Winter chill spells ski bonanza
After the winter we've had so far, most of us would rather never see the sight of snow again. And then there are those who are longing for a holiday on the slopes.
This season has been a dream for bargain ski hunters, thanks to slow sales leading to falling prices. There's still plenty of availability left, but it helps to get your timing right.
The week in which you travel and when you book make a huge difference to the cost and quality of a ski holiday.
There is no relation between what you pay and how good a time you will have -- you can spend a fortune for poor snow and crowded slopes, or bag a rock-bottom price for wonderful skiing.
Smart skiers keep an eye on the weather forecast, and if the conditions are looking good then they book at the last minute to avail of late deals.
It's also wise to consider smaller operators who know their resorts better, offer a more personal service and can offer lower prices than the bigger names.
The good news is that snow has been falling steadily in the Alps and the Rockies, so early-season skiing, especially in the higher resorts, looks top notch.
There are mixed messages about prices in early January. Some operators say that the short week caused by Christmas and New Year falling at a weekend has proved very popular. The rest of January and into early February is, as ever, a happy hunting ground for bargains.
Resorts and operators very rarely sell out, so there are always plenty of deals for late bookers, and even brochure prices are extremely good value.
Normally, the best advice is to avoid mid-term completely. This year it falls between February 21-25, but the costs and crowds usually outweigh the (usually) good snow.
March has been becoming more and more popular in recent years -- longer daylight hours, more sunshine and a trend towards heavy snowfalls later in the season combine with a sharp drop in prices after February half-term and crowd-free slopes.
Usually, Easter encroaches on at least one week at the end of the month, but not this year. There are five full weeks from February 26 with no schoolchildren to worry about. In 2011, Easter falls so late that your options are curtailed. Easter Sunday falls on April 24 -- the second latest day possible -- and so late that many ski resorts will have closed for the season.
Leaving it this late could also mean poor snow and, depressingly, a significant risk of rain. However, there is always the possibility of decent late snow, and it may be worth keeping an eye on the weather and booking very late if things look good.