WHERE TO SKI FOR LESS
Big-name ski areas like Whistler and Vail are fantastic, storied places with a bevy of snow-covered runs -- but they're also fantastic places to drain your wallet. Skiing doesn't have to be so expensive. By exploring other resorts as little as five miles away, it's possible to save money and still have a memorable ski trip.
KILLINGTON RESORT | VERMONT
Said to have some of the toughest terrain east of the Rockies, Killington Resort in Rutland, Vermont, is the East Coast's largest ski area. It has 155 trails and 21 lifts -- the high-speed Skye Peak Express gets skiers and riders to the top of the mountain in about five minutes. Nicknamed the "Beast of the East," Killington is home to New England's largest vertical drop: 3,050 feet. But all this comes with a hefty price tag: A one-day adult pass for a Saturday in February starts at $95 online. Child care costs $125 for a full day, and ski camp for kids is about $170 for an all-day package with rentals.
KILLINGTON ALTERNATIVE: PICO MOUNTAIN
If you're looking for less traffic, a family-friendly atmosphere, and lower costs, Pico Mountain is just five miles from Killington (there's daily shuttle service between the two). Adult lift tickets for a Saturday in February start at $58 online, a $37 savings over the larger resort. The pace may be slower, but that doesn't mean the level of skiing is less challenging. The mountain has 57 trails -- the steepest is Giant Killer, a double black diamond -- and a vertical drop of almost 2,000 feet. In the Bonanza Learning Area, first-timers can enjoy a dedicated chairlift and towline with lessons for a half-day rate of $85 (including full-day lift ticket). For the little ones (12 weeks to 12 years), full-day child care is $95.
STOWE MOUNTAIN RESORT | VERMONT
Located in northern Vermont, Stowe Mountain Resort is 44 miles east of Burlington. It's home to Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield, and boasts more than 300 inches of natural snowfall a year. It also has 116 trails, 12 lifts, and one inter-mountain gondola that connects Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak. The Spa at Stowe Mountain Lodge is open daily and offers numerous services that promise to soothe ski-weary muscles and wind-chapped skin. So, what's the downside? The prices. A regular-season adult lift ticket is $94 online; $80 for ages 6 to 12. Cubs child care, located at Spruce Peak and available for 3 months to 3 years, charges a weekday rate of $170. Full-day ski and snowboard lessons for kids ages 3 to 14 start at $250 for the lessons and lift access.
STOWE ALTERNATIVE: SMUGGLERS' NOTCH RESORT
Voted the East Coast's No. 1 kid-friendly resort and one of the top five overall for the 2017 season by Ski magazine, Smugglers' Notch is just about 45 minutes northwest of Stowe but couldn't be more different. The resort is self-contained, surrounded by three interconnected mountains: Morse, Sterling, and Madonna. There are eight lifts and 78 trails, one of which is the Black Hole, the East Coast's only triple-black-diamond trail. The price: $76 for a one-day adult pass, $58 for youth and seniors, and free for children 5 and under. An adult performance rental package with helmet is $54. Full-day child care for 6 weeks to 3 years is available for $95.
SUNDAY RIVER | MAINE
At Sunday River, 135 trails and 15 lifts crisscross the resort's eight interconnected mountain peaks (Locke Mountain, Spruce Peak, North Peak, Oz, Barker Mountain, Aurora Peak, Jordan Bowl, and White Cap). Skiers who buy a full- or multi-day ticket and find the conditions lacking on their first run (before 10 a.m.) can invoke Sunday River's "snow guarantee" and exchange it for another day. That reassurance might take some of the sting out of an adult lift ticket starting at $105 (online) on weekends and holidays, but of course there are many other expenses at New England's sixth-largest ski resort.
SUNDAY RIVER ALTERNATIVE: SHAWNEE PEAK
Opened in 1938, Shawnee Peak is Maine's oldest major ski resort. But don't let its age deter you -- this mountain is big and varied enough to keep everyone in the group happy. A quarter of the mountain's 43 trails are dedicated to beginners and another quarter to experts, and 19 trails are lit for night skiing. Speaking of night skiing, don't miss the Monday Madness deal: An adult lift ticket is only $15 after 3:30 p.m. (the holiday rate is $20). A regular adult lift ticket is $72 on weekends and holidays ($57 for ages 6 to 12), and children 5 and under ski free with a paying adult (surface lift only).
