As we were leaving for our last trip to Tahoe, I ran into a friend as I was balancing my rental skis on my head. “You’re going to Tahoe again?” she sighed. “You’re so lucky. I would love to go to Tahoe. I’ve lived in California much of my life and have never gotten the chance to go.”
One thing that’s always irked me is the statement “you’re lucky.” Sure, I’m fortunate that I had supportive parents who taught me to reach for the stars, blessed to be instilled with the persistence and drive to have built a career upon a passion I love above all else, and I have managed to do so in a way that affords me a bit of flexibility, but I’m also a firm believer that we all make our own “luck.” I’d venture to say this friend’s salary is nearly twice what SVV and I make a year combined. And while skiing is often referred to as a “rich man’s sport,” I’m here to tell you that if the two of us—two creative professionals living paycheck to paycheck—can make it work, so can she, and so can you.
With that said, here are a few tips on how we’ve afforded our snow addiction:
Buy a season pass. Obviously, if you’re only going to ski two or three days in one season, this doesn’t make sense. But most resorts offer killer deals on season passes if you purchase them before Christmas. (If you’re a slopes-loving couple, you could even give this to each other as your Christmas present.) Our cost? $379 for a full season. And it was valid at three resorts—Heavenly, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Sierra-at-Tahoe—every day of the year except Christmas week and the Saturday and Sunday of MLK and President’s Day weekends. At Heavenly’s steep $92-a-day prices, we would have only had to ski five days to make our money back. Instead, We skied 12, running us less than $32 a day.
The fearsome foursome, ready for some black diamond action.
Go in on a cabin share. A friend invited us in on her rent-controlled cabin share in which we made a total of…wait for it…$307 per couple for an entire season. Or $153.50 for SVV, $153.50 for me. This bought us a designated week with the cabin all to ourselves, which we used when my family was in town for my birthday in February, and any other nights or weekends when someone wasn’t already using it, of which there were many. So not only were we paying less than $30 a night combined for a three-bedroom house, but my family got free lodging, as well. Sure, it may be hard to land a deal quite as great as we got, but I often see cabin shares or rentals on HomeAway and other vacation rental sites that are nearly as sweet deals. Look in the more affordable areas, like South Lake Tahoe in our case, and steer clear of the chicer ‘hoods (like Truckee or Squaw).
The icicles on the sides of the cabin could very well have been the murder weapon in a mystery novel.
Smaller is sometimes better, or at least cheaper. The big names—Heavenly, Northstar, Squaw—will, correspondingly, charge the most to ski. Some of my favorite spots are the smaller resorts outside the main towns like Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood, each of which is $20 to $30 cheaper a day than the biggies. And the facilities and trails are every bit as nice as the buzzier destinations.
Castle and Clipper are my favorite runs at Sierra, but Beaver is the most fun of the blues.
Ski midweek. Like everything else in life, lift ticket prices go up on the weekends. Take a day or two off work (you deserve it!) and hit the slopes when prices are lower and crowds are fewer. We love midweek skiing—in fact, we didn’t ski a weekend day all season!
Kari and me in front of a 12-foot snow drift after a big storm.
Buy your lift tickets online or at sports retailers prior to your trip. Most ski resorts offer discounted deals online if you purchase your tickets at least seven days in advance directly from their websites. We didn’t do so when my family was in town and were gobsmacked when we found out day-of lift tickets for Heavenly would run them each $92. Luckily, I had run to Sports Basement in San Francisco before we left town and saw that they sold lift tickets for many of the resorts at wholesale price; thus, I snagged three for $56 a pop instead of the $71 we would have paid at the resort. Similarly, I came across a number of deals across the Web (Google is your friend, people), such as Shell station offering a free Northstar lift ticket with the purchase of another adult ticket plus 10 gallons of gas (a $92 value). Also, if you splurge and stay at a resort lodge, many of them are having a hard time filling rooms and, therefore, are offering free lift tickets with stays.
Kari snowboarding for the second time ever…we even took her down a black diamond, and she killed it!
Seek out specials. We had only bought one day’s worth of Sierra passes for my family as we planned on skiing Heavenly the rest of the week, but wound up skiing multiple days there due to most of Heavenly being on lift hold because of the 90mph winds. Much to our surprise, Sierra offered “youth” discounts for “kids” up to 22 years old, so both my sister and Richard were able to ski for $20 off a day. Other resorts offer college-specific or senior citizen discounts, too; you just have to do a little digging. Plus, many sites such as Breckenridge Lodging regularly run deals or release unsold rooms last minute at much lower prices.
Richard, on the other hand, has skied is whole life and, while new at riding, is practically a pro.
BYOL. That’s Bring Your Own Lunch. Sierra-at-Tahoe is the only resort we’ve skied where the lunch was actually the economical choice (other than the crepe and hot dog carts at Northstar). At the bottom of West Bowl, SVV and I would buy a hulking burrito for $8 and split it (I can’t ski on a full stomach, so half was more than enough). Four dollars each for lunch isn’t bad. Otherwise, he wears a Camelbak and stuffs it full of granola bars, packs of Gu leftover from my races and Jolly Ranchers to hold us over until we get off the mountain in the afternoon.
Lunch with the Luna crew, plus our men (minus my poor overworked dad, who was CPA-ing it up back in Tennessee).
Build up your gear. This may not be cheap upfront, but over a period years, it will save you beaucoup bucks. I’ve slowly collected snow apparel since moving to California. The first piece of equipment I actually purchased beyond clothing was a pair of nice goggles a few years ago during a sale at Sports Basement. Last year, I got a helmet with a free $100 credit from Porter’s. This year, I bought last season’s Dalbello boots at Lombardi for $180. (Tip: buying the previous year’s models usually run around half of what the current model retail…and they hardly change at all from year to year.) I’ve spent around $150 a year on average for gear, instead of dropping a couple thousand bucks at once. It’s far less painful that way for my poor, dwindling bank account. At the end of this season, I might finally give in and purchase skis and poles. Most of the ski shops put all their remaining inventory on mega clearance in April before they close up shop for the year, so snapping up spring deals is where the money-saving can be found.
Snow bunnies at Sierra.
Rent your skis outside the resort areas. If you don’t have your own equipment, you’ll pay around $40 a day—sometimes even more—if you rent directly from the resort or in any of the shops at its base. Many sports stores in the closest city will rent you a package for half the price. I already own boots, so each time we’d head to the mountain, I’d swing by Lombardi Sports in San Francisco and pick up skis, bindings and poles for a total of $10 a day (and they don’t charge you for the day you pick up or the day you drop off). Similarly, we found a little shack in a parking lot on the on the main drag of Tahoe, Don Cheepo’s, that rented the same equipment I was getting in the Bay Area for around the same price. Plus, the owner and his wife are so delightful. I like to support local businesses, so I’ll be returning to Don’s for my skis on all subsequent visits…until I own my set.