Budget skiing. Thought by most to be a mythical beast like the unicorn, the humble Hollywood plastic surgeon, or the modest and friendly Eagles fan, I’ve been on a quest to discover a way for my family to enjoy downhill skiing without breaking the bank.
I’ve had mixed success.
Living well over an hour from the nearest decent ski hill and hundreds of miles from anything with a vertical drop of 1,000 feet or more makes it a bit more challenging.
We’ve done well in the lift ticket department, spending less than $8 per person per day to ski at nearly 20 resorts this season, and we got a great deal on equipment, too. Travel, on the other hand, has driven up the cost to the point that our “budget skiing” season has been anything but thrifty.
And yet, I have no regrets.
There’s no shortage of ways to get your ski gear. Below, I’m talking primarily about skis (or snowboards), boots, and poles, but there are plenty of other necessities like a helmet, goggles, weatherproof jacket and pants, balaclava, and the like.
Let’s look at the different ways to get your major ski equipment.
A built-in feature of children is that they get larger every single stinkin’ year. Not only do they grow taller and wider, but their feet lengthen, too. This necessitates buying bigger boots pretty much every year and longer skis at least every couple of years until their growth plates fuse sometime in their teenage years.
Buying new gear year after year would be aggravatingly costly, so some retailers offer trade-in programs where you pay for the first set and can trade up to larger gear for a relative small fee from the time they’re toddlers until they’re nearly full-grown.
As an example, a place near us called Boyne Country Sports has the wryly titled Junior Has a Fit program that gives you annual upgrade opportunities until your child weighs over 100 pounds, needs skis longer than 140 cm, or wears a snowboard boot of size 7.
Spending a few dozen dollars per kid rather than a few hundred reduces the likelihood that Daddy Has a Fit each fall.
Have you ever noticed that pumpkins sell for less on November 1st than at any time in October?
Similar discounts are made on all sorts of gear, including ski and snowboard gear. If you rented equipment a few times and have decided to make a hobby of your winter sport of choice, try shopping in the spring rather than the following fall. You may find some good deals on model-year-end closeouts.
Many retailers will let you try before you buy. This can benefit you in at least a couple of ways.
First, you may be able to try out a bunch of different skis for the price of a deposit that will be applied toward the purchase of the skis you end up deciding to buy.
Second, those lightly-used demo skis can often be bought late in the season or afterward at a substantial reduction as compared to the cost of buying brand new.
“Swap” isn’t the best term here, since you can show up empty-handed to one of these and walk away with some good used gear trading nothing but greenbacks for your skis, boots, poles, or board.
Often put on by and to benefit a local ski team or club, gear is dropped off ahead of time, priced to sell in a day or two, and a portion of the proceeds go to the volunteers working the ski swap.
My experience is limited to an n of 1, but I recommend arriving early and expecting unruly behavior rivaled only by doorbuster-seeking Black Friday brutes at Walmart circa 2009.
When I was young, people sold their used equipment in classified ads in the newspaper or at yard sales (no, not that kind of yard sale).
Those ads migrated online to Craigslist and are now most likely to be found at Facebook Marketplace. It’s not one-stop shopping like the ski swap, but you might be able to find some great goods at a fair price if you take the time to check regularly and can arrange to meet up with non-serial-killer sellers in a safe place.
What We Did
My boys and I decided that the winter of 2022-2023 was going to be our season to ski. It was the last winter of our homeschooling / worldschooling adventures, and we knew we’d have the time and freedom to hit the hills a bunch.
As alluded to above, we visited a ski swap. There were several in northern Michigan scheduled for October, but we were out of the country for all except the earliest one held at Nub’s Nob.
The three of us arrived at about 8:50 a.m. for a 9 a.m. start. It turns out they had opened early, but the line still pretty much wrapped around the building. It was a mad house in there, and I wish we had shown up earlier and brought my wife to help out. It was every man, woman, and child for his or herself, but we somehow managed to get out alive, escaping the mosh pit each with a quality pair of skis with bindings, boots, and poles that was right-sized.
