New York Times, January 13, 2008
By Amy Virshup
ON our first morning at Copper Mountain Resort, I watched as my 8-year-old son cut his first tracks through the powder on Vein Glory, a beginner slope below the High Point chair. “I live for this!” he shouted back to me as he bombed down the hill in a “pizza” stance, rarely bothering to turn.
Priceless, as they say in the TV commercials?
In a word, no.
In fact, I knew exactly what that little memory had cost me: $2,641, including round-trip airfare from New York to Denver for three; four nights of lodging in a one-bedroom condo within walking distance of the lifts; four days of skiing for two adults and a child; ski rentals for all of us; two days of ski school for my son; a night’s stay out near the Denver airport; and $72 in gas and taxes on our rental car, which I’d paid for with miles. Throw in a couple of hundred dollars for groceries, and we were still under $3,000 for the trip. Not bad, I thought, with some pleasure, as I made my own way down the slope.
The affordable family ski vacation can seem like an elusive beast. Sure, every year resorts and airlines take out big ads proclaiming that Kids Fly, Ski or Stay Free, but a glance at the fine print reveals that those promotions don’t include the Christmas-to-New Year’s or Presidents’ Day weeks, when kids and their parents are actually free to fly, ski and stay.
Then there are the travel experts who suggest that the way to save is not to book during peak weeks. Gee, thanks. For families, travel is most often dictated by the school calendar, and peak weeks just happen to be the ones we have off. So over the last four years, my husband and I have been refining our own rules for affordable family skiing, and I like to think we’ve got it down to a formula.
Rule No. 1: Don’t pay for chic you’re not going to use, which means we don’t even look at places like Aspen, with their gilded prices. The sashimi may be incomparable at Matsuhisa, but let’s face it, my child really doesn’t care.
Rule No. 2: Fly as little as possible. The more planes you take, and the smaller the final airport, the more you’re likely to pay. That took mountains like Steamboat and Crested Butte with their diminutive local airports and less-frequent nonstop service off our list. Flying to a city like Salt Lake or Denver can be relatively cheap by comparison. Indeed, we paid just $895 for our three round-trip tickets on bare-bones ATA when we took this trip last February. (This year a search turned up a slightly higher rate on another airline.)
And finally, base-area development is your friend. The more rooms there are at the mountain, the more likely you are to find a deal, even on places walking distance from the lifts. (Goodbye Alta, one of my favorite pre-child mountains.) And with children, why build in the added aggravation of having to drive — or ride a bus — to the base every morning?
Using those guidelines, I’d priced out roughly equivalent vacations at a number of areas before settling on Copper, a mountain known for its varied terrain — and lack of night life — about 100 miles west of Denver on I-70. Copper was purchased by the ski giant Intrawest in 1997, and the company has been trying to develop it as a destination resort, with new condos and a pedestrian-friendly “village” at the base.
WE arrived on Presidents’ Day and, after a quick stop at the grocery store in nearby Frisco, settled into a surprisingly spacious “silver level” condo apartment, which was decorated in a mix of Texas and Adirondack motifs (cowboy boots made out of barbed wire on the walls; a peeled-bark dining room set).
The next morning, after that first run on Vein Glory, we hit the ski-school shape up, a chaotic scrum of children and parents surrounding the polyglot crew of youthful ski instructors. Leaving our son in the hands of a teacher named Richard, my husband and I headed to the top of the mountain where a series of linked bowls offered fresh snow and steep chutes.
I had trouble keeping straight at any particular moment whether I was in Copper Bowl, Union Bowl, Spaulding Bowl or somewhere else entirely. But the sun was shining and the snow was sweet, so it didn’t really matter.
In addition to the resort’s regular terrain, Copper offers free snowcat rides to the backcountry. I was tempted, but my husband didn’t want to wait in line — a Copper “ambassador,” as volunteers stationed around the mountain are called, told us the average wait was about 45 minutes — so we stuck to the official slopes, which were tough enough, before skiing back to the mountain’s Union Creek base to pick up our son.
After a session on the tubing hill, where families linked themselves together in long trains for runs down the chutes — I begged my son to stay in the slowest, least bumpy of the runs — we ate dinner, and then fell into bed, exhausted. And slept. Until about 12:30 a.m., when the heater in our condo started emitting a horrible high-pitched whine, a keening sound that rose in pitch, as though ascending a mountain of sound before abruptly falling off a cliff.
Whatever it was, it went off again at 4:30 a.m., and at 6. At 7, I called the front desk, practically weeping with exhaustion and asked them to do something, anything. When I finally reached a lodging supervisor later that morning, he immediately offered to move us to other accommodations.
And so, after another blue-sky day, this one spent chasing my son down the Kids Adventure Trails — essentially goat paths through the woods that made me wish that I, like him, was wearing a helmet — we moved into new digs, this time a gold-level condominium in a building called Passage Point. Our fancier room lacked a dresser, but the building had a terrific three-pool hot tub complex, where I went to soak in the hottest of the pots, while my son played Marco Polo with some newfound friends in the coolest one.
Though Intrawest has worked hard at developing a village at Copper’s base, in truth it lacks a sense of place. The restaurants mostly had what seemed to be interchangeable menus of burgers and beers (we didn’t actually eat in any, preferring to stay home and cook for ourselves), and while West Lake looks lovely all done up in Christmas lights, there were never more than a couple of people making lazy turns on the ice during our stay.
The only time we hit a crowd at night was when we ventured out to the local branch of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (a Colorado-based chain) for some English toffee and a gummy tarantula.
