or Connect
EpicSki › First Run Articles › How to Do a Really Cheap Ski Trip

How To Do a Really Cheap Ski Trip

How To Do a Really Cheap Ski Trip 

by Jim Kenney



Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. General Tips
  3. Transportation
  4. Lodging
  5. Food
  6. Lifts
  7. Conclusion
  8. Random Notes and Links



OK, really cheap ski tripping is sleeping in the car, changing clothes at the gas station rest room, and sneaking onto the slopes. The subject of this magnum opus is one notch above that level of fiscal constraint. Grizzled globe trekkers may chuckle at the self evident information I offer, but perhaps less experienced ski travelers can glean useful advice for saving money as they set out to explore our big, beautiful world of skiing. Based on over 40 years of frugal travel as a single skier, later a "ski vacation dad", and now an AARP qualifier, these are my best cost saving tips on transportation, lodging, food, lifts, and more for multi-night ski trips. The emphasis is on cheap, do-it-yourself travel; don't expect a comparison of Aspen's Hotel Jerome and Sun Valley's historic Lodge, or a rundown on the premier all-inclusive winter vacation packages. 

The point is to minimize unnecessary expenses and maximize slope time, but don't be so cheap that you squeeze the life out of a trip. Don't travel 2000 miles and leave the 4000' vertical mountain untouched because you saved $40 to ski a smaller mountain ten miles down the road. Stay in accommodations that enable you to cook your own meals, but maybe that 8 PM arrival on your first night is not the time to prepare an elaborate meal in an unfamiliar condo kitchen? 


General Tips

One clear way to save coin is from the "inside". I'm referring to price breaks afforded to those who are ski professionals or work in some manner connected to the business, but I won't dwell on this point. Instead, the focus of this article is on tactics available to the general skiing/snowboarding public and my foremost suggestion is to plan your ski trips for weekdays whenever possible. That's when across the board costs will be significantly lower and there will be a whole lot less people around, making all logistics easier. If you must ski on weekends, consider that skiing during the early and late seasons can provide some crowd avoidance and measurable savings on lodging, lifts, and even dining-out. Late season is especially good in this regard due to pleasant weather, reasonably high trail counts, and a snowpack that often remains at prime levels around higher elevation resorts. If I’m restricted by work, school or family schedules to selecting a holiday week for a major ski trip, I much prefer Easter over Christmas.

Aside from the timing of your trip, you will accrue additional big savings if you select accommodations with cooking facilities and use them to dine-in whenever feasible. Also, consider skiing at second tier resorts with lower cache and lower prices. These places can offer great skiing, smaller crowds, and a relaxing vibe. Sometimes smaller is better, especially for beginners, intermediates, and bargain hunters.

Capitalize on economies of scale by traveling in groups. Even a small group with four to six participants will save significantly on road travel and lodging costs by combining forces. And when the price of a trip is divided among a large group of individuals or several families, skiing can get downright affordable. Ski clubs are still quite viable in some regions, New England for example, and can provide numerous group-related discounts. Whether you head out solo or with a huge entourage, do your homework by researching destinations, logistics, and deals on the internet well in advance of travel dates.  Anticipation is half the fun, and free.

While I generally opt for do it yourself (DIY) travel arrangements, it's not against the law to tap into travel agents, tour operators/package providers, or simply contact a resort's central reservation service. All these can be part of a comparison shopping strategy and may be particularly effective for last second, exotic, or large group trips. In all cases, don't be afraid to haggle. You could be pleasantly surprised by a helpful counter offer, particularly if you’re not booking primo destinations and dates. Lastly, don't rule out couch surfing. It might be time to look up that long, lost cousin with the slopeside condo!



A two-fer ticket from City Market of Burlington, a free ticket from an Epicski.com promotion, and a ton of leftover food from a big gathering the prior weekend allowed a carpooling threesome in a VW Diesel TDI to make a very affordable 2011 visit to Vermont and beautiful Exterminator Glades at Mt. Ellen (Sugarbush North).  



