Planning Your Ski Trip With Points and Miles
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It’s that time of year again — when the weather turns cold, the mountains get their first snowfall and people start planning their next ski or snowboarding trip. TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele and Colorado resident shares his tips for booking award travel to the slopes.
Several Colorado ski areas opened early this year, and there’s talk of this season being a big year for snow. Just as the flakes are starting to fly around the northern half of the country, it’s not too late to plan a ski trip using your points and miles.
Securing airline tickets to the mountains is the first step for many people planning a ski trip. There are two trains of thought. The first is to fly into a small airport that’s closest to the ski area you want to visit, such as Aspen, Vail, Gunnison–Crested Butte, Steamboat or Montrose/Telluride. This can be very convenient when it all works out well, but it has several disadvantages.
First, you’re unlikely to get a nonstop flight unless you are fortunate enough to live in one of a handful of cities with direct service. Next, the operation of your flights will be very dependent on unpredictable mountain weather, along with the less-reliable regional airline partners that serve most of these destinations. Finally, award seats on these flights may be very scarce, especially during weekends or holidays during peak ski season.
When flying to smaller airports in Colorado and much of the mountain west, United Airlines and its regional partners often dominate service. This can actually be a good thing if you hold a United MileagePlus credit card such as the United Explorer Card. Make sure to log in to your MileagePlus account and you’ll see expanded Saver award availability in economy class on United and United Express flights. (This is one of the reasons why someone in the family should have a United credit card.)
As an added bonus, you’ll get a free checked bag that you can use for your skiing and snowboarding gear. Just remember, on United and several other carriers, two pairs of skis or a single snowboard and boots are counted as one checked bag, even if the boots are in a separate bag. Double-check your airline’s contract of carriage to be sure, and be prepared to refer to it if you fall upon an incredulous check-in agent.
The second option is to fly into a larger airport a little farther away from the ski areas, such as Denver, Albuquerque, Reno, Boise or Salt Lake City. The advantages of this strategy are often being slightly more removed from mountain weather, flying on far more reliable mainline service and having vastly superior award availability.
Another advantage is that you can fly Southwest Airlines, which offers everyone two free checked bags and makes all of its flights available as awards at the same fixed rate. Denver is also one of Southwest’s biggest stations with nonstop flights from the vast majority of the cities it serves. On the downside, you will have more expensive and time-consuming ground transportation options to get to your final destination.
Once you’ve arrived by air, you’ll have several options to get to the slopes. One is to rent a car, which has several pros and cons. On the downside, there’s the cost of the rental car and gas, and you may even face parking charges if you stay at a property that is very close to the mountain. You’ll also have to deal with mountain driving conditions — possibly including heaving traffic and winter weather — which visitors from warmer climates may not be used to. On the plus side, you can enjoy a leisurely trip to the slopes and stop at various cities and towns along the way. Having a car also makes it easier to visit other nearby attractions.
If you do decide to rent a car, be sure to read my post on credit cards that offer rental car elite status and TPG‘s post on how to save on rental cars. Finally, consider renting from Silvercar in Denver and Salt Lake City, as you’re guaranteed to get an all-wheel drive Audi, which is good for the mountains. Silvercar is a great option for Chase Sapphire Reserve and other Visa Infinite card holders, who can enjoy an additional discount.
The other option is to utilize a shuttle service. For example, Colorado Mountain Express (CME) offers van service (with free Wi-Fi) from the Denver Airport to many Colorado ski areas, such as Vail, Breckenridge, Copper and Beaver Creek. The advantage is that you leave the driving to someone else, and in most mountain towns, you can use free public shuttle service to get around once you arrive. You may also come out slightly ahead on price if you stay for a week and add up gas and parking charges.
Last year, I took my daughter on Amtrak’s Winter Park Express Ski Train and had a great time. It departs from Denver’s historic Union Station and takes you right to the base of Winter Park ski area. For the 2019 season, the ski train will run Jan. 4–March 31, 2019, on Saturdays and Sundays only, plus the first two Fridays of each month (Jan. 4 and 11, Feb. 1 and 8 and March 1 and 8, 2019).
