Planning your ski trip with points and miles
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Even though summer just officially ended, it’s now fall and we’ve already seen our first massive snowstorm of the season in the west. Although no ski mountains are officially open yet in the U.S., there is a good chance we will see some resorts open later this month. Early contenders typically include Arapahoe Basin, Loveland and Mammoth. Heck, some of these mountains welcomed skiers into July last season! With ski season quickly approaching, now is the time to get ahead of the game and plan that ski trip out west using your points and miles.
Securing airline tickets to the mountains is the first step for many people planning a ski trip. There are two trains of thought. The first is to fly into a small airport that’s closest to the ski area you want to visit, such as Aspen, Vail-Eagle, Gunnison–Crested Butte, Steamboat, Montrose or Telluride. This can be very convenient when it all works out well, but has several disadvantages.
First, you’re less likely get a nonstop flight unless you are fortunate enough to live in one of a handful of cities with direct service to those smaller airports, often by regional-airline partners of the main carriers. Next, the operation of your flights will be very dependent on unpredictable mountain weather. Finally, award seats on these flights may be very scarce, especially during weekends or holidays during peak ski season. TPG’s Summer Hull tried to fly directly into Telluride last ski season, but found herself landing at Montrose and being bussed in anyway due to weather.
When flying to smaller airports in Colorado, and much of the mountains out west, United Airlines and its regional partners often dominate service, with American Airlines coming in second place. If you have a United MileagePlus credit card, such as the United Explorer Card, you’ll want to make sure to log in to your MileagePlus account to see expanded Saver award availability. (This is one of the reasons why someone in the family should have a United credit card.) Of course, as of Nov. 15, United will move to a dynamic award chart so while there are still saver awards after that date, peak dates may be even pricier than they used to be.
As an added bonus, having that or similar airline cobranded credit card will often help you get a free checked bag on that airline, which can be used for your ski and snow gear. Typically, two pairs of skis or a single snowboard and boots are counted as one checked bag, even if the boots are in a separate bag, but always double-check your airline’s contract of carriage to be sure.
Here’s who flies where:
Steamboat Springs – Yampa Valley Regional Airport (HDN), Colorado
- American Airlines: Chicago-O’Hare, Dallas-Ft. Worth
- Delta: Atlanta, Minneapolis
- JetBlue: Ft. Lauderdale, Boston
- United: Chicago-O’Hare, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York-Newark, San Francisco, Washington-Dulles
If you live in the Northeast, for example, you can fly Boston to Steamboat Springs on JetBlue using your JetBlue TrueBlue points. Use the JetBlue Fare Finder to find the most economical award prices that work with your dates. You’ll also get 10% of your points back if you have the JetBlue Credit Card.
Gunnison/Crested Butte (GUC), Colorado
- American Airline: Dallas-Ft. Worth
- United: Denver, Houston
Aspen (ASE), Colorado
- American Airlines: Chicago-O’Hare, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Los Angeles, Phoenix
- United: Chicago-O’Hare, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco
Since United flies from many locations to Aspen, using Avianca LifeMiles is a great alternative to fly for less. You can redeem just 7,500 LifeMiles one-way to fly on the same United flight, which is significantly less than what United charges. Earning LifeMiles is also quite easy as it is a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards (1:1 ratio), Capital One (2:1.5 ratio), Citi ThankYou Rewards (1:1 ratio) and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1). Quite often there are times when you’ll find a hefty promotion on purchasing LifeMiles, which will give you the opportunity to fly on all Star Alliance carriers and often for less miles.
Currently, that same flight will cost you 12,500 United miles, although that could all change when United moves to a dynamic pricing award chart.
Vail (EGE), Colorado
- American Airlines: Chicago-O’Hare, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, New York-JFK, Philadelphia, Phoenix
- Delta: Atlanta, Salt Lake City
- United: Chicago-O’Hare, Denver, Houston, New York-Newark, San Francisco, Washington-Dulles
One of the best ways to fly to Vail is by using your British Airways Avios points. Although it is an international carrier, British Airways is an American Airlines partner with a favorable distance-based award chart for nonstop flights. To fly from Dallas-Ft. Worth (DFW) to Vail will cost just 9,000 Avios. British Airways is also a transfer partner with both American Express Membership Reward points and Chase Ultimate Reward points, so earning miles in the program is quite easy. There are even sometimes transfer bonus offers.
