“Every mountain town has something different to offer,” said Kiley McKinnon, an Olympic freestyle aerial skier and co-founder of the women’s ski wear company Halfdays. A place with incredible powder may not have the kind of amenities you’re looking for off the slopes.
To whittle down your options, start with some key questions.
Having traveled around the world for her sport — China, Belarus, Norway, you name it — McKinnon recommends asking yourself what kind of skiing you’re looking for and whether the terrain fits your skill level.
Nelson Brown, the creative content manager for performance apparel company Ibex, travels across North America to photograph its ski gear. He says it’s critical to look at snow trends to forecast whether the mountain will have enough snow during your visit. Moreover, what’s around to do after you’re done skiing?
For people on a budget: Indie resorts
Your best bet for saving money is to steer clear of the most popular places to ski, because big-name resorts tend to come with the biggest price tags. If you’re a beginner, it might not be worth it to pay $200 for a day pass at a premier destination.
“When you spend so much money, it puts pressure on yourself to have this amazing time,” Brown said.
Brown recommends novice skiers find local, independent resorts instead. On the East Coast, there are places such as Waterville Valley Resort in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. “They’re catered toward families, but they still have enough terrain where you can ski the entire day and have a really good time,” said Brown, who used to live near the resort. Adult lift tickets run for about $69 during the week and about $98 on weekends. The resort offers discounts for military members, college students, teenagers, kids 6 and older and adults over 65. Children 5 and younger and adults 80 and older ski free.
On the West Coast, you could try Badger Pass in Yosemite National Park, the oldest ski resort in California. Adult lift tickets run for $62, and seniors can get a discounted $30 midweek day pass. The Badger Pass Ski Area has 10 ski runs of varying skill levels and five chair lifts, and it’s open from mid-December through mid-March (conditions permitting).
For beginners and families: Keystone, Colo.
McKinnon’s pick for kid-friendly slopes is Colorado’s Keystone Resort, where you’ll find her in the early season. “Keystone is pretty low-key,” she said. “It’s right outside of Silverthorne, which has a lot of Airbnbs and rentals.”
Compared with other resorts in the area, such as Vail, Keystone “is on the easier side, so it’s a better beginner mountain,” McKinnon said. And also unlike at the others, Keystone has free parking and huge lots, making your ski day a little easier.
Big Sky in Montana is one of McKinnon’s other favorite places. With 870 acres of beginner terrain, it’s another perfect (albeit pricey) resort for families.
Perhaps more important than where you go, McKinnon says, it’s essential for newcomers or people who haven’t skied in a bit to take a lesson, no matter how old you are. If you do get a lesson, don’t forget to tip your instructor. Industry insiders say $20 is the bare minimum, group class students should shoot for $30 to $40, and $100 is a standard tip for a private lesson.
For the classic American ski trip: Park City, Utah
Park City, Utah, is a postcard-worthy place for an epic ski excursion. Many of the major skiing and snowboarding events of the 2002 Winter Olympics were held at Park City Mountain Resort, and McKinnon says it still hosts a lot of U.S. ski team athletes. Don’t let that intimidate you if you’re not an expert; Park City has a lot of beginner terrain, too.
Once you’re done skiing, McKinnon said, you should explore the “one long stretch of Main Street going through the town right next to the mountain with stores and bars and restaurants.”
Her other pick for an iconic American ski town? Jackson, Wyo. “It’s super fun, like classic cowboy vibes,” she said. “And on top of it, their mountain is amazing.” Although Jackson Hole Mountain Resort does have beginner-friendly runs, McKinnon said, “the terrain is pretty difficult” overall.
For the backcountry skier: Thompson Pass, Alaska
These days, Brown tends to skip traditional downhill skiing at resorts for the backcountry: the undeveloped, uncontrolled terrain where skiers are responsible for their own safety. The best place he has skied is Thompson Pass in Valdez, Alaska, the snowiest reporting station in the United States, which gets around 700 inches of snow per year. Not only is it all backcountry and easily accessible, but “there were like five other people I saw, and I was there for a week,” Brown said.
