Family Ski Vacations on a Budget

If you skied or snowboarded before having kids, you might be chomping at the bit to get some big ski adventures into your lives. But man, it can be expensive! I grew up going on an annual ski trip to big resorts out west, and wondered how I could possibly afford on that now that I am a parent.

Here are some tips on how to take family ski vacations on a budget, whether you are headed Out West or Back East. Definitely also check out our posts on Tips for Skiing on a Budget and How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski and Snowboard. I’ve listed categories to consider and tips for keeping the price down. At the end are a few sample trips that we’ve done and how we managed the budget. The Points Guy has a post on using points and miles to plan ski trips, which might be helpful.

Do your research, plan really far ahead, teach your kids to ski before you go, and cook all your own meals.

Family on a ski slope with mountains behind them.
It can be really fun to take a family ski vacation, and with these tips you can significantly reduce the cost.

This post is organized by the big categories of expenses: lift tickets, travel (to the trip and during the trip), gear, lodging, and food. Remember that you are optimizing all of these things, not just a single part. In addition, it’s really important to keep in mind the goals for the trip, which, at least for me, are skiing and quality family time.

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Where to Go for Your Family Ski Vacation on a Budget

This is a question that ties in a lot of the research listed out below. The big picture on this question is to balance the price with your ski ambitions. If you are on a tighter budget, then driving to somewhere that is further away but still driving distance (maybe New England if you live in the Mid-Atlantic or the Midwest) makes more sense.

If you are able to find good ticket prices, maybe Utah or Colorado are good choices. If you have a friend who can loan you a place to stay, maybe start by seeing if you can make the rest of the trip work to that location. (That’s what my parents did when we were growing up.) But consider the entire package, not just one piece. 

Lift Tickets for your Reasonably-Priced Family Ski Trip

Do Your Research Early

It’s helpful to look at all options early on. Sometimes seasons passes are cheaper, sometimes passes included with your lodging are cheaper, sometimes passes with free kid tickets are cheaper. But you need to do the legwork to research all this back in April when season’s passes go on sale. It’s hard when you might not know the dates, but make a best guess and see what combinations seem like they will work best. On the plus side, day tickets are still on sale for most areas at that point, so you can usually choose fake dates and see what tickets will cost.

Seasons Passes

We are big fans of the multi-area seasons passes (e.g., Epic, Ikon, Mountain Collective, or Indy). If you plan far in advance the passes can be quite cost effective. Often kids get extremely cheap passes with adult passes.

If you know you want to take a big ski trip, for example, and you live near a Vail owned or operated area and can take a trip to a different one, then the trip lift tickets are the cost of upgrading your pass, say from a “Northeast Pass” to a “Local Pass”.

In our case, our “home” areas in Ohio are Vail-owned and on the Ohio Pass. My parents live near Mt. Sunapee, also a Vail area but on the Northeast Pass. We spend a lot of time skiing Mt. Sunapee, and the Northeast Pass for kids is the Epic Local. So, for us, Epic-area Colorado lift tickets are really just an upgrade for the two adults from Northeast to Local passes, a cost of a few hundred dollars that pays for itself with just 2-3 days skiing in Colorado.

For families with younger children, Epic sells unlimited passes for 5–6-year-old children for $60 if a parent is buying a pass as well (but you have to call them). Similar options are available with Ikon Passes.  

This post from The Points Guy is a comprehensive evaluation of the four big seasons pass options. Note that the prices they quote are September prices, but passes are generally cheaper earlier in the purchase season.

We have found that the daily tickets, even when pre-purchased through the passes (like “Session Passes” for Ikon) are not as cost effective as the entire seasons pass when purchased really early (like April at the end of the previous ski season).

We ran into this recently with a family wedding in Steamboat that was planned after Ikon passes went up in price. We ended up buying 4-day session passes from Ikon because that was cheaper than 4 days of lift tickets, but it was close. If we had been able to buy the seasons passes back in the spring, we likely would have just gotten full Ikon passes. The children’s full Ikon passes (in April) were cheaper than the 4-day session passes we eventually purchased.

Consider exploring the Mountain Collective or Indy Pass if you live near or can easily get to some of the areas. They look really fun and it’s a way to explore many different ski areas.