Tickets cost between $29 and $59 each way, with children 2–12 riding for half-price. In fact, you can combine your Ski Train with Denver’s RTD A Line commuter train service from Denver International Airport to downtown, having a seamless, car-free journey to the slopes and include a night or two at one of the many hotels that surround Union Station.
Here are some of the best family-friendly hotels near ski areas, all of which can be booked with points:
You can earn Hilton Honors points with the Hilton Honors American Express Card and Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card, Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and Hilton Honors American Express Business Card. The Hilton Honors program is also an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner at a ratio of 1 Membership Rewards point = 2 Hilton Honors points.
The Hilton Honors program now offers awards in a range of points for most dates, and you won’t know how many will be required for an award night until you search (though standard rooms do still follow a maximum rate on an unpublished award chart). Expect these ski accommodations to require the highest number of points during the ski season, especially on weekends and holidays.
- DoubleTree by Hilton Vail
- Hampton Inn & Suites Steamboat Springs
- DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Breckenridge
- Hampton Inn & Suites Park City
- Waldorf Astoria Park City
- DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Park City – The Yarrow
Hyatt Gold Passport
You can earn World of Hyatt points with the World of Hyatt Credit Card from Chase. The World of Hyatt program is a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program when you use the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Ink Business Preferred Credit Card or the Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card to earn points and transfer them at a 1:1 ratio to Hyatt.
- Hyatt Place Keystone, Category 4 — 15,000 Hyatt points
- Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, Category 7 — 30,000 Hyatt points
- Hyatt Residence Club Beaver Creek, Mountain Lodge, Category 6 — 25,000 Hyatt points
- Hyatt Residence Club Breckenridge, Main Street Station, Category 6 — 25,000 Hyatt points
- Hyatt Residence Club at Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, Category 7 — 30,000 Hyatt points
- Hyatt Residence Club Grand Aspen, Category 7 — 30,000 Hyatt points
Note that Residence Club properties have very limited award availability, especially in peak seasons.
- Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Category 5 — 20,000 points
- Hyatt Centric Park City, Category 5 — 20,000 points
- Hyatt Place Park City, Category 4 — 15,000 points
IHG Rewards Club
You can earn points with the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card from Chase (and get the fourth award night free with that card). IHG is also a transfer partner of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program when you use cards like the Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve, though you may be better off waiting for a good sale to purchase additional IHG points when they drop to about 1/2 a cent each.
- Holiday Inn Express Snowmass Village, 20,000 points
- Holiday Inn Express in Fraser, 20,000 points
- Holiday Inn Frisco – Breckenridge, 35,000 points
- Holiday Inn Steamboat Springs, 35,000 points
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fraser – Winter Park Area, 20,000 points
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, Park City, 30,000 points
- Holiday Inn Express South Lake Tahoe, 35,000 points
You can earn points with this program by using the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card from Chase. You can also earn Marriott Rewards with the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express and the Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card along with the business version of the card, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express.
While award prices are flat until early 2019, at that time Marriott Rewards will introduce peak- and off-peak pricing that will complicate award prices a bit, so I’ll just include the categories below. Also note that some of the Category 7 properties (such as the St. Regis Aspen), will increase to Category 8 properties in early 2019, so make your bookings now if you can.