I live in the mid-Atlantic US. From my point of origin the big question for major ski trips is: fly or drive?  Being a frequent flyer can be a game changer, but I've never done enough business travel to best leverage that process. Besides, many of my trips include youngsters with zero frequent flyer miles. Therefore, I tend to utilize my personal motor vehicle for most ski trips, including sometimes to the Rockies.

When the destination is New England I'll always drive the 400-600 miles each way and try to include trip companions to share driving and transportation costs. Even so, factors like spiking gas prices, frequent tolls, extra meals and motel stays can make the drive/fly comparison increasingly close. A rugged four wheel drive SUV is nice for ski trips, but don't let the lack of a great/expensive ski car deter you. You wouldn't believe the number of long ski trips (1000-5000 miles in duration) I've survived in old clunkers with just a little basic vehicle winterization. 

I recognize for many skiers, however, that "time is money". If your destination is more than a one day drive from home, then flying is usually the way to go. Since I don’t play the frequent flyer points game, my simple strategy for acquiring cheap airfares is through daily monitoring of one or more of the big travel websites (Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak, etc.). Start this process about three or four months before your planned travel. Usually you will see a consistent price; for example, about $200 roundtrip from Washington, DC to Denver. Play around with flexible trip dates and alternate airports. If you see a sudden, significant drop in price after a couple weeks of monitoring things, pull the trigger. Last season I got roundtrip fares for that route for $140 flying Wednesday to Wednesday. Or you could just go with the Walmart of air carriers and buy in advance from Southwest Airlines for a guaranteed reasonable deal.

Most of my trips involving flying require a rental car after arrival. I often choose an economy or mid-size car over a big SUV to save fees and gas costs, particularly if my ski destination is accessed by well maintained roads/interstates and the forecast doesn't include a blizzard. You may be able to upgrade vehicles on or shortly before your arrival.  Obviously, your disposition towards this suggestion will depend on your aversion to the risk of driving on snowy roads.

Bus trips can be a good deal especially for youth groups, folks who don't have a car, or those who don't like driving long distances. I've never personally taken a train to go skiing, but North America's pioneer recreational skiers did this back in the 1930's, especially in the Northeast. I believe the Denver-Winter Park ski train ran as recently as 2009. I’ve heard the marvelous ski area of Le Massif in Eastern Canada has been working to establish a viable rail connection from Quebec City.  It would be very cool to see this refined mode of ski travel make a big comeback.



This 1992 Accord, pictured at Mt. Abram, ME in March 2012, has made separate ski trips from the mid-Atlantic to ME, NH, VT and UTAH since 2010 and numerous shorter trips to WV and PA.  And it's paid forsmile.gif



Apart from capitalizing on any couch surfing opportunities with friends or family, I break down lodging options depending on the size of the group making the trip. For one or two people the choice of a hostel can be very economical. They usually cost about $20-30 each per night and often include kitchen facilities for inexpensive DIY meals. I’ve incorporated stays in hostels on three different major ski trips in the last two seasons and they worked out great, but it helps to visit on weekdays when you mostly have bunkrooms, showers and kitchens all to yourself.

Motels can be good for groups of approximately two to four. There are many options for reducing the cost of motel stays. Seek motels that include a free breakfast bar, or at least include a microwave oven in the room to save on meals, especially if you're staying at a property for multiple nights. Unless you have something better, always employ general discounts like Military, Government, AAA, Senior, etc.  I've also tried loyalty programs with some of the big motel chains to get free reward rooms. You can scout motel properties and reserve a confirmed rate en route via the Internet or phone, but a good old hard copy of the Roomsaver/HotelCoupons.com coupon book can also help with this. This green colored guide is found in the lobbies of many roadside retail establishments around the country and contains “space available” discount coupons for motel rooms along nearby interstate highways.  They can be very handy for those late night car rides when you're not stopping until the caffeine runs out. Again, the major online travel sites can be useful for reserving a good motel rate. Most recently I've had success bidding with Priceline.com, although it may not always be suitable if you need specific bedding/room arrangements and precise locations. In my experience, nailing down a motel rate through some advance means is almost always better than the walk-up room price.

