How to Save Big on Your Winter Ski Trip

When you are planning a ski vacation this winter, you can save money if you know where to look for the best deals on lodging, car rental and winter activities. Our family takes a trip after the holidays while my sons are still out of school, and this year I discovered some new savings tricks that you may find helpful, too.

Skiing and snowboarding becomes more popular every year in the United States. Last year there were nearly 59 million visits to U.S. ski areas, a record number, which was a 3.5 percent increase over the year before, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

Unfortunately, skiing can get very expensive if you do not plan ahead. The cost of airline tickets (if necessary), rental car, lodging, lift tickets, ski rental, lessons and food can add up quickly. However, you can control the cost of your ski trip if you can plan ahead.

Timing is everything. If you have flexibility in scheduling your vacation, opting to ski early or late in the season will cost far less than skiing during peak season. The highest demand times, such as the Christmas and New Years' holidays, will be the most expensive (and generally the coldest).

If the weather cooperates, many resorts out West open by Thanksgiving and stay open through April's spring break, which are the least expensive times to ski. You can visit a ski resort Web site to see what the lift ticket prices are by week to get an idea of when the best value weeks are. Ski areas are also less crowded during off-peak times, and that means you will spend less time waiting in lift lines and at restaurants.

Start by Finding a Lodging Deal

Visit the ski association's Web site for the state you plan to visit for special promotional information.

For example, by visiting the Colorado Ski Country USA Web site you can view a list of special lodging packages for several Colorado resorts in one place.

Check out online reservation Web sites for individually owned condominiums and houses.

Rates tend to be very competitive because owners manage their own properties rather than paying up to 40 percent in management fees. If you are booking your reservation at the last minute, individual owners may be open to negotiating a bargain price rather than missing out on rental income. Larger rental houses can also be economical if you divide a rental with another family. Houses or larger condos will also have larger kitchen and living areas, and possibly have amenities like a private hot tub. Start with or Enter the term "vacation rentals by owner" in a search engine to surface many more options.

Save on Lift Tickets

If you downhill ski or snowboard, you will need lift tickets (cross-country skiers save money here). The full price of an adult one-day lift ticket purchased at the resort ticket window at many ski resorts ranges from $77 to $85 per day during peak season, which is steeper than their slopes! By doing some advance planning, you should be able to get lift tickets at a discount. Plan ahead:

Visit the ski resort website for online ordering discounts. Well-known resorts like Breckenridge in Colorado charge $81 per adult ticket during peak season at the resort, but offer multi-day discounts when tickets are purchased online (bringing the cost down to $77 per day for four days).

Look for special promotions on the ski resort Web site. For example, Okemo Resort in Vermont has a food drive on Nov. 26. Skiers who donate at least three non-perishable food items qualify for $25 full-day lift tickets that day (as compared to their regular rate of $72). The resort had many other promotions over the course of the season.

Fifth graders ski free in Colorado with the Fifth Grade Passport program. Although the program is not publicized outside of Colorado, all fifth grade students, regardless of geography, are eligible for the program. You need to send in an application, with proper documentation, and allow two to three weeks for processing. Once you receive the pass, your fifth grader can ski at several Colorado ski resorts (up to three days per resort), and will qualify for a discounted ski pass in sixth grade. The free passes also include discount coupons for other family members! Find more information here:

If you plan to stay at the resort, check into lodging packages that include lift tickets for substantial savings.

Consider lesser-known resorts in the same area, and research resort options online. For example, a smaller ski area in Colorado (relatively near Breckenridge) called Arapahoe Basin charges around $53 per day for an adult lift ticket during peak season.

Find lift ticket discount programs on the ski association's Web site for the state you plan to visit. For example, the Colorado Ski Country USA Web site offers a free GEMS discount card that gives $5 to $10 off per lift ticket to many of the lesser-known Colorado ski resorts. You can order the free card from their Web site.

Call the resort's toll-free number and ask if local grocery stores or ski rental shops sell discounted lift tickets for their resort. Even if you didn't take the time to research ticket prices before you left home, you should be able to save $10 or more per ticket purchasing the tickets off-site. Locals know where the discounts are.

Consider buying an Entertainment coupon book for the area you plan to visit. Many ski areas and rental shops offer discount coupons for lift tickets, lessons and ski rental in their state's major city's Entertainment book (such as the Denver book for Colorado ski areas).

If you already own an Entertainment book and register your membership online (at no cost), you can print selected coupons for other cities. However, the actual book has more offers available than the Web site will allow you to print. Unless you are skiing during the highest-demand Christmas and New Year's weeks, when most coupons have blackout dates, the book may help you save. Go to for details. You can preview specific offers by city before you buy.

If you are planning a ski trip next year, start checking ski resorts' and ski associations' Web sites in early fall to find great deals on discounted multi-day passes purchased pre-season. Lift tickets for a family of four can cost as much as lodging, and early research can save big bucks. For example, non-Colorado residents could get a four-day pass to ski at Copper Mountain for $149, a savings of $175 off the ticket window price (if purchased by Nov. 19). You can purchase tickets online and receive them by mail from

Vail and Snowmass also offer discounted pre-season multi-day passes from their Web sites. Shop early for lift ticket bargains and plan the rest of your trip from there!

Save on Ski Rental

Save on your equipment rental by booking online with the resort or a nearby ski rental shop before you leave home. Booking reservations for equipment may save 20 percent off the regular cost at ski resorts, depending on the resort. If you rent outside of the ski resort at a nearby ski rental shop, and reserve online with the rental shop, you will save the most.

For example, if I rented ski equipment for my family of four (to ski four days), I would pay $378 at the Copper Mountain ski resort in Colorado, after the 20 percent savings realized from booking online. If we reserved our equipment online and rented at the Breeze ski rental shop in the town of Silverthorne, about 20 minutes before Copper Mountain, we would pay $217 for comparable ski equipment packages, a savings of $255.

Save on Car Rental

If you plan to ski at a resort with shuttle transportation, you may not need a car during your ski trip. You can check into the cost of airport shuttle service to get you from the airport, if you fly, to the ski area.

However, if you plan to cook your own meals in your condo or house, you will need to be able to get to the grocery store. The cost savings on restaurant meals will most likely justify the rental car cost. You may also be able to find a rental car bargain that is less expensive than paying for shuttle fees for the entire family.

Search rental car rates with travel search engines like, and also try bidding a low rate for cars at

Cindy Donnell of Marietta, Ga., booked a car through with a major car rental company for less than half the price she was quoted by calling the company directly. After entering her low bid, Priceline's screen advised her that her rate was much lower than the market rate, so did she want to increase her bid? Cindy responded, "No, thank you" and she got her rental car at her low price!

She did change her car type request to get the low price (opting for a minivan rather than an SUV), so flexibility can pay off. Her Priceline approach saved her family $200 per week on their rental car.

Don't Forget Helmets

Children and students should wear helmets, which can cost $10 per day to rent. They provide safety against head injuries and also keep skiers warm. If you plan to ski more than a few days, you may want to buy helmets before you travel.

You can find a good helmet, on sale, for about $35 or $40 each. Helmets can be worn for at least a couple of years before they are outgrown by younger children and much longer for teenagers.