Someone told me recently that “ski math” means you bought your seasons pass in April and so by the time ski season starts your forgot how much it costs and skiing feels free.

Buying at the Resort

Consider buying multiday tickets at the resort (although you still will likely want to pre-purchase for better rates). For example, at Steamboat, the 5-day adult passes include a child under 12 for free. However, this just gives you more combinations to check out. It could still be cheaper to get a season’s pass or a set number of days at a suite of resorts than to get these packages.

Tickets Included with Lodging

Many resort lodging options include tickets for some number of people (based on the size of the rental). On an early trip with our son to Jay Peak, our lodging including lift tickets, so even though lodging at the resort was pricey (see more below), the included lift tickets for four adults made it worthwhile.

Ski Gear for Your Family Ski Trip on a Budget

Renting gear is expensive. Even though it’s a total pain in the neck to haul skis and boots around on top of your other gear, and the checked luggage fees are non-trivial, we take our own gear. If you fly to an airport that has infrequent flights (e.g., straight to Vail), strongly consider carrying your boots on board. It’s easier to rent skis you like than boots. If there are many flights a day, you gear should show up fairly quickly and it’s less of an issue.

As I wrote this on the plane to Colorado, four of our six bags (2 ski bags, 2 Athalon boot bags, 2 40 L Patagonia Black-hole duffels of clothes and gear, including stuff for the wedding we were going to) didn’t make the flight. Thankfully, all four of our missing bags made it by 8 pm that night.

We changed our plans slightly to pick up our luggage so we could get it faster (there were a lot of left behind bags and a lot of bad weather coming in). However, my brother has gotten airlines to pay for all his rental gear for when they have lost his luggage in the past, so if your luggage is lost (or just delayed), ask for compensation for rentals.

Two kids in ski jackets with a pile of gear in front of a bus.
This is all the gear we had for a 10 day trip to Colorado, including clothes to attend a wedding. We are waiting for a bus to the airport from off site parking (to save on transportation costs).

I really like these Dakine rolling double ski bags, which fit two sets of skis. My siblings, their spouses, and our parents use them for all their gear: skis lie flat next to each other (with rubber bands to hold the brakes up), and all the gear piles on top, including boots in a special built-in boot bag. We all carry our helmets to avoid them getting damaged.

If you snowboard and don’t want to carry your gear (and deal with the hassle I had at the Denver airport), consider the Burton Snowboards Online Rental Program.

We buy used gear for the kids (sideline swap, eBay, FB marketplace, and local ski swaps) and pass down to the next kid, so that saves us a lot of money on equipment. An alternative is to rent for the season as we suggest in Ten Tips for Family Skiing on a Budget and then take that gear with you.

Be sure to take all the gear you might need. Take extra layers so you don’t need to buy anything there, since it’s cheaper to take the stuff from home. We also take Hot Hands, which we buy in bulk.

My friend recommends using the toe warmers to stick to base layers on your femoral (leg) and brachial (arm) arteries to keep your blood warmer. If you use them for part of a day, you can store them in a ziplock bag (I always keep one in my pocket) to use the next day. We often get 2-3 days out of a single set.

Hand warmers in a zip-top bag in a pair of ski mittens.
My hand warmer saving system in action! No more guilt for using hand warmers only part of a day.

We at TMM also love Aurora Heat Reusable Hand Warmers!

Travel For A Family Ski Vacation on a Budget

If you are driving your own car, this section mostly is not relevant to you, but skim the “Getting Around” bit since I have some tips on parking and parking fees.

Getting There

Buy tickets early. Search for deals to try to use credit card points or miles instead of cash to buy the tickets. Sometimes airline or other travel credit cards have introductory deals that give you tons of miles or travel credit. My parents used miles from an American Express card affiliated with Delta to pay for the wedding ski trip to Steamboat. My brother used points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve card and argues that the travel benefits are worth the fees for the card.

If you can travel on non-peak times or take your kids out of school, then this will lower prices as well. It can be helpful to keep an eye on flights for a few days and see if flight prices fluctuate predictably during the week. It might be cheaper to purchase on Wednesday than Saturday, for example.