For groups of four or more people condos or single family homes can be very economical. VRBO.com is a good website to search for bargain condos at ski areas. Since you often interact with the owner there can be room for negotiation, especially for weekdays or late/early season.  Consider skiing places where summer crowds are larger than winter crowds; for example, South Lake Tahoe, CA, Jackson, WY, New York's Catskill Mountains on weekdays, and much of New Hampshire. These popular summer tourist destinations often have a glut of bargain priced rooms during ski season. Generally, avoid slopeside accommodations unless you have young children in your group, when paying dearly for this convenience just might be worth it!






















The White Mountains Hostel in Conway, NH is well equipped to handle big groups, but we had it mostly to ourselves mid-week in March 2010.




One of the prime directives in this category is to simply bring your own food and drinks. If you are financing a trip for yourself and a few family members your costs for eating out three meals a day can approach the price of lifts or lodging. Follow my earlier advice and choose accommodations with cooking facilities. I won’t get into detailed menu suggestions, but I usually employ basic stuff like pasta, soups, chili, salads, whatever, especially if it is easy to transport and prepare. Take advantage of free motel breakfasts and the welcome party or happy hour buffet at your resort condo complex. 


I almost always brown bag my own lunches on a ski day. Whether it's PBJ or PBR, the savings will really add up when you do this regularly. If it's cool outside I'll look to eat in a warming hut or a quiet corner of the base lodge, perhaps grabbing some hot water for a cup of instant ramen noodle soup. If it's nice weather I love to make sandwiches and dine al fresco high up on the mountain to savor the scenery.  The thought of some of these bargain meals brings a smile to my face years later, like the solitary picnic with two of my daughters near the summit of Heavenly, CA on a beautiful spring day, or reheating homemade chocolate chip cookies on a wood stove with my son in the mid-mountain warming hut at Saddleback, ME on a cold powder day.


Look to combine deals like the $7 turkey sandwich wrap I bought in 2011 at the City Market of Burlington, VT.  It came with a coupon good for a two-fer $58 lift ticket deal at nearby Mt. Ellen (Sugarbush North). I ate the wrap the next day in Mt. Ellen’s tiny Glen House restaurant at an elevation of about 3000 feet. Keep some candy or other easy snacks in your pockets for cheap on-slope treats. Carrying a supply of your own water/beverage not only saves dough, but is important for hydration when skiing at high western elevations.  


Pick your dining-out splurges carefully. Some all-you-can-eat restaurants can be great (e. g., Hoss’s in PA and WV), but others are nasty. Chinese and Mexican are two of my favorite cuisines and in a resort full of expensive restaurants they can sometimes offer economy, especially if you bring a coupon from a local newspaper or visitor’s guide. At times value can trump the bottom line.  On a visit to Steamboat, CO last winter I found that you can enjoy the soup and salad bar at the elegant Hazie’s Restaurant for a memory making $15 lunch in the mid-mountain Thunderhead Lodge.  This includes wait service and linen table cloths beside a wall of windows with stunning views of the Yampa Valley, meanwhile one level below the hoards in the cafeteria are paying the same price for burgers and fries.



Just a simple brown bag meal at Heavenly, CA, but we got a table with a million dollar view.



Discount lift ticket purchasing is a topic that could merit a tome of its own. Do your homework and you can almost always avoid paying the full window rate for lift tickets. In recent years websites like Liftopia.com and Liftticket.com have emerged to offer an easy way to make online prepurchases of discount tickets, often 20-40% less than retail. Just remember, they commit you to a specific date and ski area, and all sales are final.  Other obvious options include prepaid online offers directly from resorts for discount tickets and frequent skier cards, military/gov/police and student discounts, multi-day/half-day/night-ski/beginner-only tickets, early or late season discounts, lift and lodging package deals, retail specials through Costco, REI , grocery stores, gas stations, and the like, and discounts/coupons from various tourism websites like SkiNH, SkiPA, or publications like the Winter Go Play New England/Northeast maps.  


