Planning A Great Family Winter Weekend Getaway
By Nancy Schretter, Editor
Thinking about travel to the slopes for a long weekend family ski and/or snowboarding vacation this winter? 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 family travel over a major holiday weekend in January or February, during popular school holiday vacation periods, or in the midst of prime spring break weeks. Here's how to make the perfect winter vacation happen for your family.
If you have any flexibility, avoid scheduling your family's winter ski weekend during a holiday period. Costs will be higher, lift lines longer, and the resorts jammed with people. Many families are taking their children out of school for family vacations due to scheduling issues and the cost savings that can be gained during non-peak vacation times. This can be easier if your children are in elementary or middle school. Teachers for this age group will sometimes allow students to do a special project or assignment related to their vacation to make up for time missed in school. These projects can include diaries, scrapbooks, fiction or non-fiction essays, historical or geographical papers about the local area, and other ideas.
Some families have already found the perfect ski area for their family, and continue to be happy with their choice each year. We 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 Smugglers' Notch Resort, named as the best family ski resort by Ski Magazine and USA TODAY, 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. Thomke also recommends that families hold a meeting before planning their trip to find out what the kids want to do, add in the parents' ideas, and then figure out the family's priorities. This approach is likely to yield a vacation that everyone will enjoy.
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. If you can't find them, talk to the resort specialists staffing the 800-lines, and they will be able to help you.
* 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. Be very specific about your needs and preferences when booking your accommodations. Ask about distance to the slopes, transportation, fireplaces, views, and any other items that are important to you.
* 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. Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah are two destinations with a number of major ski resorts located in close proximity to the airport.
* Facilities for snowboarders. While almost all ski resorts now 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 resort 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, ice skating, 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 long ski weekend is relatively 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. Make sure to choose a resort that provides activities and amenities for every age group in your family. 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.
* Choices of dining options. When making resort and accommodations reservations, consider your dining preferences. Some families prefer to eat in on vacation, while others plan to dine out at a restaurant every night. Choose a resort that offers dining options that meet your needs, and ask the resort's vacation specialists to help you if you can't find the information you need online.
* 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 Smugglers' Notch suggests starting planning early. The resort's "Guide to Planning the Perfect Winter Family Vacation," available on their website, provides many helpful tips for parents.
If you are one of the many families planning a last-minute holiday ski trip, take a look at www.homeaway.com, www.vrbo.com, or www.10kvacationrentals.com for listings of vacation homes for rent by owner. These sites sometimes provide listings of homes and condominiums that are available close to the holidays or have last minute cancellations. ResortQuest, a one-stop rental shop for numerous ski resorts, is another good option. Also consider calling the resorts for last minute availability.
Some other recommendations for making family winter ski weekend trips go more smoothly include:
* Use the Internet and resort 800-numbers to help gather information and plan your trip. Make sure to call your top choices before booking to learn more about the resorts and how they might handle your family's vacation.
* 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. At some resorts, the rental offices are open late on Friday evenings 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 resort's 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 many family-friendly 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.
* Make sure to pack the proper clothes for winter weather. Nothing can ruin a trip faster than being cold all the time. The Smugglers' Notch Packing Guide offers some great tips.
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 public relations director. "Preferential treatment for equipment rentals is also a special amenity we can offer our Wintergreen resort guests." Make sure to consider these advantages carefully when booking your vacation.
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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