If you are like my ski-loving family, you are probably counting down the days until the start of ski season this year. As much as I love the hobby, it can be an expensive one. Lift tickets, gear, clothing, lodging, food, and more all add up. It’s especially expensive with kids in tow to double or even triple the cost. Luckily, we’ve found quite a few ways to make the budget work for our family over the years. Here are my very best tips for saving money on family ski vacations.
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11 Money-Saving Tips for Family Ski & Snowboard Vacations
1. Look for Resorts Where Kids Ski Free
Many ski resorts don’t charge for kids to ski until they reach a certain age, but that age can vary greatly even between resorts in the same geographic region. If your child is going to be skiing with you and not in ski school, not having to pay for a lift ticket at all is a huge savings.
Most resorts begin charging somewhere between age 4 and age 7 (although some let kids ski free until age 12!). Check the policies carefully of resorts you are considering if you have children in the age range who might be free some places and full price elsewhere.
2. Take Advantage of State Ski Passport Programs for Kids
Even if your kids are too old to ski free, they may be able to ski for super cheap. Some states offer a highly discounted ski passport program to encourage kids in the region to take up the sport and explore new resorts. The state of Utah’s is the most well-known, now offering passes to 4th, 5th, and 6th graders at a very small fee that allows them to ski several days at multiple resorts all over the state. Utah’s version allows kids to ski 3 days at each of 15 resorts – 45 total ski days – for just $49 for the season.
Other states that have or have had similar passes in some form include: Colorado, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania. Even if you only plan to ski a single weekend at one resort, this kind of pass is likely cheaper than a 1 day lift ticket at most resorts.
3. Ask about Interchangeable Parent Passes
Quite a few resorts offer lift tickets that parents can share as they switch off skiing and childcare duties. These tickets are a huge money saver if you have a little one too young for ski school and no babysitter to watch your kids while both parents ski.
Resorts call them a lot of different things – parent predicament passes, parent switch tickets, etc. – but they all work the same way. You pay for one adult pass and hand it back and forth between two adults. In my experience with Lake Tahoe area ski resorts, not all resorts advertise that they offer these passes, so call the ticket office in advance to inquire.
4. Get Discounted Lift Tickets
Never ever wait until you get to the lift ticket window at your ski resort of choice to purchase your lift tickets. Never. It’s incredibly easy to pay much less than rack rate with just minimal planning. Most resorts now offer discounted daily tickets just by pre-purchasing them online on the resort website. In many cases, the earlier you buy, the more you save.
You can also sometimes find discounted tickets at local ski shops. Your employer may even offer discounted lift tickets to area ski resorts as an HR perk. And don’t forget other discounts you may have access to – military pricing, AAA rates, discounts for passholders of competitor resorts (yep, that’s a thing), and more. Spend some time scrolling on the tickets webpage of the resorts you are considering and you may spot a deal you are eligible for!
5. Buy Season Passes or Other Flex Passes
If you are going to ski several days in a single season, look for multi-day discounted tickets from your resort of choice – either a season pass or a multi-day discount pack. My family, for example, regularly purchases Epic Passes offered by Vail Resorts – usually the Tahoe Local Pass which gives us access all season except for a few blackout days to Northstar California Resort, Kirkwood, and Heavenly (in addition to additional days at other Vail-owned resorts).
We realized we “break even” on these passes after about 3-4 days of skiing, so it’s a huge value. We saved even more in the years we committed to purchasing the pass in spring for the following season.
There are now a variety of mega passes that provide access to resorts all over the country (and indeed the world), including Ikon, Mountain Collective, and Indy in addition to Epic. And a number of ski resorts still offer their own season passes as well, which may be even more economical if you are willing to commit to one resort for the season.
6. Go to a Smaller Mountain
As much as I love the amenities of larger resorts (and my husband loves the challenging runs), mixing it up with visits to smaller resorts often makes serious budget sense. If your children are just learning to ski, ski schools are often drastically less expensive at the smaller ski hills. As long as the ski resort has good quality instructors, the lack of advanced terrain at the resort really doesn’t matter if your kids are going to be on the bunny hill the whole time.
