Skiing solo was always a breeze: Put on the latest ski fashions, pack your wallet, throw skis into the car and head for the hills. With a family in tow, it’s a whole new ballgame. But, with a bit of forward planning, it can still be fun for all and worth the financial and physical investment.
At 19 and 16, my kids are no longer struggling with snowploughs and Stem Christies. They are happily tackling Sunshine’s daring Delirium Dive and hiking around Lake Louise’s scenic slackcountry (the new term for backcountry bordering a resort). However, I nurtured them through ski lessons with the Nancy Greene League at Mt. Norquay from age five, through the Alberta Freeskiers’ club at Lake Louise from age 11, to taking the Sunshine bus solo to meet their own free-skiing friends nowadays. So, how did I manage to stay sane - and solvent - during all those seasons of new gear, lift passes, ski school and on-hill lunches?
It’s all about savvy shopping and budgeting. I was radical - I gave up having my own car for a whole decade in order to pay for annual ski passes, lessons and all the gear. Running just one family vehicle saved us over $8,500 per year, according to CAA estimates. But, if you are set on filling your two-car garage with SUVs rather than skis, bargains and discounted packages for lift tickets and accommodation are available at local hills. And you can cut costs further by packing picnics, sourcing gear at ski swaps and garage sales, and skiing at off-peak times.
If you plan on skiing eight days plus per winter, season passes are the best value. Although cheapest before September 30, they are cost effective even at current prices. For those planning to ski up to seven days at a particular resort, loyalty cards available at Sunshine, Lake Louise, Mt. Norquay, Nakiska, Castle Mountain, Kicking Horse, Panorama, Marmot and Fernie are unbeatable value. A ski day for an adult averages at about $50 per day with these cards and there are discounts throughout the season on subsequent days at partner resorts. Kicking Horse and Panorama have also pioneered parent passes, which are good for either parent while the other is looking after youngsters in the lodge. Revelstoke has recently followed suit. Marmot has the innovative Jasper Family Ski Card for $49.95, which gives the whole family one free day’s skiing as well as discounts off tickets, rentals, lessons, nursery, accommodation, and food and drink.
Kids under six ski free at most resorts and there’s also free skiing available for kids in Grade 2 with the Husky Snowstars Funpass, which gives free days at Nakiska, Fernie and Kimberley all season - https://secure.skircr.com/pass_types/grade2.asp, or www.skircr.com/membership. And kids in Grades 4 and 5 (born 2001/2) qualify for three free coupons for lift tickets at each of over 150 ski areas with the Snowpass - www.snowpass.ca.
Having passes means no laborious lineups at ticket booths, taking some of the hassle out of family skiing. For those wanting to minimize stress even more, Lake Louise has a reserved parking lot right near the steps to the lodge and Sunshine’s valet parking is fabulous for families who don’t want to hike through the entire carpark. Most resorts also have lockers to store equipment.
Another trick to streamline your ski day is to get to the hill early, giving more time to sort out problems, well before lesson deadlines. Pack the car the night before, lay out all the clothing by the kids’ beds, pack a lunch and even prepare a portable breakfast for the journey. If you want to immerse the family in mountain culture all weekend, staying in ski-in/ski-out accommodation works well with kids. Everything is so close and convenient whether it’s the daycare, ski school, rentals or après-ski. The Sunshine Mountain Lodge is perfectly placed right by the Standish Quad for easy access - with the added bonus of getting onto the snow before the ‘rubber-tire’ crowd arrives. The Delta Lodge at Kananaskis accesses pristine cross-country trails and is right next to Nakiska’s downhill delights. Fernie has multiple slope-side options from hotels to chalets and condos.
Having cooking facilities is always a pre-requisite for families who will probably want to make their own drinks, snacks and meals. The Aspens at Kicking Horse are sumptuous home-from-home rental apartments complete with decadent balcony hot tubs. Panorama offers everything from the budget family deal where “Kids Ski for Free, Eat for Free, Stay for Free, Play for Free” to “Gold” slopeside apartments with state-of-the-art kitchens and hot tubs. And Castle Mountain has a handy hostel right in the carpark.
There are diverse accommodation possibilities in Lake Louise Village, Banff and Canmore, all accessing the Big 3: Lake Louise, Sunshine and Norquay. Canmore often offers the cheapest rooms, but Banff has the added advantage of ski buses to the hills. The newest Lake Louise hotel, the Great Divide, has $99 pass and accommodation combos as well as providing free shuttles to the hill and $25 meal deals - www.skilouise.com/vacations/west_louise_lodge_vacation.php.
Childcare can be an issue with kids under five. Lake Louise takes babies from six weeks old and runs ski/play sessions for older toddlers. Other Alberta and British Columbia resorts all have daycare from 18 months and ski/play options from age three. Expect to pay around $65 for a half-day for babies.
Ski lessons are the best way for kids to master skiing or snowboarding. No matter how skilled a parent is, teaching is usually best left to the professionals. Methods are constantly evolving, and kids often respond better to an instructor within a peer-group framework, coming back enthused and asking for more. All local hills run daily lessons but the 8- or 10-week programs starting in January are the cheapest options (8-week course for 6 to 12 years at Mt. Norquay costs around $500 for 40 hours of tuition plus add-on packages for lift tickets, rentals and transportation).
Sometimes it’s the après-ski activities which really make the ski hills a hit for families. Kicking Horse runs snowshoeing trips, wagon rides, skating and hockey nights. Lake Louise has a regular Friday night torchlit descent evening as well as family activities during every holiday. Mt. Norquay features a tube park - now included in the price of the lift tickets - as well as night skiing and snowshoeing. Fernie has a specific kids’ après ski program including crafts, movies and sleigh rides and Panorama has a daily program of activities aimed at every age group as well as a new tube park.
Canada Olympic Park is Calgary’s city ski hill with seven chairs/carpets, half-pipe and terrain park, bobsleigh and luge run, freestyle aerials and moguls area, ski shop and rentals plus programs for downhill skiing, snowboarding, ski jumping and cross country. This is a fantastic facility for after-school skiing and introducing the sport to all members of the family on weekends. Season passes also give discounts on day tickets in the mountains. Canada Olympic Park is also a provider of the nationally-endorsed “Discover” Program which gives newbies their first taste of wintersports for equipment/tuition for $49 on weekdays and $59 at weekends.
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