There are many other creative ticketing strategies including Entertainment Book coupons, the Descente Jacket and Geigerrig/Skull Candy voucher promotions, and ad-hoc Groupon type sales. A growing number of ski areas offer versatile four or six packs of heavily discounted and transferrable lift tickets, but usually they must be prepurchased during the fall or early winter. There is always the good old fashioned Season Pass, or perhaps volunteering at a ski area in exchange for passes.

My advice is to scour the internet including diehard skier websites such as Epicski, Alpinezone, TGR, DCSki, or whatever your favorite online source for local ski info may be.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and network with like minded ski nuts.  Every winter there are ticket deals that emerge during the season.  They may be one time freebies offered by resorts, websites and retailers, or special combination tickets from a group of resorts that don’t usually team together, or extra cheap spring season-only passes, or maybe a discounted season pass for next season that is also valid for the remaining month or two of the current season.  Many ski areas are using Facebook as the initial outlet to publicize emerging deals. The possible sources for discounts are numerous, but you have to keep your ear to the ground.


Every day is a discount day at Black Mountain, NH.  Afternoon tickets were $15 for anyone walking up to the ticket window at this gnarly, soulful little hill on a Wednesday in 2010.



I almost always bring my own skis and boots on ski trips to save money and guarantee a familiar fit, but that’s just me.  With merciless airline baggage fees the cost of renting ski equipment at your destination may no longer be an extravagance. It is usually cheaper to rent off-mountain, but pick a place close to your accommodations so you can swap gear if you want to try something else.  For long term use I buy a lot of good used ski equipment and clothing when my local ski shops hold their annual fall equipment swaps.  These regulated yard sales, often benefiting ski patrols or race teams, can be especially economical if you are outfitting a family.  Some ski shops will team with local mountains to offer “Demo Days” during the early season with free equipment demos and discounted lift tickets.  The idea is to promote sales just in time for Christmas and this is a great way to narrow the candidates for your next investment in skis. 


There is a ton of ski equipment sold online these days from places like eBay and Amazon.  Buyers beware.  Sometimes you can get a better sense of security buying from a dedicated ski site such as Epicski.com.  I understand the forums of TetonGravity.com are also a great resource for gear deals.  Savvy ski vacationers aren’t too proud to take advantage of free mountain tours offered by many large ski resorts, especially early during an extended visit.  These tours will likely be led by experienced ambassadors who not only show you how to navigate the trail layout, but can provide all kinds of time and money saving tips around the resort. 



Second hand skis, first hand skiing.



The point is to minimize unnecessary expenses and maximize slope time, but don't be so cheap that you squeeze the life out of a trip. Don't travel 2000 miles and leave the 4000' vertical mountain untouched because you saved $40 to ski a smaller mountain ten miles down the road. Stay in accommodations that enable you to cook your own meals, but maybe that 8 PM arrival on your first night is not the time to prepare an elaborate meal in an unfamiliar condo kitchen? 


In the internet age we are truly fortunate to be able to network within online ski websites/communities and get some great gauge on travel deals.  In some ways these sites have supplanted the old ski club model for bonding like-minded winter sports enthusiasts.  Who knows, a virtual friend made during the offseason might lead you on the run of your life at their home mountain next winter - for real. 


Finally, for the veteran globe trekkers out there, do us all a favor by sharing your cost cutting secrets with a comment or addendum to this article. One of the guiding principles of my ski life is to never give a newbie the impression that our sport is too expensive for regular folks.  What a tragedy that a zealous soul should miss out on such majestic, life affirming joy! 



Affordable recreational skiing is a team sport, Epicski gathering at Blue Knob, PA 2009.


