It’s no secret that skiing is not the world’s most economical sport. For many, it conjures images of families clad in flashy gear carving their way down the slopes, and of posh chalets with outdoor hot tubs.
According to the National Ski Areas Association, the average cost per lift ticket is over $100 a day — and that’s before you’ve even gotten dressed. Gas prices continue to climb, making travel to the slopes more expensive. Eating at the mountain is also not cheap ($12 bowl of chili, anyone?). For a family of four, it can add up quickly.
But while those price tags might leave cost-conscious vacationers with some initial sticker shock, they shouldn’t necessarily deter you from planning a ski trip. Planned wisely, getting yourself and your family out on the slopes this winter need not cost a fortune. Here’s how you can pull it off.
1. Go with a group
The Boston Ski + Sports Club (bssc.com, 617-789-4070) offers package deals on bus and lift tickets to mountains throughout New England, as well as lodging and lift ticket packages for weekend trips; day trip prices range from $70 to $110. It’s a great way to save — and to meet new people, too (proof of vaccination and masks will be required for all bus trippers). “The bus-and-lift-ticket combo is the best deal in Boston, especially if you’re looking mostly at weekends,” says Ryan Walsh, marketing director at the Boston Ski & Sports Club, which runs more than 50 trips a year. “But a lot of people just want to get in the car with friends and that’s an option, too; if you drive yourself, it will be less expensive.” The club also offers deals on equipment rentals.
For first timers or anyone looking to sharpen their skills, getting a group together for lessons is also a great way to get personalized instruction at a lower cost. At Okemo, a full day of private ski or snowboard lessons for a group as big as six is $650 (not including lift tickets or equipment rentals), which becomes pretty reasonable when split among six friends or family members.
2. Buy a season pass
If you’re looking to ski regularly over the course of the winter, a season pass — to one mountain, if you can single out and commit to a favorite, or a group of mountains, if you’d prefer variety — will offer the best value. The New England Pass (newenglandpass.com) for instance, offers various levels of access to Sunday River (sundayriver.com, 800-543-2754) and Sugarloaf (sugarloaf.com, 207-237-2000) in Maine and Loon (loonmtn.com, 603-745-8111) in New Hampshire. The Silver package costs $999 and includes lift tickets 7 days a week, aside from 12 blackout dates, plus discounted tickets for friends, and food and retail savings. If you plan to ski at least 10 times in a season, including a weekend day or two, it will pay for itself. The earlier you buy, and the more blackout dates you’re willing to accept, the cheaper your pass.
“A [season] pass will be the best value for those looking to ski multiple days, hands down,” says Adam White, senior communications manager for the Northeast at Vail Resorts, which owns seven New England mountain resorts, including Stowe (stowe.com, 802-253-3000), Okemo (okemo.com, 802-228-1600), and Mount Snow (mountsnow.com, 800-245-7669) in Vermont and Wildcat (skiwildcat.com, 603-466-3326) and Sunapee (mountsunapee.com, 603-763-3576) in New Hampshire. “I have three kids, so I know how fast it can add up.”
Vail’s Epic Pass (epicpass.com) also offers several levels of access at different price points, including a Northeast Value Pass that works at all of its New England resorts, and a day pass that works at any of Vail’s 34 resorts across the US and Canada. With the day pass, a skier is free to choose the date and mountain. “And you can buy as many as you’d like,” White says, adding that the passes cost up to 65 percent less than the standard lift ticket. Pass-holders also get discounts on food, lodging, lessons, and rentals, and on lift tickets for friends and family.
Most independent mountain resorts also offer season passes, though often in limited quantities — so buy early. Wachusett Mountain (wachusett.com, 978-464-2300) in Princeton, Massachusetts, has already sold out of its season passes, but found a creative way to both manage crowds and help skiers visit for less by offering lift tickets by the session — as low as $30 for a 3- to 4-hour block for adults and $26 for kids. This year, the mountain also introduced a “Flex Pass,” with the cheaper option allowing the holder to come for any three 8-hour sessions throughout the season with no blackout dates. Twilight and night skiing, available at mountains including Sunday River, Shawnee Peak in Maine (shawneepeak.com, 207-647-8444), and Wachusett, are also great ways to ski for cheaper — just be sure to bundle up!
3. Book in advance
The buy-early mantra applies to everything from lodging, lift tickets, rental equipment, and lessons to single-day lift tickets. Ski resorts are always looking to know what sorts of crowds to expect and to discourage guests from basing their decisions on how the weather looks that morning, so same-day ticket rates are the most expensive. With most mountains using dynamic pricing on lift tickets and lodging, the earlier you book, the more you can save.
“My number one tip for budget-conscious skiers and riders is to book early,” says Karolyn Castaldo, communications director at Sunday River. This is often at least two months out for the best deal, but can be longer, she says, adding that the best rates for season passes are typically in the spring, before the previous ski season has even wrapped. “But for lift tickets, midweek and non-holiday, early season (before January) and late season (April and later) are most often the affordable time periods.”
