Maximizing Points and Miles for a Colorado Ski Trip
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Good news! The current snowpack levels in the Colorado Rocky Mountains are running 25 - 45% above average for this time of year. If you haven't booked your ski trip this year, now's the time to do it.
In today's post, I'll look at the best ways to use your points and miles to book a Colorado ski trip this year, including flights, hotels and transportation to and from the mountains. And as a Colorado local, I'll share some of my tips and tricks to help you find the best deals.
When traveling to a Colorado ski area, you'll always have your choice of flying into Denver International Airport (DEN), or attempting to find an affordable flight into a smaller mountain airport like Vail (Eagle), Aspen, Steamboat (Hayden) or Telluride (Montrose). DEN will always have, by far, the most frequent airline service from nearly all domestic carriers, and your best shot at finding award availability. For example, Southwest has a huge presence in Denver, and offers two free checked bags per person — an invaluable benefit for skiers and snowboarders traveling with their own gear. United and Frontier also have hubs in Denver.
Alternatively, you could try to find award space on flights into one of the smaller mountain airports, but these seats are rarely available at the lowest mileage levels. That said, when I looked at award seats into the Eagle-Vail airport for two people, I found a surprisingly large amount of award availability on American and United.
Just keep in mind that these mountain airports, while conveniently located, are frequently closed due to winter weather conditions.
For more on booking your flights, see JT Genter's post 6 Colorado Ski Resorts You Can Fly to for 17,500 AA Miles Round-Trip.
There are plenty of hotels near the ski areas that participate in the major loyalty programs. Here are the hotels in Colorado near ski areas, and the number of points they require per night for award stays:
- Hampton Inn Steamboat Springs — Category 5 (30,000 - 40,000 points per night)
- DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Breckenridge — Category 7 (30,000 - 60,000 points per night)
- DoubleTree by Hilton Vail — Category 9 (50,000 - 80,000 points per night)
If you need to stock up Hilton points, you could open the Hilton Honors Surpass Card from American Express (with a $75 annual fee), which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 75,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. There's also the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card (with a $95 annual fee), which offers two weekend night certificates after you spend $2,500 in the first four months. Hilton is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards.
- Park Hyatt Beaver Creek — Category 7 (30,000 points per night)
Hyatt Vacation Clubs
These properties can be a great deal, but unlike at other Hyatt hotels, awards are capacity-controlled and may not be available during the peak season.
- Hyatt Mountain Lodge — A Hyatt Residence in Beaver Creek; 25,000 points per night for a studio
- Hyatt Main Street Station — A Hyatt Residence Club in Breckenridge; 25,000 points per night for a studio
- Hyatt Grand Aspen — A Hyatt Residence Club in Aspen; 30,000 points per night for a studio
Hyatt is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so if you have a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, you can move points over to book an award stay. You could also open the Hyatt Credit Card (with a $75 annual fee), which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 40,000 bonus poinst after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
- Fairfield Inn & Suites Steamboat Springs — Category 6 (30,000 points per night)
- Residence Inn Breckenridge — Category 7 (35,000 points per night)
- Marriott’s Mountain Valley Lodge at Breckenridge — Category 8 (40,000 points per night)
- Vail Marriott Mountain Resort — Category 9 (45,000 points per night)
- The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch — Tier 5 (70,000 points per night)
Those who need additional Marriott Rewards points to book an award stay can sign up for the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card which is offering a bonus of 75,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months and an $85 annual fee that is currently waived for the first year. You can also transfer Starpoints to Marriott to book an award, or transfer Ultimate Rewards points to the Marriott Rewards program.
- Sheraton Mountain Vista Villas, Avon / Vail Valley — Category 4 (10,000 points per night)
- Sheraton Steamboat Resort — Category 5 (12,000 – 16,000 points per night)
- Westin Riverfront Mountain Villas, Beaver Creek — Category 5 (12,000 – 16,000 points per night)
- The Westin Snowmass Resort — Category 5 (12,000 – 16,000 points per night)
- Sheraton Steamboat Resort Villas — Category 6 (20,000 - 25,000 points per night)
- The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek Mountain — Category 6 (20,000 - 25,000 points per night)
- The St. Regis Aspen Resort — Category 7 (30,000 - 35,000 points per night)
- St. Regis Residence Club, Aspen — Category 7 (30,000 - 35,000 points per night)
To get more Starpoints, you could sign up for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express (with a $95 fee that's waived the first year), which is offering 25,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. You can also transfer Marriott points to Starwood Preferred Guest to book an award stay at an SPG hotel.
All Wyndham hotel awards are 15,000 points per night. This rate is also available at Wyndham Vacation rentals (15,000 points per bedroom, per night). These can be a great deal for families, as a one-bedroom studio costs only 15,000 points per night and sleeps four.
