Banging Out Turns Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank.
News flash: Skiing isn’t cheap. Never has been, really (figuring for inflation and all). Anyone who thinks it is, let’s be honest, isn’t bothering to read an article entitled “skiing on a budget.”
But for the other 97 percent of us (give or take a few percentage points), skiing is a pretty hefty financial commitment. When you consider lift tickets, lodging, food, gas money, wear and tear on your vehicle, not to mention ski gear and clothing, a weekend in the hills for a family of four can quickly fly past the $2,000 threshold. Which is why it’s so important to make sure you get 100 cents worth of every ski dollar.
But the news isn’t all bleak. Really. Take it from a ski industry insider. “Resorts would probably hate to hear me say this, but you should never have to pay full price for a lift ticket,” says Tim McGuire, former general manager at Burke Mountain in Vermont’s glorious Northeast Kingdom. “You should always be able to find a deal.”
McGuire’s colleagues should be ashamed if they even think about taking him to task for that comment. That’s because almost every mountain that I know of, whether in the Northeast or out West, big or small, claim they offer a great bang for your buck. And they all offer deals.
In many ways, ski areas are like airlines. You can always pay top dollar if you want to, but you should never have to. It may take a little legwork, but you’ll quickly realize that a little legwork will go a long way toward stretching your dollar. Here’s Kulkea’s primer on how to take the edge off of setting your edges in the snow.
Plan ahead. Apologies first. We really ought to have printed this in August, instead of early October, but die hard Powderhounds all know that the best time to get your season passes is long before ski area work crews start to roust those furry critters out of their snowmaking lines. That typically means before Labor Day, and certainly before Columbus Day. So that’s something to put in your back pocket for next season. As far as this year goes, you’ve still got plenty of time to get in on the fun, but the savings will be pro-rated. Planning ahead also allows you to get better package prices, as resorts are hedging their bets against what Mother Nature may or may not bring. Obviously, there’s some risk involved, but one simple rule applies: The longer you wait, the more expensive your trip becomes.
Super last-minute deals. Unless, of course, you wait for the absolute last second. At the risk of sounding like William Shatner, you can find outstanding deals if you’ve got the nerve to wait out the rush, and the acumen and chutzpah to negotiate a better price. This works best for accommodations, since no hotel manager or bed & breakfast owner wants to have empty beds. Again, you might find yourself squeezed out of the market at your favorite hill or hotel, but if you’re flexible about where you ski and where you stay, the savings can be significant.
Savings in numbers. There are also a number of multi-resort passes available. The obvious one is Vail’s Epic pass, thanks to their recent acquisition of Peak Resorts. For $969 for adults and $509 for children (ages five to 12), the Epic Pass offers unlimited, unrestricted access to 33 North American areas, including Whistler Blackcomb, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Crested Butte, Park City, Heavenly, Stowe, Okemo, Mount Snow, Mount Sunapee, Attitash, and Wildcat, plus three Australia resorts. It also provides limited access to Telluride, Sun Valley, Snowbasin, and resorts in the Canadian Rockies, Japan, France, Switzerland, and Italy. The Epic Local Pass ($719 for adults, $579 for teens, ages 13 to 18, and $379 for children ages five to 12), offers many of the same resorts, but with more restrictions, at a lower price point. Not to be outdone, Alterra’s impressive Ikon Pass (adults pass costs $1049 without blackout dates, or $749 with restrictions) features 41 destinations, including eastern resorts Sunday River and Sugarloaf in Maine, Sugarbush, Stratton and Killington in Vermont, Loon in New Hampshire, Snowshoe in West Virginia, and Mont Tremblant in Quebec, plus western resorts Mammoth, Big Bear, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, Winterpark, Copper, Aspen, Snowmass, Revelstoke, Deer Valley, Alta, Snowbird, Jackson Hole, and Big Sky. There are also student and military discounts. But the prices increase on Oct. 17.
