7 mistakes to avoid when planning a ski trip

Sep 6, 2020

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There’s nothing quite like a ski trip: The cold crisp mountain air, the rush as you schuss down the slopes — and the heart palpitations when you get your final credit card bill. Ski trips can be idyllic, memory-making experiences but they can have their financial and logistical pitfalls. Factor in extra challenges of planning a ski trip during a pandemic and … it can be a lot.

I lived and worked in ski resort towns for 14 years and have taken ski trips on my own. Here are seven common mistakes to avoid on your way to a smooth downhill experience.

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Paying too much

Making up a ski trip as you go along can be a major mistake. Lodging, lift tickets, lessons and rental equipment can hit your wallet hard unless you make arrangements ahead of time. And now, you’ll need to make reservations to access the mountain at many locations, including at all 34 Vail resorts — so you really have to plan ahead.

Lift tickets

The best way to get discounted lift tickets is to purchase in advance. Passes like the Ikon Pass or the Epic Pass are great if you are pretty sure of your plans — between them, most of the ski resorts in the United States (and some in Canada) are covered.

However, if you don’t end up with a pass don’t fret: You can still receive a slightly cheaper lift ticket if you purchase ahead of time (though keep in mind that you may also need reservations to access the mountain this season). Go online to the resort of your choice and you’ll often find discounted lift tickets if you purchase at least one week in advance. These discounts may not seem like much, but that $10 you saved will buy you a beer on the slopes. Other options include searching sites like Liftopia.com or Ski.com for discounted tickets.

There are also programs for kids and seniors to ski for free, so check those out, too.

Read more: Planning your ski trip with points and miles

(Photo by Don Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Don Miller/Getty Images)

Rental equipment

For equipment rentals, purchasing in advance will again save you money. Sometimes you can bundle lift tickets and rentals to receive a discount. Other options include renting from big-box stores in the city before heading to the slopes. You’ll have to lug the gear with you, but you’ll save money.

Lodging

When it comes to lodging, consider your location and priorities if you don’t want to pay top dollar.

Yes, ski-in/ski-out is convenient, but you’ll be paying a premium to stay close to the slopes. On the other hand, a property that is just “steps from the slope” could turn out to be several miles away if you don’t do your research. If you’re traveling with a group, sometimes you’ll find that a large home rental is more economical than renting multiple hotel rooms.

Keep an eye out for packages: Some resorts will bundle lift tickets, rentals and lodging or offer ski-free/stay-free packages that can provide considerable savings.

There are also plenty of ski-friendly hotels that let you redeem your points to stay on or near the mountain.

Since many hotel programs allow you to redeem points for a standard room as long as one is available for sale, you’re going to have the best pick of availability if you plan well in advance. Ski resorts do sell out of rooms on peak dates during the ski season, so redeem your points well in advance to keep your cash safe.

Westin Snowmass as seen from the lift (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Westin Snowmass as seen from the lift (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Related: Review of the ski-out Westin Snowmass 

Thinking you need a car

Before you rent that overpriced SUV (that may not even have 4-wheel drive or decent snow tires), consider ditching the rental car altogether for some ski trips. Driving in the snow can be challenging if you aren’t used to it and, depending on where you are, getting stuck or not having the right tires and chains can result in a hefty fine — or worse, an accident.

Instead of driving, consider using a shuttle service from the airport to your lodging, taking the bus (there are ski buses in both Denver and Salt Lake City that service ski resorts) or even taking the train. Once you’ve arrived, your need for a car is probably limited unless you are staying at a rental outside of town. Many resort towns have a free bus service; your lodging may also have a shuttle service around town.

(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Not having a “Plan B”

It is very convenient to fly into a small regional airport right near the mountain when everything goes to plan. You’ll find these airports in or near ski towns such as Telluride, Aspen, Vail-Eagle, etc. but know that in the event of winter weather, these airports can quickly cancel flights or even close for days at a time.

When this happens, things can get very interesting — especially if you’re traveling during peak season. If you decide to fly into a small airport, have a Plan B for if winter weather strikes and you won’t be able to get a flight out for what could be days. This plan may include having travel insurance that will cover the surprise expenses from getting stuck, identifying another larger airport you can safely drive to (such as in Denver) or just having a time buffer before you have to be back at work or school so you aren’t stressing if you end up with a few extra days of a snowy vacation.

