Skiing on a Budget

It’s hard to believe that this time last year, my kids had never gotten on a ski lift and my husband had never strapped on a pair of skis in his life.  All of a sudden we’ve turned into a family that skis, with three trips to North Lake Tahoe already under our belt this year and at least one more to go.  In December we signed the whole family up for lessons, and we all enjoyed ourselves so much that we’ve decided to make this an annual thing.

Cost-wise, that’s easier said than done. When you factor in ski clothes, ski equipment, lift tickets, lodging and transportation, a trip to the mountains can easily be as expensive as a trip to Disneyland.  And who goes to Disneyland three times a year?  We’re not dot-com millionaires, so there’s no point in trying to keep up with the families around us who ski at luxury resorts and head back to their time-share condos, or fly out to Aspen or New Zealand. And we’re not exactly diehard skiers, so we’re not ready to invest in our own equipment, or even in season passes that pay for themselves in 4 or 5 visits.  We just want to take it slow, keep it safe, and have fun!  Fortunately, we’ve discovered that it’s actually possible to ski on a budget; here are three strategies we adopted this season that will help any family who wants to take up winter sports but is intimidated by the cost:

1) Don’t pay for lifts you’re not going to use
When you’re a beginning skier, what’s the point of shelling out big bucks for the big ski resorts with hundreds of trails when you can only ski down a fraction of them?  We’ve decided to forego the better-known places like Heavenly and Northstar and Squaw Valley (where lift tickets cost $80 or more) in favor of smaller places like Boreal, Soda Springs and Donner Ski Ranch in Truckee or Badger Pass in Yosemite.  So far we’ve been to Boreal and Soda Springs, and they’re just right for our skill level. A lift ticket at Soda Springs is just $35; Boreal is slightly more expensive but they’re open till 9:00PM, and they have more lifts and runs.  Both are just off I-80, so we can get there in just under 4 hours when the traffic cooperates. The Soda Springs lift ticket even includes access to their tubing lane; since we’re not diehard skiers, we enjoy the break and the change of pace.

2) Buy used or rent
If you just want to dip your toe in the water (or in this case, snow) to see whether skiing is your thing, buying a complete ski outfit is a big investment. See if you can borrow an outfit from a friend, or check out Craigslist for used ski clothes listings.  Our local middle school runs a great Ski Closet which lets families rent an entire ski outfit — pants, jacket, snow boots, gloves — for just $20 per person ($15 for kids) for two weeks. Goodwill is a gold mine for used ski clothes; you can score a ski bib for under $10 if you’re lucky.    And don’t forget to take advantage of end-of-season clearance sales.  For equipment rentals of skis, boards and boots, consider multi-day rentals or renting from equipment shops just outside the ski resorts.  Next year, we’re going to look at renting skis and boards for the kids at Sports Authority ($90 for the entire season).

3) Ski on weekdays
This one is a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning because you can save so much money. For one thing, lodging is cheaper. Also, many of the discount coupons for lift tickets offered at supermarkets and gas stations are valid only on weekdays, and some resorts offer fantastic  midweek specials (A lift ticket-equipment rental package is only $45 at Donner Ski Ranch on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).  Here’s another weekday bonus: we booked group lessons on a Monday morning and we were the only ones there, so we enjoyed a private lesson at the group lesson price!  Finally, lift lines are nonexistent and the slopes are empty  on weekdays. Hey, if you’re willing to pull your kids out of school for a trip to Disneyland, why not pull them out for this?

Skiing is never going to be cheap, but with careful planning we’ve been able to save hundreds of dollars for our family of five.   It’s exciting to think that next year, we’ll be joining the hordes of Bay Area families who make the trek up to Tahoe — and comforting to know that we won’t have to break our budgets (or our legs) to do it.

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