SUGARLOAF | MAINE
The first trail for Sugarloaf was cut in 1950. Since then, it has grown into one of the East Coast's biggest, best, and most expensive ski resorts, with 162 trails and glades. Sugarloaf's longest run, Tote Road, is an impressive 3.5 miles. The resort has earned the nickname "King of Spring" because of its extra-long ski season: Snow starts falling at the end of October and continues through May most years, averaging about 200 inches a year. This is probably why Sugarloaf guarantees the snow conditions: If you buy a regular-price, full-day lift ticket and find the snow conditions not up to par before 10 a.m., guest services will offer a voucher for another day. That makes it a little easier to part with $95 on weekends and holidays for a lift ticket -- but not much.
SUGARLOAF ALTERNATIVES: MOUNT ABRAM AND BIG SQUAW MOUNTAIN
With about 18 ski resorts in the state of Maine, it's hard to pick only one or even two alternatives to Sugarloaf, especially when they all offer excellent snow conditions and a range of terrain. Mount Abram in Greenwood, 90 minutes north of Portland, claims to be the place to go to learn to ski, specifically on the Westside mountain. Of the 55 trails, 12 are designated beginner. An adult lift ticket is $59 on weekends and holidays; ski rentals (skis, poles, boots, and helmet) cost $40 for the day. Towering over the southwest corner of Moosehead Lake, Big Squaw Mountain has 29 runs, including four black-diamond and eight novice trails. Full-day adult tickets are $30, students pay $25, and children 4 and under and seniors older than 70 ski for free.
VAIL | COLORADO
Not many ski areas in North America can compete with the charm and quality of Vail. There are 195 trails and 31 lifts, and the resort claims that its equipment grooms more acreage each night than most resorts have in total (more than 1,200 acres). What's the cost? An adult lift ticket starts at $154 online for a Saturday in February, and $106 for children. A one-day demo rental is about $86, although Vail does offer an online discount of 20 percent for visitors who plan in advance. The town of Vail is chock-full of dining, shopping, spa, and bar options to tempt more money out of skiers' pockets.
VAIL ALTERNATIVE: WINTER PARK RESORT
To avoid the crush and cost of larger resorts such as Vail, locals head to Winter Park, 90 minutes northwest of Denver and an hour and 45 minutes west of Boulder. Opened in 1978, Winter Park is Colorado's longest continuously operated ski resort and averages about 350 inches of snow annually. The resort comprises seven territories -- Winter Park, Vasquez Ridge, Parsenn Bowl, Terrain Park, Mary Jane, Eagle Wind, and The Cirque -- with 143 trails and 25 lifts. Advance one-day adult passes for a February Saturday start at $124 online, and $84 for kids 6 to 12. The village doesn't lack for amenities, including ski-in/ski-out lodging, spas, tubing, dining, and shopping.
BRECKENRIDGE | COLORADO
One of the most visited ski resorts in the western United States, Breckenridge opened in December 1961. With average annual snowfall of more than 25 feet, there's ample opportunity to try out the mountain's 187 trails, which are serviced by 34 lifts, including an eight-passenger gondola. The gondola is free to ride if you just want to check out the mountain views or grab a bite to eat at Ski Hill Grill (soups, sandwiches, salads, and a taqueria station). But adult ticket prices start at $141 online for a February weekend ($92 for children 5 to 12). Advance equipment rental starts at about $50 a day with an online reservation, depending on level, and includes boots and a helmet.
BRECKENRIDGE ALTERNATIVE: KEYSTONE RESORT
Keystone's average annual snowfall of 235 inches keeps its 131 trails and 20 lifts very busy -- but not too busy. This is a fine place to bring family and friends for a relaxing ski vacation. Keystone has a designated family ski trail, the Schoolyard, designed for kids, beginners, and the "young at heart." The resort offers free activities, as well, including fireworks every Saturday night over Dercum Mountain and a giant snow fort with tunnels and slides that will keep kids occupied for hours. Children 12 and under ski and ride free if their families stay two nights. A one-day weekend lift ticket in February starts at $114 online for adults and $66 for kids. Equipment rentals start at about $50 for adults and $34 for children when arranged in advance. Another bonus: Some multi-day tickets and season passes can be used at Vail, Breckenridge, and Beaver Creek Resort.
PARK CITY, UTAH
The largest resort in the United States, Park City boasts more than 7,300 acres of skiable terrain. The Quicksilver Gondola links the mountains of Park City and Canyons Village, so that skiers of all levels can easily access more than 300 trails, seven terrain parks, and 14 bowls. The cost: An adult lift ticket for a Saturday in February starts at $122 online, while a half-day adult private lesson is $629 online -- and no, that does not include a lift ticket or rentals. Demo rentals for advanced/intermediate skiers reserved online cost $56. There are six resort hotels, more than a dozen restaurants, a spa, and shopping galore, but after spending so much on the slopes, who has money left for après-ski pampering?