I somehow found a brand-new, in-box pair of Apex boots that retail for $800 selling for $150 in my size. All in, we spent $700 to outfit the three of us. That’s the equivalent of three to four days’ worth of rental equipment.
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Snowbowl in Flagstaff, Arizona made headlines this year for selling $300 one-day lift tickets.
Many places these days charge $100 or more for a full day’s lift ticket. When you pay by the day, the costs can obviously add up quickly. Luckily, there are options to reduce the daily cost of skiing or snowboarding, particularly if you can do so in quantity.
Local Season Pass
If you live close to a ski resort, your best bet for budget skiing is to buy their annual pass and go early and often. The pass is a fixed cost, and the cost per day will go down the more you can utilize your season pass.
If an unlimited pass doesn’t make sense for you, many places sell limited passes or packages that let you ski on certain days (with blackout dates on the busiest days when you don’t want to be there, anyway) or allow you to ski a certain number of days over the course of the season.
Some resorts will have some reciprocity with other places in the area that allow for reduced-cost or free lift tickets at hills other than your home resort. Look into your options.
You almost always get a discount for buying the pass well in advance, and costs often go up at least once if not a few times over the course of the year, and the cheapest it will be is at the end of the prior ski season or as soon as they’re made available for purchase.
Multi-Resort Season Pass
There are four main passes for skiers and snowboarders that work at dozens of places in the U.S. and across the globe, including at resorts in Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South America.
The Epic and Ikon passes can be used for either unlimited or extensive skiing at participating locations. The Mountain Collective and Indy Passes are more limited, with a limit of two complimentary lift tickets at nearly every resort on their rosters.
The Mountain Collective pass only has about two dozen resorts, and it’s basically a subset of the Ikon pass resorts, but there are some iconic options. The Indy pass lives up to its name by partnering with independent resorts, and it offers more hills and mountains than the other three passes combined; the number is now over 120.
Programs for Youth
What do ski resorts have in common with tobacco company executives? They hope to hook ’em while they’re young. Get them addicted before they know what’s what.
Now skiing is healthy and fun whereas smoking is nasty and dumb, but both can be costly habits, and I’m doing my best to help you with the first one. You’re on your own with the cancer sticks, but as a physician, I suggest you avoid them entirely.
Back to the regularly scheduled program, which is discussing programs designed to get kids out on skis and snowboards.
Many places offer free lift tickets for the youngest tykes and lower prices for students all the way through college.
Someone must have identified late elementary school as a peak addictive period, because states seem to target these pre-teens pretty heavily. For example, Michigan’s Cold is Cool program gives 4th and 5th graders some free and discounted skiing when accompanied by a paying adult. Similarly, New York’s Ski NY Kids Passport Program reels in 3rd and 4th graders with free skiing at a number of hills throughout the state as long as Mom or Dad comes along (one paid adult per two children).
Programs for Seniors
Skiing gets cheaper as you get older as most resorts offer senior rates for skiers and snowboarders, but let’s face it, how many in the Medicare are really rocking a snowboard?
I’ve seen many places give free or nearly-free lift tickets to skiers (and non-existent snowboarders) once they reach 80 years of age, and the cutoff at Nub’s Nob here in northern Michigan is only age 70 for a $50 annual pass. Here’s hoping they don’t raise that age in the next 23 years!
Midweek and Half-Day Deals
A huge benefit of retiring early or having a flexible job like my Fed-Ex pilot friend Ben is the ability to ski mid-week.
Not only are mid-week lift tickets typically cheaper, but there are also far fewer people on the slopes. Parking is easier, lift lines are few and far between, and you might just have a trail to yourself. I spent 30 minutes one Wednesday afternoon with my own chair lift at Schuss Mountain. Not another soul in sight, save for the lift operators.
After enjoying the luxury of mid-week skiing, I have zero desire to ever ski on a Saturday again.