Alternatively, booking directly on American Airlines will typically cost 12,500 miles, unless there is a web special sale.
Montrose/Telluride (MTJ), Colorado
- American Airlines: Chicago, O’Hare, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Los Angeles, New York-LaGuardia, Phoenix
- Delta: Atlanta, Salt Lake City
- Allegiant: Los Angeles
- United: Chicago-O’Hare, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York-Newark, San Francisco
Boutique Air and Denver Air Connection also fly directly into Telluride (TEX), but while you can book a paid connecting flights via United utilizing these airlines, you cannot currently redeem airline miles for the flights.
The other option is to fly into a larger airport even if it is sometimes a little farther away from the ski areas. These larger options include Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno-Tahoe and even Albuquerque or Boise, depending on where you are looking to ski. The advantages of this strategy are being slightly more removed from mountain weather, flying on far more reliable mainline service and having many more nonstop routes from around the country with better award availability.
Another advantage to this approach is that you can potentially fly Southwest Airlines, which offers everyone two free checked bags and makes all of its flights available as awards. And if you have the Southwest Companion Pass it can reduce your overall ski vacation cost immensely as someone in your family will be able to fly with you for free (plus taxes/fees). Denver is also one of Southwest’s biggest stations, with nonstop flights from the vast majority of the cities it serves.
In addition to not paying any checked baggage fees for your skis and boots, you’ll also have the benefits of no change or cancellation fees. You can also re-price your flight on points as many times as the flight goes down in price. (Paid fares can be re-priced to, but you’ll be left with a Southwest voucher). If you are now on Southwest points, you can always increase your point balance with the current limited time increased credit card offers. TIP: The bonus offers also count toward earning the Companion Pass.
The major downside of flying into one of the more major cities is that you are much further away from your final destination. This means more expensive and time-consuming ground transportation options to get to the mountain. It could also mean you have a higher risk of facing road closures if there are any major storms during your trip. This is a very real periodic risk when flying into Denver and traveling I-70 into the mountains and ski resorts.
The Wasatch Mountain Range in Utah gives you the best of both worlds, with resorts such as Park City and Deer Valley. You can fly into Salt Lake City (SLC), which services many routes and airlines, and be on the mountain 30 to 45 minutes after deplaning.
Here are some of the best family-friendly hotels near ski areas, all of which can be booked with points:
Although Hilton doesn’t have a large presence in the ski resort mountains, there are a few options near some of the more popular resorts in Colorado and Utah. With the Hilton Honors program, there is no set award chart; instead each hotel has a range for the number of points they charge. You can research the range of points needed by using Hilton’s Points Explorer tool. Peak dates will require more points, and you won’t know how many will be required for an award night until you search (though standard rooms do still follow a maximum rate on an unpublished award chart). Expect these ski accommodations to require the highest number of points during the ski season, especially on weekends and holidays.
With resort fees on the rise, one big advantage of using your points is that you may not be charged those fees. For example, the $40/night fee that the DoubleTree by Hilton Vail charges will never hit your bill when using points — something to factor in when determining if you should pay for the room versus using your points.
- DoubleTree by Hilton Vail — 39,000 to 80,000 points per night
- Hampton Inn & Suites Steamboat Springs — 35,000 to 60,000 points
- Homewood Suites by Hilton Steamboat Springs — 35,000 to 60,000 points
- DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Breckenridge — 34,000 to 60,000 points
- Valdoro Mountain Lodge, Breckenridge — this is a Hilton Grand Vacations property, so point availability is extremely limited
- Waldorf Astoria Park City — 89,000 to 90,000 points (but with limited Standard award availability, you may be looking at booking a Premium room, which is over 300,000 points)
- DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Park City – The Yarrow — 36,000 to 60,000 points
- Hampton Inn & Suites Park City — 24,000 to 45,000 points
- Hampton Inn Salt Lake City Cottonwood — 36,000 to 50,000 points
You can earn Hilton Honors points with the Hilton Honors American Express Card, Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and Hilton Honors American Express Business Card. The Hilton Honors program is also an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner at a ratio of 1 Membership Rewards point = 2 Hilton Honors points.
