Lake Tahoe is one of the West Coast’s top ski destinations. Many Lake Tahoe ski resorts have runs with stunning views of the lake and snow-capped mountains beyond ... and there are a variety of options when it comes to choosing a family-friendly ski resort. In order to make a budget-friendly trip to one of the best Tahoe ski resorts, we’ve researched the ways to save on a Lake Tahoe ski trip, you know, so that we can toadally afford to keep going back.
The Best Ways to Save on a Lake Tahoe Ski Trip
Plan to Ski Off Peak
While it can be frustrating that we sometimes can only travel during school breaks or work holidays, if you can get away at an off-peak time, you can save money on lodging, lift tickets and flights. So when is the best time to ski (or not to ski)? Usually it's cheapest to avoid holiday times such as between Christmas and New Years and Presidents Day weekend. However, Lake Tahoe differs a little bit from other ski destinations. We've found that around peak times such Presidents Day weekend, there are more flights into Reno than usual. That may mean saving time and money (even if the lift tickets are up). Definitely shop around and compare prices, but do not necessarily rule out the holidays. February is generally peak ski season, and you'll find that weekdays are generally less expensive than weekends.
If you can travel mid-December up until Christmas, or in January (especially the first few weeks of January once kids have gone back to school), later in March or during spring skiing in April, you may avoid the bulk of the crowds and the higher prices that they bring with them. Another thing to avoid is festivals and large events in the area, which can raise the price and availability of hotel rooms.
Book Early to Save on a Lake Tahoe Ski Trip
We have a saying: “The early frog gets the flies.” In terms of saving money on lodging, the people who book early get the best locations and units for the most affordable prices. If you want a ski-in/ski-out location or a room that suits a larger family, you’ll want to reserve months in advance. Another reason to book early is that you can then make all of your other plans and search for deals on flights, rental cars, lift tickets and activities.
You'll also find that if you stay a little further from the mountain, you'll save money compared to staying slope side. Staying at Zalanta luxury condos (as low as $586 a night) across from the Heavenly gondola is very convenient, but you can get a lot of space for less money if you seek lodging a little further away. Lakeland Village by Heavenly is right on Lake Tahoe and has condos and studios with kitchens for as low as $216 a night. While it is farther from the lifts, you can hop on the free shuttle to take you right to the ski resort. Kirkwood ski resort is further away from town, but lodging is more affordable there. You can stay at Kirkwood Mountain Resort for as low as $110 a night!
Find the Most Affordable Ski Resorts
There are many factors to consider when deciding on the best Tahoe ski resort for your family. There are many great family ski resorts in Lake Tahoe, but some of them cost less than others. Some offer a lot of amenities and some offer great skiing, and that’s about it. You have to weigh what’s important to you, because the more amenities and poshness, the more you are going to pay.
The three Vail-owned resorts — Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood — vary in price and frills. Northstar is the most expensive and most extravagant, while Kirkwood offers excellent skiing, a variety of terrain without the frills, but with much friendlier pricing. Heavenly is quite literally and figuratively in the middle. Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows rank somewhere in between Northstar and Heavenly in terms of pricing (although they do have some great midweek deals). All three of these areas (Squaw Valley, Heavenly and Northstar) can brag about nice villages.
A lift ticket at Homewood is the most affordable, but Homewood has no lodging or village. If you have beginner skiers and kids in your family who are looking for some pampering, with a winter wonderland and close-by lodging, then Homewood might be underwhelming in that department. Homewood is a perfect budget-friendly choice for intermediate or advanced skiers who don’t need any extras because the skiing is the focus. (The breathtaking lake views are included for free, though.)
If you want a lot of beginner terrain, restaurants, an ice skating rink, the village vibe and fun extras like tubing, pottery classes and free s’mores by a fire, then those extras may be worth the extra cost at Northstar. I know that my wife, Flora (aka Mommy Frog) likes a ski resort that makes her feel like she is on vacation. She likes the extras at a ski resort with a village, entertainment for the tadpoles and wagons to cart the equipment around.