- Sheraton Mountain Vista Villas, Avon / Vail Valley, Category 5
- Sheraton Lakeside Terrace Villas at Mountain Vista, Avon, Vail Valley, Category 6
- Marriott’s StreamSide Douglas at Vail, Category 7
- Marriott’s StreamSide Birch at Vail, Category 6
- Marriott’s StreamSide Evergreen at Vail, Category 7
- Hotel Talisa, A Luxury Collection Resort, Vail, Category 6
- Vail Marriott Mountain Resort, Category 7
- Beaver Creek Lodge, Category 7
- The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek Mountain, Category 7
- The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, Category 7
- Westin Riverfront Mountain Villas, Category 7
- The St. Regis Aspen Resort, Category 7
- St. Regis Residence Club, Aspen, Category 7
- W Aspen, Category 7 (opening July 2019)
- The Westin Snowmass Resort, Category 5
- Marriott’s Mountain Valley Lodge at Breckenridge, Category 5
- Residence Inn Breckenridge, Category 5
- Sheraton Steamboat Resort Villas, Category 5
- Fairfield Inn & Suites Steamboat Springs, Category 4
- St. Regis Deer Valley, Category 7
- Park City Marriott, Category 5
- Marriott’s MountainSide, Category 6
- Marriott’s Summit Watch, Category 6
- Hotel Park City, Autograph Collection, Category 6
- Residence Inn Salt Lake City Cottonwood, Category 3
- Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth, Category 6
Remember you can currently use a Marriott 35,000 point certificate at Category 5 properties and below.
All Wyndham Rewards properties with standard hotel rooms are just 15,000 points per night. You can also use your points to book individual units in Wyndham Vacation Resort properties near many ski areas for 15,000 points per bedroom, per night. However, many property owners blackout days during the ski season.
You can earn these points by using the Wyndham Rewards credit card from Barclays. Although most of the Wyndham hotels are lower-end properties, it does have an attractive mountain resort near Aspen:
- Aspen Meadows Resort, 15,000 points per night
Save on Lift Tickets
Many major ski areas such as Vail, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge charge nearly $200 per day for walk-up lift tickets, but local skiers and snowboarders like me will never pay those rates! So, how do we do it? One of our tricks is to purchase tickets before the season starts. While many of these deals are only offered in person, you can get in on some of them online. Here are a few of the active lift ticket deals that are sometimes available (usually before the ski season kicks into high gear):
- Loveland Ski Area in Colorado offers four unrestricted tickets (no blackout dates, fully transferable) for $169
- Arapahoe Basin Colorado also offers four discounted transferable tickets for $229, which have no blackout dates.
Another strategy is to buy a season pass, which will make sense if you plan to take more than one ski trip, and might even be worth it if you do one week-long trip. Be aware that these prices often rise as ski season nears and the passes do eventually go off-sale for the season, usually in December.
Here are a few of the best season pass deals:
- IKON Pass starts at $749 and offers access to dozens of preselected mountains around the country, including Copper, Winter Park and Steamboat in Colorado. Discounts are available for children and teens.
- Epic Local Pass costs $709 and features unrestricted skiing or riding at several mountains around the country such as Keystone, Breckenridge, Park City and more. Discounts are available for children and teens.
- Colorado Ski Country 5th & 6th Grade Passport. This program offers three free passes at 22 Colorado resorts. It’s free for 5th graders and $105 for 6th graders. There’s no Colorado residency required. You can register online.
Finally, there are some discount programs worth considering, including:
- Gems Card — Although not an unlimited ski pass, it does offer a 2-for-1 discount at 11 of the smaller Colorado ski areas for just $25, so it pays for itself after a just a single use. Use it at Arapahoe Basin, Copper, Eldora, Loveland, Monarch, Powderhorn, Ski Granby Ranch and Sunlight.
- Kids Ski Free at Keystone — When you stay two nights in Keystone at any Vail Resorts lodging properties, kids 12 and under ski or ride free. This even works at the Hyatt Place Keystone!
Other tricks to score discounted tickets include searching on Craigslist and eBay, as well as visiting local supermarkets, sporting goods stores, gas stations and even Costco.
There’s still time to make some strategic plans that will save you money during this year’s ski season. Are you planning a ski trip this winter? What are your tips for using points and miles or saving money in other ways?
- TPG Readers Best Ski Trip Tips Using Miles and Points
- Top Ski Schools for Kids
- Ski Resorts That Will be Open by Thanksgiving
- How to Get Majorly Discounted Ski Lift Tickets
- Booking a Ski Rental House for 22 People
Featured image by Patrick O / Getty Images