Score Free Ski Deals This Winter

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Winter is here, and that means one thing for skiers and snowboarders everywhere: time to hit the slopes.

But these days, a trip to the mountains means shelling out more cash than ever before for gas, gear, lift tickets and meals.

Fortunately, there are plenty of great deals out there for savvy consumers who don't mind doing a little digging. From free lift tickets to discounts on lodging and lessons, resorts around the country have a lot to offer cost-conscious skiers. Here are some tips to help you hit the slopes for less.

Plan ahead: Don't go to a ski resort without checking it out online. Most resorts have a "deals" section on their Web site and, in some cases, buying your lift tickets online may save you money. For example, Waterville Valley in New Hampshire offers $10 off the regular lift-ticket price of $65 when you buy online 48 hours in advance.

If you can't find a deal on the resort's Web site, browse sites such as skicoupons.com to find price breaks for ski resorts throughout North America.

Boreal, a resort in northern California, offers an iRide card. Cardholders who buy two all-day lift tickets get a third day of skiing or boarding for free. The card is only available online.

If you're heading to the ski Mecca of Park City, Utah, book your flight for the morning and hold on to your boarding pass. With Park City Quick Start, you'll receive a free same-day lift ticket at one of three Park City resorts (the Canyons Resort, Park City Mountain Resort or Deer Valley Resort) with your boarding pass, out-of-state photo ID and a completed Quick Start voucher. After your first day in Utah, head to Canyon Sports in Salt Lake City for discount lift tickets to all the major resorts.

Think outside the box: Keep your eyes peeled for ski deals in unlikely places. For example, if you test drive a Saab 9-3 XWD at a New England Saab dealer before Jan. 5, you'll receive two free passes to New Hampshire's Ragged Mountain Resort. (And if you buy the car, Saab will throw in a pair of Solomon skis and bindings.)

Stay close to home: If you live in ski country, you may be able to find some great deals in your own backyard. For example, at Sugarloaf, a resort in western Maine, state residents ski for $29 on Wednesdays throughout the season, and Maine families pay $30 for lift tickets every Sunday in January.

New Hampshire residents pay $30 at Cannon Mountain on non-holiday Wednesdays. On Sunday afternoons, residents can get a $10 ticket at Black Mountain and a $32 ticket at Mount Sunapee.

Vermonters can ski for $45 every day at Jay Peak and for $44 at Killington Resort on non-holiday Tuesdays and Wednesdays. At Smugglers' Notch Resort, Vermont residents pay just $31 for lift tickets and get half-price rentals and group lessons on non-holiday Fridays.

Go green: Lots of ski resorts are going green by switching to renewable power and fueling grooming vehicles with leftover cooking grease. Some mountains are even rewarding eco-friendly skiers with some pretty sweet deals. For example, Ragged Mountain Resort in New Hampshire offers Car Load Wednesdays, when you can score a car-load of lift tickets (up to eight) for $79 on non-holiday Wednesdays. Meanwhile, Cranmore Mountain in New Hampshire is rewarding drivers of hybrid vehicles, offering one free lift ticket per car on Jan. 24 and March 21.

Ski frequently: For the occasional skier who only gets to the mountain once or twice a month, dropping $1,000 on a season pass doesn't make sense. But for die-hard skiers, a season pass can be a great deal. The Gold New England Pass gives you unlimited access to Sugarloaf and Sunday River in Maine, and New Hampshire's Loon Mountain for $1,049. For $699, the Silver New England Pass is valid at those same resorts every day except 12 blackout dates. The Bronze New England Pass, for $449, will get you on the slopes at those resorts on non-blackout weekdays.

Resorts in California's Lake Tahoe area also offer great deals for frequent skiers. Alpine Meadows offers the Alpine Club for an annual fee of $10. Club members get 10% off adult lift tickets, VIP parking and 39 days of $39 lift tickets. Squaw Valley's Frequent Skier and Snowboarder Program gives members a free lift ticket every fifth day. Membership is only $5.

Ski and stay: If you're planning a destination ski vacation, look for a package deal. Many resorts offer ski-and-stay packages that include lodging, lift tickets and more. For instance, when you book midweek slope-side lodging at Sunday River (starting at $59), you'll get a free lift ticket and ski clinic for each day of your stay.

Looking to escape to the Rockies? If you fly Delta Air Lines and stay at one of Crested Butte's participating properties, you'll get one free lift ticket per person each day of your stay. To find more ski-and-stay deals in Colorado, go to skicolorado.com.

Learn to ski or snowboard: Now is a great time to learn to ski or snowboard, especially in Vermont. With Ski Vermont's New Year's Resolution Program, first-time skiers and boarders get a free lesson, free equipment rental and a free limited-terrain lift ticket at Vermont resorts between Jan. 4 and Jan. 11.

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