Related: A ski trip gone wrong left us stranded 

Overestimating your abilities

Sure, you’re a double-black diamond skier in North Carolina or Maryland, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to take on the toughest runs at Jackson Hole or Aspen.

One of the biggest mistakes I see on the slopes is folks who either overestimate their abilities or misjudge the difficulty level of the mountain. Every ski resort is different.

The signage of green circle/blue square/black diamond is almost universal, but the pitch/grooming/fall line of these runs vary by resort. One way to ensure you don’t ruin yourself or someone else on the first day? Ask questions. Folks are hanging out at the base area just waiting to share the latest grooming report or to tell you which runs are best for beginners. Take advantage of their knowledge and pay attention when they point out slow zones and out-of-bounds terrain. Some resorts offer free guided tours at set times of the day which are another great way to scope out the slopes.

Read more: 5 ways to make your next ski trip better than ever

Skipping the lesson

There are ways to save money on a ski trip, but skipping a ski lesson is not one of them.

It sounds great to avoid the big ski school or private instructor bill, but the frustration, increased injury risk and extended learning time it takes to DIY the learning is simply not worth it in most situations.

If you’ve never skied or snowboarded, taking a lesson can make your days not only more fun but much safer for you and those around you.

An instructor will not only help you progress, but they’ll also share the skier safety code and help steer you around the mountain. On busy days at ski areas, instructors use a special lane at the lifts with their students so you can skip the line. Even if you’re an advanced skier or snowboarder, you’ll learn something in a lesson.

(Photo by Christian Kober/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Kober/Getty Images)

If you’re planning to teach your significant other, friend, kid or parent how to ski or snowboard — don’t.

The resort has professionals on hand for this. Not only will your friend, child, parent or significant other get a proper education, but you’ll still like each other at the end of the day.

Bonus: Many resorts have packages of beginner ski lessons and lift tickets that’ll save you money. Check it out online before you purchase your multi-day lift ticket. Remember to book your lessons well in advance as ski school does fill up.

Related: The best age to teach kids to ski

Not exploring the other attractions

You’re on a ski trip, but there’s something to be said for taking a day off.

Most lift tickets are “3 of 5 days” or “4 of 6” days, giving you the flexibility to choose the days you spend on the mountain. We can pretty much guarantee your legs will be screaming for a day off by the third day.

Resorts have a wide variety of options to entertain both visitors and non-skiers, including mountain coasters, snow tubing, dog sledding, hot-air ballooning, ski biking, ice skating, snowshoeing, fat biking, ice forts and more.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Spas are plentiful and many are destinations themselves. Some resort ski towns have rich, colorful histories. Visit a museum or take a walking tour and you’ll hear ghost stories and bawdy tales.

Read more: 17 of the best ski towns in the US

Forgetting that other people like skiing, too

One of the biggest mistakes people make is forgetting how many other people want to ski during holidays, spring break or hop over to a ski resort on the weekend.

As a result, they’re dismayed and irritated when there are crowds, lines or traffic. Of course, in a pandemic-era world, crowds and lines may be more controlled than in most years, but you’ll potentially find yourself without access to the mountain if you don’t lock your plans in well in advance.

Related: This ski season is a go — here’s what you’ll need to access the mountain 

(Photo by mbbirdy/Getty Images)
(Photo by mbbirdy/Getty Images)

To avoid crowds, try and travel during less busy times, ski during the weekdays or stay in one place at a destination resort to minimize traffic on the roads. Avoid long-weekend holidays and school spring breaks if at all possible.

Those remote learning and working this year may have more ski flexibility than ever before. If holidays are the only time you can travel, consider resorts that are farther from major metropolitan areas.

Read more: Best credit cards to use on ski trips

Bottom line

Ski trips can be magical, socially distanced fun for the whole family. But, they can also turn into frustrating, expensive borderline-disasters if you don’t plan carefully. Before the snow begins to fall, now is the perfect time to plot out those ski trips for this upcoming season so you make the best kind of memories on the mountain.

Featured photo by © Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images

Additional reporting by Summer Hull

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