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Europe's best budget ski resorts

By Joe Minihane, Special to CNN
updated 1:13 AM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
Soldeu is Andorra's biggest and best resort, with an incredibly cheap weekly pass (US$259). Soldeu is Andorra's biggest and best resort, with an incredibly cheap weekly pass (US$259).
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Soldeu, Andorra
Nosal, Zakopane, Poland
Cerna Hora, Czech Republic
Bansko, Bulgaria
CairnGorm, Scotland
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • These budget slopes make every fall a little softer on the wallet
  • East means cheap, especially if you're after a European ski holiday
  • Bulgaria is gaining a reputation as a top destination for skiers

(CNN) -- For the budget conscious, the mere mention of skiing in Europe has been known to cause whiplash from people reaching around too quickly for their wallets.

Those who keep a close watch on their cash tend to avoid resorts that charge the equivalent of a mortgage payment for the privilege of taking a few runs down a mountain and then forking out US$20 for a hot cider afterward.

Europe's famed alpine destinations are the worst culprits. Look beyond the pistes of Switzerland, Austria and France, however, and there are bargains to be found across the continent.

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Soldeu, Andorra

High in the Pyrenees and sandwiched between France and Spain, Andorra is an ideal alternative to the more pricey Alps. Soldeu is the tiny nation's biggest and best resort, with an incredibly cheap weekly pass (US$259), and one-day access costing just US$57.

Best of all, the pass covers the wider Grandvalira area, with access to other resorts and an impressive 204 kilometers (126 miles) of runs.

The focus is largely on family at this beginner-to-intermediate hill, though there are plenty of lively bars in Soldeu village.

The resort is accessible from budget airports at Perpignan in the south of France, and Girona, north of Barcelona.

Lift pass: US$259 for five days out of seven; www.soldeu-andorra.com

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Nosal, Zakopane, Poland

In Europe, east means cheap, especially if you're after a European ski holiday.

Zakopane best exemplifies Poland's underground reputation as a go-to spot for winter sports. This vast area has a number of different resorts, each offering lift passes for which you need to buy separate tickets.

But considering you can take 15 trips on the Nosal resort's lift for just $16, with nearby Gubalowka offering 10 rides from the same amount, it's cheap to hop around and try different slopes.

Packages are recommended for this type of trip, as transportation between areas can be tricky without an organized tour.

If you want to stick with one place, Nosal is the pick. It has four good beginner runs and a vicious, steep black area for veteran skiers and snowboarders.

Best of all, the runs are open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., with floodlights fired up after sunset.

Lift pass: US$16; www.zakopane-life.com

Cerna Hora, Czech Republic

Cerna Hora is home to the country's longest single run, a two-kilometer monster (1.2 mile) that'll test the hardiest alpine skier.

As with most eastern European resorts, the lift pass is an insanely good value. The US$89 three-day pass makes Cerna Hora ideal for weekend trips. Its 14 slopes are reached by the Czech Republic's only eight-person gondola. The area also has 70 kilometers (43 miles) of cross-country routes.

What sets Cerna Hora apart is proximity to the spa town of Janské Lázně. With thermal pools and a picturesque town center, it's the ideal place to unwind after a day strapped into your ski boots.

Seven-day lift pass: US$162; three-day lift pass for US$89; www.cerna-hora.cz

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Bansko, Bulgaria

Bulgaria is gaining a reputation as the top destination for skiers desperate for good snow and heaving local bars, but who lack funds to hit the likes of Switzerland and Italy.

About 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of the capital of Sofia, and located at the foot of the Pirin Mountains, Bansko is the country's biggest and best resort.

It's something of a mission to reach, but worth the effort. The area has been modernized in recent years, with decent hotels and stacks of traditional "mehana" for excellent local food, including rich salads, soups, meats and, of course, wine and Bulgarian rakia.

The season runs until mid-April, depending on snowfall.

Five-day lift pass: US$186; www.banskoski.com

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CairnGorm, Scotland

You may not know it, but the wilds of Scotland have become popular as a skiing destination in recent years. Bitterly cold winters and heavy snowfall mean CairnGorm mountain is buried in snow from December to March.

Skiers and boarders hit the slopes between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., light depending, with 30 kilometers (18 miles) of runs, dedicated snowboard park and lots of cross-country trails.

Not necessarily great for a weeklong trip, CairnGorm is worth a visit if you're on a city break in Edinburgh and don't mind the two-and-a-half-hour drive north.

Geared toward beginners and intermediates, CairnGorm is good if you want to try skiing for the first time or don't fancy the rigmarole of arranging an entire trip based around the slopes and aprés ski excess.

Lift pass: US$52; www.cairngormmountain.org

Have you got a favorite budget ski resort? Tell us about it in the comments section.

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