Outside of maybe yacht racing and exotic car collecting, skiing has to go down as one of the most expensive hobbies ever. While those first two might be reserved for the one percenters, skiing can still be enjoyed by those of us who care about saving money… if we play our cards right.
If I can do it, so can you. After all, I’m the guy so frugal (cheap?) that I spent a whole year driving around the sub-zero, antarctic Minnesota winter in a car with a broken heater. But I also used to live in a ski city (Denver) and I now take a few weeks a year to vacation from mountain to mountain.
For me, it’s the greatest sport on earth. The perfect marriage of the best parts of so many amazing activities – the beautiful mountain views of hiking, the thrilling speed of racing, the challenging dexterity of surfing – all with the cardio benefits of jogging.
I mean, how can anyone not love this?
Skiing does have one tiiiny downfall though…
It’s absurdly expensive.
How expensive is skiing? Let’s put it this way; I once saw Tom Brady on the mountain.
Everyone was freaking out about seeing the three time SuperBowl MVP… I was freaking out about having the same hobby as someone earning $21 million a year.
In order to avoid starting an avalanche that buries my finances alive, I’ve forced myself to pick up several money saving tips over the years.
Here are the 9 best tips for saving on your next ski vacation:
1. Know the airline baggage policies
On nearly all the major airlines, a ski bag with a boot bag counts as only one checked item, not two. Since most airline credit cards allow for a free checked bag, this means you can check all of your ski gear without paying a dime.
And don’t forget, Southwest Airlines always allows two checked bags for free. This means you could check your ski bag, boot bag, and that big fat suitcase, completely free of charge.
2. Skip the Rental Car, use the Shuttle
Nearly all mountain towns have model public transit systems which easily transport you anywhere you’d like to go. I learned this lesson the hard way on my first trip to Keystone, Colorado, when I spent $500 on a rental car and proceeded to use the free bus system all week.
Worried about all that ski gear? Places like Denver and Salt Like City have a number of shuttle services to take you, your skis, and your bags to and from the airport for as little as $30 each way.
3. Deciding whether to Buy or Rent your Ski Equipment
Unless you have Olympic aspirations, skiing is a recreational sport. You’re not Lindsay Vonn, and you don’t need her equipment. Neither you nor I can shred hard enough to properly curve her skis even on our best days. This is worth remembering when deciding on equipment.
Ski rentals can cost up to $60 a day. At that rate, it only takes a few trips to equal the cost of your very own ski set. Don’t be fooled by the $800 asking price for most skis either. Instead, shop like the locals: browse end of season close-out deals. Ski gear that was considered “Brand new! Cutting edge!” just a few months earlier can easily be had for upwards of 50% off come July and August.
And don’t be afraid to buy used. Skis are strong, durable pieces of engineering. Craigslist is a goldmine here.
Personally, I bought my $600 pair of skis for $100 from co-worker. 4 years and plenty of abuse later, they’re still going strong.
If you do go the rental route; remember the two rules of renting:
- Rent early: Many rental shops offer 25% discounts for reserving 48 hours in advance, or online.
- Rent off-mountain: Renting your gear at the resort is a lot like buying beer at a stadium – you’re gonna get screwed. You can often save over 30% just from driving to an equipment shop half a mile down the street.
4. The Grocery Store Is Your Friend
And on mountain dining is your enemy. If you’ve never dined on a resort mountain before, prepare for the sticker shock of your life. Yes, $14 for one slice of pizza is a real thing.
Rather than buying a sandwich meal that costs more than most steakhouses, pack your own lunch. Believe me, I’ve tried protesting these mountain prices with a mid-day hunger strike. Skipping lunch is a bad idea when you have hours of hard skiing ahead of you.
My first stop whenever I arrive into any ski town is the grocery store, where I stock up on supplies for each day of skiing.
(Careful with powerbars, they usually freeze on the mountain. We don’t need anyone chipping teeth here.)
My cheap favorite: sandwiches consisting of wheat bread, slices of Cajun turkey deli meat, pepperjack cheese, and chipotle mayonnaise. About $1 per sandwich and will keep me going all day. You’d be amazed the number of poor saps I’ve caught longingly looking at this meal while sobbing into their $23 cup of soup and chips.
5. Avoid buying one day tickets at the window
If you wait until the day-of to purchase a one day ski pass at the ticket window, prepare to get the tourist treatment. That is, you WILL be getting price gouged for your lack of preparation.
Instead, shop for ski tickets like the locals and…
6. Look for season passes
I know this sounds like a big commitment, but chances are, you only have to ski a few days to come out ahead when buying season passes. Many mountains offer multi-day tickets for barely more than the cost of a single day ticket.
Consider this example. You’re taking a ski trip to Denver and you plan on skiing for 4 days at Keystone Resort.
If you purchase your tickets at the window, you’re looking at $135 per day.
If you do a little more planning and look online, you will likely be funneled by the website to the 4 day ticket pricing of $520.
Now if you planned ahead and listened to The Money Wizard, you would have considered season passes. Here, you can get an entire season pass for unlimited days at Keystone plus a neighboring mountain, for $300. That’s $200 saved on your trip by purchasing a season pass.
This is just one example, but the strategy holds for most mountains. Don’t accept that single day ticket price without a little more digging.
7. The best place for single day tickets? Score discounted lift tickets at Liftopia.com.
When a season pass isn’t an option, Liftopia.com is my go to.
Liftopia is a clearing house for lift tickets, and is generally considered the best deal for single day lift tickets. Ski resorts like it because they can account for ticket sales in advance, and you like it because you can usually save $20-50 per day through Liftopia.
8. Strength in Numbers
Ski costs, like all costs, are cheaper when you can split them. Bring some friends and make it a party, but…
9. Remember Why You’re There
Sometimes I feel like I’m in the minority, but I go on a ski trip to, well… ski.
Recently, there’s been a movement towards “après ski,” which is basically a fancy French term for planning a ski trip around everything but skiing.
Apres Skiing is all about staying in overpriced mountain accommodations not to ski the mountain, but instead for the shopping, bars, and clubs. If this sounds like marketing bullshit to you, that’s because it is.
C’mon people… The mountain is probably one of the most expensive places in the world to get drunk. Save yourself the headache, both figuratively and the next morning on the slopes. There are far cheaper (and much more fun) vacation destinations if shopping and drinking are your primary goals.
Beating the Overpriced Mountain
Luckily, you don’t have to be Tom Brady to enjoy skiing. In 2016 I took ski trips to Denver, Utah, and Lake Tahoe, and I still grew my net worth by nearly $40,000.
Like anything, saving on skiing just takes a little pre-planning and a willingness to go against the grain.
So go ahead, take those ski trips. The mountain is even more fun when you’re only paying half as much to enjoy it as everyone else.
See you on the slopes!