Skip to content

TPG's first-timer guide to visiting Vail

April 06, 2022
17 min read
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Vail is bold in its marketing, declaring that the Colorado ski town is “like no place on Earth.”

Bold, sure, but actually justified. While neighboring Aspen and Steamboat Springs, along with resorts in California, Utah and throughout Europe's Alps undoubtedly also draw powder hounds in droves, there is no ski spot quite like Vail.

It’s a strange mix of Western frontier and Bavarian ski town, all with a posh undertone (think: heated sidewalks) that shines through but doesn’t blind you as it does in Aspen and some other ski destinations.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

It’s also a largely walkable town with tons of close-to-the-slopes lodging, ranging from high-end hotels to a few spots that still resemble college dorm life (though not always a dorm budget).

Then, of course, there's the skiing. Vail's Back Bowls are called “legendary” for good reason.

Yes, Vail likes to hype itself up — but it is indeed a unique ski experience unlike anything else out there. So whether you are hoping to squeeze in one more ski trip before the end of the spring ski season or already looking ahead to next year, here's everything you need to know to head into your first trip to Vail as prepared as an expert.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Getting there

The easiest way to reach Vail is to fly to Eagle County Regional Airport (EGE), a small airport about a 35- to 40-minute drive west of Vail. The beauty of this airport is that it boasts proximity to an interstate highway that's easy to traverse and which avoids the high-elevation Vail Pass and Eisenhower Tunnel, which both commonly close during snowstorms.

Know, though, that the Eagle airport can also close during heavy snowfall or high winds.

During the 2020-2021 winter season, nearly 10% of the airport's flights were canceled. This was twice as many cancellations as at nearby Denver International Airport (DEN), which saw 5% of its flights canceled during the same period of time, according to government data.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Denver tends to be cheaper to fly into, too, thanks to a larger selection of flights and car rentals available. The major drawback to flying into Denver is the drive to Vail. While it should normally take you about two hours to drive west to Vail, if you are traveling on a weekend during peak season, prepare for clogged roads. Add in some winter weather, and the journey can easily exceed those two hours.

The price difference between the two airports also may shrink considerably once you factor in needing to rent an SUV or a four-wheel drive vehicle in winter. Expect an even smaller difference if you are able to redeem airline miles to fly directly to Eagle.

Regardless of which airport you choose, you can skip a car rental if you book the Epic Mountain Express shuttle from either airport. Prices start around $149 per person from Denver and $59 from Eagle. If you have an Epic Pass, remember to enter your pass number to receive a 20% discount.

Additionally, there's the Vail Black Car company. While not inexpensive, the company is usually willing and able to do pickups from the airport and other locations, even when the snow is really falling and others have hunkered down.

Related: Don’t let Colorado’s traction law slow down your ski trip

(Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)

The lay of the town

The village of Vail is a narrow strip of land that's sandwiched between the ski resort and Interstate Highway 70.

The Bavarian-inspired architecture looks like it belongs in a fairy tale, almost as if Disney pulled elements from Austrian, German, Italian and Swiss villages to create the perfect little ski town in Colorado. Much has changed since the ski resort opened in the 1960s, yet in many ways, the town feels perfectly stuck in time, with many of its original structures still standing.

There isn't one ideal place to stay here, but the two main centers of activity are Vail Village and Lionshead. Both have their own gondolas that access the majority of the mountain. To the east is Golden Peak, and to the west is Cascade Village.

Although the entire Vail region is spread out enough that nowhere is easily walkable to everything, the town has a free bus route — on dedicated roads — that connects all the areas. Lyft and Uber operate in Vail, too, though the limited availability makes them less than ideal for short trips.

Some of the in-town hotels include house car service in their rates, so you can be whisked away to a restaurant for dinner or a multitude of shops for a day of retail therapy without incurring an extra charge. Hotels located farther out may offer shuttle services to the slopes.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Dining out

Vail is full of apres-ski spots, but for dinner, reservations are usually required. During peak season, you'll want to map out your plans weeks in advance. Also consider bringing the most rewarding credit card you have for dining, as not every meal in Vail is a cheap one.

Slope Room

One of the newer, trendier additions to town is Slope Room. This upscale steakhouse inside Gravity Haus Vail (a boutique hotel in Vail Village) is the place to see and be seen while visiting Colorado. The 21-day, dry-aged bison ribeye for $76 was one of our favorites. Another highlight was the corn old fashioned ($16), which comes with a piece of charred corn still on the cob floating above the booze.

The Red Lion

Just follow the crowds at the base of the main gondola to Vail’s longstanding traditional spot for apres-ski. This packed bar and restaurant often has live music, making it a great place to catch up with friends (or meet some new ones) after a long day on the slopes. Order the nachos ($20) and a round of one of the local brews on tap, then kick back and relax.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Sweet Basil

Sweet Basil has been elevating the fine dining scene in Vail from its perch 8,150 feet above sea level since opening in 1977. With an enviable location by the slopes and an upscale setting, the restaurant is the ideal place to unwind in style after an abridged day of skiing. Be sure to order the grilled octopus ($22), the butter-poached lobster ($60) or the Colorado lamb tagine ($53).

