Coronavirus freezes the 2020 ski season: What season passholders need to know
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include new information.
Annual ski passes are a great way for frequent skiers and boarders to keep down the cost of lift tickets. Whether you decide on an Epic, Ikon, Mountain Collective or another more localized ski pass, even out-of-state, snow-chasing vacationers can usually ski for a whole lot less with a pass than by leaning on individual lift tickets.
At least, that’s true in a pandemic-free world with open ski slopes.
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Last year, many North American ski areas remained open through Memorial Day, with some keeping certain runs open all the way until July 4. Even those resorts with more traditional closing dates were generally open until around mid-April.
But this year, ski resorts quickly went from normal operations to implementing some social distancing strategies to closing (likely for the season) much earlier than expected.
An abrupt end to the ski season
My family got lucky and experienced a mostly normal ski trip to Mammoth in California from March 5 to 10. We were cautious and intentionally avoided a higher-density traditional ski school for our kids, but resort operations were still running as usual.
By March 13, Mammoth had made plans to adjust operations by only allowing groups that knew each other together on lifts, reducing gondola capacity, spreading out tables in the lodges and restaurant by 6 feet and increasing sanitation standards, among other changes.
Just two days later, on March 15, Mammoth — along with the other Alterra resorts — closed for the season. But it wasn’t just Mammoth. The Vail resorts followed a similar plan, initially closing for just a week, from March 15 to 22, but ultimately shut down for the remainder of the ski season.
Several Colorado ski towns were already unwitting coronavirus hot spots by that time. Given how rapidly the situation intensified in the U.S., there’s no question the mass closure of ski resorts was the right call. But the abrupt shutdown meant many people with annual ski passes lost out on a significant amount of spring skiing.
Refunds, discounts and future incentives
Now, in May, it’s as clear as a bluebird sky that ski pass refunds from the large pass programs are unlikely for those who saw their ski days cut short this season — even for people with some ski pass insurance plans. According to some skiers on social media, at least some ski pass insurance claims have been rejected because pandemics are not a widely covered reason for an insurance claim on those policies.
After shutting off their lifts for 2020, most major resorts quickly announced refund plans for those who had purchased equipment rentals, ski school classes and individual lift tickets for future dates — but not for the season-type products.
While refunds don’t seem to be in the cards, the major ski pass programs have outlined plans for 2019 to 2020 passholders:
Ikon Pass credits and incentives
Ikon was the initial leader in ski pass announcements, with an introductory price extension sale to May 27. Current season passholders will get a discount, up to $200, on next season’s pass purchases (double the normal renewal discount). Ikon also stated you’ll be able to put the value of a purchased (but unused) 2020 to 2021 season pass into the purchase of a 2021 to 2022 pass with no added fees. To defer the value, you’ll need to make that decision by Dec. 10, 2020.
Mountain Collective Pass credits and incentives
The Mountain Collective Pass, which is the one my family held this year, extended the time frame to lock in the lowest prices of the season (with an extra ski day included) until May 18. The program is also giving a $50 credit to current season passholders, dropping the price to $419 for adults. The rate for kids remains at $99. (As of this writing, this pass is temporarily off sale for the 2020 to 2021 season, but expects to return soon.)
Epic Pass credits and incentives
Though the granddaddy of them all, the Epic Pass, was incredibly quiet on the matter for over a month, it ultimately released a plan for passholders that made it the front-runner. Less than a week after this guide originally published, Epic announced that its 2019 to 2020 season passholders will receive credits of 20% to 80% toward next season’s passes, based on how much they used this season’s pass. On May 13, 2020, those who didn’t use this season’s pass at all will receive a credit of 80% toward a pass of equal or greater value for next season. Those who used it for fewer than five days will receive a prorated credit based on how many days it was used. Those who got in five or more days on the slopes will receive a flat 20% discount on next year’s Epic Pass purchases.
Perhaps most importantly for those looking forward, Epic has also extended its spring prices through Labor Day and will refund 2020 to 2021 pass purchases under certain situations, such as resort closures on the week you designated as your preferred ski week.
