DEC. 12, 2014
Right as the words were coming out of my mouth, I knew how absurd they sounded.
“So where do you go to eat in Vail that’s reasonable?” I asked the bartender.
Her expression went blank. “Well, I usually don’t eat in Vail,” she said.
Of course she didn’t. People eat — or shop or stay, for that matter — in Vail because they have to. Like filling up the tank for your rental car at one of those gas stations near the airport or buying sunscreen at a resort gift shop, skiers throw down $12 for a hot dog at Vail because they are trapped in a valley of exorbitant prices.
Or so I thought.
Last season, I visited Vail and its sister resort, Beaver Creek, on a four-day ski trip with my dad and brother. Determined not to drop $1,000 — a figure that would actually be pretty easy to hit when you add up lift tickets, ski rental, lodging, meals and après-ski cocktails — I went bargain hunting.
This meant doing a little extra work myself, like making my own breakfast of yogurt and granola that I bought at Walgreens. Sometimes it meant forgoing luxuries like an après-ski drink at the Ritz-Carlton. I had to look a little harder and walk a little farther for a cocktail and a bite at the end of the day. I stayed out of town instead of someplace with ski-in/ski-out access. I rented a car and made the two-hour drive from Denver, where I found a better rate to rent my skis and boots, instead of flying directly into the Eagle County Regional Airport, which can be an $800 proposition from New York this time of year.
Finding most of these deals required just a little more time than usual scouring travel search engines. And in the end, I managed to get through the trip without hemorrhaging cash, and without feeling as though I was penny-pinching all the way. Like most people who find hard-won bargains, I’d like to brag about how savvy I am in this very public forum, fortunately for you.
Where to Lay Your Head
The biggest of the many sticker shocks on a ski vacation is usually the hotel. And in Vail or Beaver Creek, a $600-per-night room in the winter is hardly unusual. So I went looking for lodging in one of the nearby towns, Minturn, an old mining settlement that feels authentically Western, because it is, not like a commercially fabricated Swiss village.
To describe Minturn as out of town makes it sound much farther from the action than it is. For some skiers who want to do both mountains, it might actually be a better place to stay because it is virtually equidistant from the two. It took no more than 10 minutes to drive to either Vail or Beaver Creek, and if you’re looking for a break from the slopes, there were free snowshoeing trails less than a mile away. Unlike staying in some of the more moderately priced hotels on the other side of I-70 from Vail Village, another place where bargains can be found, there is an actual town to enjoy in Minturn.
I found Minturn more appealing than Vail in one way: You are completely removed from the constant drone and ugliness of the Interstate. If I were paying $1,000 a night to stay in one of Vail’s super luxury hotels, the last thing I would want is to look out my window and see 18-wheelers barreling by. The options in Minturn aren’t plentiful, but I managed to find a truly lovely place called Hotel Minturn.
I hadn’t started searching there. I used a strategy that’s useful for any vacation: I looked on Kayak and Hotels.com for places in the Vail Valley. After I saw a few options around Minturn that were not quite what I had in mind, I just Googled the town name along with the word hotels. Sure enough, its website popped up, advertising rooms for less than $200 per night. (I went during Christmas, when the prices were higher than they usually are for the rest of the ski season.) Including taxes, we paid about $250 a night to stay in the nicest of their four rooms, which would have been about $30 cheaper had I stayed anytime between early January and the end of March. (The rates did not go up this year.)
The hotel’s modern aesthetic and bright purple neon sign outside seem slightly out of place amid the bungalow-style houses nearby, but it was just what I wanted.
The hotel has no front desk. You enter the front door by punching in a code on an electronic pad. Then you retrieve your room key from a lockbox inside. The room, a bright and airy space that could comfortably sleep three, had a pillowy king-size bed and a small balcony and was large enough so the pullout sofa with a twin bed inside did not seem crammed in. There was a kitchenette with a small refrigerator, a table for two and a Keurig coffee maker that was generously stocked with more coffee cartridges than we would ever need. It was so clean and freshly renovated it looked as if it had been barely occupied.
