My name is Tim Wenger. I live in Denver, Colorado and am a self-proclaimed, and if you ask my wife, probably somewhat ridiculous, snowboard junkie. Like all of you guys I love to travel. In the winter I tend to base most of my travel around snowboarding and over the years have gotten pretty good at doing it on a budget. I’ve been everywhere from the Jungfrau in Switzerland, to the northern tip of Michigan to up and down the Rocky Mountains from Jackson Hole Wyoming to Utah to Taos, New Mexico.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that ski trips are going to be the cheapest travel you ever do, because we all know that isn’t true. But it is possible to knock the ridiculous price tag that typically comes with these kinds of trips down a couple notches. I recently did a trip up to Whistler, BC in Canada and while I was there I spoke with some locals about the best ways to do that town, as cheaply as possible. Which is awesome because Whistler is notoriously not a cheap place to go.
The awesome thing about ski culture is that it is kind of like Shrek- it has layers. When you are in Vail or Aspen, the culture of the town is dominated by tourists shelling out big bucks at every turn. $150 lift tickets, $30 plates of food, and $300 a night hotel rooms are common occurrences in these places. But beneath all that is the layer of actual ski culture. The powder hounds that follow snow around the world and the ski bums that work at the resort so that they can get a free season pass. These are the people that are making this all happen. The people that live the ski town lifestyle but definitely don’t notthat life of luxury. So how are they doing it? How are they working hourly-pay jobs, or not really even working at all in the winter, and still living and traveling in some of the most beautiful areas of the world? Ski travel is certainly not the cheapest form of travel but if you’re a powder hound like me, the experiences are unforgettable and so satisfying and it if you prioritize it in your travels, it doesn’t have to break the bank.
I’m going to break this down into different categories: Getting there, how and where to stay, how to get cheaper lift tickets, getting cheap gear, and some general on-mountain tricks of the trade that can save you money on food and drink. Also, I’m going to talk about traveling to a ski town for an entire season and the best ways to make that doable.
First off is getting there. Obviously not everyone that skis or boards lives in a place where skiing is thing. I’m not going to talk too much about how to get cheap flights because I know Jason has talked about that before and there are plenty of resources to help with that stuff. But I will say that flying in for your ski trip doesn’t mean you have to leave your gear at home. A decent ski or board bag is a great investment to make, and will pay for itself in just a couple trips because you’ll save the cost of having to rent. Plus, you can use your own gear. Rental gear is generally terrible, doesn’t fit right, and isn’t broken in the way you want it to be. You can get a decent bag for anywhere from $100 to $300, but I would recommend checking out the size of the bag- you want to make sure it’s going to fit all of your gear including boots and helmet. A lot of the cheaper bags won’t have storage space for that stuff, so the extra $50 or $100 bucks can be worth it.
Another tip on flying- although you will have to pay to check your board bag, what I’ve found with a lot of busy airlines is that they will ‘courtesy check’ your travel pack for you if the flight is full or close to it. Meaning you don’t have to haul it around the airport nor pay for it to get checked. All you have to do is ask at check-in if they are courtesy checking any bags for your flight. Plus you look like a good Samaritan for volunteering to check your bag, so that never hurts either.
Now, you might be thinking, ‘but the gear costs so much! I’m not going to have any budget left to travel after I buy skis, boots, jacket, gloves, and everything else. For your first season this might be true. But a good investment up front can have you set up for years and there are ways to get cheap gear. In Denver, there is an amazing annual sale called Sniagrab, which is bargains spelled backwards for all you English nerds. This sale runs for a few weeks each fall starting Labor Day weekend and is basically a clearance sale of the previous season’s gear that didn’t sell. You can get skis and boards for under $100, boots for under $50, and everything else you need for cheapest prices you’ll find outside of a thrift store. And, the gear is unused which is always a plus. Other cities have similar sales and so do online gear outlets- do a little Google research and you can find stuff for so cheap it’s ridiculous. It makes people that pay $300 for a jacket look like fools. Other good places to look for cheaper gear are warehouse sporting goods stores like Sports Authority and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Once you invest in gear, if you take care of it it will last you for years, so think of it like an upfront cost. The money you spent on gear one year can be money you put towards a trip the next season.
Something that always helps is to check the weather forecast for your destination, that way you know you have the proper clothes and gear for the situation you are going to be in. You don’t want to get stuck having to buy a jacket shell or warmer pair of gloves at the on-mountain prices.
If you do need to rent gear, keep your eyes peeled for a demo tent or ask at the rental shop if they are demoing any gear. Often, demo gear is cheaper or the same price as renting AND it’s better gear. basically demo gear is the way the brands in the industry test their products and get people to want to buy it. It works like a rental but is way better.
