Saving Money on Ski and Snowboard Trips
Skiing or snowboarding can be expensive hobbies. The price of lift tickets, gear, and clothing is not cheap, and that doesn’t even count getting to a ski resort or area if you are traveling from afar. We are here to help. We would like to help guide you to seven tricks to save money on skiing or snowboarding, whether you are an old pro or just starting out. You will still have to spend money – nothing in life is free – but you just may be able to get a bunch more skiing or snowboarding out of that hard-earned dollar.
Pick Your Season
There is no doubt that there is a ski seasons, and then there are seasons within the season that can make for major savings on ski trips. The seasons usually open around Thanksgiving with reasonable early-season rates until mid-December. For ages, the weeks around Christmas and New Years have been known as “high season” for skiing, but we like to call them “price gauging” season when the resorts crank their ticket prices up to the highest of the year. The period from early January thru early March is usually steady at a normally high, but not quite Holiday-high, rate. Then, many ski areas crank the prices up again in mid-late March for Spring Break traffic. Once you round the corner to April, prices generally drop substantially into “spring skiing” rates, and if the snow is still good these can be the best bargains of the year. Hotels generally follow suit, having shoulder seasons in November, December, and April, spikes around the holidays, and a steady high rate in January, February, and March.
Buy Discount Ski Resort Passes
Discount passes and lift tickets have been around for a while, and for many skiers they are the only option each year as they save so much money. They secret is in planning. You will get the most value out of a season-long discount pass if you buy it well before there is snow on the ground, and if you plan so that you can make use of all the benefits. The way it works is this: You buy something like a Max Pass or an Epic Pass, and depending on the package you bought, you get unlimited skiing at the associated resorts, or several days included as part of the pass which should more than make up for the cost. The Max Pass covers popular places like Big Sky, Steamboat, Crested Butte, Okemo, Mt. Bachelor, and others on its list of 39 mountains. For the price of skiing, say, Steamboat for five days, you get your five days there but also five days at any of the other resorts. Same goes for the Epic pass, which applies to all Vail Resorts. That list includes such favorites as Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Heavenly, Park City, and others. These deals usually work the best if you have access to one of the many resorts as a home base which you likely will ski a few times during the winter, and can then do at least one destination trip which will make use of days at a premier resort. Don’t forget about the new Ikon Pass, a heavy hitter that will replace many of the Max Pass destinations. See our review of the Ikon vs. Epic Pass for more information.
If Buying Not Buying a Season Pass, Get Lift Ticket Discounts
Walking up to a lift ticket window and buying on the spot is the most expensive way of skiing, without a doubt. There are a couple ways you can save on lift tickets even if you are not in a position to buy a season-long pass. First, if you are looking for a discounted lift ticket and do not have a season pass, see what our friends at Liftopia have in stock. They could save you a few bucks, you just need to be on-the-ball and do your search far enough in advance for them to ship the tickets to you. If you are, the savings could be substantial. Second, consider buying your lift tickets from the resort ahead of time. For example, buying a few days in advance at Vail will save you nearly $30 off the whopping lift ticket day prices that can be as much as $180 per day.
Consider “Local” Ski Resorts
Much is made of the biggest names in North American ski resorts. There are about 10 on the “elite” list, places like Whistler, Vail, Park City, and so on. Heck, we even make our own list of best family ski resorts. But for each of those, there is a more modest, but still fun and challenging, nearby mountain that the locals flock to for their skiing. The price savings can be substantial, and you are still skiing the same mountain range in most cases.
Here are a few examples: in the Vail area, walking up to the ticket window and buying a day lift ticket at Vail will cost a whopping $180. Staying closer to Denver/Boulder, you can ski for nearly half that price at Eldora Ski Area. Park City in Utah will cost you about 50% more than skiing at Solitude, in the next canyon over. And while there is nothing like experiencing Lone Peak at Big Sky, Bridger Bowl is just on the other size of Bozeman, and will allow you to ski for about half the price. If you are just starting out skiing, or a beginning snowboarder, it can be nice to be on the quieter, easier mountains anyway.
Rent Your Ski or Snowboard Equipment Off-Mountain
There is no doubt that renting your equipment on the mountain is priced at a premium, but then again that pricing brings with it come convenience. Being able to return your skis at the end of the day just steps from your last run, can be a big time-saver and one of the nice parts of being on vacation. If you are focused on saving money, though, consider renting your ski gear before you get to the mountain. We have access to some services that will help you do that for a nice discount. Just remember, while you can rent skis, boots, and helmets, you will definitely need to bring your own clothing, gloves, and goggles.
Eat Your Own Food
Bringing your own food and snacks to the resort can be a slight hassle, but can save a bunch of money when compared with paying ski resort prices. Plus, you won’t be subject to the longer food lines at lunchtime, and in some cases you might find yourself in a spot that only offers a higher-end restaurant with a wait to get in. Sandwiches, fruit, and snack bars are all things that can usually keep just fine in a storage locker. If part of your vacation is all about not having to prepare food, though, then head to the ski resorts cafeteria-style option (most have one) and head for the chili. A bowl of chili doesn’t break the bank and will give you a dose of much-needed calories and protein. Off-mountain, consider renting a hotel or condo with a kitchen or kitchenette. Just being able to have breakfast and the occasional sandwich frozen pizza in your lodging can save significant dollars over the course of a trip. For the slopes, consider investing in a backpack with a cooler at the bottom that will keep your food ready for you to eat at lunchtime.
