With a whiff of winter in the air, skiers' thoughts naturally drift to snowy mountains, fireside après-ski drinks and the macroeconomic concept of inelastic demand — used to describe products for which price can increase astonishingly, regardless of supply, without hurting demand. This is especially true of daydreamers who want to take their families skiing and make the mistake of glancing at walk-up lift ticket rates at major resorts, some of which are approaching $200 per day.
But to steal a line from the famous diamond merchant: Nobody pays retail anymore; why should you? While lift-served skiing and snowboarding will never qualify as cheap recreation, here are some tips for making family skiing affordable.
"The earlier you commit, the more you can save," says Chris Linsmayer, public affairs director of Colorado Ski Country USA. That means we've already missed a couple of months' worth of deals, but many remain.
If you know where and when you're skiing, check Liftopia.com for seriously discounted advance-purchase lift tickets. At press time, a three-day lift ticket for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend at Snowbird, Utah, was going for $177, a 40-percent savings over the $303 walk-up price. The savings were even higher for midweek searches, although many popular resorts — Snowshoe, W.Va., and Taos, N.M., for example — had nothing available for peak weekends.
Through Nov. 30, Sugarbush, in Vermont, is offering four all-day adult lift tickets for $229 — more than half off the window price. These are transferrable and needn't be used on consecutive days.
New York's Whiteface — with the greatest continuous vertical drop east of the Rockies — has a similar deal. Purchase by Dec. 8 and get four transferrable lift tickets for $259, more than 30 percent off the $376 you would spend buying four tickets individually .
In Colorado, with Steamboat Springs's Spur on Winter deal, get 20 percent off in-season rates when you book at least three nights' lodging and lifts, rentals, and/or lessons by Nov. 30. Add airfare and get a $100 resort credit per seat.
The concept can apply even if you prefer to wait for viable weather reports: In Stowe, Vt., buy your ticket online up to 48 hours before skiing and save 25 percent off the $131 (adult) walk-up ticket price; that translates to costs of $99 for adults and $84 for children all season, including holidays.
Always check resort websites before you get to the ticket window; at some, you'll even get discounts at the last minute.
"The resorts are customer-service oriented, and if you call them, they'll help you put together something that works," says Sarah Wojcik, director of marketing and communications at the nonprofit Vermont Ski Areas Association.
To test that, I called Killington, and was quoted $2,162 for four nights of lodging at the Pinnacle condos, three days of lift tickets for two adults and one 9-year-old child (the other, 6, would ski free), and rentals for the whole family, a bundle that would have cost me at least $2,370, plus the added hassle, if I'd chased down each element separately. The agent was friendly and helpful, for example, by letting me know which properties had pools.
Package deals, of course, abound online. Although, in many cases, you must suffer maddeningly illogical Web interfaces. Here are a few of the better deals we found.
●Booking a three-night stay in Park City, Utah, can get you a $300 flight voucher on Delta Air Lines, although some key dates are blacked out.
●One canyon south, but a world away from Park City, Solitude Mountain Resort will throw in a fourth night of lodging and day of skiing when you book three nights, with blackouts over the holidays and two weeks in March.
●Snowshoe has a similar four-for-three deal, and a search of dates in February surfaced an economy one-bedroom at the Inn at Snowshoe for $312 for four nights, a savings of $134 off standard rates (with some blackout dates).
In most cases, you — and especially your kids — don't need a mega-resort to have a good time.
Consider Grand Targhee, in Wyoming, which is just over Teton Pass from Jackson Hole and has a cozy, family atmosphere, an average of 500 inches of snow per year, and $85 lift tickets, vs. Jackson Hole's $136. Also, at Targhee, kids 12 and younger ski free when you book three or more nights of lodging. (Two child tickets per day are allowed.)
Every April, Loveland Ski Area in Colorado sells passes good for the remainder of the season — typically another month — and the following season for about $400 (about $190 for kids 6 to 14). With a peak elevation of 13,010, Loveland holds snow well into May, with lodging deals aplenty in spring. Loveland is also among the closest resorts to Denver International Airport (81 miles), which means you can catch a morning flight from the Washington area and hit the slopes for an afternoon, even if you're ultimately headed to a destination resort.
Marc Peruzzi, editorial director at Mountain Magazine and a contributing editor at Outside, suggests Montana. "There's great skiing at the local mountains. And it's cheap," he says. Peruzzi sketched out a road trip linking Bridger Bowl ($60 lift tickets), Ski Discovery ($46), Lost Trail Powder Mountain ($44) and Montana Snowbowl ($48).