Even though we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, and far from next season’s opening day in the fall, this all still matters right now. Annual ski passes for next season went on sale just as coronavirus concerns began to rise in the U.S. Each spring, ski pass prices start as low as they’re going to get for next year, and prices only rise as you approach the next ski season. While Epic has extended the spring sale until September, so far that is the exception — not the rule.
What skiers and riders want from the pass programs
While most skiers and riders understand the need to end this ski season early, the degree to which they are upset by how the major pass programs responded seems to be based on how much they used their passes before the March 15 shutdowns.
We happened to squeeze in our family spring break ski trip to Mammoth just in time. Had our trip fallen even a week later, we wouldn’t have used our Mountain Collective passes as intended and would have essentially wasted a few hundred dollars on the nonrefundable purchase.
Sure, discounts toward next season’s passes for current passholders are a good start. But people who had planned to get the bulk of value from their pass during spring break ski trips from mid-March and onward were hit disproportionately hard.
While the seasonality of skiing changes the equation a bit, you can look to Disney for a different example of how to manage such situations for season passholders. Disney is giving passholders a few options, but one is to simply extend the validity of the current annual pass by one day for every day the theme park is closed. If season passholders missed out on one to two months of skiing this season, perhaps an option could be to give them back that time as soon as the lifts eventually reopen.
This is close to how the Loveland Ski Area is approaching the situation for those who purchased 2019 to 2020 season passes from Feb. 15 onward. Those passholders will have their season passes activated for the 2020 to 2021 season, even if they didn’t purchase any type of pass insurance.
When will ski resorts reopen?
All the major pass programs and mountains we checked expect to run the next season ski operation at this point, but we all know nothing with this coronavirus is a guarantee right now. We’re already seeing large annual festivals and events canceled late into 2020.
While skiing is, on the surface, an activity better suited for social distancing than, say, visiting a theme park or casino, skiing does provoke large gatherings of people at pinch points such as lift lines, lodges, après ski happy hour and more.
If we’re being really honest with ourselves, the truth is that we simply don’t know if the pandemic will be fully behind us when next ski season rolls around. That makes the Ikon Pass option to roll the value of any unused pass over to the 2021 to 2022 season, if needed, pretty valuable.
I’m as much of planner as they come, and always plot out my trips and buy my ski pass for the next year well in advance. I already had rough plans taking shape for the 2020 to 2021 ski season. Spoiler alert: It was likely going to be built around Colorado’s “kids ski free in fifth grade” program, and we’d focus on resorts where 5-year-olds also ski free, such as Telluride.
Now, I’m holding off on committing to ski plans for next year until more is known both about what next season will look like, and also how risky it may be to hit the slopes. I’m still booking some flexible future travel plans, but putting down hundreds of nonrefundable dollars toward a ski trip that may or may not happen is beyond my current risk tolerance.
And in some parts of the country, ski resorts have already reopened — albeit in a limited capacity. So, don’t toss your 2019 to 2020 ski pass just yet. Mount Baldy Resort in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, for example, has been open since April 22, operating at 10% occupancy. It will, however, close for the season on May 3. It’s an outlier right now, but in the heart of Colorado ski country, Summit County has just lifted its stay-at-home mandate (though Colorado Governor Jared Polis has extended a statewide ski area closure through May 23). Still, the lifts may start spinning again long before the pandemic is truly behind us.
If you’re still sitting on passes or days from this ski season and are praying to the snow gods you’ll get some value back from that purchase, it may still happen.
Loveland just announced some of its plans, and Copper Mountain has offered refunds to people with unused lift tickets, and those who bought the extra protection toward four-packs and season passes seem to be having success with those claims based on social media reports.
But unless a program takes a sharp left turn from the current course, nonrefundable pass purchases are being viewed as nonrefundable. Period. While there are sale extensions, and discounted renewal rates for next year’s passes for current season passholders, those who were planning spring trips are so far left holding the proverbial boot bag.
Ikon’s offer to allow you to credit any season passes you buy now to the 2021 to 2022 year is a good step toward future flexibility, but I’ll personally be waiting for a clearer forecast before committing.
Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.
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