Local loyalty. Many ski areas and resorts have followed the lead of local businesses that offer discounts to residents (I still remember going out on the town in Breckenridge, CO, with my brother Matty, who lived there at the time. After blowing through $50, I thought my night was over. Matt, who didn’t have a dime, asked me, “Dude, can I get you another beer.” The locals take care of each other). For example, at Cannon Mountain, an adult pass (ages 30-64) runs $829, but if you’re a New Hampshire resident (ages 30-64) drops to $621. It’s worth checking with your favorite hill.
Borrow equipment. When I was a dead-broke high school and college student, I would beg, borrow and steal to get my turns. Well, okay, I wouldn’t steal, but only because I couldn’t afford bail. But I wasn’t too proud to beg. And borrowing gear, particularly if you’re a first-time skier or snowboarder, is a perfectly sensible first step to saving a few bucks. Like lift tickets and lodging, ski gear is pricey. Ask siblings, friends, and colleagues. Don’t be bashful. You’ll be surprised how many folks will gladly help you out, because most skiers and ‘boarders want their friends and family on the hill with them. When it’s your turn, you’ll want to do the same. It’s good karma.
Seasonal rentals and second-hand deals. Renting per day is nuts. There’s no other way to say it. Why pay $12 a day for a ski helmet that sells for $60? Many ski shops offer seasonal rental programs that strike a much more equitable balance for both youngsters and adults. They also sell off portions of their rental fleet from time to time, and you can find some great bargains. Just make sure you don’t buy sight unseen (eBay, while an outstanding outlet for everything from parkas to ski pants, is not the place you want to buy used skis, or helmets). Ask your local ski shop if they have an upgrade program, where they will credit your purchase this year for new stuff next year (a terrific option for growing youngsters). Just one caveat, though, if you buy used. “I would not skimp on boots,” says Che Elwell of Massachusetts. “Buy new and get fitted. It is the difference between frozen, numb toes, and a great ski experience.” Agreed.
Last year’s gear. Conversely, you can find some smoking deals on last year’s model. Think of ski equipment like a new car. My eldest daughter Maddi is car shopping right now, and the deals on the 2019 models, compared to those spiffy new 2020s, are impressive. Same goes for skis, boots, and bindings. For example, the retailer Christy Sports, with locations in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Washington, is offering savings up to 70 percent on last year’s product. I wish I could get Maddi that kind of discount on her new car. Similar savings can be found at numerous online and brick-and-mortar retail outlets, like The House in Minnesota.
Don’t be a slave to fashion. These days, I don’t mind paying top dollar for ski gear (skis, snowboard, boots and helmet), if it means a better experience on the hill. Conversely, I don’t really care what I look like, fashion-wise, as long as my skiwear is bombproof. Breathable and waterproof is a must, with layers for warmth. That doesn’t mean I skimp. Patagonia and Arc’teryx stuff isn’t cheap, but it’s built to last. So I buy it once, not annually. If you’re worried about being current, and sporting all the latest colors, you’re going to spend more. I also enjoy heading to Marshall’s or T.J. Maxx, and finding great deals on clearance items, paying the same price for better stuff. Then I parlay my savings into more time on the hill for my family and me.
Cruise the web. Everyone loves great cruising terrain. Cruising the internet will get you on those slopes, cheaper. Almost every ski area worth its salt has a web site nowadays, and you can usually find great deals. For a clearinghouse, check out sites like Ski Vermont, Ski NH, Ski California, Ski Utah, and Colorado Ski Country.
Unadvertised specials. This is one of my favorites. For some reason, not all deals get publicized. So I always ask. Do you offer an auto club discount, like AAA? Or AARP (the joys of being over 50!)? How about discounts for kids under 12? Under 6? Or discounts for students? It’s like dealing with the phone company sometimes; there are plenty of bargains, but they’re not always offering them without being asked. Or unless you suggest that you might take your hard-earned dollar somewhere else. Again, you have nothing to lose by asking.
Little skiers, big savings. Providing discounts for children is a real win-win for ski areas and families alike. Mom and dad get a break on the cost, while ski areas get the opportunity to convert youngsters into lifetime winter enthusiasts. One of my favorites is SkiNH’s “Snowsports Passports” which provides a free lift ticket or trail pass for your 4th or 5th grader to enjoy New Hampshire’s scenic ski trails – alpine or nordic – this winter. That’s 32 days (or nights) that your child can get outside and explore this season for just $30. Even better, you don’t have to be a New Hampshire resident to qualify. Many other state ski associations have comparable programs.
