Yes, you really can visit Aspen on a budget. Here’s how
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When you think of Aspen, you almost certainly think of the snowy playground of the rich and the famous — and that’s all true. I’ve never seen more fur coats and Louis Vuitton bags in my life than at the Aspen airport. But, the rich and famous flock to Aspen for good reason: great skiing, gorgeous scenery, a lively walkable town and some really fun times. They shouldn’t have this Colorado gem all to themselves. I’m not rich or famous, but we’ve taken multiple family trips to the Aspen area on a budget. Yes, Aspen on a budget is feasible, with some planning and creativity.
Here’s how to pull it off.
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Address lodging first
If you want the best of Aspen on a budget, hotel points are your new best friend. You can have the ski-out Westin Snowmass (a few miles from Aspen), the fun and new W Aspen, the luxe St. Regis Aspen and more with almost no out-of-pocket costs (other than pesky resort fees) thanks to your hotel points. If you don’t yet have hotel points, that’s not a problem. Here’s where to start. Otherwise, without points, indeed, Aspen area hotels can easily run more than $1,000 per night during the ski or festival season, which will break a budget in no time flat.
Here are some points-friendly Aspen hotel options:
- Westin Snowmass: 30k to 40k Marriott points per night
- St. Regis Aspen: 70k to 100k Marriott points per night
- W Aspen: 70k to 100k Marriott points per night (rooms with bunk beds available for an additional fee)
- Hyatt Residence Club Grand Aspen: 30k Hyatt points per night (limited availability due to it being a residence club property)
- Aspen Meadows: 30k Wyndham points per night
Alternatively, you could look a bit outside of the main Aspen and Snowmass areas at options such as the Comfort Inn in Carbondale or the Element in Basalt (20k to 30k Marriott points). Fixed-value points, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards could also help you lock-in more options, such as the new Limelight Hotel in Snowmass (with rock-climbing wall and kid room) or the generally affordable Wildwood Snowmass. Points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve are worth 1.5 cents in travel when used in this manner via the Chase Travel site.
Naturally, avoiding weekends, school breaks and big events (such as the X-Games) will also help you avoid the priciest Aspen area lodging rates. Because lodging options are relatively limited, your dates of travel can easily influence prices by as much as 200 to 300% — or more.
Get a ski pass
On our recent New Year’s trip to Aspen, one-day adult lift tickets were $184 per day. That’s not budget-friendly. However, we were skiing at Snowmass on Mountain Collective passes that cost $449 for the year for me and $99 for the year for my 10-year-old. Those passes, if purchased early enough in the year, include as many as three ski days at Aspen-area mountains, and then more ski days 18 total resorts.
Additional ski days, if needed, are 50% off the going rate, which would have meant $92 instead of $184. Using an annual Ikon ski pass is also likely to save you at Aspen, Snowmass, Buttermilk or Aspen Highlands (the four area ski resorts) over buying single-day lift tickets.
If you don’t care about skiing, skip Aspen in the expensive and delay-prone winter season and come to see the leaves turn from green to a golden yellow color in the fall at Maroon Bells, just a few miles from downtown Aspen. This breathtaking spot has million-dollar views but is very budget-friendly to visit. The road up to Maroon Bells typically closes for the season by mid-November, but to see the leaves do their thing, you’re probably heading up in late September or early October.
During those fall months, there’s a $10 per car fee to enter, but you’ve got to do it before 8 a.m. (or after 5 p.m.) if you want to drive yourself. Otherwise, you’ll have to take the bus, which is $8 for adults, slightly less for kids and seniors.
Controlling food costs in Aspen without making your meals is admittedly tough. Heck, even the town’s one McDonald’s closed for good a few years ago. However, Aspen dining on a budget can be done even without ordering a Number 2 with a large Coke. First, try and leverage elite status for free breakfast, if you have it. Marriott Platinum status is good for free breakfast for two at the Westin Snowmass, W Aspen or St. Regis Aspen, if you choose that as your stay amenity.