In Vermont, the throwback-lover's favorite Mad River Glen, where the lifts include a single chair installed in 1948, is offering three unrestricted, transferrable lift tickets for $169, which comes to just over $56 a day or 37 percent off the regular day ticket price.
If your enjoyment doesn't hinge on waking up at a resort, check out towns that put you within striking distance of the lifts but at a safe distance from $16 cheeseburgers.
Salt Lake City is perhaps the most obvious of these, with nine resorts within an hour's drive of the city. Many of them are reachable by efficient, skier-oriented public transportation. Lodging options run the gamut of any large city. We found highly rated Airbnb rentals over the Presidents' Day holiday on the mountain side of the city starting at $70 per night.
And — regardless of where you sleep — if your brood includes a fifth- or sixth-grader, apply for the Ski Utah Passport Program, which gets fifth-graders three days at each of the state's 14 resorts (42 ski days!) for $35 — that's total, not per day. For the same price, sixth-graders get one day at each of those resorts.
Truckee, Calif., is ringed by a dozen ski areas, from tiny Soda Springs to the world-class Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, and boasts a worthy assortment of bars, restaurants, shops (including grocers) and galleries. Our Airbnb search for late January presented a three-bedroom house for $136 a night; up at Squaw, the best we could do for a family of four was a condo for $262.
Artsy, funky Salida, Colo., with numerous ahhh-worthy hot springs in and around town, is just a 30-minute drive from Monarch Ski Area, which boasts six lifts, 64 trails and 350 inches of average annual snowfall, along with $89 adult lift tickets ($43 for kids ages 7 to 12). An Airbnb search of Salida for January yielded entire homes and apartments starting at $108 a night.
The past several years have seen a proliferation of multiple-day passes at resorts around the world for one lump payment up front. Often called mega-passes, these are hugely attractive for people who want to hit at least three or four resorts in a season and spend more than a day at each one. But families hoping to eek out only one or two trips can also benefit.
The Mountain Collective Pass ($499, $99 for ages 12 and under) gets you two lift tickets plus half off additional days at each of 16 resorts, including Alta, Aspen, Jackson Hole, Snowbird, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Sugarbush. If you were to ski six days at Jackson Hole, each adult would pay $771 — the pass plus $272 for four half-price tickets — vs. $719 (walk-up price) for Jackson's six-day pass. Each child age 12 and under would cost $267 on the Mountain Collective vs. $431 for the resort's six-day pass. In that scenario, a family of four saves $224 with the Mountain Collective ($2,076 vs. $2,300) on just one trip. Even with Jackson's online prices for six-day tickets ($647 adults, $389 kids, for a trip total of $2,072) the Mountain Collective is still attractive if that family plans to ski other pass-covered resorts this season.
The Epic Pass ($899, $469 for preteens) offers unlimited skiing at 15 resorts, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Stowe, Whistler-Blackcomb, Park City and Kirkwood. The pass also comes with six discounted tickets for friends, although you don't learn about the discount until you're at the ticket window. (And who's turning back then?) The Epic almost pays for itself with a week in Vail, where an advance purchase seven-day ticket for late January rings in at $861.
If you're a committed East Coast skier, check out the M.A.X. Pass ($729, $429 for preteens), which serves up five days at each of 44 mountains nationwide and has far greater New England and Mid-Atlantic representation than its competitors.
Resorts are starting to offer their own frequent-skier cards, including Killington, where the $99 Express Card ($77 for ages 7 to 18) gets you half-price weekday tickets and 25 percent off weekend/peak period passes — a good buy if you plan to ski Vermont's biggest resort at least four days this season.
The current exchange rate ($1 is worth about $1.27 in Canada) is down from its 2016 highs but still makes the country a bargain for U.S. vacationers. A three-day lift ticket at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, in British Columbia, sells for about $197, which compares rather favorably to the $405 three-day price at Breckenridge, Colo.
If you want to ski the three resorts around the picturesque town of Banff, Alberta — Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise and Norquay — click over to SkiBig3.com. There, we found a book-by-Nov. 30 special that yielded a five-night February stay in a one-bedroom suite in the highly rated Moose Hotel and Suites, along with five-day lift tickets for two adults and two kids for about $2,010. With round-trip airfares from the Washington area to Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver all coming in under $400, the Great White North is calling.
There you have it. Family ski vacations cost money, but you can whistle right through that outlay by remembering another key economic concept: You gotta spend to save.
Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park. His website is johnbriley.com.
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