PARK CITY ALTERNATIVE: BRIGHTON RESORT
About 35 miles southeast of Salt Lake City and the airport, Brighton Resort flies under the radar. But with average annual snowfall of 500 inches coating its 66 runs, this is one of the best resorts many skiers have never heard of. An adult lift ticket is $85, and up to two kids 10 and under ski free with a paying adult. Most ski/board shops in the valley also sell discount vouchers, and cheaper half-day, night, and twilight ticket options are worth checking out. For anyone coming from downtown, specially equipped Utah Transit Authority ski buses travel to the mountain several times a day.
BIG SKY RESORT | MONTANA
About 45 minutes south of Bozeman, Big Sky gets more than 400 inches of snow annually. The resort's 300 established trails are spread across more than 5,800 acres on four mountains, providing groups of varying abilities enough options to keep everyone happy. Lines for the 23 chairlifts are typically short to nonexistent. The catch: A regular season adult lift ticket starts at $124 online, although kids 10 and under ski free (when staying in lodging booked through Big Sky Central Reservations) and children 5 and under always ski free. Après skiers (or non-skiers) can head to Solace Spa & Salon, take fitness classes, hit the shops, go for a dogsled ride or snowshoe, listen to live music, dine at a variety of eateries -- the list goes on and on.
BIG SKY ALTERNATIVE: SNOWBOWL
Snowbowl, located 20 minutes north of downtown Missoula, is a little mountain that's perfect for getting away from the crowds. Even with only four lifts servicing the 37 trails, skiers and riders rarely have to wait to get to the top of the slope. The lift tickets are also a bargain -- an adult ticket is just $48 for the day. Teens cost $45, children 6 to 12 cost $22, and kids 5 and under ski free. Ski packages are an even better deal, and feature a one-night stay and one-day lift ticket. For about $65 a person (double occupancy), visitors can ski in/ski out at the mountainside Gelandesprung Lodge, which has kitchen facilities and a hot tub. Want to learn to ski? A two-hour private lesson is $91 (up to two skiers) and a child's lesson with equipment is $26.
LAKE TAHOE RESORTS | CALIFORNIA
Surrounding Lake Tahoe are six world-class resorts -- Northstar, Heavenly, Sierra, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley, and Mount Rose -- set in the Sierra Mountains. The Tahoe Super 4 Pack ($369) includes four days at Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics, or Alpine Meadows, a more family-friendly and "off-the-radar" resort a 15-minute shuttle ride away. Another Tahoe favorite is Heavenly, which has 97 trails on 4,800 skiable acres, with 28 lifts, and charges $114 for an adult lift ticket on a Saturday in February. The area abounds with activities when the skiing is over.
ALTERNATIVE LAKE TAHOE RESORT: DIAMOND PEAK
Across the lake in Incline Village, Nevada, is Diamond Peak, where a family of four (two adults, two youths 13 to 23) can ski for $256. An adult one-day lift ticket is $79, and kids 6 and under always ski for free. The mountain has 30 runs on 655 skiable acres, with plenty of options for a range of skiing abilities. There are four lifts, with one "surface lift" exclusive to the Child Ski Center. An all-day package for kids (ages 4 to 6), which includes lunch, two lessons, ski rental, lift ticket, and snacks, is $180. While Diamond Peak does not offer lodging, there's plenty in the area. Après ski options in the Incline Village include a movie theater, bowling alley, several restaurants, bars, and shops.
WHISTLER BLACKCOMB, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Home to the Alpine and Nordic events at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler Blackcomb encompasses 8,171 acres. The two mountains are connected by the Peak 2 Peak Gondola -- a distance of almost three miles -- which allows visitors to ski both in the same day. For the daring, there's heli-skiing and other backcountry adventures, but 200 runs provide more than enough variety for those who want to stick to established trails. It's best to plan at least three days here, which brings the lift-ticket price for February to $278 U.S. for each adult with advance purchase. Visitors will probably be tempted by other activities such as snowmobile tours, a tube park, brewery tours, and après ski shopping, dining, and drinking in Whistler Village.
WHISTLER ALTERNATIVE: NORTH SHORE MOUNTAINS
Whistler Blackcomb is impressive, but there's no need to make the trek more than 90 minutes north of Vancouver when the area features a few other, more reasonably priced mountains. About 40 minutes outside Vancouver, Cypress Mountain was the official freestyle skiing and snowboard venue for the Olympics and boasts 53 runs, the most of any North Shore mountain. A full-day adult lift ticket starts at $60 Canadian, or about $47 U.S. Another easy option is Grouse Mountain, just 15 minutes north of downtown Vancouver. This winter playground has 33 runs, 16 night runs, and five chairlifts for $63 Canadian, or $49 U.S.