But none of that really mattered. We were there to ski, and ski we did, lining up each morning before the lifts opened to take advantage of our Beeline passes, which let us up the American Eagle lift at 8:45, 15 minutes ahead of hoi polloi. My son spent another day in ski school while my husband and I hit the black runs, including Hallelujah Ridge, a catwalk so narrow and precipitous it has a snow fence as a kind of guard rail.
AND then, suddenly, it was our last morning. Again, we were the first up American Eagle, my son crowing (8-year-olds, you may remember, can make a competition out of anything).
A storm was blowing in, and the day quickly turned chilly and windy as we rode to the top of the Rendezvous lift. While my husband and son went to ski the greens, I dropped over to the back side of the mountain and got in line for the cat, which runs from a spot in Copper Bowl.
Each of the cats (there were two, though only one was working this morning) has a plush cab that seats about a dozen. As our driver maneuvered slowly along the track, I chatted with Len and Gary, a pair of ski buddies who’d met online through a Web site called EpicSki.com.
When we finally pulled up at the drop-off point, we asked the driver to wait a minute so we could all pull out our digital cameras to take pictures with the cat. Then we hiked 10 minutes or so up the ridge onto Tucker Mountain, which tops out at 12,337 feet, before dropping down the first of several chutes, the Nacho.
The winds had sculptured the top of the mountain into a hard meringue, which broke treacherously under our skis. But when we dropped below the tree line, the crud gave way to untracked powder, as I followed Len and Gary through a series of flowing S-curves.
“I live for this!” I thought to myself as my skis sliced through the soft snow.
No, but worth every penny.
Tortuous Path to a Deal in the Rockies
THE challenge: Take the family on a ski vacation during Presidents’ Week and spend less than $3,000.
Like most people planning any kind of trip, I started my search on the Web, playing with various departure dates. Because my son was only 8, we decided that four days of skiing would be enough. That left us wiggle room on the dates we wanted to fly.
I quickly discovered that leaving on the Monday of the Presidents’ Day weekend would be far cheaper — by hundreds of dollars, in fact — than flying on Friday or Saturday. So after a few late nights scouring the airline sites for flights to various ski-country destinations (www.sidestep.com is a good place to start), I found a great fare ($895 for the three of us) on ATA from New York to Denver, leaving on Monday morning and returning Saturday.
The downside: a stop in Chicago, a notoriously bad place to fly into or out of during winter. For that price, though, it was worth it, and I penciled in Denver as our destination and turned my attention to Colorado ski areas.
We had skied Copper Mountain once before and knew there were usually good deals available, even over holiday periods. So after visiting the mountain’s Web site (www.coppercolorado.com), I got a quote from a representative for a five-night stay in a silver-level (midpriced) one bedroom. With an 8-year-old to wrangle to ski school, we wanted only ski-in, ski-out accommodations and Copper had a place available, for about $1,200. That quickly became the price to beat, though curiosity — and the eternal dream of getting a steal — kept me looking.
My husband was curious about Steamboat in north-central Colorado, where we had never skied. Online (www.steamboat.com), the mountain had an incredibly tempting deal: children accompanying a parent could fly free on United. But I checked the fine print and, of course, it didn’t apply during Presidents’ Week, when my son was off from school. (The same deal is available this year, from United and other carriers, with the same blackout dates.)
We could have just paid for three tickets, with fares topping $400 a person, but even taking advantage of the mountain’s other “kids free” programs, we’d still be shelling out $300 more just on airfare.
Before my son came along, my husband and I had been devotees of Little Cottonwood Canyon, near Salt Lake City, where Snowbird and Alta are situated. But lodging is at a premium at those areas, and by the time I started looking (early December) there was nothing available in our price range.
I tried nearby Park City (www.parkcitymountain.com), a mountain I’d skied before and liked. There were nonstop flights into Salt Lake City. But the cost of a package that included staying in a “moderate or upper moderate” unit at the mountain topped $4,000, without airfare. Staying off the mountain would have cut the price by as much as $1,000, but it still wasn’t close to Copper’s deal.
Next I tried www.ski.com, the large vacation packager, where a helpful representative named Chandler (he signed his e-mail messages, “Ski ya later”) agreed to take on the challenge of skiing Vail without spending a fortune. (I did not identify myself as a writer for The New York Times, only as someone looking for accommodations for a family of three.)
Finding a bargain on a ski-in, ski-out place was out of the question. Instead, he put together a five-night package for me at the Vail Racquet Club, five miles from the slopes, with a free shuttle bus between them. The price: more than $5,000 (including airfare into the nearby Eagle County Airport). And we’d have to ride the shuttle to the mountain each day. Not good enough.
Finally, I went back to the Copper Mountain representative for a little more haggling. My bargain tickets on ATA had us flying out of Denver at 7:15 a.m., which — factoring in the 100-mile drive, the need to arrive an hour before our flight and the time required to return our rental car — would mean leaving the mountain at 4 a.m. That thought was more than I could bear, so we decided instead to shorten our stay to four nights (dropping the price of our condo to $1,092).
We’d leave the mountain after our last run on Friday, have dinner in Denver, then check into one of the chain motels near the airport — in our case, the Red Roof Inn (www.redroof.com), which charged $62.99 for a room with two queen beds.
As it turned out, a blizzard swept through Denver the morning we flew out, and we needed every extra minute to scrape off our car and make the short, treacherous drive to the airport that morning. So I ended up feeling not only cheap, but smart.