Tips When Flying to Ski

Tips When Flying to Ski

Published by Brion O'Connor

Traveling with Ski Gear.

Unless you're retired, or are fortunate enough to be a Trustafarian who can pack up the family wagon and zig-zag across the continent to visit your dream ski locations, your best bet to hit the hill is often booking an airline flight. Of course, that bumps the cost of an outing, whether it's a long weekend or longer. And the more people in your group, whether a family vacation or a boys/girls escape, and those costs can increase exponentially.

Now, don't get me wrong. To my way of thinking, a ski trip is always worth the money. It is, really, an investment in my mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett abhor wasting money. Me too. So, I try to stretch my hard-earned dollars as far as I can.

Even before you start looking at flights, I'd recommend that you look into some of the outstanding multi-mountain season passes now available. These guarantee reasonable lift tickets, both close to home and far away. The best of the lot include Vail's Epic Pass and Alterra's Ikon Pass.

Here's how these work in terms of flexibility – For example, I'm based outside of Boston. An Epic Pass provides me lift tickets to more than three dozen exceptional resorts, including Vail, Telluride, Keystone, Crested Butte, and Beaver Creek in Colorado, Whistler/Blackcomb, in British Columbia, Sun Valley in Idaho, Park City and Snowbasin in Utah, and Northstar and Heavenly in California, plus resorts in Europe, Japan, and even Australia. But, closer to home, I can also use the same pass to ski Okemo, Mount Snow, and Stowe in Vermont, Hunter Mountain in New York, and Sunapee, Crotched Mountain, Attitash/Bear Peak, and Wildcat in New Hampshire. So it's a real win/win.

Once you've got your passes, it's time to start looking at the friendly skies (we'll save lodging for another blog post):

Best Deals

So, you've got a hankering to travel for your turns. What's the best approach? Airlines, like most businesses, are all about “supply in demand.” Every empty seat is a financial loss, so they often structure their pricing to ensure a full flight. That's why they'll offer better deals well in advance of a flight, to essentially “get the ball rolling,” and start putting derrieres in seats. That means planning before you know what the ski conditions are going to be. Consider it an occupational hazard.

Conversely, another good time to buy, if you don't mind living on the edge, is within a week of your vacation. Again, it's all about empty seats (much like hotels and travel sites treat open rooms). And much like Wall Street, this tactic will test your “risk tolerance.” I'm not “risk averse” when I'm traveling solo, and the odds of finding a single seat are better than finding a pair, or a foursome for my family. Suffice to say, whenever I'm traveling with my girls, I'll spend the extra money to ensure seats for everyone.

Speaking of my girls, my wife and I made a conscious decision to travel during non-traditional weeks and weekends. This didn't always sit well with our local school officials, but my daughters were never going to win any “perfect attendance” awards anyway. And trust me, airlines are keenly aware of school vacations (the same way you can't find discount flights around Thanksgiving or Christmas). As a result, we'd often pull the girls out of school for a few days in order to get better flight prices (this tactic also helps avoid black-out dates on many season ski passes). With just an ounce of pre-planning with their teachers, their grades didn't suffer a bit.

In the same vein, good timing can also provide free lift tickets. Ski resorts love hosting skiers on “non-traditional” days. For example, according to the Undercover Tourist blog, you can turn your Alaska Airlines boarding pass into a free lift ticket at Snowbasin in Utah. The offer is only available for certain dates, and you must fly on a Monday-Wednesday to receive a free Tuesday-Thursday lift ticket for the day following your flight. Plus, you need to register online first at Visit Ogden. Sure, it's a little extra legwork, but given the price of lift tickets, it's worthwhile.

So, your next decision is, where to fly to? Think about your destination. Some airports have much better access to the mountains. My favorites include Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming, Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah, Eagle County Regional Airport near Vail, Bozeman Yellowstone International in Montana, Burlington International in Vermont, Friedman Memorial in Idaho, Mammoth Yosemite in California, and Reno-Tahoe International near the California-Nevada line.

The major downside of flying into a major city, even though it's usually cheaper and more likely to offer a direct flight, is that you're probably going to be further away from your final destination (think Boston, Massachusetts, or Denver, Colorado). See below for more details on transportation. On the flip side, smaller regional airports, which service smaller craft, will bring you closer to the slopes, but are much susceptible to the unpredictable whims of Old Man Winter. That makes getting in and getting out of town a calculated gamble. I've gotten stuck at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport in Colorado almost half the times I've gone to visit my brother, who lives outside Snowmass. You have to be willing to chalk it up to the adventure of traveling.

Finally, make good use of your points and miles to take the edge off your vacation tally.  If you're a frequent flier, you probably already participate in a points program or two. If you're really good at planning ahead, scout out which airlines fly from a local hub to the resorts you're considering for a future trip. Again, if you live in the Northeast like I do, you can fly Boston to Steamboat Springs on JetBlue using your JetBlue TrueBlue points. Other airlines that fly directly to Steamboat include American Airlines (Chicago-O’Hare, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Delta (Atlanta, Minneapolis), and United (Chicago-O’Hare, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York-Newark, San Francisco, Washington-Dulles).

Likewise, a number of credit cards offer travel miles. Shop around. The best offer guaranteed miles, without black-out dates.