Consider flying to a larger airport and driving to the ski areas. On our most recent trip we flew into Denver and drove, rather than flying in to the Vail or Hayden airports. We were out for a week and the difference in price for flights for four people made it worth the much longer drive. My brother loves to fly into Salt Lake City and to stay there (cheaper housing, see below) because the ski areas are relatively close by and there are non-stop flights from New York City. This decision is wrapped up in car rentals (see below) because if you fly into a closer airport, you might not need to rent a car.

Remember to take your luggage into account with ticket pricing. Sometimes, the super discount rates where checked luggage costs an arm and a leg are not worth it. On the other hand, the discount rates (Economy Basic or equivalent) could be worth the price of checking an extra bag per person.

If you don’t go with the awesome Dakine bags and my family’s packing system (see above), you can usually get away with fewer ski-boot bag combos than the number of people you have. We can fit two sets of skis into each ski bag, meaning two ski bags for the trip.

DONT FORGET! Most airlines consider a boot bag to be part of the ski bag (so free to check), but the total weight has to be <50 lb. This trip we discovered that we could do a ski bag with two sets of skis and poles plus a boot bag with adult boots and clothes for each set. We put one pair of kid boots in a duffel bag and carried the other pair on.

Getting Around

Fundamentally you’ll have a choice of public transportation or car rentals. This is wrapped up in your plane ticket choices (sorry, it’s all related, this is why it’s so hard to plan for budget ski trips). If you fly into a further away airport, you’ll need to rent a car. If you fly to a closer airport, you can get away with a shuttle and taking buses around the town.

For example, you can fly to Denver and take an Epic Mountain Express bus to Silverthorne (for Breckenridge or Keystone) or to Vail (for Vail and Beaver Creek). In both areas, there are buses you can take locally, but even though they are less than an hour apart, you can’t get between them. For us, the added flexibility of a rental car is worth it, but it could be that the rental car prices are so high that it’s worth taking the buses. It also means you don’t need to potentially drive in bad weather or pay for parking at the ski areas.

If you do decide to rent a car, see if you get a corporate rate on your rental. Many companies have negotiated rates for business use that allow “leisure” travel, which means you can use it on vacation. After a decade at my current job, I just learned about this last year! If you are a Costco member, this is another great resource. Don’t forget to shop around and continually check prices before your trip, sometimes they go down!

Two children in a car buried under bags.
We got an AWD SUV rental car for a trip to Colorado, but the kids were still squashed once we fit all the gear in.

Remember that you might have to pay for parking. Determine if you want to spend that money, find cheap or free parking near the ski areas, take buses (often available and cheap or free), or do something else. Some ski areas give big discounts (or free parking) for carpooling, so the family trip may make it easier to reduce prices on the parking. Again, this is a tradeoff between time and money. The free parking could be quite far away or the bus could run very infrequently.  

Another consideration with transportation is when you put your ski boots on. We tend to put everyone’s boots on at home (except the driver) and have the driver put their boots on at the car. Then we don’t have to store anything at the area (see food below for more details on this). My mom’s cousin told me that when he’s somewhere that he has to walk a bit, he will put his ski boots on at a bench outside and tuck his street shoes way under the bench so he doesn’t need to find a locker for them. If you take a bus, you likely will want to just do that in your ski boots.

Housing for a Family Ski Vacation Without Blowing Your Budget

Like everything else, plan early and remember that housing is wrapped up in other decisions. There are several things to consider with housing, including:

  • Kitchen access. You’ll really want kitchen access because cooking your own food is one of the biggest cost savers for this big trip. See more below.
  • Space for everyone to sleep. Clearly you need space in a bed for everyone in the family. You might need to think flexibly about sleeping arrangements. If there are only double beds and the kids refuse to share, can one sleep on the couch?
  • Distance to ski areas. How far are you willing to drive each day? Are you trying to take a shuttle? Do you insist on ski in-ski out? If you don’t want to rent a car, can you still get a bus to the ski area?
  • Parking. Is there parking available at the rental? How many cars? How many people are going?
  • Lift tickets. Do you need lift tickets? Can you get housing that includes lift tickets? Is the extra cost of the housing worth the ticket price?

