Whether you are resident in the USA or overseas, here are some helpful tips for flying to U.S. ski country and our pick of five of the best ski airports and five ski airports to avoid in the United States.
For many people skiing in the US, the thought of flying has regrettably become linked to painful images of baggage fees, missed connections, weather-closed airports and the general hassle that has become flying in a post 9-11 world. Those of us unlucky enough to live far away from our favorite ski resorts must deal with these logistical problems every time we want to partake in our favorite winter pastime. While we can't promise your flight will be an enjoyable part of you ski holiday, we can offer a few tips to take some of the pain out of flying.
Consider risks of bad weather closures
When flying into ski country in the US, don't always assume that the closest airport to the resort is the best option. Often, the closest airport may be tucked away in a narrow valley, making it susceptible to weather closures. For example, if you're flying to Aspen/Snowmass, consider Vail/Eagle Airport as an alternative. While Aspen/Pitkin Airport is far closer (just on the outskirts of town), it is often closed due to snow or low visibility. Vail/Eagle on the other hand is a larger facility with better snow clearing equipment and a more hospitable microclimate. It rarely closes for a full day and also offers the benefit of many more, nonstop flights on large wide-body jet aircraft.
Flying into and out of different airports may be cheaper
Consider whether you can save money by using multiple airports. While flying into the nearest airport offers transfer price advantages, flying into and out of different airports can also offer significant savings. Provided you can arrange a convenient shuttle / transfer and don't need to hire a rental car (and return it to the same location) it's worth checking different airport combinations. Sites like Skyscanner.com and Kayak.com make searching multiple airports easy, but be sure to check transfer times and prices to each airport, though, before making a decision.
Pack smart and maximize your carry-on luggage allowance
Unfortunately, high baggage fees have become a reality on almost every airline (Southwest Airlines being the notable exception). For a family of four, checking a suitcase and skis can add almost $500 to the cost of your vacation. Travel experts recommend kids and couples split one suitcase if possible. Also, be sure to utilize your maximum carry-on allotment.
Most airlines permit travelers one carry-on and one personal item which must fit beneath the seat in front of you. We suggest you pack your entire ski outfit (most importantly, your boots!) in your carry-on luggage. That way, even if your bags don't make it, you'll rest easy knowing you'll be all set to ski the next day. Nothing starts your vacation off on a worse note than rental boots. Several manufacturers make special ski boot backpacks that meet FAA carry-on requirements.
Often airlines will turn a blind eye to passengers who clip a helmet to their backpack and if questioned you can simply unclip your helmet and put it on your head - problem solved, just one carry-on luggage item! If you're only skiing a few days, it may be cheaper to rent skis at the resort. Check online for the best deals at local ski shops. Oftentimes, a little research beforehand can save a lot of money. As a general rule, the closer to the slopes you rent your equipment, the more you will pay.
Five of the Best Ski Airports in the USA
Salt Lake City International, Utah (SLC) - truly the USA's most convenient ski airport. Arrive in the morning and be skiing within an hour. Most resorts offer free afternoon skiing the day of arrival when you show your airplane ticket. Throw in low airport elevation that rarely gets significant snowfall (particularly in comparison to Denver) and you have maybe the best ski gateway anywhere in USA with 10 major ski resorts within a 45 minute drive: Alta, Brighton, Canyons, Deer Valley, Park City, Powder Mountain, Snowbasin, Snowbird, Solitude and Sundance.
Vail Eagle, Colorado (EGE) - convenient to Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Aspen, and Sunlight, Vail Eagle gets you into the heart of the Rockies and for those going to Vail or Beaver Creek, it puts you on the right side of both Loveland and Vail Passes.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC) - the only commercial airport within a national park, Jackson Hole Airport is just 30 minutes from Teton Village and serviced by large jet aircraft from over a half dozen destinations. A $30 million terminal renovation was completed in 2011. Nearby ski resorts include Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Grand Targhee, and Snow King Resort.
Burlington, Vermont (BTV) - many people figure that if they're going to hop on a plane they might as well go out West. While it's hard to fault that logic, flights to Burlington are often competitively inexpensive and can be about one third the flight time of a trip to the Rockies. With Stowe, Sugarbush, and Jay all within easy drive, it's worth considering.
Hayden/Steamboat Springs, Colorado (HDN) - with Steamboat resort less than 40 minutes away and no passes between the runway and your hotel, you're assured of arriving at your hotel if you arrive at the airport.
Five Ski Airports to Avoid in the USA
Aspen Pitkin, Colorado (ASE) - we've had more than our share of terrifying white-out flights in and out of here before, but the white knuckles aside, it's often closed. If you're spending serious $$$ on a trip to Aspen, missing a ski day and wasting a night at a luxury hotel would be a crying shame. Use Vail Eagle airport, it's a much safer bet.
Denver, Colorado (DEN) - nothing is worse than arriving in Denver on time only to find that the Eisenhower Tunnel/Loveland Pass is closed. Unfortunately, this happens more often than Colorado ski resorts care to admit, making the ever-busy Denver airport one to avoid if possible. On the plus side, the airport does score points for having a special baggage claim for skis and snowboards - a truly convenient touch.
New York (JFK) or LaGuardia (LGA) - thinking of flying into New York and driving up to Vermont or upstate New York? Think again. Just getting out of the city can take hours. Take a connecting flight or fly into Newark (EWR) on the other side of the Hudson to beat the traffic, but pack your ski gear in carry-on luggage just in case.
Telluride, Colorado (TEX) - while we love the convenience, TEX is the highest commercial airport in North America and susceptible to weather closures. Montrose regional airport (MTJ) is open to bigger jets and is a safer bet. Avoid weather closures and enjoy the scenic shuttle from Montrose to Telluride, which takes about one hour and 30 minutes.
ANY airport requiring two stops - more than one stop with ski gear is just asking for trouble so avoid connecting flights if you can. You'll end up in Durango, but your gear might end up in Nome.
David B. Cronheim