peek'n Peak are offering 20 percent discounts on packages that include a lift ticket, equipment rental and group lesson.

Reservations are required. Visit www.learntoskiandsnowboard.net for a complete list of participating resorts and restrictions.

Though HoliMont, in Ellicottville, is a private ski area, its slopes are open to nonmembers on weekdays.

"The benefit of coming here during the week is lift lines are significantly diminished," said Dash Hegeman, marketing director.

Unlike other local ski areas, HoliMont doesn't offer flexible tickets. "The reason we don't is because we're only open during the day," Hegeman said.

But HoliMont does sell weekday ski passes that include 10 tickets with the option of 10 lessons. Depending on when you buy, the savings is 50 percent or more on the $47 regular price for an adult, full-day ticket.

Memberships in ski clubs offer financial, as well as social, benefits. Organized by many local high schools and colleges -- and often restricted to students -- membership includes discounted rentals, lift tickets and lessons, as well as transportation to specific ski areas for a set number of weeks.

There's also a special deal out there for the elementary school set -- fourth-graders, in particular.

Ski Areas of New York, a trade organization, has the 4th Grade Ski & Ride Passport program, which offers free skiing for fourth-graders, with a paying adult, or a learn to ski or snowboard package.

Applications will be accepted through March 1. Visit www.skiandrideny.com for details.

Tubing parks, available at two local resorts, arguably are the most economical -- and low maintenance -- way to enjoy flying down the snow-covered hills. And they supply the tubes.

Kissing Bridge's Colden Tubing Co., located adjacent to the north slopes, offers a two-hour tow ticket for $15. Call 592-4963 or login to www.kbski.com for information on park hours.

A two-hour pass costs $16 at Holiday Valley Tubing Park, which is a free shuttle ride away from the ski slopes. Visit www.holidayvalley.com, then click on activities to find more information about tubing.

Both areas require that tubers be at least 7 years old and 42 inches tall.

e-mail: jhabuda@buffnews.com

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