Here's something a casual skier may not know: The best time to buy a ski pass is a year before you hit the slopes.
Skiing is a very expensive pastime. Base costs typically include equipment (skis, boots, poles, helmet), gear (thermal layers, hand warmers, gators), lodging (ski in-ski out doesn't come cheap), and transportation (the best mountains are often in remote destinations). And that's before you even hit the slopes, which cannot be accessed without a lift ticket or ski pass — another dent to the bottom line.
The worst way to acquire a lift ticket is on the day you want to ski, especially if it's a weekend or a holiday when tickets not only costs the most but may be unavailable if the mountain is at capacity. Many ski resorts, especially the popular ones, manage crowds by limiting the number of passes offered daily; they also incentivize skiing on non-peak days by making weekend passes pricier. (Put another way, skiing isn't a spontaneous activity like going to the movies. It's more like going to Paris. You wouldn't show up at the airport and hope to get on the next flight on Friday afternoon without spending a fortune.)
One way to make skiing more accessible and affordable is to buy a ski pass that bundles many slopes onto one ticket, and to buy the pass well in advance of the winter season. Prices are at their lowest in the spring and increase throughout the year, sometimes in the fall Buying early also guarantees you'll get a pass, as many sell out by the fall. The top passes for the US market are Epic, Ikon, Mountain Collective, Indy, and Powder Alliance.
It pays to read the fine print, because the details matter. Passes can be exclusive to resorts (you can't use Ikon to ski Vail, which is on Epic) and may have restrictions like blackout dates (important if you're skiing over a holiday) or day limits for a single resort. Access to special pricing at partner resorts is another good feature. Other options include length of time (from one day to full season), geography (Rockies, northeast), and perks (discounts on lodging, food, and retail and friends and family tickets). Many offer installment payment plans, which is helpful for passes that cost more than $1000. The best pass for you will be the one that covers the mountains you want to ski. Here's a closer look.
For the ambitious skier who wants access to the largest number of resorts, nothing beats Epic. Owned by Vail Resorts, the pass is accepted at 85 resorts in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia, including favorites like Vail (of course), Breckenridge, Park City, Whistler Blackcomb, and Stowe. Epic offers 20 different passes, including those for military and college students. In true ski bum style — come for the winter, stay for the summer — Epic offers has warm-weather perks like discounts on scenic gondolas, golf, bike rentals, and hotels. You can compare Epic passes here.
The top resorts that aren't on Epic are on Ikon (Steamboat, Deer Valley, Aspen, Sugarbush, Tremblant, Dolomites) along with 58 other destinations, so deciding between the two will come down to which resorts you want to ski. The pass has three levels: A Session (two, three, or four days at select destinations), Base (48 destinations with limited blackout dates) and the full pass with no blackout dates and unlimited access. Ikon parent company Alterra Mountain Company partnered with Chase Sapphire to offer Sapphire Reserve cardmembers a discounted Ikon bundle with unlimited access to 15 destinations and up to 7 days each at 39 destinations. You can compare the passes here.
Which is better, Epic or Ikon? Ski.com has a great comparison chart.
The Mountain Collective specifically caters to weekend warriors, making it ideal for those who only takes one or two trips per season. The pass allows access to 24 resorts, primarily in the United States and Canada (including Aspen Snowmass, Banff, Jackson Hole, and Sun Valley), with a handful in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, France, and Chile. Pass holders get two free days of skiing/boarding at each resort, no blackout dates, and 50 percent off additional days. This pass also doesn't have any holiday restrictions, which can be hugely beneficial for families who ski during peak holiday weeks.
New to the slopes since 2019 is Indy. The affordable pass has access to 120 independent and less in-demand resorts across the United States, Canada, and Japan.
Like Indy, Powder Alliance was designed for independent resorts that are not part of big resort chains.
As for where to go, check out our guide to a dozen top ski destinations in the US and Canada.