Almresi

The owners of Almresi perfectly describe this eatery as the spot where the Alps meet the Rockies. Employing a staff as international as the cuisine itself (and dressed by the same outfitter used for Munich’s famous Oktoberfest celebration), Almresi is as legit of a European getaway as you'll find in Colorado. Menu staples include raclette, bratwurst and fondue. Come hungry, as the restaurant's meals are all three-course offerings costing $49 per person.

Blue Moose

If you're craving an affordable lunch special to enjoy between runs, then Blue Moose is the place to go. After about 30 years in operation, Blue Moose is still as unassuming as it is popular. Whether you want to dine in or grab a pizza to take back to your lodging, the casual spot is a solid choice. Its one-topping slice and soda meal for $5 is as close to budget-friendly as you’ll get in the area.

Related: Cheap meals and worth-it splurges in Vail

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Shopping

There are plenty of T-shirt and standard ski shops in town, but odds are you're looking for more than ordinary finds when you visit Vail. Unsurprisingly, the town offers several top shops worth perusing.

Axel's

Axel’s should be one of your first stops in town. While the prices are not cheap, the clothing and accessories here are unique and, honestly, more stylish than I am. Instead of getting a silly T-shirt or another ski jacket, why not bring your wardrobe up to the next level?

Gorsuch

With locations in Vail, Aspen, Beaver Creek and Park City, Utah, Gorsuch has been a mainstay in high-end ski gear and winter clothing for decades. You'll find a selection of jewelry, candles, sunglasses and more, should you want a smaller keepsake that won't take up as much space in your carry-on bag or checked luggage.

Kemo Sabe

Enjoying that Western vibe and want to take some of it home with you? Then this is the store to prioritize. Kemo Sabe offers high-end Western wear (think: cowboy boots, leather belts, buckles and more) for both men and women. It’s well worth a visit, even if you don't walk away with a custom cowboy hat.

Aviator Nation

If you are looking for some comfortable 1970s-inspired attire to wear around town or later at home, then the Aviator Nation shop in Vail Village is worth checking out. You can't miss this California brand's brightly colored rainbows on its handmade hoodies, sweatpants and cropped tees displayed at its Vail outpost's storefront. Although most items here are also available to buy online, there are some Vail-branded options that you won't find elsewhere, so be sure to visit in person.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Where to stay

The Hythe, a Luxury Collection Resort

Fresh off a $40 million renovation, the Hythe is one of the best all-around choices for Vail lodging if you have a bunch of Marriott points to spare. Situated in Lionshead Village and part of Marriott’s family of Luxury Collection Resorts, this hotel is walkable to the gondola and lift at the base of Lionshead, though it is not a true ski-in/ski-out resort.

Still, The Hythe's superb location and plethora of top-notch facilities and amenities makes it an excellent option to hang your hat after a busy day of skiing. On-site features include a ski rental shop, two hot tubs, a spa and an awesome restaurant (Margie’s Haas).

While the rooms are a little on the small side, especially if you are traveling with more than one person, we love the alpine-chic vibe that ties in the area's history and setting. If you can stomach the winter room rates, which are often $800 to $1,000 per night (or 70,000 to 100,000 Marriott points per night), this property is well worth a visit.

Grand Hyatt Vail

For World of Hyatt fans, the Grand Hyatt Vail can offer a fantastic value on points during ski season.

Although it’s set slightly off the main drag, the complimentary shuttle service makes frequent on-demand trips to Lionshead and the Vail Transportation Center. Guests can also take advantage of the on-site rental shop and hop on the Cascade Village lift just a few steps from the building to get right on the slopes.

After a full day of skiing, you can unwind at the property in a variety of ways. Enjoy a relaxing soak in one of multiple hot tubs, pamper yourself with a treatment at the spa or partake in evening entertainment like a Champagne sabering or magic show. Should you want a break from the winter-themed activities, you can reserve one of the property’s Topgolf suites or even test your axe-throwing skills at the on-site facility.

View from the Grand Hyatt Vail (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

As a Category 6 property, free nights typically cost 29,000 points during peak ski season, but with paid rates frequently eclipsing $1,000 per night, you can get outstanding value redeeming points.

Highline Vail - a DoubleTree by Hilton

If you don’t mind being a little removed from the action, consider the Highline Vail, which is really a DoubleTree by a fancier name. Since the property is affiliated with Hilton, you can earn and use Hilton Honors points and perks while being just 2 miles from the mountain, which you can reach via the hotel's shuttle.

Reviews here are admittedly a bit mixed. However, if you manage your expectations and don't count on the same experience you'll get at Vail's assortment of higher-end properties, then chances are you'll enjoy staying at the Highline Vail.