When using your Hilton Honors points, you’ll also receive your fifth night free if you have status. Fortunately, all of the credit cards above come with some sort of status, so earning status in the program can be quite easy.
World of Hyatt
Hyatt offers a handful of ski-in/ski-out properties where you can use your points. One of the major benefits of using your points at these properties is that resort fees will be waived. Resort fees are also waived for Globalist members — even on paid reservations.
While some of the top-notch resorts will require upward of 25,000 points, there are a few hidden gems in the program. Both the Hyatt Place Keystone and the Hyatt Place Park City are only 15,000 points. This is a great opportunity to use your annual Hyatt Category 1–4 award certificate, which comes upon account renewal with the World Of Hyatt Credit Card. A stay at the Hyatt Place Keystone even comes with some freebies, such as free night skiing and kids ski free!
- Hyatt Place Keystone — Category 4; from 15,000 points per night
- Park Hyatt Beaver Creek — Category 7; from 30,000 points
- Grand Hyatt Vail — Category 7; from 30,000 points
- Hyatt Residence Club Beaver Creek, Mountain Lodge — Category 6; from 25,000 points
- Hyatt Residence Club Breckenridge, Main Street Station — Category 6; from 25,000 points
- Hyatt Residence Club at Park Hyatt Beaver Creek — Category 7; from 30,000 points
- Hyatt Residence Club Grand Aspen — Category 7; from 30,000 Hyatt points
Note that Residence Club properties have very limited award availability, especially in peak season.
- Hyatt Centric Park City —Category 6; from 25,000 points
- Hyatt Place Park City — Category 4; from 15,000 points
- Hyatt Place Salt Lake City/Cottonwood — Category 2; from 8,000 points
- Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino — Category 6; from 25,000 points
- Hyatt Residence Club Lake Tahoe, High Sierra Lodge — Category 7; from 30,000 points
- Hyatt Residence Club Lake Tahoe, Northstar Lodge — Category 6; from 25,000 points
You can earn World of Hyatt points with the World of Hyatt Credit Card. The World of Hyatt program is also a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program (1:1 ratio) and proves to be a great redemption value for those with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Ink Business Preferred Credit Card and Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card credit cards.
IHG Rewards Club
Despite such a large presence throughout the U.S., IHG offers fewer than a handful of properties conveniently located to the mountains. Fortunately though, all of them are at the 40,000-points-per-night mark or under, which means you can use your annual free night certificate that comes with the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card. Just by being a cardmember you’ll also get your fourth night free on award stays, which means your overall vacation cost can be quite low. And if you are ever short on points, there are many times throughout the year where you can buy points for half a cent per point.
- Holiday Inn Steamboat Springs — 40,000 points per night
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fraser – Winter Park Area — 20,000 points
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, Park City — 30,000 points
- Holiday Inn Express South Lake Tahoe — 35,000 points
If an annual ski vacation is in your future, you’ll want to start earning points within the Marriott Bonvoy program ASAP. You’ll see from the list below that it offers the greatest number of properties across the west. There is everything from your high-end ski-in/ski-out resorts to your lower end properties not far away from the main ski villages. Unfortunately, unlike Hilton and Hyatt, when you use your points you are still charged the hotel’s nightly resort fees. For example, the W Aspen charges a whopping $50/night in resort fees. When looking at Marriott properties, you might want to pick a hotel that does not charge a fee, such as the Sheraton Steamboat Resort Villas (although there is a parking charge).
Unfortunately, Marriott just introduced peak and off-peak pricing and, for the most part, peak ski season will most likely result in standard or peak pricing. You’ll also receive your fifth night free when using points, but it will take off your least expensive night, not necessarily the cost of the actual fifth night.
*The number of points listed below for a free night indicates standard awards
- Sheraton Mountain Vista Villas, Avon / Vail Valley — Category 5; from 35,000 points per night
- Sheraton Lakeside Terrace Villas at Mountain Vista, Avon, Vail Valley — Category 6; from 50,000 points
- Marriott’s StreamSide Douglas at Vail — Category 7; from 60,000 points (limited availability)
- Marriott’s StreamSide Birch at Vail — Category 6; from 50,000 points (limited availability)
- Marriott’s StreamSide Evergreen at Vail — Category 7; from 60,000 points (limited availability)
- Vail Marriott Mountain Resort — Category 7; from 60,000 points
- The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa, Vail — Category 7; from 60,000 points
- Beaver Creek Lodge — Category 7; from 60,000 points
- The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek Mountain — Category 7; from 85,000 points
- The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch — Category 7; from 85,000 points
- Westin Riverfront Mountain Villas — Category 7; from 60,000 points
- The St. Regis Aspen Resort — Category 8; from 85,000 points
- W Aspen — Category 8; from 85,000 points
- The Westin Snowmass Resort — Category 5; from 35,000 points
- Marriott’s Mountain Valley Lodge at Breckenridge — Category 6; from 50,000 points (limited availability)
- Residence Inn Breckenridge — Category 5; from 35,000 points
- Sheraton Steamboat Resort Villas — Category 5; from 35,000 points
- Fairfield Inn & Suites Steamboat Springs — Category 4; from 25,000 points
- Element Basalt – Aspen — Category 4; from 25,000 points
- St. Regis Deer Valley — Category 8; from 85,000 points
- Sheraton Park City — Category 5; from 35,000 points
- Marriott’s MountainSide — Category 6; from 50,000 points (limited availability)
- Marriott’s Summit Watch — Category 6; from 50,000 points (limited availability)
- Hotel Park City, Autograph Collection — Category 6; from 50,000 points
- Residence Inn Salt Lake City Cottonwood — Category 3; from 17,500 points
- Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth — Category 6; from 50,000 points
- Grand Residences by Marriott, Lake Tahoe — Category 6; from 50,000 points
- Marriott’s Timber Lodge — Category 6; from 50,000 points
Remember, you can receive a Marriott 35,000-point free night certificate annually with the Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card and the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card. With the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, you’ll receive an annual 50,000-point free night certificate. Expensive ski resort properties are the perfect opportunity to redeem these certificates, though you’ll need some date flexibility since peak ski weekends are likely to price at higher peak award rates.
In early 2019, Wyndham revamped its award chart and introduced a chart where all properties fall into one of three categories:
- 7,500 points (or 1,500 points + cash) per night
- 15,000 points (or 3,000 points + cash)
- 30,000 points (or 6,000 points + cash)
Although most of the Wyndham hotels are lower-end properties, there are a few in the program that stand out for those looking to book a ski vacation, especially its timeshare properties that remain at 15,000 points per night per bedroom (although many dates are blackout days during peak ski season). Many Wyndham Resorts require a two-plus night stay minimum, so to check for availability on points, check for two- or three-night stays in its booking engine.
- Wyndham Resort at Avon — 15,000 points per night
- Ramada by Wyndham Frisco — 15,000 points
- Baymont by Wyndham Frisco Lake Dillon — 15,000 points
- Aspen Meadows Resort — 30,000 points
- Wyndham Park City — 15,000 points
- Super 8 by Wyndham Pride Midvale/Midvalley/Salt Lake City — 15,000 points
- Days Inn by Wyndham South Lake Tahoe —15,000 points
- Super 8 by Wyndham South Lake Tahoe —15,000 points
- Hotel Becket Lake Tahoe, Trademark Collection by Wyndham —15,000 points
If you are short on Wyndham Reward points, you can increase your account balance with the Wyndham Rewards Credit Card.
Although there are not too many Choice properties near the ski slopes, if you are able to find one, they provide some great benefits. For starters, Choice does not charge more points for larger rooms. This is a great benefit when traveling with a family. The major downside, however, is that Choice does not allow you to redeem your points for a free night stay until 100 days out.
