When planning a trip to Lake Tahoe, one of the expenses of the ski vacation is the price of flights. There are several ways to save when flying to Lake Tahoe. Consider which airport you will be flying into, the cost of transportation from that airport to the ski resorts and whether you can work your flights to score some free skiing the day you arrive. Free skiing makes us so hoppy! Get a jump on reducing your trip budget with these frogtastic ways to save on flights to Lake Tahoe.
Choose the Right Arrival Airport to Save When Flying to Lake Tahoe
The closest airports to the Lake Tahoe ski areas are Reno-Tahoe International Airport (about 50 miles to North Tahoe and about 60 miles to South Lake Tahoe) and Sacramento International Airport (about 119 miles to North Tahoe and 114 miles to South Lake Tahoe). When booking, compare flights in and out of both airports. Then, weigh the cost of ground transportation (shuttles vs. rental cars) from those airports. Factor in drive time as well. You might be surprised to see more direct flights at peak time. For instance, flights from some areas can usually fly direct only to Sacramento. But at peak and holiday times, you just might see more direct flights to Reno-Tahoe in your search.
Reno-Tahoe International Airport is located in Nevada, and that means you'll find slot machines in the airport! Maybe you'll win money for your trip, but perhaps you will lose. If you plan to gamble, you'd better add gambling money to your trip budget!
Consider ground transportation expenses when choosing an airport. If you fly into Sacramento, you’ll likely need to rent a car to drive to Tahoe. Reno offers a shorter drive and you can take a bus or shuttle if you really want to go carless. Shuttle options include North Lake Tahoe Express, South Lake Tahoe Airporter and Airport Mini Bus. Some hotels offer complimentary airport shuttles. If you are staying at one ski resort or staying in the town of South Lake Tahoe (near Heavenly Ski Resort), you don't really need a car. You'll find free transportation, so you may be able to save on a rental car. As for North Tahoe, in our Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Guide we discuss the great free transportation options for that area as well.
If you do need a rental car, you can get a jump on saving by booking through Undercover Tourist. As a family of four, we have found it cheaper to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle than to book round-trip airport shuttle transportation. Plus we like the convenience of having a vehicle, even when we choose to use free transportation around town or the ski resort.
Budget Airport Time Too!
Besides budgeting money for your flights, you should know to budget the right amount of time for getting through security. Reno-Tahoe International Airport is not a large airport. We hopped straight from the ski hill to the airport on a weekday afternoon and breezed right through security. But we couldn't help but notice a huge line area to the side that was not in use. According to the TSA agents, morning is a very busy time to fly out of Reno-Tahoe International Airport, and that waiting area fills up! So be sure to allow extra time if you are flying home on a morning flight.
See If Your Ski Resort Offers Free Skiing on Arrival Day
Take the morning flight and get a free half-day lift ticket the day you arrive at most Lake Tahoe resorts. Some participating resorts include Heavenly, Kirkwood, Northstar, and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. Just bring your photo ID and boarding pass to guest services. They’ll hook you up with a free ticket from 12:30 to 4:00 p.m. that day! We love FREE! Plus, free skiing takes the sting out of an early morning flight. Just be sure to pack your ski clothes to easily access them for skiing or snowboarding. Flying in the same day you ski can also help you save money on hotel!
Plan Flights to Stay the Fewest Hotel Nights
Planning your flights well may get you free lift tickets, but choosing flights wisely can also help you save on lodging. If you fly early in the morning, you can ski and check in to your hotel that day. Then, if you plan your flight home after a ski day, you can leave the ski hill in the afternoon and save that last night of hotel expense because you'll be sleeping in your own bed that night. That will shave two nights of hotel stay off of your budget compared to flying in the night before you start skiing and leaving the morning after your last day of skiing.
Obviously your ability to do this depends on where you live and airline itineraries. We do not recommend this for a Denver ski trip, where you should definitely ease into the higher elevation to prevent altitude sickness. Lake Tahoe is not as high in base elevation, so this method works to save when flying to Lake Tahoe. And speaking of hotels ... Undercover Tourist is now offering discounts on ski hotels for both North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe for even more savings on your Lake Tahoe ski trip.
