Imagine a ski season in which you hop from mountain to mountain but never have to care about the increasingly steep price of a lift ticket. Those other skiers and snowboarders griping about how a day on the slopes costs the same as a new Apple Watch? You can’t relate.
What differentiates you from other vacationers is neither stock options nor a winning Powerball ticket but a wise, one-season investment: a multi-resort pass.
“Is it economical to buy a ski pass? Heck yes!” said Sunshine Swetnam, an assistant professor in Colorado State University’s ski area management master’s program. “I would be blown away if the pass ever becomes a bad thing.”
The multi-resort pass is a fairly new development. In 2008, Vail Resorts introduced the Epic Pass, a spinoff of the singular resort season pass. Instead of locking visitors into one mountain, Vail’s pass granted winter sports enthusiasts unlimited and unrestricted access to four resorts in Colorado and one in California.
That all-you-can-ski deal was also a bargain, relatively speaking. According to Sara Olson, vice president of communications for Vail Resorts, Epic initially cost $579, significantly less than an individual resort pass, which averaged $1,800. In addition, the bulk price was much kinder on the wallet than the a la carte fee. The same truth holds today, when same-day tickets can cost upward of $200 or more.
“The pass pays for itself after four days or in one vacation,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications at the National Ski Areas Association.
Since Epic’s debut, three more passes have appeared on the domestic and international ski scene: Mountain Collective, which celebrates its 10th season this year; Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass (2018-19); and Indy Pass (2019-2020). The passes are more complementary than competitive.
Stan Gale, a ski and snow sports safety consultant based in Colorado, buys Ikon and Epic passes, which do not overlap. The Ikon and Mountain Collective passes share a few resorts, such as Aspen Snowmass in Colorado, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, Montana’s Big Sky and Valle Nevado in Chile. However, for skiers and boarders who can’t telecommute, one pass could suffice.
To decipher the quartet, and their cost efficiency, we took a deep powder dive into the world of ski passes.
The Big Four multi-resort passes
The Epic Pass
Vail Resorts created the abominable snowman of multi-resort passes, with full access at 41 ski destinations in 15 states and four countries, including Canada, Switzerland and Australia, whose season occurs opposite the Northern Hemisphere’s. The pass also offers limited access for a set number of days at 40 partner resorts, such as Telluride in Colorado, Switzerland’s Verbier 4 Vallées and Rusutsu Resort in Japan.
Pass holders also receive 20 percent off such extras as food and drinks, lodging, equipment rentals and lessons; discounted tickets for friends and family members; and Epic Coverage, a refund policy that applies when customers face such adversities as injury or job loss.
Of all the Vail Resorts passes, the Epic Pass is the most bountiful — and the most expensive, at $949 for adults ages 19 and older. For vacationers with fewer snow days or tighter budgets, Vail Resorts has several other options, such as the Epic Local, a trimmed-down version of Epic Pass for $735; the Epic Day Pass, which covers one to seven days at 22, 32 or 38 resorts in North America and Europe (from $51); and regional passes, such as the Northeast Value Pass for $557.
Pricing is tiered, so the earlier you commit, the more you save. In the spring, for instance, the Epic Pass cost $841. Drag your ski boot heels for too long and you could completely miss out: Vail Resorts already cut off pass sales for this season on Dec. 4.
The Ikon Pass resembles Epic, but with resorts owned by Alterra and its associates. Pass-holders can take advantage of unlimited skiing and riding at 14 destinations in Colorado, California, West Virginia, Vermont, Utah and Canada, including such stalwarts as Steamboat in Colorado, Stratton in Vermont and Tremblant in Quebec. The plan also includes up to a seven days of skiing at nearly 40 partner resorts around the world, plus a First Tracks program, 25 percent off companion tickets and 15 percent off food, drinks and shopping.
The pass costs $1,229 for customers 23 and older. For less pricey alternatives, the Ikon Base Pass, a scaled-back version of its main pass, goes for $919, and the customizable Ikon Session Pass 4-Day is $519.
Like Epic, the pass favors early-bird shoppers, who save $150 by buying in the spring. The sale period for all passes closes Dec. 8.
Mountain Collective and Indy Pass
Mountain Collective and Indy Pass differ from Epic and Ikon on several counts. For one, instead of an unlimited skiing approach, the passes offer vacationers two days at each resort, plus a discount for extra days — 25 percent off the third day with Indy Pass and 50 percent of all subsequent days with Mountain Collective.
“A woman did 20 resorts last year,” said Todd Burnette, chief executive of Mountain Collective, which encompasses 25 resorts in seven countries. “But to get the most value, you just have to ski at least four days at two resorts.”
Another difference: The resorts affiliated with the passes are not part of a big conglomerate. They are the ski industry’s version of the boutique property or the family-run inn.
“The Mountain Collective was a response to the Epic Pass,” Burnette said. “They have a loose association: They are independent resorts and not owned by a corporate entity.”
However, autonomous does not mean anonymous. The collective’s resorts include such illustrious slopes as Aspen Snowmass, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in France and Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada. Many of the Indy Pass’s 120-plus resorts in North America and Japan are small regional favorites that often appear on high school trip permission slips and winter weekend itineraries, such as Massanutten Resort in Virginia andSchuss Mountain at Shanty Creek in Michigan. The Indy Pass also endears itself to cross-country skiers, with passes that also include two days of skiing at 20 Nordic centers in the U.S. and Canada, or a XC-only pass for $69.
The pair also dangle incentives to buy early. In March and April, the Mountain Collective pass costs $539 — $60 less than the current price — and includes a bonus third day at a resort of the skier’s choice. The pass is on sale until Dec. 12. The Indy Pass is available through mid-March, but the $349 and $449 price, depending on pass type, will increase by $20 on Dec. 31.
How to choose the right pass for you
The first question is: Do you even need a pass? The answer is yes if:
You plan to spend at least a week or a several weekends skiing or snowboarding, especially at some of the pricier resorts.
You want to try out several mountains in one season or are committed to chasing down the powder wherever it may fall.
You have strict vacation time, because some resorts sell out of online tickets but will still welcome pass-holders. (Note: Aspen Snowmass, Jackson Hole and Big Sky require pass-holders to make reservations.)
The answer is maybe not if your winter calendar is so packed, you can only slip away for a day or two.
“It’s a good option for people because it makes ski trips more affordable than going up to the ticket window,” Mountain Collective’s Burnette said. “But you need to visit two resorts for at least four days to get a good value.”
To help with the decision, Gale suggests asking yourself a series of questions, such as “What do you envision your winter looking like?” and “How often do you plan to ski, and where?” and “How much can you spend on these trips?”
“You really need to tailor it to your budget and time off,” he said.
If all of your answers are pass-affirming, the next step is choosing one. Epic and Ikon are ideal for skiers and snowboarders who expect to spend a chunk of the season strapped to their board or planks. Between the two, pick the pass that features your favorite resorts or mountains that you have always aspired to conquer. Proximity to home is also key.
“Epic and Ikon reach a broader audience,” Isaac said. “They allow for exploration and flexibility.”
Mountain Collective boasts a more curated sampler’s box of resorts, which Isaac describes as “bucket-list.” “They’re not trying to be anyone else,” she said.
Indy Pass, meanwhile, caters to families, novice skiers and riders, and visitors more apt to jump in their car than a plane to get their shred on.
“It fits a niche for people looking for more of a ski-area experience than a resort,” she said.
Of course, the truly indecisive — or ambitious — can double up on passes. You can do the math while waiting in the lift ticket line, or in between gasps over your December-April credit card bills.