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Hit the Slopes and Save: Five Cheap Ski Vacations

Published: 10/01/2012, by Eric Peterson -- Are you a penny pincher with wanderlust? Don’t fret; here is our guide to riding and enjoying five different ski-centric locations while sticking to the budget. Ski vacations run the gamut from romantic getaways for two in high-style luxury lodges to nine snowboarders crammed in a dinky slope-side condo. Now that lift tickets have smashed through the $100 barrier, it's high time to look beyond the glitz and the Ritz at some of the country’s top ski slopes and look for the hills that won't break the bank. On the cheap skiing side of the continuum, here are five top spots where you will get more runs for your buck.

Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, and Solitude 
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City is as user-friendly as an American ski city gets. You've got two canyons (Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon) just east of town with four terrific resorts (AltaSnowbirdBrighton, and Solitude), all within an hour's drive of the airport. You can buy one pass that's good at all four resorts, the Ski Salt Lake Super Pass, for $69 to $73 a day with a three-day minimum. The price includes a ski bus ride to the lifts, making a rental car something of a luxury. Focus at least two days on historic (and skier-only) Alta and seriously vertical Snowbird, then head to Big Cottonwood Canyon on day three for either Brighton, a snowboarder's favorite, or Solitude. Lodging in Salt Lake is also relatively inexpensive and the city has no shortage of good restaurants and microbreweries downtown.

Mt. Rose 
Reno, Nevada
The biggest little city in the world is only 25 miles from the nearest ski area. Reno's local hill, Mt. Rose, has plenty of terrain for skiers of all levels: 1,200 acres span over 1,400 vertical feet serviced by eight lifts. Big hotel-casinos in Reno regularly offer ski-and-stay packages for as low as $79 per person per night, including free shuttles to the slopes. With a rental car, you can also easily use Reno as a base to ski any of the Lake Tahoe-area resorts without much trouble. It's about 40 miles from the airport to the resorts around North Lake Tahoe and 60 miles to South Lake Tahoe, not one of the cheap skiing spots in the U.S., but certainly one of the finest.

Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and Wolf Mountain 
Ogden, Utah
Also easily accessible from Salt Lake City International Airport, Ogden is a fun town with an unexpectedly rowdy historic core. Just east in Ogden Valley is a pair of hidden gems: Powder Mountain and Snowbasin, as well as a great beginner's area at Wolf Mountain Resort. Powder Mountain claims over 7,000 skiable acres, but a good deal of it is accessible only by snowcat. Regardless, plenty of terrain is accessed by lift here, plus the vast tracts of side country that funnels you down to a bus stop. Snowbasin was the site of the downhill events at the 2002 Winter Olympics and mixes swank day lodges with superlative scenery, making this one of the county’s top spots for skiing. Don't miss the Shooting Star Saloon in dinky Huntsville for après-ski beers and Star Burgers (yes, that is a knockwurst on that cheeseburger). The Atomic Chalet B&B has rooms for two starting at $105 in spring ski season, $120 in winter, and numerous perks for skiers.

Georgetown, Colorado
Just 60 miles west of downtown Denver on the east side of the Eisenhower Tunnel, Loveland Ski Area is a true local's hill for cheap skiing and plenty of room to roam. You’ll have 1,570 skiable acres and over 2,200 vertical feet, plus one of the highest summits of any ski area, some 13,010 feet above sea level. Lift tickets are $49 a day for adults until mid-December, when they tick up to $61. The nearest lodging and dining is in Georgetown, about 15 miles east, with a few motels and B&Bs with rates far lower than the higher profile resort areas. It's best to ski during the week, when lift lines and traffic are normally nearly negligible and head down to Denver on Friday, against the slope-bound traffic that often clogs I-70. Weekend rates at downtown hotels in the Mile High City can be surprisingly inexpensive.

Whitefish Mountain Resort 
Whitefish, Montana
One of the few destination ski towns left on the Amtrak map, Whitefish is at the foot of Big Mountain, home to the Whitefish Mountain Resort in Northwest Montana. The big (3,000 acres) destination resort has plenty of lift-side lodging and legendary powder runs, but without the marquee price tag: Lift tickets are still under $70, night skiing is just $18, and often good, cheap skiing and hotel specials fall within the $100-per-person-per-day range. Don't miss the Bierstube, one of the best ski bars in the West (and be sure to ask the bartender for a free souvenir ring). Connected to the resort via a free ski shuttle, the town of Whitefish has a vibrant historic core and a wide variety of lodging. You’ll find winter rates are very reasonable. You can cross-country ski in town, on the mountain, and at the nearby Izaak Walton Inn on the south side of Glacier National Park.