When the world shut down last March, ski resorts closed abruptly in the middle of the busy spring break ski season. Ski destinations and resorts struggled mightily in those first few weeks – should they give refunds, discounts on the next season, and might there be a hope for reopening in April before the snow melted?
What no one really even entertained at the time was that the 2020-2021 ski season would eventually be affected too. But here we are. The first snows of the season have started to fall in the mountains, and we all already know that this coming winter’s ski season is going to be profoundly different.
My family makes skiing a big part of our travel plans every winter, but we are still very undecided on whether and how we will ski this year. We have not purchased our usual season passes but I am of course keeping abreast of all the rules, restrictions, and news as it breaks in the ski world.
For other ski travelers who are on the fence and are watching and waiting too, here is everything you need to know to help make informed decisions. With so many things changing, it’s vital to know what to expect so you don’t make a choice that makes you feel unsafe or ultimately leaves you shut out of a day on the slopes because of lack of knowledge about new restrictions.
What’s Different About the 2020-2021 US Ski Season?
Capacity Will Be Limited & Reservations May be Required
Because of a need for social distancing on lifts and in lodges, capacity at most ski resorts is going to be limited in major ways. How each ski resort is choosing to limit capacity varies quite a bit.
Resorts are taking different approaches when it comes to attendance numbers from season passholders. Some are limiting the overall number of passes sold like Sugar Bowl in Lake Tahoe, which already halted sales in September. Others will require passholders to pre-book reservations like Vail Resorts (see more about season pass changes in the next section).
For anyone buying a regular lift ticket, ski resorts will limit capacity by capping the number of tickets sold. Advance purchase for a given date is going to be required almost everywhere. Very few ski resorts will sell same-day walk up tickets on the slopes.
This means truly last minute ski trips may simply not be possible this year. Popular holiday and weekend reservations could sell out well in advance or simply never be made available due to the number of passholders expected to ski. It’s going to be a bit of a tightrope to walk as we all wait and see just how much capacity each resort releases as well as what the natural demand for ski trips is with many people not willing to consider travel at all.
These new rules may have unforeseen consequences for how your ski day plays out too. Because of social distancing on the lifts, this could mean longer lift lines than usual, even with fewer overall skiers on the slopes. How all of this works out in practice is very much to be determined.
Season Passes Are Both More Flexible and More Rigid
As alluded to already, this year’s season passes at ski resorts will work quite a bit differently. There are still the usual multi-resort passes offered – Epic, Ikon, and Mountain Collective – as well as the single resort season passes that many unaffiliated ski resorts sell. For the most part, resorts will be prioritizing access for their season passholders, so a pass may be the way to go if you know you want to ski and ride no matter what this season.
That said, it’s more important than ever to read the fine print to know the risks, rewards, and rules of 2020-2021 season passes. In some instances, the passes are more flexible than ever. Just as these season passes have some additional protections, however, they also come with new limitations.
The Ikon Pass, for example, is offering a new Adventure Assurance Program this year. If skiers don’t use their 2020-2021 pass for any reason at all, they can apply the purchase price towards a 2021-2022 pass until April 11, 2021. This provides some real peace of mind for skiers purchasing a pass now who might change their minds about skiing if the public health situation gets worse once winter arrives. Ikon Pass holders will also find they won’t need to make reservations at many resorts (see Ikon’s list of resorts that will and will not require reservations).
The Epic Pass from Vail Resorts is taking a different approach. Passholders will have exclusive access to the slopes before December 8; daily lift tickets won’t even be offered for sale to anyone else. But passholders also won’t have unfettered access to most participating resorts this year the rest of the core season. Instead, passholders are required to make a reservation on specific days, subject to availability. If passholders are unable to reserve their preferred days, Vail is offering refunds until December 7.
Be Prepared to Mask Up
While much of what happens on a ski vacation is outdoors and naturally distanced, many ski resorts will be requiring masks or other face coverings in a number of places. From inside lodges to lift lines to riding on lifts, guests will need to be prepared to cover noses and mouths.
While a lot of skiers normally wear a gaiter that can easily be pulled up to handle this requirement, you may want to bring a regular mask to the slopes with you as well. A regular face mask will be more breathable than a thick fleece gaiter in some warmer indoor spaces and is also better for evenings off the slopes.
Check the mask rules of the resorts you are visiting as well as any applicable state and local regulations before you travel. And also be prepared to find as the season opens that some resorts will have much better mask monitoring and compliance than others, just like at theme parks. If making sure your fellow guests are wearing masks is paramount to you, keep your ear to the ground in the coming months to find out what regions and resorts are doing a better job.
Contactless Technology Will Expand
Many ski resorts and brands have added smartphone apps in recent years. Those apps and other technological advances will be all the more important this ski season as resorts attempt to make more and more transactions contact-free. Definitely be sure to download any resort apps before your trip and find out what the resort’s specific transaction requirements are.