I did rent gear when I was in Switzerland a couple years ago, mainly because it didn’t make sense to lug my gear all over western Europe on a backpacking trip just to have it in Switzerland. It sucked, but I made it work.
Ok, so you’ve got gear. What about lift tickets?
Rule number one, and the most important thing I can stress about buying lift tickets at more expensive ski areas, is NEVER EVER just walk up to the window the morning of and buy your ticket. That is where you will pay the highest possible price. For smaller ski areas it may not make much of a difference, but at big destination places like Whistler or Breckenridge, they are going to rip you off as much as possible at the window. If you can, shop online before you get to town and search for bargains or multi-day discounts.
For in-person shopping, do a little research on the town you are staying in. Grocery stores, hotels, or rental shops will usually sell discounted lift tickets to nearby ski areas. You can typically get even more of a discount if you buy a two or three day ticket.
I have heard people talk about clipping tickets in the parking lot. This is where you show up a little late, find someone who only skied for half a day or less, and then offer to buy their lift ticket from them and use it for the rest of the day. I’ve never tried it. It’s definitely illegal. I’m not really sure how you would get caught unless someone from the resort happens to walk by in the middle of the transaction, but you are also taking the risk that the person you are buying the ticket from is lying to you somehow, whether that be that the ticket won’t work or it only works for certain lifts. But I guess if you feel good about the situation it can be a way to save as well. If someone offered me twenty dollars for a ticket I paid $60 for and I’d gotten my ski day in already I would be pretty stoked, honestly.
If you have a season pass to your local hill, that pass might get you a day or two of free skiing at other resorts, so definitely look into it. That can solve your dilemma of where to go real fast. If you live in a place like Colorado where there are a ton of ski resorts, figure out which season passes get you days at which other places and compare that with where you want to go that winter. Buy your pass accordingly. A great thing I just tried for this first time this year is the Mountain Collective pass. For $400 you get days at 12 different resorts around the world, and there is a good possibility they will add more resorts to the list next year. Check out mountaincollective.com. So if you want to do multiple trips in a season you won’t even need to worry about buying lift tickets.
So where should you stay on your epic ski trip? Like anywhere, lodging can be expensive, but if you plan ahead it shouldn’t be too much of a deterrent. I always recommend checking out couchsurfing.com. Take advantage of the friendly confines of local ski bum’s apartments if you can. They may even show you where the powder stashes are.
Also a lot of resort towns and nearby cities, even in the USA, have hostels. Hostel International is a great resource for this. They have hostels in resort areas all over the place and it’s only $28 US dollars per year to be a member. You can get a bed for anywhere from $20 to $40 a night, much cheaper than hotel prices in ski towns during the winter.
If you are traveling somewhere without a hostel, I am always an advocate for hotels.com. They should pay me for how many times I’ve recommended them at this point. They give you a free night for every ten nights you book with them and they have the full spectrum from luxury to the ABVI, so you can find rooms as cheaply on there as anywhere else I’ve ever looked.
Typical stuff like hitting a grocery store or market will save you money on food. Ask around for which bars have specials which nights, and I always recommend checking the local weekly paper or doing an online search for nightlife to find the best deals when you feel like partying.
Another topic to touch on is traveling to a ski town for an entire season. Lots of people do this and travel from all over the world to live in their favorite ski town. If this is your plan I would highly recommend trying to get a job at the ski resort. There are a few benefits to this. First of all is the culture. If you haven’t I would highly recommend watching the movie Out Cold. It’s my favorite movie, I’ve easily watched it fifty times, because it is a fun play on the culture of living and working in a ski town. Plus, Zach Galifinakis is hilarious. Working at a ski resort, while the pay is not great, has its perks. You get a free season pass that usually gets you days at other mountains as well. (In Colorado, there is a thing called the Real Deal Program where a bunch of resorts allow their employees to ski or ride for free at the other resorts.)
Obviously the biggest draw is being able to ski or ride almost every day. Even if it’s just squeezing in a couple runs before work.
Also, many ski resorts offer employee housing, which is awesome because rent in ski towns can be super high and apartments are often hard to come by during the season. You may end up living in a dormitory type situation, but it’s a great way to make some friends to ski and party with, and be able to afford a few road trips to other mountains throughout the winter. Once you figure out where you want to live, check the nearby resort’s website for job opportunities. I spent a few years working in food and beverage at a couple different resorts and I won’t lie, I miss it sometimes. Being a ski bum is a hell of an experience and it definitely has its perks.
That’s about it for now. Feel free to hit me up if you have any questions or want some advice. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to check out my blog and site at timwenger.net. I’m going to put a written transcript of this podcast on the So It Goes Blog at the site. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram @TimWenger1 and if you are a member of Location Indie, which you should be, I’m in there as well. Hit me up!