To stay at this DoubleTree outpost during ski season, expect to spend about 80,000 Hilton points per night for a standard room.

Vail-owned resorts

In addition to various brand-name properties, Vail Resorts operates two hotels in town. Naturally, both are in amazing locations just steps from the slopes.

The Arrabelle at Vail Square boasts multi-bedroom accommodations, a year-round pool, a ski concierge and a spa, among other amenities. And at The Lodge at Vail, guests will find an alpine-inspired setting complete with fire pits, an outdoor hot tub and more.

Stays at these properties come at a steep cost, but Vail is known for its 96-hour sales, so you may be able to lock in a reasonable rate if you book early. Season pass holders are also typically able to save 20% on Vail-owned resorts.

Other luxury resorts

If the above options are not appealing to you, there are plenty of other luxe options in town. Here are four of our favorites:

  • Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail: This property is one of the newer options to come to town but, in true Four Seasons fashion, managed to add another layer of luxury to this already posh town.
  • The Sebastian - Vail: Located in Vail Village, this luxury property offers multiple hot tubs, a game room, a spa, a bar and an array of lodging options ranging from standard hotel rooms to a 12-person penthouse.
  • Sonnenalp Hotel: Offering a taste of Europe high up in the Rockies, this chic lodge has been a high-end mainstay in Vail for more than four decades. In fact, it's one of TPG executive editor Scott Mayerowitz’s favorite spots to stay in town.
  • Tivoli Lodge: Head to this property near the base of the mountain for a cozy, friendly vibe. What it lacks in elegance it more than makes up for in location and ambiance.

Related: Book this, not that ski hotel edition

Lift tickets

To ski at Vail, you will probably want to get an Epic Pass of some sort.

Single-day lift tickets can cost $239 per day – but you don’t have to pay that much with advance planning. The cheapest Epic Day tickets cost less than $100 per day if purchased with enough advance notice. These tickets eventually go off sale for the season, so know that you won't find these reduced rates when planning a last-minute trip.

Kids 4 and younger ski for free at Vail, while those in kindergarten to fifth grade can get four days of free skiing if they register (in person in Colorado) during select dates. Keep in mind, though, that the latter typically occurs in fall.

Overall mountain layout

Vail is a sprawling mountain. There are three base areas just on the front side: Golden Peak, Vail Village and the area around Lionshead. An additional lift is also available at Cascade Village by the Grand Hyatt Vail.

Beyond these areas, you can ski down the Back Bowls (the back side of the mountain range) and then over to the adjacent Blue Sky Basin ski area.

There are many chairlifts and gondolas to keep track of, but don’t be intimidated. After a few runs, you will get the hang of it all. Just make sure you follow the signs to the proper base area at the end of the day or else you will have a long bus ride back to your lodging.

Related: 5 things to know before your first ski trip

Ski school

In addition to deciding where to start and end your day on the mountain, you’ll need to strategize where you sign up for ski school. For example, depending on the day and type of lesson, you can meet up with your instructor in Lionshead, Vail Village or Golden Peak.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Your other decision will be what type of lesson you’re after. There are half- and full-day lessons, along with private or group lessons. While private lessons are pricier, often costing more than $1,000 per day, they can end up being the more affordable option if you sign up with multiple people, though you'll want to make sure everyone is at roughly the same ski ability.

(Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)

No matter which ski school lesson you choose, you’ll want to book in advance for cheaper rates and to ensure availability. You’ll also get a 20% discount on group lessons if you have an Epic Pass.

When to visit

While Vail is certainly a great spot to visit during a variety of seasons, it is a ski town first and foremost. Mother Nature is largely in control of the exact dates the ski season starts and ends, but expect opening to be sometime in November and closing to occur sometime in April. This year, the ski season was extended a bit and is currently scheduled to conclude on May 1.

If you want to increase your odds of enjoying good snow on a variety of open terrain, plan your visit to occur between late December and mid-March.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Besides its abundance of outdoor recreational activities, Vail has an growing slate of festivals focusing on everything from food to art to music that take place outside of winter. It's also easier to score dinner reservations and cheaper accommodations in the shoulder seasons.

So, if winter sports are not your thing, consider an offseason visit.

Bottom line

Vail isn’t the cheapest place to ski, nor is it the easiest resort to get to. But it’s a mountain that lives up to its reputation as a world-class ski destination.

Featuring a massive amount of terrain, powder-filled back bowls, fun tree trails and dining that ranges from a $5 pizza lunch to upscale meals, this small town is a haven for winter sports enthusiasts. Its part Colorado, part European Alps style creates a one-of-a-kind setting that is 100% all its own.

It's no wonder why many visitors — us included — find themselves returning to Vail year after year.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

TPG featured card

Best starter travel card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 3X points
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Intro offer

Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points60,000 points
For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

Annual Fee

$95

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent, Good
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases
Best starter travel card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

    Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points
    60,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $95
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent, Good

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases