Image: A skier's descent
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After a spotty winter season last year, resorts, skiers and snowboarders are all searching for signs that this year will produce abundant snow, columnist Charles Leocha writes.
By Charles Leocha Travel columnist
updated 10/12/2007 1:25:19 PM ET 2007-10-12T17:25:19

After a spotty winter season last year, resorts, skiers and snowboarders are all searching for signs that this year will produce abundant snow. All the winter folklore predictors look good. Woolly caterpillars are thick and their black bands are wide — I just saw one that was almost completely black. Squirrels' tails are bushy and their nests are low. The husks on corn are heavy. Even the often-grumpy "Farmers' Almanac" is optimistic, predicting heavy snow in the Northeast and a normal winter in the West.

Mountain resorts are hoping that their early-booking programs will lure more skiers and snowboarders to make their vacation plans before the autumn leaves fall. In fact, now is the time that resorts float some of their best deals of the year. Season-ticket sales are already finished at most resorts (that's a deal best hunted in summer), but lodging and lift-ticket deals abound at many destination resorts.

Early-booking bargains differ from early-season bargains, which are valid on the slopes only before Christmas. Early-booking bargains are valid at any time during the winter season, including holidays and school vacation weeks; you just have to make your reservations before the start of the winter season.

According to Intrawest (the owner of Whistler, Panorama and Mont Tremblant in Canada, as well as a handful of resorts in the U.S.), skiers are becoming more savvy vacation planners. In fact, more than 40 percent of Intrawest's guests make their reservations before the start of the ski season. Families lead the pack, probably because their vacation weeks are limited by the school calendar, but I think every skier and snowboarder should take a look at the early offerings.

Booking now means you can choose the condominium unit or hotel accommodations you want. You can also make plans for the most affordable travel arrangements. Yes, there's a chance that weather or snow conditions will be less than ideal, but this year some resorts are working to allay that concern with generous cancellation policies and snow guarantees.

Take a look.

Stratton Mountain, in Vermont, has the best early-booking program I have ever seen. Not only are the discounts good — 10 percent to 30 percent off regular package rates (depending on whether the reservations are for holidays, weekends or weekdays) — but Stratton also guarantees you'll pay the lowest price, even if a better "last-minute deal" comes up later in the season. These Stratton early-booking deals are available through October 29.

Stratton is going one step further with an amazingly forgiving cancellation policy. Early bookers can cancel their vacations with no penalty within 14 days of arrival. Holiday bookings can be canceled up to seven days prior to arrival with a fee of only $50. Vacations booked in October (except for holiday vacations) can be canceled as late as three days prior to arrival with the $50 fee. This type of cancellation policy is almost unheard-of in the ski and snowboard resort industry.

Ski Salt Lake, in Utah, is offering an early-season regional lift ticket that allows you to ski or ride your last day free at any one of its four surrounding resorts: Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude. The "Super Pass," which is available for visits of three days or more, must be purchased before December 15.

Tremblant, in Quebec, is offering discounts for bookings made before November 15. The discounts range from 20 percent (for the mid-January to mid-February period and for late season) to 15 percent (for the high season, i.e., from mid-February to late March).

Whistler, in British Columbia, offers early-booking package discounts up to 33 percent for early-season skiing, and some early-season family packages (for parents and two children) come in at a whopping 40 percent discount. All bookings made before November 15 provide discounts ranging from 10 percent, during holiday periods, to more than 30 percent for off-peak periods.

Big Sky, in Montana, doesn't offer any early-booking deals, but there's a hidden bargain in its $75 "Frequent Skier Card." The card confers discounts of $20 off regular high-season window prices and allows free skiing during the early and late seasons. The biggest bargain with this card is a 50 percent discount on accommodations at Huntley Lodging from opening day through January 6 (which is spectacular, because it includes Christmas and New Year's) and again at the end of the season from April 7 to April 13. If it fits your plans, this card can provide a giant bargain, but act fast because the price goes up to $125 after October 31.

The bottom line: Check with your favorite resorts to see if they offer early-booking deals. Search through their Web sites for quirky deals that offer unexpected savings. Booking your winter ski or snowboarding vacation early makes planning easier and can add up to dramatic savings.

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