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Maximizing travel is often as much about saving money as it is about earning points. Since winter is coming, I asked TPG Contributor (and avid skier) Jason Steele to share his strategies for keeping family ski vacations affordable.
Ski trips make for great family vacations, but the total price can be stunningly high. It’s not uncommon for a family of four to pay $5,000 to $10,000 for plane tickets, a rental car, a slopeside condo or hotel, and a week’s worth of lift tickets, ski rentals, and some lessons for the kids. However, as is the case with many kinds of vacations, saving money on ski trips has become almost an art form, and as a Denver resident and ski enthusiast, it’s one I’ve learned well.
There are two types of airports you can fly into to go skiing. The first are small airports close to the resorts that are served by regional carriers. You’ll find these airports in cities like Aspen, Steamboat, Telluride, and Crested Butte. As reward travel enthusiasts, we want to minimize our airfare costs first by finding award seats to our favorite ski areas, but it’s difficult (or in many cases impossible) to find multiple award seats on small regional aircraft during the peak season. Nevertheless, travelers might find awards for some of their party, and pay cash or redeem miles from the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard for the remaining tickets.
The other option is to fly into an airport in a larger city such as Denver, Salt Lake City, or Reno. The advantage here is that there are far more flights and award seats available, and travelers can even fly on Southwest. Unlike legacy carriers, Southwest’s revenue-based award program means that travelers can book any unsold seat as an award. Furthermore, Southwest allows two free checked bags per person, which is important when traveling with bulky ski clothing and gear.
The downside of flying into larger cities is that you end up having to drive farther. Thankfully, Salt Lake City and Reno airports are both within an hour’s drive of several major ski areas, while Denver International Airport is within two hours of several resorts, including Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper, and Winter Park. That said, those drive times assume that you don’t encounter any serious traffic or weather. In Colorado, I would strongly advise travelers to avoid the I-70 corridor between the ski areas and Denver going into the mountains on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and returning from the mountains on Saturday and Sunday evenings. To a lesser extent, traffic from Denver commuters can be an issue during weekday mornings and evenings.
Rental cars are a necessary evil for most skiers. On one hand, the car will likely stay in the parking garage of your condo or hotel most days, but it’s still nice to have for exploring the area. Those who are flying into a small airport close to a ski town should probably do without one.
For those flying into a larger airport farther from the ski areas, shuttle rides can be more expensive and less convenient than renting a car. For example, Colorado Mountain Express charges $66 for door to door service from the Denver airport to Summit County resorts (although children under 12 are half price). So a family of four (with two kids under 12) will pay a minimum of $396 round-trip, which is more than it costs to rent a car for the week, gas included. Having your own car also allows you to consider more affordable lodging that’s a short drive from the slopes, or to visit ski areas that are less expensive and don’t have lodging, such as Loveland and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado.
Another piece of advice is to avoid the temptation to pay extra to rent an SUV. Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to driving on slick roads, and four wheel drive doesn’t offer much advantage when you need to stop. For most drivers on the highway, two wheel drive with anti-lock brakes and traction control (as all new cars have) will be sufficient when driven safely.
Finally, don’t fall prey to the common trick that car rental agencies use to get you to upgrade. Friends and relatives on several occasions have told me they were informed at the rental car counter that they needed a larger car to drive in the mountains, which is ridiculous. If your family fits in the car, you’ll be fine when driving safely on a plowed road.
As with other trips, my advice to families going skiing is to get Emerald Executive status from your World MasterCard or American Express Platinum card, so that you can choose your own car from the Emerald Executive selection, and only pay for a mid-size. This way, there’s a good chance you might end up with an SUV or mini-van anyway.
When choosing accommodations, families can splurge on slopeside hotels or condos, or save money by staying a bit further away from the ski area. Here are some examples of slopeside hotels in ski country that you can book with points:
- Waldorf Astoria Park City, Utah – Category 9, 80,000 Hilton points during peak season.
