Winter might get a lot of attention for the holidays, but it’s also the season for racking up chairlift rides, carving through fresh powder, and going from the slopes to bars for aprés-ski. Ski season is here! Use this guide to plan your perfect mountain getaway.
The first step? Choosing a location. Colorado and Utah both have several world-class ski resorts, many of which are clustered within reasonably small perimeters, allowing you to check multiple resorts off your list. Japan’s island of Hokkaido and the European Alps boast terrain worthy of your bucket list. And if you’re craving a snowy getaway during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, head south to experience the amazing skiing that New Zealand and the Andes have to offer. These might be some of the world’s top-tier options, but as of 2019, the U.S. is home to more than 470 resorts in almost 40 states, so wherever you’re based, there’s likely a peak or two within reach.
Planning Your Trip
Booking your flights, lodging, and other logistics in advance will help you save money and have a stress-free vacation.
Once you have a plan to go skiing, start looking for lodging as soon as possible. As with most trips, costs for lodging depend primarily on two factors: the type of establishment and the location, so keep both of those in mind as you’re searching. A basic hotel room will likely cost less than a condo or a mountain home, but the latter options include things like a full kitchen for you to cook, possibly a hot tub, and more space to relax after a long day. And if you’re splitting among a large group, that will help bring costs down.
Location-wise, being closer to the resort usually costs more. Ski-in-ski-out options are usually the most desirable for their convenient slope-side access to the runs and lifts—you don’t have to deal with driving to the base (or having a car at all) or catching a shuttle, but they’re usually a pricier option. Some people prefer to sacrifice that perk of proximity to stay in a nearby town that will offer more bars and restaurants for aprés-ski or other activities like ice skating, movie theaters, and other attractions for evenings or days off the slopes. But for those, keep in mind that you’ll either need to drive to the resort (and possibly pay a fee to park for the day), or if there’s a shuttle to the resort, you’re confined to its stops and schedule.
Or even simpler, if you’re aiming to make your getaway a day trip, then you won’t need any lodging. Go somewhere within a two-hour drive—anymore than that, and you’ll spend more time driving than riding, so you’re better off spending the night.
Having a car is usually the easiest option—it will allow for flexibility in your schedule, and it’s helpful for transporting gear; however, if you’re renting, you’ll need to prepare for traffic (especially during popular times like weekends and holidays), paid parking (for lodging and ski lots), and driving in snowy and icy conditions. While driving is still likely your best option, many resorts are reachable by public transportation or airport shuttles.
For example, Utah Transit Authority runs a seasonal bus to take travelers from city to the slopes. After landing at Salt Lake City Airport, you can catch the light rail to connect to those bus stops. In Colorado, you can reach various resorts by bus, book a shuttle service directly from the airport, or if you’re headed to Winter Park, Amtrak’s Winter Park Express Ski Train runs from Denver’s Union Station downtown. In fact, a few resorts across the country are reachable by Amtrak; in addition to Winter Park, Amtrak offers routes with stops near Squaw Valley in California and Killington in Vermont. After arriving at the train station, you’re no more than a 20-minute ride away from those resorts. Even more helpful, Uber just launched Uber Ski, which allows travelers to request a car that has ski racks or extra trunk space for their gear.
Packing for a Ski Trip
Because a ski trip requires a lot of stuff, it’s easy to overlook something. Use these tips to avoid forgetting something (and having to buy or rent it on the mountain last-minute, costing you time and money).
As you’re packing, think top-down for what you’ll wear and your gear. (Or just refer to this list.)
Clothing and accessories: Helmet, goggles, balaclava, a few top layers (e.g. thermal underwear, fleece, long-sleeve moisture wicking tops, T-shirts), your outer jacket, gloves, a bottom layer (e.g. thermal underwear or leggings), your outer pants, and ski socks
Gear: Boots and skis with poles or your snowboard
Outside of those must-haves, you might also want to pack a swimsuit and flip-flops if your lodging has a hot tub; a small backpack for snacks, water, maps, or other essentials on the mountain; and hand-warmers if you tend to get cold easily, or if you’re a beginner (falling often means you spend more time touching the snow—falling is part of learning!)
Gear: Renting vs. Owning
How frequently you ski or snowboard can help you determine whether you should buy or rent a lot of the necessary gear.
Renting: If you don’t ski often or this is your first time, you’ll want to rent your gear, and you can do so close to home or at the mountain. Rentals will cost more at the mountain, but they offer the convenience of not having to transport them, so decide whether you prefer to prioritize cost or convenience. (If you’re flying, skip packing your own gear, and rent at your destination.) Even if you do own everything, you can consider renting if you want to have a board or skis suited for specific conditions, or if you’re flying so that you don’t have to check your gear. For kids, it’s always worth renting to until they’re done growing.
Owning: If you are a frequent skier (meaning you hit the slopes at least a handful of times every year), it’s worth buying your own boots, board, skis and poles, and helmet that are high-quality, long-lasting, and are tailored to your specific preferences. And in the long run, purchasing can be cheaper than renting.
You can also rent clothing and layers as well, which is especially useful if you live in a warm-weather place and don’t want to buy all the necessary layers for one trip. (Or even if you have it all, you can rent to change up your look!) Mountain Threads and Kitlender are two popular services that will let you rent packages of ski wear (jackets, pants, goggles, etc.) and mail it to your destination; after you’ve worn it, mail it back in the same package with your pre-printed label.
Money Saving Tips
Unfortunately, skiing is a pretty expensive vacation. Use these tips to save as much as possible.
- Always book as far in advance as possible—that goes for lift tickets, lodging, rental cars, and flights—to find the best deals. And should you need lessons, you should also book those well in advance, especially during peak times.
- Buy discounted lift tickets online, either individually or in bundles; buying them at the ticket window day-of is the most expensive. If you’re a frequent skier and want to purchase a season pass, buy it in the spring as soon as they’re released for the next year to get the best prices.
- Save money on food by packing your own lunch to eat on the mountain. A warm meal might be tempting, but lodge meals are pricey (think $20 for a burger) and add up quickly. If you’re staying in a home or condo, buy groceries to cook meals at home at night rather than going out.
- Holidays and weekends are the most expensive ski times (for both lift tickets and lodging), so if your schedule is flexible, plan to ski on weekdays. Bonus: The runs will also be less crowded.
Things to Consider
- The difficulty of each run is relative to that resort’s specific terrain and conditions, so pay attention to your own skill level rather than the green, blue, and black icons. Start the day with a green run to get a feel for the mountain. (For newbies: green circles are beginner runs, blue squares are intermediate ones, and black diamonds indicate advanced terrain.)
- Take it easy the first couple days if you’re not used to exercising at high elevation, and drink plenty of water.
- Use a map if you’re not familiar with the resort’s layout to avoid ending up on a run outside of your skill level. You can find these at the bases and sometimes at each lift.