I know all the classic big resorts, but are there worthy affordable alternatives?
If it's only skiing and snowboarding that you're after—not elaborate pedestrian villages with skating rinks, heated outdoor pools, and Nobu outposts—look beyond the marquee resorts like Aspen and Jackson Hole, Wyo., where the passes can top $90 a day. Under-the-radar mountains often have equally good runs at steep discounts (see our chart to the right). Bridger Bowl, 16 miles north of Bozeman, Mont., offers a pass for $45 (bridgerbowl.com). Vermont's Mad River Glen, which caters exclusively to skiers—no snowboarding allowed—has midweek tickets for $39 (madriverglen.com). At Utah's Powder Mountain, about an hour north of Salt Lake City, the $58 lift pass is a serious deal, considering the mountain's 7,000 acres of skiable terrain (powdermountain.com). Entry to Wolf Creek, which gets Colorado's top snowfall (an average of 465 inches per year!), is just $52 (wolfcreekski.com).
Keep in mind that flights to smaller cities like Bozeman are expensive. You'll get better deals flying to hubs, such as Salt Lake City and Denver, meaning your overall expenses could ultimately be lower.
I like to stay close to the lifts. What are my best options?
Plenty, as long as you can go during the week and avoid peak travel periods. State ski-association sites like skiutah.com and coloradoskitowns.org feature loads of lift-and-lodging deals at hotels and resorts; the best ones are well below $100 per person per night, but prices shoot up during weekends and holidays. For example, a three-night ski-and-stay package at Heavenly Lake Tahoe in California costs $425 for two people midweek in April (skiheavenly.com). On a more prime February weekend, a similar package will run you $652.
If you're traveling with a group, booking a condo directly from the owner via homeaway.com or vrbo.com is usually a better buy than a hotel: The per-person lodging costs are cheaper, and a kitchen saves you from eating out all the time. Be sure to examine online photos, check references, and find the property's exact location on a Google map. Then call the owner and ask what he means specifically by phrases such as "ski-in, ski-out" or "walking distance from the lifts."
What are some smart savings strategies for families?
Kids don't need thousands of acres of runs, so consider one of the many mom-and-pop mountains. They're just right for perfecting your snowplow (or spending the day sipping hot chocolate). Three to consider: Quechee Ski Hill, in Quechee, Vt. (quecheeclub.com, adults $40, kids $34); SolVista Basin at Granby Ranch, in Granby, Colo. (solvista.com, adults $54, kids 6 to 12 $32, under 5 free); and Soda Springs, in Truckee, Calif. (skisodasprings.com, adults $30, kids 13 to 17 $25, 12 and under $20).
If you prefer a big resort, pick one where kids under 5 or 6 get free lift tickets. Some ski areas are stingy about age requirements—only 4 and unders ski free at Vail and Heavenly—but others are more generous. At Brighton, Utah, and Big Sky Resort, Mont., kids are free through age 10. Many mountains also offer a "junior" discount for tweens and young teens.
Almost every ski state has a program that grants kids around age 10 a free season pass regardless of where they live. You'll have to download an application from the state ski association's website and then mail in a processing fee (usually $10 to $25). Most programs are called "Fifth Grade Passport," though sometimes there are also options for fourth or sixth graders. Regardless of where you go, if you're skiing with kids who are just learning, ask about a limited-access pass for yourself—there's no sense in paying the full rate if you'll be on the bunny slope all day. At Utah's Snowbird, you can pay $72 to ski the whole mountain, or just $20 for the beginner-area Chickadee lift. Not bad!
Buy Early—and in Bulk The best discounts are usually on packs of four or more tickets bought in the fall.
Test the Snow If conditions are bad, return your pass within an hour. You can often get a voucher for another day of skiing.
Nab Deals Online Skicoupons.com, liftopia.com, and discountlifttickets.net post discounts of up to 60 percent.