We have tended to find lodging that is a little further away but larger and/or cheaper. If you have friends you can travel with, it is often more cost effective to share a larger space. The Points Guy has some great tips. We use AirBnB and VRBO to find options. Sometimes those houses have their own websites, so try to poke around and find those as well so you don’t pay so many fees.

When to Go

This is both a “when in the year” and a “what year” question.

When in the Year

Try to go later in the season but not so late that the areas might be slush pits. With climate change, increasingly areas are mediocre over Christmas and holiday travel is always more expensive. If you homeschool or can take your kids out for a non-holiday week, try to do that. Remember if you are going to the Northeast that there are February break weeks that you might not have, so try to avoid those. Spring break can be really fun skiing because it’s warm, but if your spring break is over Easter, lots of people will be making the same plans.

Boy and woman in a chair lift at a ski area.
Spring break skiing can be really fun and a lot warmer. But, it was raining this day we skied with my sister at Killington.

What Year

I strongly recommend holding off on the big ski trip plans until (a) your children don’t need childcare or naps, and (b) they ski well enough that you aren’t feeling held back by skiing with them.

We found it really hard (and expensive) to take a ski trip to Jay Peak when a kid needed childcare and naps. I was pregnant and we had one kid. We were trading off skiing, paying for daycare, and generally reducing how much we skied. Bad plan. See below for more details on this trip.

Similarly, if your kid can’t ski with you on terrain you want to ski, then you won’t have as much fun. But ski school can be wicked expensive (like daycare). So, consider waiting until you can all enjoy the trip. The first trip we had where we all had a great time (other than staying at my parents’ house near Mt. Sunapee) was when our kids were 4 and 6. We did a backcountry hut trip to Zealand Falls Hut, then stayed at a cabin in Pinkham Notch and skied at Wildcat and Attitash (one day each). See below for more details on this trip.

Child in ski gear at the top of a ski area with mountains in the background.
When our daughter was still in a ski harness, we had a really enjoyable trip to the White Mountains. Even though we were just skiing easy groomed runs on Wildcat, it was a gorgeous day and a fun vacation.

When your child is good enough will depend a bit on what areas you go to and how well you ski. It’s easier to get kids up to speed for skiing groomers in New England than the Back Bowls at Vail. Regardless, stick to local areas (whether local to you or your family (or friends) who let you stay for free, or at least very cheaply) until the kids don’t need ski school anymore. Check out these tips on teaching your child to ski and snowboard. I also recommend the packages of weekly lessons for the winter that many small areas have as well as the PSIA Children’s Alpine Handbook.

I recognize that not everyone has the luxury to teach kids to ski at small local mountains. If you have to travel to ski at all, I still recommend going for smaller trips and smaller areas when your children are learning. It will cost less and you’ll be less frustrated when the kid decides to nap on the snow instead of take their afternoon ski lesson (this actually happened to us when our son was 4).

Food for Your Family Ski Trip on a Budget

Make all your own meals. Eating out is really expensive (but you’re a parent, you knew that already!).

My brother and his friends have been doing a budget ski trip since their college days. They always go to Salt Lake City, pre-schedule their meals, and then set up an order from Costco for the first person in town to pick up.

Breakfast and Dinner

Because you booked a place with a kitchen (see above, you did, right?), you can buy breakfast food to eat at home. Eat before going to the mountain every day.

It can be exhausting after a long day of skiing, but use the same kitchen to cook dinner each night. It can be a simple dinner. I remember eating a lot of pasta when we went on ski trips when I was a kid. You can buy rotisserie chickens already cooked at the grocery store, cook pasta, or make frozen pizzas. At least the kids won’t be stuck whining in a restaurant and you don’t have to go out again after skiing.  

Lunch

Use the same awesome kitchen to pack lunch for your family and take the lunch with you. This can be a little more complicated, depend on where you are taking your totally fantastic and not obscenely expensive ski trip. Regardless, I have always been able to sit inside at a table in a lodge (although not always any lodge on the mountain) and eat my brown bag lunch. 

My brother and his friends share the hot tip that toasting your sandwich bread before making the sandwich keeps you from having a squashed sandwich. It also helps to keep it in a chest pocket.