- Comfort Inn Near Vail Beaver Creek — 20,000 points per night
- The Inn at Riverwalk, An Ascend Hotel Collection Member — 30,000 points
- Bluegreen Vacations Innsbruck Aspen, Ascend Resort Collection — 30,000 points
- Econo Lodge Inn & Suites Heavenly Village Area — 12,000 points
- Roseway Inn Casino Center — 12,000 points (Sun-Thurs) or 16,000 points (Fri-Sun)
Once you’ve arrived by air, you’ll have several options to get to the slopes. One is to rent a car, which has several pros and cons. On the downside, there’s the cost of the rental car and gas, and you may even face parking charges if you stay at a property that is very close to the mountain. You’ll also have to deal with mountain driving conditions — possibly including heaving traffic and winter weather — which visitors from warmer climates may not be used to. On the plus side, you can enjoy a leisurely trip to the slopes and stop at various cities and towns along the way. Having a car also makes it easier to visit other nearby attractions, plus local towns and restaurants in the evening.
If you do decide to rent a car, it is important to find the best price for your rental and to have a credit card that offers rental car elite status. If you end up flying into Denver or Salt Lake City, you can be guaranteed an all-wheel drive Audi when renting with Silvercar. Silvercar also comes additional discounts for Chase Sapphire Reserve and Visa Infinite card holders as well as free carseats and ski racks upon request (reserve those in advance).
The other option is to utilize a shuttle service. For example, Colorado Mountain Express (CME) offers van service (with free Wi-Fi) from the Denver Airport to many Colorado ski areas such as Vail, Breckenridge, Copper and Beaver Creek. The advantage is that you leave the driving to someone else, and in most mountain towns, you can use free public shuttle service to get around once you arrive. You may also come out slightly ahead on price if you stay for a week and weigh it against what you would have paid for gas and parking charges.
A few years back, we used Amtrak’s Winter Park Express Ski Train and had a great time. It departs from Denver’s historic Union Station and takes you right to the base of Winter Park ski area in two hours. For the 2020 season, the schedule has not yet been released, but if timing runs similar to last year it will run the first week of January through the end of March. The Ski Train runs every Saturday and Sunday, plus the first two Fridays of each month.
Tickets cost between $29 and $59 each way, with children 2–12 riding for half price. In fact, you can combine your Ski Train with Denver’s RTD A Line commuter train service from Denver International Airport to downtown, having a seamless, car-free journey to the slopes– you could even include a night or two at one of the many hotels that surround Union Station.
Save on lift tickets
Many major ski areas such as Vail, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge charge around $200 per day for walk-up lift tickets, but there are numerous ways to reduce your cost. One big tip is to purchase tickets before the season starts. Here are a few of the active lift ticket deals that are sometimes available (usually before the ski season kicks into high gear):
- Loveland Ski Area in Colorado offers four unrestricted tickets (no blackout dates, fully transferable) for $169. If you are able to stop by one of their Front Range ski shows, you can save an additional $10 off the 4-Paks. These tickets will not be available for purchase after Nov. 24, 2019.
- Arapahoe Basin Colorado also offers a discount on purchasing multiple tickets at once. You can purchase anywhere between two to five tickets in a pack and save up to 45%. These tickets are also unrestricted and fully transferable.
The Epic Pass program also now sells lift tickets for far less than walk-up rates if you commit upfront to how many days you want to ski or board during the season across their whole (massive) network. This can effectively cut the walk-up rate in half, with per-day rates as low as $89 via this program even at normally expensive resorts such as Vail and Beaver Creek.
Another strategy is to buy a season pass, which will make sense if you plan to take more than one ski trip, and might even be worth it if you do one weeklong trip. Be aware that these prices often rise as ski season nears and the passes do eventually go off-sale for the season, usually in December.
Here are a few of the best season pass deals:
- IKON Base Pass currently costs $749 and offers access to dozens of preselected mountains around the country, including Winter Park Resort, Copper Mountain Resort, Mammoth Solitude and many more. Discounts are available for children and teens. There is also a more expensive ticket option which comes with a few more mountain options and and no blackout dates. Note: Prices will increase on Oct. 17, 2019.