Look for Airlines That Offer Free Checked Luggage
If you are bringing your own sports equipment, checked luggage fees can really add up. Some airlines such as Southwest allow two free checked bags per passenger. That can save a lot of money when you are bringing your own equipment. Keep in mind that with many airlines, a ski bag or snowboard bag and its accompanying boot bag together count as one item even though they are two separate items. On a recent flight to Lake Tahoe on Southwest, I was able to check my ski bag, boot bag and suitcase all for no extra charge.
Even if you are not checking a bag, use caution when shopping for discount airlines that seem to have the cheapest fares. Once you add luggage or select a seat or even bring a carry-on, you may realize that the cost is actually more than an airline that included those benefits.
Be aware of "basic economy" fares, which for some airlines do not even include a carry-on bag. Some of these low-budget fares allow you to book carry-ons and checked bags for less if you pay when purchasing your ticket, but really increase the prices if you pay at the counter. If you are flying Frontier, you'll find the lowest bag prices online. Bags cost more at the ticket counter, and carry-ons cost the most when paid at the gate.
Always check the baggage weight and size requirements to make sure you do not go over. You can use your bathroom scale to weigh luggage if you are not sure.
Stay on top of all of these details when fare shopping so you do not overspend. Knowing all of these little details can help you calculate the actual cost of taking that flight. As we'll discuss more below, see if your airline credit card or rewards program gets you free checked bags.
Use Miles or Credit Card Perks
Up to a year in advance, see what airlines fly to Lake Tahoe from your home airport. Apply for credit cards with those airlines. You can use airline credit cards to get free flights with points, free companion fares and free checked luggage. (We all know ski gear comes with a lot of luggage!)
Each Alaska Airlines Visa card gives cardholders an annual free companion fare. Plus, you can earn additional free flights with your points. The free checked bags benefit really comes in handy for us. My wife, Flora, and I each got a card so the tadpoles fly free with us to Lake Tahoe or wherever we ski. (There are taxes to pay on the companion fare, so it’s not exactly free. But it’s certainly much cheaper than buying two full tickets!) Plus, we save even more with free checked bags since Flora likes to bring her own skis and boots. (Psst. Here are some tips for flying with skis if you like to bring your own equipment.)
Get a Jump on Fare Sales
When you hear there's a fare sale, hop on the computer and search for flights to Lake Tahoe. Be sure to shop around, because sometimes when one airline has a sale, a competing airline that flies the same route reduces prices. We've noticed that when Southwest or Alaska Airlines has a fare sale, the other airline's flight prices seem to be very similar for the same routes. Then, you can choose the flight times that work the best for your family.
Choose Airlines With Good Cancelation Policies
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that booking with an airline that has a flexible cancelation toadally pays off. Sadly, we could not make that spring skiing trip to Lake Tahoe in 2020 when the resorts closed to control the spread of the virus. But the good news is that we had booked our flights through Southwest. We were able to cancel the flights and use the travel funds to book two more ski trips for the 2020-2021 season, as prices dropped considerably! So buy yourself some peace of mind and find out your airline's cancelation policy before you purchase. A slightly more expensive flight with better cancelation policy and no change fees may save you money in the long run over an inflexible budget airline. Many other airlines also continually update their policies to support customers and extend expirations dates during this uncertain time.
The unpredictable nature of the pandemic means that the airlines are constantly making changes to flights and flight times. Unfortunately, they don't always alert passengers to changes to itineraries. Be proactive about checking your flight details, especially if you book flights a few months in advance. You do not end up with bad surprises at the airport such as a missed flight because the airline moved your flight to an earlier time in the day.
A Lake Tahoe ski trip doesn't have to break the bank. Hopfully, these six tips to save on flying to Lake Tahoe will have you seeing green ... in your wallet.