If you don’t have a full day to devote to skiing or snowboarding, you might be able to pay a reduced price for three-to-five hours of skiing. This is particularly common at hills that offer night skiing.
One of the closest resorts to us, Otsego Resort, offers $15 lift tickets, $15 rentals, and a $15 burger and beer or pizza on Wednesdays and Thursdays for the five hours they’re open from 3:30 pm to 8:30 pm.
Purchase Online and in Advance
Commonly, the walk-up rate is higher than the online, advanced purchase rate.
The downside is that inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances could derail your plans, so make sure you understand the refund policy before paying beforehand for a lift ticket you might not get to use.
What We Did
In the 2022-2023 ski season, we went all in on the Indy Pass. Purchasing ours in the spring, I paid for two adults and one child. Only kids under the age of 13 get the kids rate. Altogether, we spent just under $700 for the three passes.
We hit 17 of the 120+ resorts, spending two days at most of them, including nine in my home state of Michigan and two each in Minnesota, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
That adds up to 3 lift tickets a day for approximately 30 days of skiing between mid-December and late February for a total of about 90 lift tickets. All for under $700 or under $8 apiece. If we weren’t planning to spend March and April in Oceania (the one with NZ and AUS, not the dystopian one from Orwell’s 1984), we’d probably get more use out of that pass. The Indy Pass worked out to be an amazing deal for us, and it’s a no-brainer as a Michigander!
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Food and Drink
It’s Expensive at the Base Lodge
If you show up empty-handed and plan to eat at the on-site cafeterias and restaurants, you can expect to find prices similar to what you might pay at a major sporting event. Think $10 to $15 for a basic cheeseburger, $6 fries, $5 sodas, and $10 beers.
Now, this varies a ton, and the “mom and pop” hills might be more family-friendly in terms of food costs, but it’s no secret that the margins on food and drink at ski resorts are quite high, and these are profit centers for them.
If you want to see improvements made at your local ski hill, you can help improve their bottom line by eating and drinking what they’re selling, but bargains will be hard to find.
Pack Your Own
By far the most economical way to eat and drink while skiing is to bring your own supplies. You can obviously pack a sack lunch and, if not prohibited (look for posted signs), enjoy your lunch in the base lodge or outside around an open fire.
One benefit of cold-weather activities is that food and drink left in a car for a few hours will remain cold. If that’s not necessary or inconvenient, you can often store your lunch in a cubby next to your non-ski boots or shoes as long as you’re willing to accept the small chance that some jerk will walk off in your smelly used shoes eating your PB&J. I’m’ not saying it never happens, but it’s a risk I’ve been willing to take.
Some places have areas where you can plug in a crock pot to keep food warm while you’re out and about. I suppose you could also bring a blender, toaster, panini maker, or basically any appliance you’re willing to haul in and out. Hey, it’s free (to you) electricity!
What We Did
I’ve prepared a whole lot of sandwiches this year. As we travel around, we keep a supply of bread or buns, ham, salami, pepperoni, and sliced cheese along with other snacks and essentials in a cooler. Apples, bananas, oranges, and those premade six-packs of cracker sandwiches also come in handy.
We’re almost always off the hill before dinnertime when we’ll either dine at a sit-down restaurant, grab fast food, or prepare a meal in a condo or Airbnb depending upon where we’re staying.
When staying in hotels, we were partial to finding places offering a complimentary breakfast. It turns out that waffles, rubbery eggs, paper-thin bacon, reheated frozen potatoes, and Lucky Charms are precisely the fuel my kids need to power them through a few hours of attacking the green circles, blue squares, and black diamonds.
You’ll Pay for Ski-In, Ski-Out Lodging
Much like the food and drink situation, the convenience of having your lodging directly on-site comes at a cost. Now, it may be worth it if you’re only taking one or two ski trips a year or if you’re filthy rich, but $500 a night adds up!
