Winter storm Astro aside, most of the country has yet to see more than snow flurries in the forecast (if that). It still pays to start thinking ahead to ski season, however.
Only a handful of U.S. resorts are already open—including Killington in Vermont and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado—with the rest scheduled to start their season in the coming weeks. But operators, travel sites and ticket brokers have already been rolling out promotions to entice skiers to buy passes and visit.
"The push has been early," said Gabe Saglie, senior editor for deal site Travelzoo. "It's January, February when people really consider a ski getaway, but by far the best values are happening while we speak." Compared to peak-season pricing, consumers can save roughly 50 percent by booking and traveling before the third week of December, he said.
In October, Liftopia.com introduced a new tiered pricing system that benefits early bookers. Value-ticket buyers can get the same discounts—up to 85 percent off—previously available for buying advance, nonrefundable lift tickets or opt for one of two new pricier tiers offering some flexibility to change dates. (If the date you change to is pricier, you'll owe the price difference.)
Skiers, like airline passengers and amusement park goers, are increasingly finding that there's an advantage in planning ahead. "Regardless of where you're going skiing, it's very straightforward: If you buy it now, you're going to pay less than if you buy it later," said Evan Reece, co-founder and chief executive of Liftopia. "It's the way the industry is starting to reward customers more."
Early-purchase advantages can be generous. During the 2012-13 ski season, the average walk-up ticket price nationwide was $82.61 for an adult visiting on the weekend, according to a National Ski Areas Association report. But most visitors paid far less. Average ticket revenue per skier was a little more than half that at $42.10. And even that might be on the high side. "You can get skiing experiences for $7, if you buy in advance and go somewhere that's maybe not as well known," said Reece.
Liftopia currently has one-day ticket offers that include $10 for Caberfae Peaks in Michigan (72 percent off), $9 for Cranmore Mountain in New Hampshire (86 percent off) and $13 for Mt. Baldyin in California.
Pre-season planning can also yield deals on annual passes, although many resorts have already hiked rates from early-access discounts dangled in the summer and early fall, and plan to stop selling passes. "We're right up against the season-pass deadline," said Pecorano. Buy after Nov. 30, for example, and the price of an adult pass for Bretton Woods in New Hampshire is $100 more, at $999.
Even at regular price, an annual or multi-day pass can pay off quickly for avid skiers—or even those planning a weeklong vacation. Vail Resorts estimates its $589 "Epic Local Pass," with unlimited, unrestricted visits to five resorts in Utah and Colorado and more limited access at seven others, pays for itself on the fifth day of skiing.
Bundles of lift tickets and extras like equipment rentals or meals add value, too, said Reece. Like lift tickets, prices are typically better the further in advance you book, and combo prices cheaper than what you'd pay a la carte. (Those offers are particularly valuable for visitors flying in, who might otherwise face extra bag charges from their airline, said Saglie.)
Vacationers should also consider which location offers the best value. "The closer you are to that lift, the pricier your accommodations are bound to be," said Saglie. Opting to stay in town rather than at a mountainside resort can yield lower prices, especially at vacation rentals that include a kitchen or are large enough to share with family. That strategy can also make it easier to try several resorts in the area, he said. Plus, there's often a free or low-cost shuttle up the mountain.