The breakfast buffet at the Westin Snowmass was plenty of food to keep my family of four pretty full until mid- to late-afternoon. On paper, the breakfast buffet price for the four of us was a jaw-dropping $188 per day, but in reality thanks to status, all we owed was the tip.
If that’s not an option, there’s still plenty of hope for eating in Aspen on a budget. Look for places that sell items such as burritos and pizza slices, both of which were available in the walkable Snowmass Village area for easily less than $10 per person, per meal. In Aspen itself, Big Wraps serves $8.25 wraps that are, well, big.
The Stew Pot was another budget-friendly choice in Snowmass Village — there’s even a 15% discount if you bring in your own to-go pot for chili, soups and stew. Should you want to dine in and use their bowls, expect cups of chili or stew to run just $6 to $8 per person, with larger bowls costing a few dollars more.
At the Rub Thai noodle shop in the Snowmass Village you’ll also find hot and spicy soups and dishes from about $12 to $15 per person, not really cheap, but not awful either.
But the best strategy to save money on dining in Aspen is to eat early. Happy hour (or apres-ski as it may be) is alive and well in the mountains, running from about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., depending on the restaurant. Sadly, the much-loved Little Annie’s in Aspen is no more, but in its place is now Clark’s Aspen, which has a $12 burger and $8 martinis happy hour from 3 to 5 p.m. Those who are Aspen or Austin locals can even score an $8 beer and shot during happy hour. Those criteria may sound weird, but Austin and Aspen are home to the two Clark’s locations. There are dozens of similar happy hours all around the ritzy mountain town.
Other solid happy hours in the Aspen area include: Zane’s (think wings and beer), Hops Culture (nachos and beer) and while it maybe isn’t on special, we have to throw in a mention of getting an Aspen Crud at the Hotel Jerome just to round out the list. It could almost pass as a meal itself.
Tack on earning rewards from one of the best credit cards for dining, such as 4x points per dollar on the American Express® Gold Card or 4% cash back on dining with the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card and you’re doing OK with a full belly and a still relatively full wallet.
Additionally, right now if you download the Aspen Snowmass app, there’s an in-app $15 coupon for mountain dining, which honestly might not even cover a full lunch for one, but could drop it down to just a few dollars. The app also includes coupons for discounts on equipment rental and ski lessons.
Related: Best ski schools for kids
Consider skipping a rental car
You don’t need a rental car if you’re staying in Aspen or Snowmass, so consider skipping that expense unless you are driving in from a surrounding area. This is especially true if where you’re staying tacks on a hefty daily parking fee. Instead, walk around your immediate area and then use the area’s robust free bus and shuttle network that can take you from Aspen to Snowmass and back, to the ski mountains and beyond.
Assuming you flew into Denver instead of Aspen (ASE) — since this is Aspen on a budget — you’ll need to arrange for those four hours of ground transportation. One option is the Epic Mountain Express shared van that prices each way at about $120 per person, $60 for kids (car seats included), with discounts available for three or more people in the same van.
However, if you’re traveling with multiple people, you may do better pricing one-way car rentals into Denver and just loading everyone up in one car. Be sure and read the fine print and see if one-way miles are included in the quoted rate, or charged at an additional per-mile price — I’ve seen both options utilized on one-way rentals in that area.
You can also use your airline miles to fly directly into Aspen and eliminate other transportation expenses, but just know that the Aspen airport (ASE) is very prone to delays and cancellations when winter weather strikes … and it often does during the ski season. If you go that route, absolutely be certain you book using a credit card that has trip delay coverage as extra last-minute nights spent in Aspen won’t be budget-friendly.
Is visiting or even skiing at Aspen and the surrounding areas on a budget really a thing? Absolutely. Hotel points will help tremendously, with the Westin Snowmass serving as the 35k Marriott sweet spot in the area. But, that’s not your only choice. By being smart about your transportation needs, locking in a ski pass early in the year and sleuthing out some happy hour meal deals, breakfast burritos and the like, you can have double diamond ski dreams come true on a bunny slopes budget.
Featured image by Jonathan Ross/Getty Images
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