Random Notes and Links

  • I hesitate to provide an extensive list of specific bargain suggestions, facilities or businesses because it can be highly perishable, but here are a few that I or friends have had good personal experiences with in the last 2-4 years.
  • Hostels: the White Mountains Hostel in Conway, NH, Hostel Tevere near Sugarbush, VT, and the Maine Road house between Sugarloaf and Saddleback, ME. 
  • Roomsaver.com has become HotelCoupons.com, but they still offer the "Green Guide" that has been around for 30 years for space available motel discounts:
  • In 2012 Priceline.com got me a clean $44 motel room with two double beds at the Sun God Lodge in Taos, NM, and a $59 room with complimentary breakfast bar at a very nice Comfort Inn in Avon, CO just across the street from a stop on the free bus line to Beaver Creek.
  • I got the following deal in 2011 just by calling the motel or surfing their website: Parker's Motel http://www.parkersmotel.com/ with great views and a hot tub. It's halfway between Loon and Cannon (~5 miles to either), NH and was a heck of a deal at $49 per night.  
  • Interested in a really unusual way to ski and save money?  Stay in a yurt from Yurtsofutah.com:  http://www.yurtsofutah.com/yurts.html   In many cases these are backcountry yurts that must be accessed on foot (e.g. touring skis, XC skis, or snowshoes), but I’m told they can be a truly awesome experience.
  • Snowbomb offers cards for $60-150 that provide motel and lift discounts/freebies in the Lake Tahoe region:  http://www.snowbomb.com/
  • Age 70+?  There are still some great deals out there for you directly from resorts, or check out clubs like this one:  http://dev.70plusskiclub.org/


Comments (15)