Many resorts will require pre-purchasing nearly everything online, from ski lessons to lift tickets. Some resorts, like Diamond Peak in Nevada near Lake Tahoe, will be entirely cashless on the mountain for purchases like food, tickets, and parking. Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia has indicated it has plans to unveil a contactless system to order food at its lodges, with details to be announced later this year.
Most ski resorts will open restaurants and rental shops on the mountain this year, with modifications like masks and extra spacing. Lodges will have one way food lines and more grab-and-go food choices for speed and convenience. But ask yourself – do you really want to be at these crowded choke points any more than you have to, especially if they are indoors?
To minimize the risk, be prepared to be as self-sufficient as possible on the slopes by bringing what you need instead of relying on mountain services. Considering renting ski equipment before your trip, maybe at a less crowded rental shop in your home town where season-long rentals are often available.
Bring your own food and water in a backpack you carry with you (to avoid those indoor lockers, if they are even open!). More and more skiers and snowboarders will likely be packing their own lunches and finding an outdoors spot for a quick mid-day meal. Some resorts are actively discouraging their guests from instinctively heading to the lodges. Killington in Vermont, for example, is asking skiers and riders to “treat your car like a base lodge.”
If you find you just can’t carry all the food you will need, do your research in advance about lower risk options. Outdoor food trucks are increasingly popping up at many ski resorts. For dinner after a long ski day, consider take out instead of dining in.
The Decision to Drive or Fly Matters More than Ever
More Americans are opting to travel by car this year, and with good reason. While studies are increasingly showing the safety of planes, airplanes aren’t the only piece of the risk puzzle when it comes to air travel. Travelers still have to pass through airports, where mask compliance in some regions is hit or miss. Getting ground transportation at your destination also means more interactions and contacts too.
A ski resort you can road trip to might be preferable for many skiers and riders this year. I’m lucky to have a number of ski resorts within driving distance of home in the San Francisco Bay Area, but realize many Americans are not within easy driving distance of some of the better ski mountains. So consider carefully your tolerance for air travel as the winter months approach if you don’t have a resort you can drive to.
Even if I were driving myself, air travel will probably be on my mind in choosing which ski resort I would feel comfortable taking my family to. Personally, I would be less willing to go to a ski destination filled with guests I know have flown in from all over the country. Several ski towns that heavily serve a fly-in market were hit with some of the worst outbreaks last February and March. For skiers and riders more concerned with minimizing risks, you might consider a smaller locals-only ski hill likely to be attracting the people you already interact with in your community.
Don’t Count on Ski School
Ski resorts are cutting offerings that introduce additional risks, and one casualty at some ski resorts will be ski school. Some resorts are eliminating it entirely while others are limiting class sizes or only offering ski school for certain ages. Northstar California Resort and many other Vail-owned resorts, for example, will cap ski school groups at six children. Northstar is not offering group lessons at all for 3 and 4 year olds because their ski school programming usually spends more substantial time indoors. Northstar has already canceled its non-ski day care program for younger kids entirely too.
Even though some ski resorts may be planning for ski school right now, I think it’s vital to realize that these offerings may well change once ski season arrives. If a ski resort has infections associated with ski school, it could shut things down just like regular schools are doing around the country right now.
The bottom line is to have a backup plan. If you are really depending on ski school to make your family’s ski vacation logistics work, then I’m not sure I can recommend ski resort vacations this winter. There simply are no guarantees.
Plan Ahead for Transportation
One of the biggest choke points on any ski vacation is transportation. Many ski resorts rely on shuttles from remote parking lots to move skiers to the mountains. With distancing, these logistics are a whole new level of difficulty. I’ve not yet seen many ski resorts talk about this part of their operations. This seems to be a glaring hole in the conversation that we all need to be having because it could introduce real impractical time barriers and risks.
If you do plan to take a ski vacation this year, think through these transportation logistics. If you know the walking distance parking lots fill up early, plan to be up before the crack of dawn to get to park in them – even earlier this year as everyone else looks to do the same.
More than ever before, this is the year to pay for location and convenience. Budget for preferred parking or look for slopeside lodging where you don’t have to take transportation at all.
Pick the Right Place to Stay
Speaking of lodging, accommodations will require some extra planning in this unusual ski season as well. Slopeside hotels and condos definitely have a safety advantage by avoiding transit bottlenecks and exposures.
More travelers may also want to consider a vacation rental over a hotel room where they can cook their own meals to minimize contacts. With many ski resorts limiting capacity at restaurants on the mountain, having a kitchen can be very helpful for packing food for a day on the slopes too.
The Bottom Line
United States ski resorts are working hard to make the upcoming 2020-2021 ski season possible. But expect nearly everything to look and operate quite a bit differently. While ski vacations always require a bit of planning, especially when it comes to travelers with kids, planning is truly essential for ski trips this winter.