If Flora is skiing by herself, the diehard skier in her also appreciates the no-frill resorts for affordable skiing when she doesn’t have to take care of anyone else. The family budgeter in her also appreciates a quiet resort like Kirkwood, where she knows everyone will have the right level of challenging yet safe terrain for a lower price point and no lift lines. But when she chooses a resort like that, she also steps up her role as "cruise director" and come up with ways to entertain the tadpoles.
Heavenly still offers all of the frills, but for a cheaper price than Northstar. Northstar has glamorous hotels such as the Ritz Carlton, and Kirkwood has more of a range of ski lodging. It all comes down to your budget when you choose a resort.
Our Frog family stayed at Squaw Valley at the Resort at Squaw Creek (as low as $252 a night), and we loved the heated outdoor pool, ski concierge, ski-in/ski-out location and the shuttle to the village. It had many nice amenities and recreation options for a busy family and felt homey and convenient enough. It was priced well and felt relaxing to not be in the village, but it had easy access to the après and nightlife of the village. The resort was close enough to visit Northstar and Homewood for day trips. We enjoyed checking out the North Tahoe ski resorts while getting to enjoying the ease of being in a ski-in/ski out location at Squaw Valley for the days we skied there. Hop over to our guides to the North Lake Tahoe ski resorts and South Lake Tahoe ski resorts to narrow down your ideal lodging and skiing locations.
If you want to try a couple of ski resorts while you are in the area, you can save on a multi-day ticket that has access to several resorts rather than buying individual single-day tickets for each resort, which brings us to lift tickets.
Save on a Lake Tahoe Ski Trip with Discount Lift Tickets and Lessons
Explore Lift Ticket Options
There are many ways to save on a Lake Tahoe ski trip when it comes to lift tickets. Whatever you do, do not buy single day lift tickets at the mountain the same day you ski. That is the most expensive way to ski. The key is to book early (at least seven days in advance) and to purchase multi-day tickets. (There’s an exception for active-duty or retired military who are eligible for discounts at Northstar, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows at the ticket window.)
If you’re a good planner, the best way to lock in savings is to purchase a multi-mountain Epic Pass several months before ski season. The 4-, 5-, 6-, and 7-day Epic Passes and Unlimited Epic Pass are good at any Vail-owned resorts in Lake Tahoe such as Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood. Plus, you can use them at many Colorado resorts including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone, plus Park City, Utah, Whistler Blackcomb and others. You can save money on restricted Epic Passes that have blackout dates.
If you know you may want to ski holidays, then spring for unlimited passes that do not have have blackout dates. The Epic Pass can be used all in one trip or spread across several trips and locations if you will be jumping around. The earlier you buy, the better the price, but definitely get a jump on buying before the season gets underway. If you did not get an Epic Pass in time before sales ended, keep an eye out for them before the next season.
Undercover Tourist has Lake Tahoe lift ticket and lodging packages that can save a lot of money when you bundle lift ticket purchase with lodging. You can also save on equipment rentals for each ski resort. Always find out if a lift ticket is included with any lessons you may have booked, especially for beginner and first-time lessons. If you are fairly new to skiing and aren’t ready for the top of the mountain, you might be able to get by with a less expensive beginner lift ticket. A beginner ticket services just the beginner lifts until you are comfortable enough to upgrade and go higher.
You can use some multi-day lift tickets at the same resort, or you may be able to use them to resort hop. You must pay attention to how and where you purchase them. The prices and access vary based on which resort you purchase from.
You can use 3+ day lift tickets bought at Northstar for Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood. A 3+ day lift ticket bought at Heavenly can be used at Heavenly and Kirkwood. Up to half of the days can be used at Northstar (round down for an odd number of days). But multi-day tickets purchased at Kirkwood are valid only at Kirkwood. That’s because Northstar is the most expensive resort, Heavenly is in the middle and Kirkwood is the least expensive of the three. You’ll see that pricing structure carry through for lessons, as well. Keep in mind that these resorts are pretty spread out and a significant drive from each other. If you want to check out other resorts, the multi-day ticket is cheaper than buying a single day at each resort. They are all included on the Epic Pass.