nice article.
couple tips:
If searching for lodging, lookup the lodging or bundle packages from the resort you are visiting. Each resort typically works like a travel agency and the resort has rooms set aside for them that work in an independent economy from the publically available internet travel sites.
They also have the capability to offer bundles on lift tickets with lodging or other promotions that other sites cannot match (since the lift tickets are basically "free" to them)
Another tip is that if you are time or energy rich, but money poor, you can subsidize yourself from your more rich peers. This does depend on the specific social interactions of your group.
From a group perspective this does not cut total costs, but if you are OK with some class system, it can cut some individual costs
For example, often times in groups, it is etiquette that the driver does not pay for gas or tolls or whatever. So if you do that task, you have saved that cost. Whether you are really the chauffeur and the others get the priviledge of sleep in exchange for that money is for your social interactions to decide.
Or, if you volunteer to sleep on the floor, you should have a discount compared to the more luxurious couch or bed. If you volunteer to cook/cleanup, you get a free ride on the food fee.
Anonymously, this plays out too. On a lot of the bus trip type sites, if you volunteer to do the organization or be groupleader or gather enough minions; your ride or lifticket is often free.
zimride.com is also a ridesharing site where you can give other people a ride to the resort they will pay you for it.
Great article Jim.
I have one tip of my own to add for transportation. Keep an eye out for credit card offers a large number of air miles provided as a bonus for signing up. Last year Southwest had an offer on their rewards card of 50,000 air miles if you get their card and make one purchase with it. 50,000 was more than enough for a ticket from the DC area to Reno for the Epicski gathering last year. I now use that card for paying most of my bills and should get enough air miles each year for another free trip out West. The Southwest card does have an annual fee, but $70 is a lot less than a cost of a flight from East Coast to out West.
I travel for business a lot, so I am always looking at cheap ways to add a weekend vacation trip to my business trips. I've found two air travel tips that can save people hundreds/thousands a year if they are persistent.
1. Find a local air fare sale site and check it everyday. I use Clark Howard's travel site for Atlanta and I look at it EVERY DAY. I know, for example, that a Delta flight to Steamboat goes on sale every year about this time. I wait and buy ticket for that location until it's on sale. It saves an automatic 30%.
2. If you're a business traveler like me, look for multi-leg flights instead of round trips. For example, I have to visit Omaha for business. I found that a round-trip flight from Atlanta > Omaha > Atlanta was more expensive than a multi-leg flight from ATL > Omaha > SLC > Atlanta by 14%. By flying the second option, I could add a weekend of skiing and pay less for the flight. Overall, a win!
for driving trips... I highly recommend bringing crock pots. Throw food in the morning and let the crock pot do its thing and when you get back at the end of the day... instant hot meal.
I'll add one point. I travel with my husband for his work alot and when we're paying for my flights or our own we check the smaller regional airport about an 1.5 hours out of town. This week he went to California from Charlotte, NC. It was a $1300.00 one way flight out of Charlotte. I was going to go along and I could get on his exact same flight if I went from Florence, SC (1.5 hours away) for $450.00. No exaggeration, those are the price difference. For my $450.00 I would board a dash 8 to Charlotte from Florence for about 35 minutes. Get off and transfer to the flight from Charlotte to LA that he is taking for $1300.00. Coming home I can just miss the last leg and stay in Charlotte, but i have to get the first leg going. We check Florence prices often and all other airports we can reach within a couple hours when ever we pay for flying or are flying someone down. I pay half or less often if I pick the cheapest airport. Don't forget regionals.
When in Europe, look at vacation apartments and/or pensions. They are more equivalent to an American style condo or effeciency. Hotel rates are similar to the US but most Europeans go the apartment/pension route. My wife and I recenltly stayed in a beautiful vacation apartment in St. Anton, Austria for $150.00/night. It was a one bedroom with living room and kitchen so we were able to do some meals and snacks too.
I travel a lot for business so I have the miles to go to Europe once in a while. I'll second the recommondation of the credit card offers. Another CC offers 30K miles if you make one purchase in the first few months. This will get you a one way to Europe. Add t this that often lift tickets in Europe are up to 40% less then the western US and the great lodging rates, it can be very comprable to a domestic trip.
A great place to find cheap lift tickets if you're hitting any of the Colorado ski resorts (would probably work for any US resorts) is on craigslist. We usually find great deals from people that pre-purchased tickets but could not use them for one reason of another.
Consider Europe, especially from the east coast. My limited experience (Chamonix) is that there is more relatively cheap lodging available, lifts and food are generally cheaper, the food, especially on the mountain is better, and international flights have more generous baggage rules (although Lufthansa, last time I checked, was ridiculous for a ski bag).
Airbnb offers some interesting accommodation options worldwide.  Everything from couch surfing to upscale houses.
Anyone remember when Crested Butte used to be free the last week of the season? We used to go up and camp out for free a couple miles down the road. A whole ski trip for the price of gas and whatever cheap food we brought. Those were some cold mornings, but good times!
Agree with Catfish, if one can arrange business travel as to extend it to allow travel. One item for a very few on similar note, you're a consultant and travel to consult, a certain amount hotel time might be deductible if over the weekend. I haven't the specifics (ask your tax attorney/consultant) but if your conference ends late Friday, you might be able to travel on Monday and charge hotel as a cost, again there are conditions (ratio of days worked to weekend) tied to it so .. one should seek out the specific rules that may of changed.
I center all my points around southwest airlines and if you have an smartphone and are willing to do surveys on e-rewards and religiously do the checkpoints app you can accumulate points fast. i average around 2000 southwest points each month. so it allows me to get points flights to slc 
Don't belong to a ski club and need lodging?  That's OK, they'll often take your money anyways in exchange for a bed in their lodge.  Ask to come as a guest, or to be sponsored.  The going price is $30-35 on the east coast.  there's probably no usurous tax or other fees and you'll probably get free wireless.  You get a shared bedroom, a full kitchen, a place to leave your gear and a great living room with fireplace.  You can share your stories and lies with like minded snowsports fans.   Clubs always can use new members, so they are hopeful if you stay, you might become a member.
WOW !! where is that million dollar view, USA or Europe?
If Europe, then it's OK. If USA, then it's a problem, because they refused my visa request.
Don't forget about 5th grade ski passports.  VT has one that was around $10 and offered 3 free days at each VT mountain, with just a few blackout dates.  Jay Peak was NOT blacked out over MLK weekend.  Utah has a similar offer for $35.  My son skied 3 days at Alta and 3 days at Snowbird and we didn't pay a cent.  NH also has a program, although not as generous.  None of these programs has a state residency requirement.
Another way we save money is we bring a grill with us every weekend to Butternut.  If the weather is decent, there is a very fun vibe on the deck and we enjoy hanging out with a good grilled burger, steak, chicken, etc.  There is no fighting over seating and the beers are invariably better than what you can get in the lodge.  There are usually several regulars on the deck that do this.  I would do it even if I didn't save money in the process.
EpicSki › First Run Articles › How to Do a Really Cheap Ski Trip