Find Resorts Near Major Airports
If you are flying in from somewhere else to do your skiing, know that not all airports are equal. If you can choose a ski area near a major business airport, the flights are sure to be less expensive than trying to fly in to a smaller resort airport that often only has seasonal ski flights. Airports like Aspen, Vail-Eagle, Hayden, Boston, and Sun Valley are known for being unforgiving in their ski season airfares. You can likely find much better deals in and out of major business airports like Salt Lake City, Vancouver, Denver and Reno airport which puts you a short drive from nine major ski areas. You might end up with a short bit of the drive, but if you are schlepping a family of our on a trip, it might be more than worth it.
Look At Ski and Stay Packages
If you book your lodging directly through the ski resort website, you will find many packages that are legitimate savings over buying everything separately. A couple of the more common ones at major resorts include kids ski free, a promotion that allows for a certain number of free child skiers with each night of lodging. This deal never applies to ski school but does cover the cost of lift tickets. Another common option is a ski-and-stay package, which often includes a number of lift tickets for the entire family with each night of paid lodging. The lodging might be a little more expensive, but if everyone in the family plans to ski you will come out ahead.
Never Rent the Best Skis
If have weighed the equation and decided to rent, be a smart renter. Most ski rental places will offer three choices of ski packages. There will be a beginner option, an intermediate option, and an advanced or “performance” set of skis. These are often called the demo skis. For the vast majority of skiers, if not all, who rent, you never need to spend the extra $15-$30 per day on the high-end skis. You frankly won’t know the difference. To appreciate the high-end skies, you need to be someone who skies often and attacks difficult terrain on a regular basis. Even the intermediate skis (assuming they are properly cared for and fitted) will get you down a black diamond run and allow you to have fun all day.
Understand and Avoid Baggage Fees
Baggage fees can be one of the “gotcha” costs of traveling in the US. If you are traveling by air, weigh the cost of bringing your skis, boots, helmet, and gear against the cost of renting once you get there. Many airlines now charge a premium of up to $50 or more for a heavy or extra checked bag, and it is no secret that skiing and snowboarding gear is both bulky and heavy. We recently had an experience where the discounted airfare to a ski town was only $150, but the baggage costs were another $150! Do the math, and especially if you will only be skiing for a day or two, think hard about if you really need our own gear or if you can get by renting. We usually bring our helmet, and if we have space we pack our boots (because they fit so perfectly) but often only pack skis if it will be a longer trip.
Pick and Choose Ski School Days
You don’t have to put the kids in ski school every day, and having the option of them skiing with you can be great for the family. Ski school can really add up – often costing $100 to $200 per day. There is no doubt that professional instruction is highly valuable, but in 5 days of skiing, your child will probably get almost as much value from having two of those days instructor led, and then three days of free ski with you, as they would by being in lessons for all five days. One of the other things to look for in a ski school is a variety of instructor levels. Often, the less-experienced instructors (who are probably still excellent ski teachers) cost less at the larger resorts.
Get to Know Employees
If you know someone with a ski resort job, ask if they have guest passes or discounts to give out. Ski resort workers often, as part of their benefits package, get discounts for a limited number of friends or family. In some cases, full-time workers even get an extra season pass or two for close contacts. While you need to manage your relationships with tact, if you have a close friend or family member working for a ski area, there is a good chance they can do something for you when it comes to lift ticket or pass discounts.
Avoid Private Ski or Snowboard Lessons
Having a private ski lesson can be a great way to learn fast, but on most mountains it comes with a price premium that is just not very reasonable. Consider doing the group lessons instead for both you and your child. Children will get the added benefit of making friends with others from across the country and globe while they ski, and the peer support can keep it fun. In exchange for doing a group lesson, you will probably cut your cost in half, and there will be many times where your child’s “group” only consists of 2-3 kids anyway. We have actually had personal experiences when we sign our child up for a group lesson, and after the morning gathering find that they have been placed 1-on-1 with an instructor — essentially, a private lesson for a group price!
Sleep Away from the Slope
Staying away from the ski village area is often an easy way to save major dollars, if you don’t mind putting up with a drive and a little inconvenience. Think of a bullseye, with the center being the bottom of the chairlifts at your favorite resort. If you stay in the bullseye, you will pay top dollar. The next ring out are the condos and hotels near the resort but not quite ski-in, ski-out. They will often cost 25% less. And then if you are willing to drive to the Courtyard or Hampton Inn that is 20 miles away, you will drop the price substantially. We have often seen one hotel in a base area priced at $400 a night, whereas a hotel from the same chain, but 20 minutes away from the mountain area, goes for $125 or $150. That can really add up over the course of a week. Staying away from the base area means you will want to explore private rentals, such as through VRBO who always has a great selection in any ski town.