I have seen many variations on the pocket-sandwich lunch. We started carrying mini cucumbers (in a small bag in a chest pocket) and small mandarin oranges so that we could get extra water. We always carry chocolate to bribe kids who are flagging towards the end of the day. A friend of mine carries a collapsable cup and tea bag so she can have a midday hot drink. I recently saw a family making ramen in cups of hot water that they got from the cafeteria.

Boy in a ski lodge with a bagged lunch in front of him demonstrating family ski vacations on a budget
This is a sample of our bagged (pocket) lunch: vegetables, a sandwich, and a mandarin orange.

Free Bag Storage

Some areas have free bag storage in the lodge. I’ve seen this at areas all over New England and in the Seattle area. If you are at an area with free bag storage, you can simply drop a bag with your lunch in the storage area and pick it up when it’s time to eat. Being able to leave a bag means that we can easily pack hot chocolate for the kids as well.

No Free Bag Storage

Some areas do not allow you to stash your bag in a storage area or under a table. I’ve run into this in Colorado. In these cases, you have four choices.

(1) You can store your bag of food in a paid locker at the base lodge. The cost varies by ski area and at bigger areas you might not want to go all the way back to the base lodge.

(2) You can carry a backpack with your lunch in it. That’s what my parents always did when we were growing up. My dad simply skied with a pack on. My sister and brother always ski with packs when they are at big resorts. They use the pack for extra clothes and water. I really like the look of the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol (25 L for in bounds, 32 L for ski touring), but my brother warns that the torso was too short for him. He’s 6’5″, so… should work for most women.

(3) You can carry your bag of food and leave it outside by a ski rack at a lodge you will want to eat at. I saw a few families do this last year when we were at Beaver Creek. They had a neat cooler backpack that they just tucked in with the skis. Something like this REI Cool Trail would work well.

(4) Stuff all the bits and pieces of your lunch in various jacket pockets. This is what we do. Everyone has space for a sandwich, a bag of carrots, a bag of cookies, or some combination.

Water

If you are going back to a stored bag, just keep a water bottle in it.

If you have your lunch in your pockets, then water is a little more complicated. My dad carries a 500 mL hydroflask (with a cover over the mouth) in an inside pocket that he refills. Definitely get the one with the cover because I had one without a cover over the valve leak all over my down jacket. Brrr….

My sister carries a small backpack with a water bottle. My parents used to use hydration vests. We take advantage of the cups and water fountains available in the lodges. A mini cucumber (from a chest pocket) is like an edible, full water bottle.

Spend Your Evenings In on Your Family Ski Vacation on a Budget

This probably comes as no surprise by now, but I recommend finding things to do that don’t require paying more money. You can walk around a ski town if you really want to get out. We find that we are usually so exhausted from the full day of skiing that we are happy to stay home. Taking a game or two can make it easier to keep yourselves busy at night. I read aloud to our kids, so we also enjoy that.

Sample Family Ski Vacations on a Budget

We live in Ohio and my parents live in Sunapee, NH (right next to Mt. Sunapee). We primarily ski in those locations and would consider both “home areas” because we don’t have to pay for housing at either. Below are three early ski trips we took to give a sense of what we did right and what mistakes we made, so you can avoid them.

Jay Peak

When I was pregnant with our daughter (now 9), we decided to take a ski trip with my sister and brother. Because I was pregnant and didn’t want to go to high altitude, and there aren’t non-stop flights from Cleveland to Utahn, we went to Jay Peak. Our son was about 18 months old. We flew into Burlington, VT, met my brother at the airport, and rented a car. My sister drove up from Boston.

We rented a condo owned by the resort that included lift tickets for all four adults. We cooked for ourselves. The trip was a bit stressful because our son had never been in daycare (we had au pairs when the kids were younger). He was in half-day daycare for the three days of the trip. One of us quit skiing around noon, took him home, fed him, and stayed home for his nap. We then traded off with the one who got to keep skiing and went out for a few more runs.

He hated the daycare and we lost a lot of skiing time with the schlepping back and forth. In hindsight, we probably should have put him in all day daycare if we were going to bother with the trip. However, I was really concerned about him napping well and I was confident he would not nap at daycare.