A good compromise could be a hotel room or one-room condo on-site that may not offer a true ski-in, ski-out scenario, but will allow you to hop on a chair lift after walking or driving a few blocks. This might cost 50% to 100% more than staying a few miles away, but if you want to capture the full resort experience and après ski scene without leaving the confines of the property, this can be a good way to do so without spending thousands on lodging alone in one stay.
A benefit of staying on-site is that you can often get a bundle of lodging and lift tickets together that costs significantly less than the combined total would be. If you don’t have a ski pass that’s good for that particular resort, a package deal might make staying on-site more enticing.
If You Have to Drive, You Have to Drive
I’m a big fan of walking and pedestrian-friendly activities, but walking in ski boots on is a pain and slinging them around your neck with a strap while carrying skis and poles is only marginally better. So if you’re staying more than a block or two from the nearest ski lift or shuttle bus, you’re driving and parking.
If you have to load and unload your gear in the car, the difference between a three-minute drive and a fifteen-minute drive isn’t all that meaningful, and it can make sense to stay further away at what can easily amount to a substantial discount.
Short-Term Rental for Longer Stays
Cleaning and service fees on Airbnb and VRBO properties have been making headlines, too, and for good reason. They can more than double the cost of staying in them for a night or two.
The economics start to make more sense for stays of four days or more and most properties, at least on the Airbnb platform, will give you a discount for stays of 7 days or more (and a bigger discount at 28 days).
The benefit of renting an apartment or home typically include more space, some much-needed privacy when traveling with kids, and usually a well-stocked kitchen.
Hotels for Shorter Stays
Most ski areas will have some lodging options within a 20-minute radius, and you usually don’t have to worry about cleaning fees or service fees.
Higher-end places have a habit of charging ever-increasing resort fees that are sometimes hidden in the fine print, so watch out for those, but ordinarily, you’ll pay the advertised rate plus taxes, and that’s all. You might also score some free nights using the right credit cards and reaping the rewards.
What We Did
This ski season, we did it all.
We stayed with family in true ski-in, ski-out condos at Lutsen in Minnesota and Boyne Mountain in Michigan. The latter was not on our Indy pass, so we only skied one day there, opting to ski “for free” at hills 30 minutes away the other days that week.
At Waterville Valley in New Hampshire, we stayed in “the village” where a bus came by once an hour to take us to the base lodge. It was a condo built in 1987 with appliances and furniture from 1987, but it was convenient to the mountain and walkable to shops and restaurants.
The Jay Village Inn near Jay Peak in Vermont would best be described as a bed and breakfast, although you’ll pay for the breakfast in the restaurant that occupies the main floor; we had a delicious dinner there one evening. It was a cozy spot, and we were able to book a unique setup with our boys in one bedroom, my wife and I in another, and a Jack-and-Jill bathroom in between. Props to David at the Inn and Doug at Jay Auto across the street for helping to get my car up and running when its battery gave up amidst the bitter cold. They didn’t even open the ski hill that day.
We ended up in quite a few hotels and motels in our travels. Our sole reason for being in these areas was to ski, and we just needed a place to sleep in between, so we weren’t looking for four-star and five-star accommodations. With the quantity of traveling we were doing, being cost-conscious helped rein in the total costs.
We avoided the no-tell-motel-looking places and prioritized a free hot breakfast, staying primarily at chains like the Hampton Inn, Days Inn, Comfort Suites, and Best Western.
I have to give a shoutout to the independent Superior Stay in Marquette, Michigan. A spartan exterior hides a newly remodeled interior, and the best complimentary breakfast we came across, complete with Huron Mountian Bakery breads, bagels, and pastries. I’m not afraid to book a 2.5-star place if the reviews are good, and I firmly believe that a need for nice things is a handicap in this world. If you can be happy without being pampered, you’ll be happy more often.
Finally, we stayed in a few Airbnbs. There was one near the base of Big Powderhorn in Michigan’s U.P. that was under $100 a night when staying midweek for two or three nights, which we did two different times in apartments across the hall from one another. The home in Burlington, Vermont was closer to $200 a night, and we spent four nights there.