7. Go with Friends & Family & Share Lodging
Other than lift tickets, the major cost of a ski vacation for family travelers is lodging. Slopeside hotel rooms can be very pricey and often mean you don’t have a kitchen to cook and further lower your food costs. Book a vacation rental instead and save even more by going up to the mountains with friends and family who can chip in on shared accommodations.
We have some friends who have booked a ski lease the past few years in the North Lake Tahoe area that has enough bedrooms for 3 or more families. We have all saved a bunch by bunking with them on some weekends and splitting the cost of their larger place. Plus, apres ski activities are more fun for both the adults and the kids with a big group hanging out.
8. Buy Gender Neutral Ski Gear
As tempting as that cute hot pink ski jacket may be for your three year old daughter’s first turns on the ski slopes, you may be kicking yourself for buying it next year when her baby brother is born. I somehow had the presence of mind to buy lots of black and other neutral colored gear for our daughter that we were later able to use use with my son. Although I’ve certainly seen lots of little brothers forced to wear that same hot pink ski jacket (and some may be quite content selecting that color themselves, of course!), that’s a battle I’d rather not have to fight every winter.
9. Borrow and Swap Gear and Ski Clothing with Friends
Because I live in an area with many ski destinations nearby, we have a lot of neighbors and friends who ski. We pass down, borrow, and lend everything under the sun. It’s really hard to wear out kids ski gear before they outgrow it, so it can definitely be used by quite a few kids. Look also at local parent swap groups and yard sales for hand-me-downs.
10. Rent Ski Equipment Before You Go
Just like at theme parks, you’ll find the highest prices on everything – from food to gear rental – once you get there. A great way to save on ski and boot rentals is to rent them closer to home rather than on mountain.
The San Francisco Bay Area where I live has a number of ski shops that rent gear for travelers headed to Tahoe, and your city may have the same. If you are going to ski multiple times a season, consider a season ski rental package where you get skis and boots all season long and only return them in the spring when the season is over. These packages are often incredibly economical.
Related: Closest Ski Resorts to San Francisco
Last season, we found we didn’t even need to leave our house to get season rentals for our kids. We got them through Ski Essential’s Junior Season Lease Program. Order a season ski and boot or snowboard package online and provide the requested measurements for your kids. Brand new K2 skis and boots set for your kids’ size and ability levels arrive at your door a week or two later. At the end of the season, you just box the items up in the original packaging and ship them back. The equipment was top notch and the price – $249 – was exceptionally reasonable if you would otherwise be renting more than a few days a season.
11. Hit Your Local Target or Order on Amazon
When my now 13 year old daughter first started skiing, the only place to buy quality snow play and ski clothing was at an outdoor or specialty ski shop. Those prices added up quickly.
The past several winters, however, I’ve noticed that a number of less expensive retailers including Target and Amazon have started carrying a large variety of ski bibs, ski jackets, and gloves at exceedingly reasonable prices. Of course, these items won’t match The North Face or Patagonia in terms of quality. But if your kids outgrow ski gear in a season or two anyway, it doesn’t really matter as long as the products keep them warm and dry!
Here are a few ski product finds that have worked for my family:
- Rocky Thermal Underwear for Boys & Rocky Thermal Underwear for Girls: These lightly fleece lined base layers have been our go-tos for many seasons now for both kids. Very reasonably priced, available in a lot of cute colors, and they keep the kids warm without added bulk.
- Columbia Boys Lightning Lift Jacket: if you aren’t too picky about colors, we have been able to find this higher end quality ski jacket for a pretty substantial discount on Amazon.
- Magarrow Kids Winter Outdoor Sports Gloves For Boys & Girls: These winter gloves are crazy cheap. They are available in a lot of bright colors so your kids can spot their pair among the many black ones on the lunch table at ski school. My son has used his for two full ski seasons. The lining hasn’t come out and he hasn’t complained about cold or wet fingers either.
One word of warning about purchasing at regular retailers – we’ve noticed that our local Target starts seeing a depletion of winter gear as early as November. So I’d advise buying at brick and mortar stores early in the season instead of waiting until a few weeks before your Christmas or MLK weekend trip.
Are you skiing this winter? Share your money-saving tips and hacks in the comments.
Disclosure: This post was originally written in conjunction with a paid ambassadorship with Northstar California and Vail Resorts during the 2016-2017 ski season. It has been independently updated several times since then. As always, all opinions are my own.