Inside tip: Always have a back-up plan. That includes making sure your airline has more than one flight traveling between your home and your destination. Snowstorms and flight cancellations are all part of the winter travel milieu. I once got stuck in Boulder, Colorado, for a few extra days because of a blizzard back home in Boston, and the airline (which will remain nameless) only had a single flight between Denver and Boston. As a result, everyone aboard that flight got bounced, as there were no other flights to put those stranded passengers on.

How to Pack

One of the more unsettling developments in air travel over the past decade is the tendency of airlines to start nickel-and-diming their customers. It's their version of “death by a thousand cuts.” Today, you can expect to pay extra for meals, entertainment, and most of all, luggage.

That's where Kulkea and similar sport-specific luggage companies can be a huge help. Ski bags range from a basic zip-up bag to padded bags that also protect them, with rollers  that allow easy navigation thought airports (like Kulkea's Kantaja Double Roller bag). Likewise, boot bags can vary from an inexpensive models to higher-end bags that hold your helmet, with pockets for goggles, devices, gloves and other paraphernalia, and more rugged straps, including backpack straps (such as such as Kulkea's Boot Trekker).

Regardless of your brand of choice, make sure the luggage you select is rugged, and can withstand the rigors of in-flight travel. Without pointing fingers at any particular airline, baggage handlers have a reputation for being less-than-gentle with their passengers’ property. Speed, it seems, trumps everything else.

Many ski and boot bags also provide enough space for extra clothing, which reduces the need for a third bag (in addition to your carry-on bag). Generally speaking, airlines combine a ski bag and a boot bag together as a single item. Check the airline policy online on flying with skis, which is typically found under “sports equipment.” There are two important factors to keep in mind – overweight and oversized baggage. This is exactly why I try to distribute my gear and clothing between my bags.

Some airlines charge an overweight baggage fee if your gear exceeds the airline's weight limit while. That limit is generally between 40-51 pounds. Similarly, some airlines waive the oversized baggage fee for snow gear, but others will charge a fee if the baggage exceed the prescribed size limit. The size limit is generally 62 to 80 linear inches (calculated by adding height plus width plus depth).

For example, American Airlines policy dictates that one pair of skis or a snowboard and one equipment bag counts as a single checked baggage item. Standard checked baggage fees apply to equipment bags that measure less than 126 linear inches and 50 pounds. If the equipment bag exceeds 50 pounds and 62 linear inches, standard overweight and oversize fees apply. Over at Southwest Airlines, a pair of skis or snowboard, one set of poles and one pair boots may count as one item. Up to two bags to hold your gear may be packed and tagged separately. Ski equipment isn't subject to excess size charges, but excess weight charges may apply. Again, check with your airline.

Those fees encourage a number of skiers to forego bringing their own gear on vacation. That's a calculated risk. Renting gear is a terrific option, especially if your boots and skis are a few years old, and you want to check out the latest and greats models. Plus, a reputable shop keeps its stock of skis and snowboards well-tuned.

Conversely, if you're like me, your gear is like a second skin, and changing it up can be a little dicey. There's nothing worse than investing in flights, lodging, transportation, lift tickets, and rentals, only to find you're not completely comfortable in your boots or on your boards. If you do rent, make sure the shop has plenty of options, and will allow you to switch up mid-vacation. And sometimes rentals are an absolute necessity, if your gear fails to show up (which, sadly, has happened to me several times).


So, you've got a great deal on your flight. Next, how are you getting to your accommodations, and from those accommodations to the hill? Car rental? Resort shuttle? Uber?

As mentioned earlier, flying into a major hub often translates to more expensive and time-consuming ground transportation to get to the mountain. It could also mean you run a higher risk of facing road closures along the way if there's any bad weather (hello, Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah, or Interstate 70 heading out of Denver, Colorado).

Fortunately, ski resort organizations have recognize transportation as an income opportunity, and are now doing a much better job of offering a variety of options to get to the resort. Unless I've got a big group (more than four people), I'll usually opt for some “public transportation” method. I'm a big fan of Colorado's Vans to Vail shuttle. Another great option is the Winter Park Express from Union Station in Denver to Winter Park for only $60, round-trip.

The convenience of slopeside lodging comes at a price, naturally. As someone who loves grabbing first tracks, I'm usually willing to pay that price. Plus, having a slopeside room often means not having to deal with the extra legwork and expense of renting a car (although the resort's menu of attractions comes into play).

There's always a cost/benefit analysis with regards to renting a vehicle. There's the added expense, which includes the vehicle itself, gas, and maybe parking charges. You’ll also have to deal with mountain conditions, which visitors from warmer regions may not be accustomed to. On the positive side, you can come and go as you please, allowing you to visit other nearby attractions (a big plus if you have a non-skier in your group), as well as  local ski towns and restaurants Apres ski.

Of course, the better resorts have also recognized this need. And, like transportation from the airport, many now offer shuttle service into town. Obviously, they'd prefer that you spend your money at the resort, but they also understand the desire to get out and about. Clearly, a shuttle isn't going to provide the same convenience as a rental car, which allows you to come and go as you please. But when it comes to a ski vacation, every penny saved is a penny you can spend on your next trip.

And the beauty of skiing is that there's always a next trip to plan for.

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