The people who run the hotel are gracious and professional. There had been a slight hiccup in getting the key and in receiving a confirmation of my stay. But the hotel manager more than made up for it with effusive apologies and a gift certificate for $100 to the Minturn Saloon down the road.
The Main Attraction
Buy your ticket at least a week before you go. I made a mistake by not reading the fine print on the deals posted on the Vail website. Thinking that I could buy anytime and still reap the savings listed, I waited until a few days before my trip and was surprised to learn that the discounts that had been advertised were no longer good, turning what would have been a $108 ticket each day into one that cost $129. I called the Vail 800 number and bought the pass over the phone. But at least it wasn’t a total wash. Had I waited even longer and bought it at the ticket window, it would have cost me $139 — for seven hours of skiing.
I also saved a decent chunk of money by renting my skis in Denver instead of Vail. This might sound like too much extra work, but it ended up making a lot of sense. I went to Christy Sports near the Cherry Creek Shopping Center in Denver. For four days for boots, skis and poles, it was about $110. In Vail, it would have cost me at least $180. Christy also has a store in Vail and told me that if I had any problems with my equipment, I could take it to the store there and exchange it. (I didn’t have to.)
Renting a car and making the drive from Denver was probably one of the best calls I made. My dad found a last-minute deal on a Volkswagen sedan through Priceline for $150 for three days, including taxes. There was even a little hatch in the back seat where we could fit our skis. It more than paid for itself considering the hundreds of extra dollars I would have spent flying directly to the Vail Valley and the cabs I would have had to pay for. And it gave me the freedom to explore as I wanted.
If you’re really trying to be economical and save the $25 it will cost you to park in one of the public garages in Vail for a day, Eagle County has a bus system. This isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds. Because it’s Vail, taking a county bus is actually a mostly efficient experience.
Eating and Drinking
In town, there were quite a few reasonably priced options for dinner. The Minturn Saloon was my favorite by far. Our $100 gift certificate covered a guacamole appetizer, drinks and our entrees — everything but the tip for the three of us. I had the duck breasts prepared Mexican-style with jalapeño jelly, rice and beans (at $30, one of the priciest entrees); my dad had a $17 chicken enchilada and my brother had a beef burrito, also $17. The saloon is known for its margaritas ($22 for a liter, giving you four or five drinks), which are not too sweet and served slightly frozen after the bartender whisks them through the blender ever so briefly.
After the end of a ski day, before I was ready to hop back in the car and head back to Minturn, I would look for the right après-ski bar. Asking fellow skiers on the chairlift usually yielded the same answers: the beloved — and always packed — Red Lion, Pepi’s or Los Amigos.
I decided to huff it a little farther from where most of the bars are in Vail Village, past some T-shirt shops and outdoor outfitters and up a flight of stairs to a place that looked from the outside like a dry cleaners. I found a Moe’s Original BBQ, a locally founded chain of restaurants that had the best happy hour deal I came across in my four days there. For $13, including tip, I got a pound of hot wings, which came out to about 10 or so, and a jumbo-size can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. That was a far better deal than any lunch I had on the mountain, which one day, when I wasn’t paying such close attention to what I had accumulated on my tray, added up to more than $25.
This is how Vail gets you. Its inflated prices sneak up on you, often because they’re buried in the fine print or not very clearly marked in the on-mountain cafeterias. That bag of chips and bottle of water you add to your lunch can easily add another $10 to the tab. Some people skip the cafeterias entirely, like the British tourist I met on the chairlift who told me he was going to use one of the resort’s communal grills to cook up some fresh elk he had bagged. If you don’t have any spare elk, here’s my advice for buying lunch: Skip the sodas and the Gatorade and fill up a paper cup at a water dispenser, which you can find if you look hard enough at any of the restaurants on the mountain.
Jeremy W. Peters is a correspondent in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. He is among the contributors to this column while Seth Kugel turns his attention to writing a book and working on a video series.