While the world is still grappling with COVID-19, skiers will find that their sport looks a bit more like it did pre-pandemic this season than last.
Most U.S. ski destinations — including the big resorts in Colorado, Utah and California — are doing away with or easing last year’s capacity limits on the slopes, mask requirements in lift lines and spacing between skiers on lifts, for example. But there are also some new COVID-19 vaccination requirements, and travelers need to remain aware that a destination's restrictions might change mid-season, depending on the pandemic’s unpredictable progress.
Here are some tips for planning a safe, affordable and fun ski vacation this season.
1. Know the rules at your destination
Across the country and in general, you can expect ski areas to follow the health guidelines of the county where they’re located, making it all the more important to “know before you go this year,” says Chris Linsmayer, public affairs director for Colorado Ski Country, which represents 22 ski areas across the state. You don’t want to be surprised by a ski experience that’s too strict or too lax on COVID-19 safety measures for your liking.
- You may need to show proof of vaccination for some activities. Vail Resorts, for example, is requiring guests 12 and older to offer proof of COVID-19 vaccination to dine at indoor, on-mountain quick-service restaurants at all 34 of its North American ski properties. In Canada, some resorts, including British Columbia's Revelstoke Mountain Resort and Grouse Mountain, are also mandating vaccinations for anyone older than 12 to access the mountains. Many are requiring staff to be vaccinated as well.
- Mask rules are likely to apply indoors only. You can expect a loosening of mask requirements in lift lines at U.S. mountains — rules will vary by resort — but generally masks will be required only on public transport and in indoor spaces. They may still be required on gondolas or trams, even when not required on chair lifts.
- You’re less likely to need as many reservations. “Last season, many ski areas operated with capacity restrictions and therefore had various degrees of reservations, parking reservations, indoor capacity limits and other policies,” Linsmayer says. "We are not anticipating those being in place this winter.”
2. Book early
This will be a crowded season at U.S. ski resorts in particular, says Dan Sherman, chief marketing officer of Ski.com, North America’s largest booking agency for ski and snowboard vacations. “There’s pent-up travel demand and pent-up skiing demand for people who didn’t go last year,” he notes. “Our phones are ringing off the hook.”
Booking early will pay off, especially when it comes to the cost of lodging, says Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah. “Always, the earlier you book, the better price you’ll get.”
Note that crowds (and therefore prices) are likely to be highest around the Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Day holidays.
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3. Consider Canada
Sherman says Ski.com has seen so much interest in ski vacations at U.S. resorts this season that availability has “become a problem,” particularly during peak periods. As a result, company representatives have been suggesting Canadian ski destinations as wonderful alternatives.
“Canada has a few more restrictions with COVID-19 protocols and entry requirements,” Sherman says. But the country also has lots of both snow and available lodging, he adds, pointing to Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia and the resorts in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies as Ski.com's most popular destinations in Canada.
In general — and even though restrictions vary from province to province in Canada — you can expect more pandemic safety protocols in place at Canadian resorts. You may have to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination to ride lifts and to enter many indoor spaces, including hotels and restaurants at some ski areas, for example.
4. Consider January
January has traditionally been a slow month at ski resorts across the U.S., which usually makes it a sweet spot for skiers hoping to avoid lift lines and enjoy uncrowded slopes. Sherman says this January is shaping up to be particularly light, thanks to the reduced numbers of international travelers visiting U.S. mountains during the pandemic. “Resorts normally see a huge influx of international travelers in January from countries like Brazil and Australia,” he notes. “They just aren’t coming in big numbers right now.”
5. Look for older-skier discounts and midweek deals
Most resorts offer big discounts for ticket buyers 65 and older (sometimes 60 and older). Even better: You can ski for free if you’re 80 and up at many mountains, including at New Hampshire hot spots like Bretton Woods and Loon Mountain Resort, and Vermont’s Killington. At Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, you can ski for free on nonpeak days if you’re 80 or older. Some locations even offer free passes to skiers as young as 70.
If you can be flexible, avoid the weekends. Not only do they bring the most crowds, but lift tickets tend to be at their priciest. Looking at different dates at places like Crested Butte in Colorado and Park City in Utah shows that some same-day, midweek lift ticket prices are as much as 31 percent off the regular weekend-day adult price.
Terry Ward is a contributing writer who covers food, drink and travel. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post and on CNN.