For the world traveler: Japan
If you can go abroad, “Japan is known for having some of the best skiing in the world,” McKinnon said. You start your day on the slopes and end it in a hot spring spa. What else could you want?
Jeffrey M. Krevitt, vice president of marketing for Inside Travel Group, which owns InsideJapan Tours, usually sends clients to two destinations: Niseko and Hakuba.
Niseko, located on Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island, offers four main ski resorts and “some of the best, most reliable powder” in the world, Krevitt said. “It’s very international, very cosmopolitan, lots of great hotels, international restaurants.”
On Honshu, Japan’s largest island, Hakuba is a valley of 11 resorts (connected by the same ski pass) in the Japanese Alps that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics Compared with Niseko, Hakuba has “a little bit more rustic and sort of local charm to it,” Krevitt said. It’s also where you can see Japan’s famous snow monkeys.
For something off the beaten path, there’s Zao Onsen in the Tohoku region of Honshu. Skiing in the Zao area is world-class, but another major draw is its “snow monsters”: trees covered with snow and encrusted with layer of rime ice.
For East Coast skiing: Vermont
Although the Mountain West is considered the best part of the country for skiing, the East Coast has its moments. “They do have great mountains,” said McKinnon, who’s from Connecticut and grew up skiing in Vermont. “Sugarbush, Stratton, Stowe, Bromley: Those four are pretty good.”
Brown warns that, because Stowe is New England’s premier resort, you can expect to pay a lot for a lift ticket and deal with “insane amounts of traffic.”
Instead, you could keep driving past Stowe to Brown’s favorite resort, Jay Peak, known for its huge backcountry area called Big Jay. Because it’s a little farther than Vermont’s most popular spots, “it’s a little quieter,” Brown said. Better yet, “they just seem to get the most snow totals,” he said. “It’s usually pretty dry and fluffy.”
For après ski lovers: The Alps
You don’t have to ski to love a ski vacation; a good après-ski scene can warrant the trip alone. Merriam-Webster defines après-ski vaguely as “social activity (as at a ski lodge) after a day’s skiing,” but most people think of it as eating, drinking and partying on or around a ski mountain.
McKinnon argues that Europe has the best après, which makes sense, because Europeans invented the concept. “Austria, Norway, Switzerland. … I don’t think you can really go wrong, honestly, with picking any of those places,” she said. If she had to pick, “I would say Switzerland had the best food.”
Then there’s the Italian Alps ski resort Cortina d’Ampezzo, which will host the 2026 Winter Olympics. Simone Amorico, CEO of the private tour operator Access Italy, goes every year. “You won’t find crowds on the slopes, and the restaurants up in the mountains are incredible as well,” he said.
Beyond the world-class skiing and dining, “a lot of people go there just for shopping,” Amorico said. You can do Cortina on a budget by staying at a modest bed-and-breakfast, and lift tickets are cheaper than you’d find at marquee resorts in the United States, at about $70 for an adult day pass in high season. But it is a place full of luxury hotels that draw clientele such as George Clooney. Aman Rosa Alpina, anyone?
For skiers who want to pop champagne: Aspen, Colo.
Even in the luxury world of ski resorts, “Aspen is known for being a bit more on the bougie side,” McKinnon said. Here, you’ll find good powder as well as one of the ski world’s wildest displays of opulence: Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro’s champagne showers.
Accessible only by skiing or snowboarding — or getting a ride in a snowcat, an enclosed, tracked vehicle that sort of looks like a tank — the Swiss-inspired cabin on Aspen’s Highlands Mountain sells bottles of champagne (the cheapest is Veuve Clicquot at more than $100) to spray into the air for spectacle. Not only is it an expensive affair, but it’s also a highly sought-after one. “It’s also something that you need to reserve like months in advance, because it’s really, really hard to get into,” McKinnon said.
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