How to Do a Really Cheap Ski Trip
by Jim Kenney
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.
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 for
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.
The Marriot Ogden, UT is in the historic center of town and had a last minute offer for $69 per night over New Year's Weekend 2010, this place is super nice and doesn't belong in an el cheapo article: http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/SLCOG-Ogden-Marriott
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.
Moderated by the esteemed Billski (also a member of Epicski.com), Alpinezone.com's annual skiing on the cheap thread is a great source for lift ticket deals, especially in the Northeast: http://forums.alpinezone.com/showthread.php?111758-Skiing-on-the-Cheap-2012-13-Edition
DCSki.com offers a tracking feature for local bargains for mid-Atlantic snowriders: http://www.dcski.com/bargaintracker/index.php
For $10 the Colorado Gems card gets you a free spring ticket at Monarch and some nice discounts at other great second tier ski areas in that state: http://www.coloradoski.com/colorado-gems-card
Snowbomb offers cards for $60-150 that provide motel and lift discounts/freebies in the Lake Tahoe region: http://www.snowbomb.com/
Backcountry.com also offers the opportunity to prepurchase discount lift tickets in the preseason: http://beta.backcountry.com/the-canyons-1-day-adult-lift-ticket-the-canyons
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/