Wyndham has a variety of condos and vacation homes that you can book in the following Colorado ski towns:
- Beaver Creek
- Pagosa Springs
- Steamboat Springs
And the following are Wyndham's hotel options:
- Aspen Meadows Resort
- Baymont Inn & Suites Frisco Lake Dillon
- Days Inn Silverthorne
- Ramada Frisco
- Super 8 Dillon/Breckenridge Area
The Wyndham Rewards Visa Card is currently offering a sign-up bonus of up to 30,000 points — enough for two free nights. You'll earn 15,000 points after your first purchase, plus another 15,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days from account opening.
Transportation to the Mountains
This year, there are several new options for getting you from Denver to your mountain destination. Amtrak now offers a new special weekend ski train to Winter Park resort, although there aren't any properties from the major hotel programs there. So if you stay there, you might want to use your miles from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard to wipe accommodation charges from your statement.
The ski train leaves from Denver's Union Station, which you can now reach by a commuter train from Denver International Airport. In fact, the Winter Park train platform is very close to the lifts, making this is the only North American ski area you can directly reach from an airport, solely by train.
For all other destinations, you have the option of renting a car or choosing a shuttle service. When you choose a shuttle service, you don't have to worry about negotiating winter driving conditions, or the cost to park your car, which can be pricey. One of the major companies that offers shuttles is Colorado Mountain Express — be sure to check the website for specials and packages.
Finally, you can rent a car, and this option does have a few advantages. With your rental car, you can explore Denver and other places along the way. I'd recommend renting from Silvercar in Denver, which offers all-wheel-drive Audis. Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders also receive a 30% discount on rentals. Just be aware that no matter who you rent from, you need to factor in significant gas and parking charges. Also, you may be charged extra for a ski rack.
How to Plan Your Trip
If you're trying to cover as much as your trip as possible with points and miles, my recommendation is to start by finding a hotel. Occupancy rates (and lodging prices) are high during the peak ski season, and it can be tough to find award rooms, even with programs like Hilton, Hyatt and Starwood that offer awards in any unsold standard room.
Once you've found a few options for award nights at a hotel near a ski resort, then look for airfare. Start by at least checking to see if you can fly into a smaller mountain airport. This is a major benefit if you're going to a distant resort such as Aspen or Steamboat. But if you're visiting the "Front Range" ski-areas that are closer to Denver, such as Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper, you aren't saving that much time by flying into Eagle-Vail instead of Denver.
Finally, compare the advantages, disadvantages and costs of renting a car versus taking a shuttle service to your destination. With all other factors being equal, I'd probably recommend taking a shuttle over renting a car, especially if you aren't experienced at driving in winter conditions.
Some Local Knowledge
I've been skiing in Colorado for over 30 years, the last 20 as a resident. Here are a few pointers I like to share with visitors to my state:
1. Watch out for the rental car scam — Nearly everyone I know who rents a car at Denver International Airport has told me the following story. They say that the rental car employees asked where they are driving to, and when they mentioned the mountains, they were pressured into paying more to upgrade to a larger vehicle. The truth is that the size of your car won't make a difference in the mountains (but all-wheel-drive could help). If you only want to pay for a compact car, stand firm and decline the upgrade, and you might still receive the mid-size they were pushing.
2. Look for discounted ski tickets — With so many discounted ski tickets available, there's no reason to ever pay the $100+ walk-up price at the ticket window. Check eBay and Craigslist for people selling transferrable tickets, but never buy a pass with someone else's photo on it. Exxon, Mobil and Shell gas stations in Colorado offer 2-1 deals. You can also visit ski shops and supermarkets in Denver and in the mountains for discounts. Coupon books like the Entertainment book often have discounted ski tickets as well. Finally, check with your hotel, as it might be able to offer you discounted packages. At the very least, the hotel staff should be able to help you find a deal on lift tickets.
3. Beware of mountain traffic — Traffic between Denver and the mountains on Interstate 70 can be downright awful. I'm talking about epic, multi-hour traffic jams that can stretch late into the night, especially when there's snow falling. To skip the worst of it, do whatever it takes to avoid driving west into the mountains Saturday and Sunday mornings, and driving east to Denver on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Allow plenty of time for your trip, and drive during daylight hours if possible.
4. Buy ski gear in Denver — Most skiers need an extra helmet, gloves, goggles or other gear before they hit the slopes. Unfortunately, ski resorts are the most expensive places to purchase this equipment, and often have a limited selection. Instead, visit a large retailer in Denver on your way, such as REI, Colorado Ski & Golf or Christy's Sports. Even our local Costco stores have some pretty decent ski gear, and the Arvada store just west of Denver is right off of I-70 on your way to the mountains.
Have you taken a ski trip to Colorado using your points and miles? How did it go, and what did you learn?