Buying a lift ticket for one day of skiing could cost you $160 in Lake Tahoe this winter, which is why most people skip the ticket office altogether and walk straight to the lifts, season pass in pocket.
But browsing the landscape of ski passes can quickly become a trudge through the weeds: Which season pass is the best for you?
Ten years ago, Vail Resorts revolutionized the way ski resorts make money when it introduced the Epic Pass — one season pass to rule all of the company’s mountains for just a few hundred dollars. Today, the Epic Pass price tag is $949 and, thanks to strategic alliances, partnerships and acquisitions, it offers unlimited skiing at 65 resorts in eight states, Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan. But the Epic is just one of many options out there.
Take the Ikon Pass, which launched this year as the first true rival to the Epic. The Ikon has unlimited skiing and free days at 35 resorts — including Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain — in 12 states, Canada and Japan.
But there are many more options. Independent and smaller ski resorts are pooling resources to offer their own competitive multi-ski resort season pass. Suddenly, the decision over which ski pass to buy can be confusing.
Here’s some advice to help you understand which season pass is the best fit for your needs.
The Tahoe Local: Epic or Ikon
If the north and south shores of Lake Tahoe weren’t divided by geography already, the Epic and Ikon passes have drawn a clear line across the lake. This year, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows handed the allegiance of skiers across the North Shore and Truckee to the Ikon Pass, which, to the delight of many, also gives Tahoe skiers access to some of the best ski resorts in the country. You can bet that if winter skips Tahoe there will be a mass exodus to Alta, Uta.; Aspen, Colo.; Jackson, Wyo.; or wherever the snow is falling. That kind of flexibility is one of the best parts of a multi ski resort season pass that spans the entire country.
Meanwhile, skiers in South Shore are going to buy the Epic Pass, which includes Kirkwood and Heavenly. They don’t have such a bad deal, either. The Epic Pass includes Telluride, Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, and Stowe in Vermont.
The Weekend Warrior: Commit to an Indie
Those making the weekly pilgrimage to Tahoe on the weekends are getting hit with the highest price tag for a season pass. An Ikon Pass that works on weekends and holidays costs $1,049.
But consider the smaller, independent ski areas in Lake Tahoe that are selling full season passes for a fraction of the cost.
The best values are at the down-home ski hills. Homewood Mountain Resort on Tahoe’s West Shore — with 1,260 acres of quiet slopes and huge views of the lake — sells an unlimited pass for $669. A pass to Sugar Bowl is $820 and gets you free days of skiing at 17 other indie ski hills all over the world. Diamond Peak and Sierra-at-Tahoe list their adult unlimited season pass for less than half the price of the Ikon or the Epic. Bonus: these little ski areas also come without the crowds.
The Family: Child-Friendly Deals
Skiing is hectic when you’re toting skis not only for yourself, but also for a 2-year-old. It can be mind-boggling how much equipment a toddler needs — skis, boots, poles, hat, puffy, gloves. The list adds up quick.
Thankfully, many ski resorts have mercy on parents by letting the small ones ski for free. (Putting kiddos on skis at an early age also serves the greater good of the ski industry, ensuring a future generation of season pass purchasers.)
Of all the ski areas in Tahoe, Diamond Peak in Incline Village has the most reasonable rates for families. The ski area admits kids for free until they are 7 years old. It also has a great program to help kids ages 3-6 learn how to ski. After that, big kids get a full season pass for $199. A season pass for teenagers is $259. Mom and dad, your passes cost $479.
The Explorer: Tahoe Super or Mountain Collective
Skiing is a great way to travel and explore new places. If you don’t want to lock into one resort for the entire winter, look for ticket bundles. Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows’ Tahoe Super 4 Lift Ticket Pack counts toward four days of skiing, including holidays, and lowers the cost of a lift ticket to less than $98 a day.
For an even better deal, the Mountain Collective Pass gets you two free days of skiing at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, along with access to 16 other destinations in North America and abroad. At $469, the Mountain Collective pays for itself after five ski days.
One group of people that lost on the mega-ski pass frenzy this year were the old timers. Those who just turned 65 and thought they finally qualified for a discount at Squaw and Alpine were surely disappointed when they checked the prices of the Ikon Pass and saw no discount for seniors.
Don’t fret. Retirees can still get a discount with the Ikon Base Pass, which sells for $740 in exchange for a few restrictions on holidays. (If you can avoid those high-crowd holidays, you’re better off.)
Many other independent ski resorts in Tahoe still have a soft spot for the blue hairs. Sugar Bowl’s Senior pass saves 65-and-older skiers more than $200. Those 75 and older save almost $500. But that pass comes with a name that might make you cringe: Super Senior.
Military Service Members
Vail Resorts was founded in 1957 by two soldiers who served in the U.S. Army during World War II — Pete Seibert was in the 10th Mountain Division and Earl Eaten was an engineer in the army. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Vail’s Epic Pass, the ski company decided to pay homage to the people who continue to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces by selling the full, unlimited Epic Pass at a massive discount — $149 for active and retired service members. The military Epic Pass accesses 18 ski resorts, including Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in Tahoe, with no restrictions. Buy it quick — the deadline for the Epic Pass is November 18.
Pro tip for university students in the Bay Area: Enroll in classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so you can get up to Tahoe for long weekends. Most ski resorts have some pity on college students’ tight budgets. The Epic Tahoe Value College Pass is $449. At Sierra-at-Tahoe and Homewood, college passes are less than $400.
The Uphill Skier
This is not an oxymoron. Whether you’re skinning up a groomed run for an evening workout or going out the gate to the resort-accessed backcountry, uphill skiing — or ski touring — is the fastest growing segment in the otherwise stagnant ski industry. And the best season pass in Lake Tahoe for this demographic is, without a doubt, at Sugar Bowl, the ski area in the region with the most liberal uphill ski policy and pass.