An added advantage of staying off-mountain? You probably will be at a lower altitude, nice for those who struggle with the elevations.
Consider Child Care in your Lodging
There are times with the little tykes just don’t want to ski, or perhaps they got burned out for a day and need rest. The ski resort child care is often quite expensive, and as we have discussed ski school is no bargain either. If your child needs a day off but you still want to ski, think about hiring a local babysitter to watch your kids as your ski chalet or condo, while you do your thing on the slopes. The price will likely be a fraction of sending the kids to ski lessons or resort child care. You can usually find good sitters online, through a local sitter placement agency, or by asking around once you are there.
Better yet, fly grandma and grandpa out to join you for the ski vacation. If they are not skiers and are willing to watch your little ones, paying for their travel may well be less expensive than paying for ski resort child care every day.
Go for a Hike, or Nordic Ski
Yes, we get that you went to the mountains so you could downhill ski or snowboard. But taking a day off to do some cross country skiing or hiking can not only be great for your legs, but it can also save a bunch of money. In one recent trip, the hefty price of a lift ticket was in the $120 range. Two of us decided that we wanted to take a day off, and go Nordic skiing nearby instead. The cost was $20 for each of us to ski, and we had a great time in a spectacular setting, with groomed trails and great scenery. We were still experiencing the mountains, minus the lift lines of the ski resort. What makes this even more appealing is that most good downhill ski resorts have a great Nordic ski area as part of the resort, or as part of a different but nearby resort.
Find Hotel Deals
Hotel rate pricing can be very dynamic, almost like that of airline seats. Based on occupancy, you might be able to find discounts of 50% or more, or weekend packages, if you wait until the last minute to book. These deals are most often accessed through the major chains such as Marriott or Hilton. This strategy comes with a few risks, though. One is that you have no idea how convenient the hotel might be to your preferred slope. The other is that if it is a popular destination, those last-minute discounts may never happen or, worse, you will have a hard time finding any place to stay.
Head for the Back Slopes
This one falls more in the category of maximizing your ski dollars, rather than saving them. Most major ski areas have long lift lines right near the Village area or base, but once you get back to some of the lifts and runs deeper into the terrain, the lines go away along with the people. This means that you will get more skiing in for your money than you would by waiting 5 minutes to get on the more popular lift each time you end your run. Vail is known for crazy lift lines near the base, but few lines in the famous back bowls once you make your way there.
Consider Half Day Tickets
We normally are not huge fans of the relatively modest savings gained by buying half day tickets. However, we see lots of families who might only have 3 or 4 hours of skiing in them before it is hot chocolate and sit-by-the-fire time. If that is you, consider starting your day in the afternoon and skiing until the lifts close. At most resorts. that would give you 3 to 3.5 hours of skiing, all for a 25% discount. Not a terrible deal if you were only going to ski that much all along. Plus, an added benefit of skiing in the afternoons only is that it will almost always be the warmer part of the day, and many people who started in the morning will be all tired out and done by 2pm.
Stock Up on Gear in March and April
By the time Spring comes, most of us are focused on summer. We have the bikes out, are getting into running shape, and perhaps even considering cranking up the lawn mower. However, this can be a great time to stock up on those basics that you know your family will need from the local ski shop. Don’t buy things that are size-dependent for your growing kids, but when it comes to ski goggles, gloves, hats, and other supplies that tend to need to be replaced, you will likely get them for 35% to 50% off or more. For adults, consider buying your new ski helmet or skis at this time too. That high-end bluetooth audio ski helmet that is $150 during the season is probably well under $100 once summer hits.
Figure out the Ski Town’s Transit System
Having a rental car, or your own car, on a ski vacation is definitely convenient. You can practically use it as a changing station and storage locker in addition to your set of wheels. In some towns, though, having a car actually costs you money, and if you are renting a car for the trip that can be a major expense. Vail charges upwards of $25 just to park at the slope. Many nicer hotels have a parking fee to leave your car in the lot when you aren’t using it. Avoid these charges by knowing the mass transit system. Most ski areas have free shuttles that can get you around just fine…. you just need to be dialed-in to the shuttle schedule in order to maximize your time.
Make a List and Pack Smart
On our most recent ski trip, one of our family members forgot something: Their snowpants. That is a pretty critical part of skiing, and $150 later they were back in business. Emergency ski-town purchases can really break the bank, as they are rarely discounted and more often marked-up. Make a ski checklist of everything you might need, an be sure to check the weather before you leave home. If it is going to be a cold week, it is good to know that you should pack those extra neck gaiters and socks before you need, not once you are on the mountain and realize you need to buy more stuff. Plus, packing things like gloves, masks, and base layers doesn’t add much bulk or weight to your suitcase.
Paul Miller is the Founder of Family Skier. He is an advanced skier and has extensive experience with family travel and ski schools. An accomplished skier, he has skied in 15 states and provinces and 6 countries. In addition to FamilySkier, his writing can be found on many ski-related websites, and as curriculum for many ski clubs in North America.