To get anything resembling a good deal at a ski resort, the first rule is simple: stay away from peak periods, which in the U.S. are the week between Christmas and New Year, Martin Luther King Day weekend, Presidents Day weekend, and the week following Presidents Day. Travel days surrounding those heavy vacation periods are often blacked out from frequent flier awards and discounts. If you can travel at any other time, prices are sure to be lower.
In general, the best time to book airline travel is a month to six weeks in advance, but in peak ski season, airline tickets to ski destinations tend to sell out earlier. For peak ski weeks, start checking prices and availability as soon as possible. Comparison websites such as Expedia, Kayak, Travelocity, and Orbitz are good places to start, but some of them don’t have price information from some of the low-budget airlines, so check individual airline websites as well.
December and March are generally good months for deals, but snow conditions can be uncertain, especially in the northeastern United States. Always ask about specials, not only for your first-choice travel dates, but for your other available times, as well.
Minimizing Airline Baggage Fees for Ski Equipment
You can’t travel in winter to a ski are with just a carry-on, so prepare to shell out for airline baggage fees. You’ll probably have at least one suitcase containing ski clothes and smaller pieces of gear such as daypacks, goggles, and helmets. Be aware of weight restrictions: generally the limit is 50 pounds per bag.
And then there are your skis. With baggage fees zooming out of control and the hassle of managing all that baggage (think family of four, with four pairs of skies, boots, poles, not to mention helmets), not all skiers travel with their skis. You’ll have to compare the cost of renting skis for a week with the cost of baggage fees. Many skiers compromise by bringing their boots and renting skis.
Each airline has its own requirements, so check first. For example, almost all major U.S. carriers charge for checked baggage, and some have additional charges for overweight and oversize baggage. AirCanada has one set of rules for skiers who show up at the airport with skis, and other set for people who pre-register. Snowpak.com offers a handy comparison chart, but be aware that rules change, so confirm when you book.
Policies vary, with some airlines charging a mere $15 or $20, and others charging $25 or more for the first checked bag, and more for the second. As usual, Jet Blue and Southwest have the most generous policies. Be aware that if your travel plans call for travel via an unaffiliated puddle-jumper, you may have to check bags (and pay additional excess baggage fees) each way.
Swiss and European Ski Resorts May be a Budget Option
Depending on the travel involved, a European ski vacation may make financial sense. Check the exchange rates, including the exchange rates for both Euros and Swiss francs, depending on your destination. Western American and Canadian skiers, of course, have plenty of big-mountain choices in their own backyards, and no need to ever leave home. But East Coasters looking for big mountains have to fly. The choices are to go west, which involves flying times of up to five or six hours (more to some parts of Canada, and more if transfers are involved), or to go to Europe, where flying times from the East Coast are six or seven hours (more if you have to change planes in a major hub such as London or Frankfurt).
A European Christmas ski holiday is a high-season winter vacation, just as it is in the U.S. and Canada. But depending on whether you ski in Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, or elsewhere, the peak weeks and weekends in Europe may be different. Good deals can often be found in March, although the skiing can get slushy. (Remember that European ski areas don’t rely on snow-making, and their glaciers have been shrinking and their winters shortening over the last few decades. So if you hit a warm spell, you may be out of luck).
Cost savings on international travel may also include baggage fees, as most international airlines give passengers at least one free bag, and some, like Swiss Air have a two-bag baggage allowance.
Other Cost Savings and Money-Saving Tips for Ski Holidays
Here are a few more ways to shave a few dollars off a ski-holiday:
- Don’t forget to check on resort packages and multi-day ticket deals. Ski school lessons may come with free rentals or afternoon lift tickets. Weekday packages often offer big cost-savings. And some resorts offer week-long packages that include lift tickets and rentals.
- Check out lesser-known resorts and ski areas.
- For rentals, check in local ski ships as well as at the resort itself
- Condo rentals are a good choice for couples traveling with other couples and for ski families. For large groups, they often cost less than hotels, and offer more space. You can make your own coffee and breakfast and your own dinners, if you want, saving the cost of dining out every night. And you can even pack lunches. Ski-in-ski-out condos are more expensive, but minimize parking and certainly simplify transportation hassles.
- Check out a couple of days of non-skiing winter activities during your vacation. A day of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or ice skating costs a fraction of a day of downhill skiing; not only are the rentals cheaper, but there are no lift tickets.
- Check out special deals such as military discounts, seniors discounts, kids discounts, hotel-discounts, afternoon-only passes, and on-line only deals.
Downhill skiing is not cheap, and the idea of a budget ski vacation may be a bit of an oxymoron. But with some advanced planning and creativity and some money-saving ideas, skiers can enjoy an affordable winter ski holiday.