- Epic Local Pass currently costs $719 and features unrestricted skiing or riding at several mountains around the country such as Breckenridge and Keystone. You’ll also receive restricted access at many more mountains Park City, Vail, Beaver Creek and Heavenly. Discounts are available for children and teens. You can also buy the full Epic Pass if you want less restrictions or just single ticket tickets if you are only skiing a set number of days. Note: Prices will increase on Oct. 13, 2019.
- Mountain Collective Pass costs just $509, but you are limited to visiting each of the participating resorts only twice. After that, you’ll receive 50% off your lift ticket. There are a total of 18 resorts on the pass, including Arapahoe Basin, Aspen Snowmass, Jackson Hole and Snowbird. The one nice perk of this pass is that there are absolutely no blackout dates. A pass for those 12 and under (at the time of purchase) is also significantly less expensive at just $199. Note: The pass is available until it is sold out.
- Colorado Ski Country 5th & 6th Grade Passport. This program offers three to four free passes at 22 Colorado resorts such as Telluride, Winter Park, Snowmass and Steamboat. It’s free for 5th graders and $110 for 6th graders (the 5th grade pass comes with three free days while the 6th grade pass comes with four included days). There’s no Colorado residency required and you can register online.
- Utah 5th and 6th Grade Ski Passport Pass. This program offers extremely discounted passes to 5th and 6th graders to 15 different Utah resorts for just $45. Fifth graders will receive three passes per resort while sixth graders will receive just one pass per participating resort. Similar to the Colorado passport program, you do not have to be a resident of Utah and you can register online.
- Epic has free child ski passes including a set number of ski days are available in Colorado and Utah. While there is no residence requirement for the Colorado passes, you do have to register for them in person in Colorado. The Utah pass does have a Utah residency restriction.
Finally, there are some discount programs worth considering, including:
- Gems Card — Although not an unlimited ski pass, it does offer two 2-for-1 discount cards and two 30% off cards (or you can opt for one of each) at 11 of the smaller Colorado ski areas. This card is just $30, so it easily pays for itself after a single use. Participating mountains include: Arapahoe Basin, Copper, Echo Mountain, Eldora, Granby Ranch, Hesperus, Kendall Mountain, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn and Sunlight. The card will be on sale through Feb. 28, 2020 or until it sells out. (Blackout dates include Dec. 21, 2019–Jan. 1, 2020).
- Kids Ski Free at Keystone — When you stay two nights in Keystone at any Vail Resorts lodging properties, kids 12 and under ski or ride free. This even works at the Hyatt Place Keystone.
- Airline Boarding Pass — In previous years, many resorts will offer you a discounted or even free lift ticket simply by showing your airline boarding pass. Of course there are certain restrictions, and many are limited to a lift ticket for the day of your arrival or departure, but if you can make the timing work, getting one free day can be a huge savings. For this ski season, we are already seeing many of the resorts offering similar savings.
Other tricks to score discounted tickets include booking through third-party discounted sites such as Liftopia.com as well as visiting local supermarkets, sporting goods stores, gas stations and even Costco. Just make sure to use the best credit for your lift ticket to maximize the points and miles earned.
There’s still time to make some strategic plans that will save you money during this year’s ski season. Are you planning a ski trip this winter? What are your tips for using points and miles or saving money in other ways?
- TPG readers’ best ski trip tips using miles and points
- Top ski schools for kids
- Ski resorts that will be open by Thanksgiving
- How to get majorly discounted ski lift tickets
- Booking a ski rental house for 22 people
- Unlimited skiing with Ikon Ski Pass
- Guide to the Epic Pass
- Tips for visiting Crested Butte
- Skiing at 70: Ski Tips for seniors
- 6 tips for taking big family ski trips
- Best ski resorts for families in North America
- Best ski schools for kids in the U.S.
- Perfect ski day in Telluride
With additional reporting by Jennifer Yellin and Summer Hull.
Featured image by Marcin Wiklik/Getty Images