The price tag on skiing doesn't need to be black-diamond scary. To keep to your budget, stay local. Thirty-nine states, even as far south as Alabama and Arizona, have ski centers, so you may have a mountain close enough for a day trip, an ideal way to get kids started. Find one at skiresortguide.com, and opt for a smaller venue, especially if you're new to the sport. Many of the large, well-known resorts have excellent expert trails, but it's not worth paying the extra costs to just stick to the bunny slopes. "Almost all ski areas, large and small, have beginner terrain for folks still learning to ski or snowboard, and as long as there's a strong teaching program, your child can have a great experience," says Evan Reece, cofounder of the discount lift-ticket service Liftopia.com. Plus, smaller ski centers mean less walking with your kids and gear in tow.
Next, do your homework. Call resorts and check their websites and social-networking sites to see what deals they have. For example, rentals, lessons, lunch, and more are sometimes grouped together, often for less than the price of a lesson. If you live somewhere with lots of mountains, there may be special incentives for state residents, such as in New York, where fourth-graders can ski free. Plus, end-of-season skiing means cost breaks, like half-price lift tickets for warmer (read: kid-friendly) days in March and April. Even if your kid's too young to ski, most resorts have child care comparable to the price of a babysitter, with day-care facilities built right on the slopes so you can stop by in between runs to check in.
Kids can ski as early as preschool, but the learning process is often easier at age 5 or 6, when children have more control over body movement, a longer attention span to follow directions, and more tolerance of the cold. When it comes to skis versus a snowboard, it's your kid's call: They're about the same level of difficulty for a newbie.
You don't have to be an expert skier—or even a skier at all—to get your child out on skis. Many programs have certified ski instructors; that's the best way to introduce children to the sport. And kids' instructors are usually the most highly trained members of a mountain's staff—look for certification from the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI). Your child's teacher will slowly introduce different techniques to get the kids comfortable (first step: learning to walk in the boots!) and give them the confidence they need to tackle a slope, perhaps by talking to them about other sports and games they play and relating that to their skiing or snowboarding. A full or half-day group lesson is ideal, but even a few hours will make a difference. "It's amazing how much progress a 4-year-old can make in just one day," says Harley Johnson, ski school director at Smugglers' Notch Resort, in Smugglers' Notch, Vermont.
Even if you're a great skier, it's best to leave the instruction up to the pros; they know the safest and most effective ways to teach kids. But if your child has separation anxiety, look for a mom- (or dad-) and-me program, where the instructor will give your child a lesson while also teaching you how to coach him, so that you can take the tips and use them later when the lesson is over.
Two of the most important lessons your child's instructor will teach are to ski in control and follow the rules of the slopes to avoid accidents. Remind your skier or snowboarder of the Responsibility Code, which will be posted throughout the mountain. This includes looking uphill to check for oncoming skiers when merging or entering a trail, not stopping unless you can be clearly seen from above, staying visible, and standing up quickly and moving off to the side of the mountain in the event of a fall. But smart skiing doesn't end there. When you ride the chairlift, keep the bar down until you see signs to raise it and tell the operators if your child is new to the lift. They can slow it down so you'll have a smooth landing. Finally, tuck your cell-phone number into her pocket and designate a meeting spot in the event that she becomes separated from you during a run.
The right gear will also keep your child protected and comfortable. Invest in or rent a snow-sports helmet. Not only does wearing one cut the risk of an E.R. visit, but it's warmer than a hat -- and some mountains even require one in their children's programs. Layers will help stop your child from catching a chill and are simple to shed if the temperature rises throughout the day. Start with a close-fitting base covering, like thermal leggings, then add waterproof snow pants, a jacket, and moisture-wicking socks. (Her regular cotton kind will absorb sweat and result in frozen toes.) Tuck her coat into her mittens or gloves to stop snow from sneaking in if she falls, and slide on a fleece neck warmer—they're safer than scarves, which can be a strangulation hazard, and are easy to pull over your kid's nose if it gets really cold. Finally, choose goggles that provide 100 percent ultraviolet (UV) protection, and cover any still-exposed skin with sunscreen; the increased level of UV exposure at higher altitudes plus reflections from the snow up the risk of a burn.
Keep in mind that a full day of skiing might be too much for young kids. Take frequent indoor breaks to warm up, check for damp clothing, and make sure your child's not too tired to ski safely. Also know that she's bound to take a few tumbles while learning how to ski but that the falls will probably scare you more than they do her. Once your kid gets the hang of whooshing down the slope, your biggest challenge of the day may be getting her off the mountain.
Slopes offer more than skiing. These wintry-weather activities are fun for the whole family.
Tubing This souped-up version of sledding is an affordable alternative to skiing: A two-hour pass is about $15 at most places.
Snowshoeing Children as young as 3 can try this winter walking activity, and many resorts have designated trails for tour guide-led treks.
Dogsledding Kids love racing along in sleds pulled by speedy Alaskan Huskies or enjoy just stopping to pet the pooches.
Fun zones Many resorts are creating adventure areas just for kids; Utah's Canyons Resort features snow-castle building and ice forts.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.