And buy online. Even before the pandemic, resorts encouraged visitors to buy their tickets online instead of in-person. Prices are lower and, if your schedule is flexible, you’ll usually be able to comparison shop to find the most affordable days. “Mountains don’t have flat rates anymore — you can look at the online calendar and choose a day based on rate,” White says.
Just be warned: “Midweeks are becoming increasingly popular,” says Noelle Tuttle, the marketing and communications manager at Sugarloaf. “Last year, we routinely sold out of lodging. So my advice to anyone looking to visit Sugarloaf this winter, even midweek, is to get your trip on the books sooner rather than later.”
4. Look for packages — and pick up the phone
Whether you’re staying at the mountain or at an independent hotel off-site, book directly with the hotel for best rates, rather than a third party. Most mountains will feature package deals — hotels and lift tickets, often rentals, too — on their website, though often it’s worth making an old-school phone call to ask if there are any unlisted deals, or to get advice about which may be the best fit for you and your family. To encourage newcomers, Wachusett Mountain, for example, offers a beginner package that includes a lift ticket, lesson, and equipment rental for $119 (there’s also a three-day option). This season, Sugarloaf and Sunday River launched new Stay & Save lodging programs that provide guests an additional 10 percent off lift tickets for two days or more (purchased online) when they book lodging directly through the resorts.
And, of course, while convenient and often a lot of fun, it’s not necessary to stay directly at the mountain. Consider lodging off-site for better deals, or combining your trip with visits to a couple of different mountains. Perhaps that’s a stay in Woodstock, Vermont, for example, to ski at both the family-friendly Suicide Six (suicide6.com, 802-457-6661) and, a half-hour away, the larger (and pricier) Killington (killington.com, 800-734-9435). Or try Williamstown, Massachusetts, to access three Berkshires mountains: Butternut (skibutternut.com, 413-528-2000), Jiminy Peak (jiminypeak.com, 413-738-5500), and Berkshire East (berkshireeast.com, 413-339-6618).
5. Rent equipment beforehand
In most cases, renting your gear from a local shop near home, or even near but not at the mountain, will be less expensive than getting equipment on site. Boston Ski and Tennis (bostonskiandtennis.com, 617-964-0820) in Newton, for example, offers seasonal leases; rates for adults start at $220 and $150 for kids. You can also rent gear for a day — you’ll pay $40, compared with $54 at Sunday River. “Or if you’re going every week, skip the rentals and go to a secondhand sports store and get some cheap gear,” says Chase Obarowski, brand manager at Canna Provisions and a former professional snowboarder. “You can always resell it back to the shop if you don’t end up liking it.” Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are also great places to find used skis. Again, the earlier you start to look, the better.
6. Skip the lift lines
Backcountry skiing, which involves hiking up mountains, is becoming increasingly popular in New England, with many of the downhill ski mountains creating backcountry access. Sugarloaf, for example, offers “sidecountry” skiing — which is like backcountry skiing but on maintained and patrolled terrain — on the resort’s adjacent Burnt Mountain and Brackett Basin. “You don’t need to be an advanced skier, but you do want to hire a guide if it’s your first time,” says Quincy Van Winkle, a ski patroller and avid backcountry skier in Maine. “It’s more of a wilderness experience, and you usually just have to pay the mountain a small fee.”
Viktor Marohnić, the founder of adventure app 57Hours (57hours.com) — which connects travelers with guides and instructors — skis backcountry as many as 20 days a year, and typically hires a guide to show him and his family around for the first day or two. Then they go it alone. “It’s less expensive, less crowded, and in my opinion better skiing,” he says. “It feels authentic — you could argue the way the ski experience was meant to be.”
7. Think smaller
While the bigger resorts are often the most obvious selections for a reason — more acreage and more varied terrain — smaller, more “local” mountains will be less expensive and often just as fun.
“People who come to Maine to ski usually think of Sugarloaf or Sunday River, but Maine has got all these great small mountains,” says ski patroller Van Winkle, who cites Black Mountain (skiblackmountain.org, 207-364-8977) in Rumford and Mt. Abram (mtabram.com, 207-875-5001) in Greenwood as favorites. “They may not have the terrain but they also don’t have as many people. Plus, the vibe feels really local and friendly — and they usually have great bars. Also, you can let your kids have freedom the way you can’t at Sunday River and Sugarloaf, where they could get lost or into terrain they’re not ready for.”
Consider day trips to smaller mountains or mixing them in during a longer trip to a bigger resort: Try Saddleback (saddlebackmaine.com, 207-864-5671) during your trip to Sugarloaf, for example, Ragged Mountain (raggedmountainresort.com, 603-768-3600) during a visit to Sunapee, or Bolton Valley (boltonvalley.com, 802-434-3444) while you’re skiing Stowe.
Obarowski, the former professional snowboarder, favors Jiminy Peak in Western Massachusetts for this very reason. “If you can find those smaller places closer to you, you end up saving not only on tickets but also lessons, lodging, and gas,” he says. And, perhaps best of all, “You’ll also pay $5 for a beer afterwards instead of $15 for a cocktail.”
Alyssa Giacobbe is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.