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows make up the other resort group. The two close-by ski resorts in North Lake Tahoe are included in the same lift ticket, giving you access to both resorts on the same day. Squaw/Alpine are part of the Ikon Pass, which includes Steamboat and Aspen Snowmass resorts in Colorado. Like the Epic Pass, the Ikon Pass can be purchased early before the ski season is underway if you plan to do a lot of skiing at those specific resorts.
To compare ticket costs, look up the cost of lift tickets for each age group and look for the cheapest days to ski by month. An advance ticket for a Tuesday or Wednesday is half the price of a holiday weekend ticket bought with only a few days’ notice. Use that search tool to find the best price. Just like certain airlines that may have “only 3 seats left at this price” next to a discount fare, the same goes for discount lift tickets at these resorts. Nothing puts the pressure on more than the “only 6 left at this price!” warning.
Look for Kids Ski Free Options
At many Lake Tahoe area ski resorts such as Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, kids under 5 ski free. You do need to pick up the free lift ticket at the window. Look for kids ski free deals on lodging. There are discounted lift tickets for kids and teens at most resorts. Definitely look into those options for older kids because discounted is the next best thing after free. It’s usually cheaper to get lift tickets for them off of the mountain, so shop around for deals or bundle their discount lift tickets into lodging.
Take Advantage of First Time and Never Ever Deals
If you are new to skiing, look for great deals during Learn to Ski or Board Weekend. It may be in mid-December. In past years, for $25, you got an all-day beginner lift ticket, group lesson and gear rental at North Tahoe resorts like Squaw/Alpine, Northstar, Homewood and more! That’s HUGE! Plus, you’ll be able to put those new skills to use again with the whole ski season ahead of you. If you can’t make that weekend, there are always good deals on First Time and Never Ever lessons.
Honestly, you can choose one of the less-expensive ski resorts for your first day. Chances are you won’t be getting very high on the mountain anyway. You’ll be on the “magic carpet” conveyor belt, beginner lift and the “bunny hill.” Lessons help you gain the skills and confidence necessary to become a safe and successful skier. Lift tickets are often included with first-time ski lessons for adults and kids. If not, they can be included at a steep discount. The pricing of first-time lessons is significantly less than other lessons. Take advantage of the savings and the safety training. Plus, the advantage to being in a lesson if you happen to ski during a crowded time is that lessons and ski school groups skip lift lines. We love skipping lines!
Find Out If You Need Adaptive Lessons
Does someone in your group have physical or cognitive disabilities? Adaptive lessons can help them succeed at skiing and snowboarding by providing the right kind of instruction. Adaptive lessons are affordable, and lift tickets and equipment may be included. Some resorts give a companion a buddy pass, too!
Purchase Ski School Lessons in Advance and Comparison Shop
You’ll want to book lessons in advance for the best savings and availability. There are other smart ways to save on a Lake Tahoe ski trip lesson. Group lessons are typically less expensive than private lessons. However, if your entire family is learning together, you might find private family lessons for up to six people to be a better deal than putting everyone in different group lessons. Plus, you get to stay together.
You can also save on consecutive multi-day lessons vs. single day lessons. Having a few days in the same program can help you to progress faster. Be sure to budget tipping for the instructors into the cost of lessons. Let’s take a look at how a kids' (about 5-12 years old) 2-day, all-day beginner group lesson on a Saturday and Sunday in February breaks down at the different Tahoe ski resorts. All are online prices and include lunch, lift ticket, helmet and equipment:
- Kirkwood: $402 (saves $40 over window price)
- Homewood: $478 peak. But the 3-pack of nonconsecutive days is only $417, and not affected by peak or holiday rates. The 3-pack option (even if you only do two lessons) saves you money over a 2-day lesson.
- Squaw Valley: $498.44
- Heavenly: $506
- Northstar: $590 (saves $40 over window price)
- Northstar: $850 (small group, four kids max)
Note that these prices vary throughout the season. Be sure to compare them for your visit because they may be different. But all the above prices were for the same two days for comparison purposes. You can see that Kirkwood offers the best deal. Northstar is the most expensive, but we love that Northstar offers a lot of beginner terrain and more to do off of the ski hill.
