How late can I go?
The timing of the Easter holidays, which usually mark the end of the ski season, can be a real headache for the industry. Tour operators and ski-resort owners much prefer it to land in March, when everyone still has winter on their minds and there is usually plenty of snow for British families taking holiday trips abroad. This year, Easter Sunday is uncomfortably late for many in the business. However, the heavy snowfall of the past two months has raised snow depths in ski resorts around the world to such an extent that many are already talking about extending the season, even if it doesn't snow again this year.
There's no official date for when snow coverage ceases to be a safe bet but, as a rule of thumb, if you're thinking of travelling to the slopes after mid-April, it's wise to look to ski areas with a glacier, or that are near one. The majority of resorts will be closed after Easter fortnight anyway, even if the snow is still great.
If you're thinking of flying west for Easter, beware that most North American ski areas shut on, or even before, Easter Sunday. There are exceptions. In the US some resorts endeavour to stay open as late as Independence Day, on 4 July. These include Mammoth Mountain in California (001 760 934 2571; mammothmountain.com), Snowbird in Utah (001 800 232 9542; snowbird.com), Arapahoe Basin in Colorado (001 888 272 7246; arapahoebasin.com) and Mount Bachelor (001 541 382 2442; mtbachelor.com) in Oregon.
North of the border, the ski season at Banff is typically in full swing well in to May: Sunshine (001 403 762 6500; skibanff.com) stays open to 19 May. Whistler (001 604 938 2769; whistlerblackcomb.com) relies on its two glacier areas to offer the continent's longest season for a major resort, which this year is scheduled to be until at least 14 July.
What about Europe?
The tiny Austrian resort of St Christoph, above St Anton, is the last of the Arlberg's ski areas to operate for the season. Here you will find the luxurious Hospiz (00 43 5446 3625; hospiz.com), right next to the historic Arlberg Pass. The hotel claims to have Austria's best wine cellar and offers gourmet half board as part of its Winter Finale Week package from 26 April to 3 May. The €2,898 deal for two people sharing a double room includes use of the huge Hospiz Sport and Spa, the Hospizerl Kidsclub, live music in the hotel's Kaminhalle and six days of ski school.
In a few resorts, the season never actually ends. Zermatt in Switzerland (00 41 27 966 8100; zermatt.ch) offers a 365-day ski season, Europe's highest lifts and a new snowmaking system that can produce the stuff even with the temperature above freezing. The machine-made snow covers the bottom of the runs, where the glacier has melted away over the past few decades.
However, for most mainstream tour operators the last week of the season is Easter week, with final departures to the Alps and North America on 11 April. At lower resorts, such as those in Eastern Europe and the Pyrenees, it's hard to find a package on offer after March.
Smaller specialist operators, particularly those who do not rely on charter flights, can offer holidays right through to the end of April. Ski Collection (0844 576 0175; skicollection.co.uk) has a self-drive option available in Tignes (0033 479 400440; tignes.net). The package includes the Eurotunnel crossing from Folkestone to Calais and a two-bedroom apartment sleeping six at the four-star self-catering residence Le Nevada. It is available for £1,543 for the week from 18 April, or £861 for departures a week later. Similar deals are available in other "snow sure" French resorts, such as Alpe d'Huez and Val Thorens.
Peak Retreats (0844 576 0170; peakretreats.co.uk) offers a self-drive holiday to another glacier resort: Les 2 Alpes (00 33 476 792200; les2alpes.com). If you travel on 18 April, this costs from £172 per person in a self-catering apartment, or from £529 per person in a slope-side hotel on half board, both inclusive of Channel crossing.
Can I guarantee snow?
An increasing number of resorts offer snow guarantees, but this usually doesn't cover the end of the season. One of the more comprehensive and generous guarantees is provided by Val Thorens in France, Europe's highest major ski resort at 2,300m, which guarantees at least 70 per cent of the local 140km of ski slopes will be open through to 1 May, with a sliding scale of "credit vouchers" if that target isn't met. To qualify you need to book accommodation and lift ticket direct with the resort or check that your tour operator offers the guarantee.
Is it all high-altitude stuff?
Snowmaking has allowed some comparatively low-altitude resorts, most notably Killington in Vermont, to operate right through the spring, but it generally doesn't work if it gets too warm. So, yes, aim high if you're planning to ski after mid-March. In the Alps you're usually safe above 1,800m. That doesn't mean your ski resort needs to be high; just make sure the ski area extends well above that height and, if you're staying down in the valley, that there's an efficient gondola lift or similar. Drag lifts don't get you across green fields very efficiently. In most cases tour operators will have checked this for you – the last thing they want is to deliver you to a snowless resort on one of their holidays.
Another option is to head north. Riksgransen (00 46 980 40080; riksgransen.no) in the Swedish Arctic Circle is a place of pilgrimage for many diehard skiers after most resorts shut down. By late May there's 24-hour daylight here and the lifts are open until midnight. The season continues in to June with comparatively low-cost heli-skiing a special attraction.
Alternatively, there are climate-controlled indoor snow conditions at Ski Dubai (00 971 04 409 4000; skidxb.com) or 50 other indoor centres around the world. Britain's sixth indoor slope (01442 241 321; thesnowcentre.com) will open in Hemel Hempstead in April, so you need not travel far to reach snowy slopes any day of the year, albeit rather short ones compared to conventional ski areas.
Crystal (0871 231 5659; crystalski.co.uk), Inghams (020-8780 4444; inghams.co.uk ) and Thomson (0871 971 0578; thomson-ski.co.uk) got their 2009/10 brochures out shortly before Christmas and you can now book right through to 2010 Winter Olympic year (although holidays to the Games venue, Whistler in western Canada, are not available for the 2010 Olympic period).
The new 2009/10 Thomson preview brochure features more than 80 resorts in 13 countries and includes "more value for money than ever before, especially for families with children," according to the company's Marion Telsnig. Deals include free six-day lift passes, saving up to £156 per person, in Söll, Austria (00 43 5050 9210; wilderkaiser.info) and Chamrousse, France (00 33 4 76 89 92 65; chamrousse.com). Benefits for early bookers include a free half-day crèche or kids club place worth £100 on selected departures in January and March 2010 when booked before the end of April this year.
Lynsey Devon of Inghams highlights the benefits of thinking ahead: "Christmas, New Year, half-term and Easter are the most popular weeks, so at these times of year the hotels and flight routes sell out very quickly." Book early and you'll have the greatest choice of popular dates and accommodation for next season, and may be able to make savings through special deals.