Altogether, I count 33 nights away from home for this season’s adventures, where we spent anywhere from $70 a night to about $250 a night. I guesstimate we spent between $4,000 and $4,500 on lodging this ski season.
Fly or Drive?
If you don’t live around the corner from a chair lift, you’ve got to fly or drive to get to one.
Flying requires a checked bag if you’re bringing your own skis or board. Boots are best brought in a carry-on. You can rent skis that fit if your luggage gets lost, but good-fitting, quality boots are trickier to source.
When you fly, you’re going to need a rental car, too, and not just any car will do. It’s got to be big enough to accommodate all of your luggage and gear. Good luck fitting 180cm skis into a compact car. If you choose to stay and dine on-site at the resort, you might get away with no car, but then you’ve got different upsized costs to contend with.
Driving your own vehicle saves on the cost of a rental car and avoids the flight fare and checked bag fees, but if you’re traveling a great distance and/or don’t have the time to waste on a road trip, it might not make sense for you.
What We Did
If we had gone west, and I realize that’s where the best snow in North America tends to be, flying would have been the most sensible option.
We chose to ski some close to home, taking four separate 4-6 day ski weeks in Michigan and Minnesota (avoiding Saturdays), doing the latter as part of a trip home for Christmas. We also took one big loop out to ski New Hampshire and Vermont with stops in New York on the way out and back.
Cumulatively, we probably put about 3,000 miles on our SUV on ski trips. If you consider the cost of operating a vehicle at between 60 and 70 cents like the IRS does, that’s another $2,000 spent on skiing.
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Our “Budget Skiing” Budget
Sometimes it’s better not to add up the costs or to only remember the wins, like getting all of our equipment for three for $700 or spending the same amount on about 90 lift tickets. But only considering those costs would be like the investor or gambler who only recalls the winning bets and forgets about buying Peloton at the peak or betting all on black when the roulette wheel revealed red.
Here’s a decent estimate of what it cost to get a month’s worth of cumulative skiing at 18 resorts in five states:
- Gear: $700. Mine will last for years and the boys’ will have some hand-me-down and trade-in value
- Lift tickets: $700. We also used a $150 credit at Boyne Mountain after a pandemic-induced cancellation from a previous year.
- Lodging: $4,500. I’m rounding up. I think.
- Driving: $2,000.
Does $8,000 for a year (or month depending upon how you look at it) sound like budget skiing?
When I look at how easy it would have been to spend quadruple on the equipment, double on lodging, infinitely more on lift tickets, and flying instead of driving, it doesn’t seem so bad. I also accept the fact that I may never have an opportunity to do this much skiing with my kids again as we’re about to be bound to a school schedule for years to come, so I’m more than happy to have spent the money when we had the chance to do something like this.
You’ll notice that I didn’t factor in the cost of food in the total above. The fact is, no matter where you are in the world, you gotta eat. Now you might spend a bit more than normal since you’ll probably be eating out more often, but you also get to enjoy the experience of dining out.
All in, we’re at about $250 to $300 a day to travel as a family of four and ski as a family of three. Nearly 10% of the costs were for gear that we’ll either use for years (in my case) or trade in for an upgrade at a future ski swap. The lift tickets were also in the 10%-of-the-total-cost neighborhood.
For us, travel was by far and away the biggest expense at about 80% of the total. If you’re lucky enough to live close enough to day trip it, you can get by spending a whole lot less. You won’t get the variety that we did, but sleeping in your own bed will save you some serious coin and is almost always the more comfortable option. If not, it’s time to upgrade your bed or sheets!
Happy skiing, boarding, tubing, using one of those weird bike ski contraptions, or whatever it is you choose to do on the mountain! I hope I’ve given you some helpful tips or at least made you smile.
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Do you have any budget skiing tips? What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a ski vacation?