Looking towards a run going down the ridge of a ski mountain.
We had a great time skiing at Jay Peak but the vacation was otherwise really frustrating and expensive. Photo by Justin Henck.

White Mountains

After the Jay Peak trip, we only skied at Sunapee and our local areas in Ohio until the kids were 4 and 6. They both took lessons in both areas (more in Ohio because the 6-pack of lessons was better value).

The year that they were 4 and 6, Sunapee had been bought by Vail and our Ohio areas had been bought by Peak Resorts (which Vail bought the next summer). The kids had Peak Passes that included two areas in the White Mountains (Attitash and Wildcat) and adult tickets for those areas weren’t too expensive. In addition, because of summer jobs I had back in college, I have access to a cabin in Pinkham Notch that is a cheap (and basically cabin-camping) place to stay.

Over spring break, we took the kids on a one-night backcountry trip to Zealand Falls Hut and then spent one day each skiing at Attitash and Wildcat. Although they couldn’t do all the runs we wanted to ski, we were able to ski at areas we had never been to and to enjoy skiing with the kids. My husband had just transitioned from snowboarding to skiing, so he was enjoying learning the new skills. With the free kid ski passes and cheap lodging, it didn’t matter to me that we weren’t skiing the whole mountain. After the trip, I remember thinking that it was the best spring break I had had in a long time.

Mother and daughter next to a Wildcat Mountain sign with Mount Washington behind them.
Wildcat is fun (on a warm-ish spring day) even with a kid who can barely ski! Attitash has more moderate and varied terrain.

We now have a tradition of doing two or three trips a winter to the Whites to ski at Attitash and Wildcat. As the kids have gotten older and ski better, we’ve added in backcountry days to these trips as conditions permit. Wildcat is our favorite ski area in New England.

Even if you don’t have access to a cheap cabin in Pinkham Notch, you can probably make a White Mountains trip work. Look for places to stay in Gorham and Berlin in addition to North Conway and right around the ski areas.

Boy on a ski run with mountains in the background.
The good views and nice spring weather made the trip to Wildcat and Attitash even more fun.

Colorado

We took our first family trip to Colorado last winter to ski at Vail areas on our Epic Pass (and I drafted this post on the plane for our second). It was a bigger cost because we needed to fly, rent a more expensive place to stay, and rent a car.

However, we did what we could to keep the price down using most of the tips in this article. We stayed in Silverthorne and skied at Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek, and Vail. We had a blast, but I’m so glad we waited until the kids were old enough to ski nearly everything we wanted to. Even so, it was helpful to have my parents with us so that they could ski with the kids for part of each day and let us to ski the more extreme terrain that the kids aren’t ready for.

Father and daughter skiing in a steep grove of aspen trees.
While a lot more expensive than skiing in New England, now that our kids are better skiers, we are enjoying trips to Colorado.
Man and girl skiing down a snowfield.
It helps that our kids can now ski steep trees and big bowls.

How to Save Money on a Family Ski Trip

Plan ahead!

A family ski trip can be a total blast if you aren’t worried about breaking the bank. Focus on the real goals: skiing and family togetherness. Then it becomes much easier to let go of the super expensive things you don’t need, like slope-side apres ski or fancy ski-in ski-out lodging. Remember, the goals are (a) skiing and (b) quality family time (up to you how to prioritize those goals…).

Mother and son in ski gear with heads close together.
Ski trips are a great way to spend some family time together!

Family Ski Vacations on a Budget

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  • Amanda, her husband, Josh, and their children, Colby and Lua, live in Oberlin, OH where Amanda is a Geosciences professor at Oberlin College. Amanda's parents live in New Hampshire and so they spend a lot of time there as well. They take advantage of homeschooling to maximize outdoors time for everyone. Amanda grew up in Hong Kong and spent summers in New Hampshire, where she found her love for nature. Pursuing a PhD in geosciences to study why Earth looks the way it does and how people change those processes was a natural outgrowth of her love for being outside. Their outdoor sports sort of follow seasons: the winter they love to ski, in the fall they race cyclocross, in the spring they ride bikes on day trips, and in the summer they rock climb, bike tour, take overnight canoe trips, and backpack.

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