- Valdoro Mountain Lodge by Hilton in Breckenridge Colorado – Bookable with Hilton points, although the number required depends on the price.
- Park Hyatt Beaver Creek in Colorado – Category 7, 30,000 Hyatt points.
- Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort – Category 5, 20,000 points.
- Hyatt Escala Lodge at Park City – Category 4, 15,000 points.
Hyatt Vacation Clubs
These properties cost 12,000 points for a studio, 15,000 for a one bedroom, 23,000 for a two bedroom, and 30,000 for a three bedroom. This can be a great deal, but unlike other Hyatt properties, awards are capacity controlled and may not be available during the peak season.
- Hyatt Grand Aspen – A Hyatt Residence Club
- Hyatt Mountain Lodge – A Hyatt Residence in Aspen
- Hyatt Main Street Station – A Hyatt Residence Club Avon/Beaver Creek
- The Residences at Park Hyatt Beaver Creek
- Northstar Lodge in Truckee California (Lake Tahoe area)
- The St. Regis Deer Valley Utah – Category 7 , 30,000 -35,000 points.
- Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth – Category 5, 12,000 – 16,000 points.
- Sheraton Mountain Vista Villas, Avon / Vail Valley – Category 5, 12,000 – 16,000 points.
- The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek Mountain – Category 5, 12,000 – 16,000 points.
- The St. Regis Aspen Resort – Category 7, 30,000 -35,000 points
- St. Regis Residence Club, Aspen – Category 7, 30,000 -35,000 points.
- Sheraton Steamboat Resort Villas – Category 7, 30,000 -35,000 points.
- Sheraton Steamboat Resort – Category 5, 12,000 – 16,000 points.
- Westin Riverfront Mountain Villas – Category 6, 20,000 – 25,000 points.
- The Westin Snowmass Resort – Category 5, 12,000 – 16,000 points.
- Wildwood Snowmass – Category 4, 10,000 points.
- Vail Marriott Mountain Resort – Category 9, 45,000 points.
- The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch –Tier 5, 70,000 points.
- Marriott’s Mountain Valley Lodge at Breckenridge – Category 8, 40,000 points.
Lift tickets can be incredibly expensive when purchased at the ticket window with no discounts. Major resorts frequently sell tickets for $100 per day! Thankfully, discounts are plentiful for those who look.
One way to find deals is to book your tickets in advance. Get Ski Tickets is a Denver company that has been selling discounted advance tickets for major resorts around the country since 2008. I spoke with Founder and Owner Brandon Quinn, who explained that they work with resorts to resell tickets with dynamic pricing depending on weather and demand, rather than offering coupons. Those tickets are non-refundable. Another company offering this service is Liftopia.
Skiers can also purchase tickets in advance directly from ski areas. For example, Loveland ski area in Colorado is selling transferrable 4-paks online for $129, which is $32.25 daily per person, versus $63 during the regular season. Arapahoe Basin has a similar offer for four non-transferable passes for $129, and just $99 for ages 6-14.
Other avenues for finding ski ticket deals include visiting supermarkets, ski shops, and even Costco in cities such as Denver and Salt Lake. I would also recommend checking Craigslist, as locals often find that they have extra ski passes they need to get rid of.
The most expensive place to buy ski clothing and gear will be at your local ski shop, if you don’t live near any ski areas. Close behind will be the ski areas themselves, which are located in pricey mountain towns. The way to save money on gear is to shop at large retailers in major cities near the mountains, such as Denver and Salt Lake City. Also, you can find low prices online, and may be able to receive bonus points for using a shopping portal.
For example, the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal is currently offering 6 points per dollar at The North Face, 5 at Columbia Sportswear, and 3 extra points per dollar spent at Sports Authority.
If you decide to rent ski equipment, there are also many coupons to be found, and prices will be lower the further you are from the ski areas. The disadvantage of renting off-slope is that it will be harder to exchange equipment in the event that something doesn’t fit well or work right.
What other ways do you save on ski vacations? Please share your tips, favorite spots, and other ideas in the comments below!