Small is beautiful. Big mountains come with big price tags. That’s not a criticism; that’s just the reality. They also offer a lot more variety, and in many instances more amenities, which translates to better value for some folks. No argument here. But if you know just what you want, smaller hills can often fill the bill for considerably fewer Benjamins. Here’s proof (as of late September). In New Hampshire, Black Mountain outside Jackson is offering an adult season ticket for $549.00, which also provides access to a Freedom Pass at no extra cost. That alliance of 13 independent ski areas from Maine to Alaska offers three complimentary tickets (limit one per visit) to each of the other 12 Freedom Pass mountains. New England ski areas include Bolton Valley and Magic Mountain in Vermont, Dartmouth Skiway and McIntyre in New Hampshire, and Lost Valley in Maine. Likewise, areas like Vermont’s Bromley and Magic Mountain may not have the same amount of terrain as a Killington or Mount Snow or Sugarbush, but their ticket prices aren’t as expansive either.
Home is where the bargains are. In the same vein, staying close to home will say money in a number of ways. The first is the obvious – with gas prices hovering close to $3.00 per gallon, a short trip means less of a donation to Big Oil. And that doesn’t even begin to reflect the true cost of driving. According to AAA, a small sedan costs 41.5 cents a mile to operate, while a 4-wheel-drive SUV, on average, will run you more than 75 cents per mile (and that’s using a figure of $2.88 per gallon!). Those miles, and costs, add up fast if you’re traveling to mountain areas. Staying close to home also means a ski outing isn’t an all-day adventure, and allows skiers and boarders to take advantage of half-day and evening rates. Plus, you get to sleep in your own bed at night.
Think out of the box. While some might nominate me for “Bad Parent of the Year,” I don’t see anything wrong with taking the kids out of school for a couple of days if it means taking advantage of “non-traditional” rates. Ski area owners aren’t dummies. They live in a world of supply and demand, just like the rest of us. The highest prices – for lift tickets and accommodations – are always reserved for weekends and school vacation weeks. Same applies to those annoying “black-out dates” that some of you might find on your season passes. Me? I’ll take Tuesday and Wednesday turns any day. Plus, ski areas want people on the slopes during these “off days,” so that’s when you’ll typically find great deals, like two-for-one days. So I prefer to “flex” my time off, and I’ll take my daughters with me. And for anyone who thinks I’m taking liberties, consider this: Last year, when our school vacations were cancelled because of excessive snow days (actually, inadequate snow removal plans, but that’s another story), local school officials still allowed teachers and administrators with travel plans to take the time off. So, if the people who work for the schools can do it, I’m not going to let them tell me that my family and I can’t do it.
No house like a clubhouse. This is my “Back to the Future” suggestion. What made ski houses back in the day so popular? One of the bedrock principles of economics is that there are savings in numbers (the classic “economies of scale”). Before the condo craze, folks got together to form ski clubs, buying up and fixing up old homes in ski country. Today, you can still find those clubs, and it’s at least worth checking into those that still exist. Ask around. Word of mouth is typically the best way to find out about these hidden gems.
Bundle your bargains. While you thinking of bundling up against the elements, you should also be thinking of bundling your vacation plans with others. This is where the big resorts really shine. The bigger the group, the bigger the savings per person. Getting a larger condo with good friends (emphasis on “compatible”) is a fantastic way to save big. You can often get a complimentary day or two on longer “ski and stay” packages, or maybe lessons and tours and access to other amenities, especially during off-peak times.
Cooking up some savings. Last, but not least, you can save considerable coin simply by hitting the super market before hitting the slopes. If you’re renting a place to stay, opt for a condo or hotel that has a kitchenette, allowing you to prepare meals at “home,” instead of going out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (which we all know can run up tab exponentially). You can even make a few dishes before getting on the road – lasagna or enchilada casseroles are favorites with my clan – and then just pop them in the oven. This takes more planning, but the savings are well worth the extra effort. And with the money you save, you can plan another trip to the slopes.