If you have several children and you all need to learn to ski, you can schedule one or more 1-day Full-Day Private Family Lesson together. Keep in mind that lift tickets and equipment are additional. Here’s a look at some Lake Tahoe resorts that offer family lessons on a Saturday in February:
- Heavenly: $875 (up to six people)
- Northstar: $959 (up to six people)
- Squaw Valley: $799 (ages 7 and up, four people max)
Later in the season, those prices do drop, so definitely do your own price checks before you travel. That same lesson at Northstar on a weekday or a Saturday in late March drops to $885.
Kirkwood has a good deal for adults who are learning to ski. Kirkwood offers an adult 3-pack with a half-day group lesson each day. Plus, it comes with full-day unrestricted lift tickets and rentals each day. The 3-pack is for ages 13 and up. Kirkwood also offers unique advanced lessons for more experienced skiers who want to challenge themselves on Kirkwood's more technical terrain.
You can see that ski lessons vary quite a bit in price. You can comparison shop different lessons as ways to save on a Lake Tahoe ski trip. Compare group vs. private or one resort vs. another or half day vs. full day. The results of your research may help you make your decision on where to ski. Some ski resorts are much more affordable than others.
Wherever you decide to go, keep in mind that all ski lessons are good ski lessons. Beginners can take lessons anywhere, but after a couple of days, beginners will want to be at a resort that has a lot to offer beginners in green and maybe even some groomed blue runs so they don’t get bored of the same run.
If you are an intermediate or advanced skier, you can always touch up skills with a backcountry lesson, a snowboard workshop or a lesson in steeps or moguls. A free option is to take a free mountain tour. While not the same as a lesson, you can follow a guide and learn about the mountain (and you might pick up some great tips for free). Heavenly offers some "on-demand" lessons you can pick up right on the ski hill. These last-minute lessons can help you work through some challenges for an affordable price with no advance commitment.
If you already ski or board but your kids are less experienced, then put them in ski or snowboarding school. Kid lessons may include lunch and a lift ticket, and you may be able to add equipment rentals inexpensively. You'll want to book at least 48 hours in advance at most Lake Tahoe resorts. Online advance prices may save you $40 over the ticket window price. If lift tickets are not included, you can usually add them to the lesson for a fraction of the regular cost.
Ways to Save on Food and Activities in Lake Tahoe
Bring Snacks or Meals or Do Some of Your Own Cooking
If your lodging offers any kind of kitchen or kitchenette (even a mini fridge and microwave will help), you can save a lot of money by making some of your own meals. Eating breakfast in your room or condo saves time and money. Pack some energy bars in everyone’s pockets for snacks and toss some sandwiches in a backpack for lunch. Ski lodge food is pricey, so if you can limit your purchases there, you will save big time. HUGE savings!
Hit Happy Hour
After a day of Lake Tahoe skiing, our family is famished. We hop into a restaurant offering happy hour food and drink specials. That turns après ski into an early dinner that won’t break the bank. Try to hit the Heavenly Village before 4 p.m. for some great savings on apres ski food.
Find FREE Activities and Snacks
Many of the best Lake Tahoe family ski resorts and hotels offer a lot when it comes to entertainment. Your assignment is to find the most fun that costs the least green. Pore over the events calendar, chairlift maps, resort maps and hotel itineraries. You can find parades, dress-up parties, fireworks, musical entertainment and kid snow play activities. You might even discover free s’mores at the end of the day or free champagne toasts on the mountain (double thanks, Northstar). Ski with a ranger for free or watch ice-carving demonstrations. Attend free craft and game nights at Squaw. Warm up by a fire, or take a dip in a heated hotel pool or hot tub. Hop into Kirkwood’s Red Cliffs Lodge Adventure Family Center to warm up and play games. You can find a lot of winter family activities in Lake Tahoe without it costing an arm and a leg. Good ol’ fashioned fun such as family snowball fights and making snow angels and snowmen always make for hoppy family memories.
We hope you’ve found these ways to save on a Lake Tahoe ski trip hopful in planning your epic family ski trip. If you need a rental car to get you from the airport to your ski resort, you can get a jump on savings by booking a Lake Tahoe area car rental through Undercover Tourist. We’ve also hopped into discount ski hotels at some of the best family ski resorts in Lake Tahoe.