Season Pass Math Fail

Maple Ski Ridge

I started cross country skiing at age 30. By the time I was 40, I was fully hooked on snow sliding. I was jonesin’ to ski by Thanksgiving, and often there was no snow in the woods.  I started to ski at Gore.

I didn’t have fixed-heeled gear. I took my 210s and leather boots over to the mountain, bought a ticket at the window, and skied.  For several years, Sunway, Gore’s classic green trail, was all I could handle.

I’d do twenty laps, which was a lot of turns, for an advanced beginner on skinny skis.   I was having a blast and never really thought too much about the price of the ticket.

Riding the Adirondack Express in my nerdic gear, I knew I wasn’t exactly in the mainstream. I didn’t care. Much of what drives other skiers just didn’t matter to me. In many ways it’s still true.

Fast forward to more recent times, as the mega-passes have started to dominate the business, I feel even more out of step. I see skiers ruminating about pass options, pricing, trade-offs and value, and I just don’t get it.  I’ve heard hard core “pass-mathers” bragging about skiing for less than $10 a day. The generally accepted Season Pass Math calculation doesn’t account for anything beyond the cost of a lift ticket, and looks something like this:

 ($Pass Price ÷ #Ski Days) < $Day Ticket

If this kind of thinking drives your ski season, then all is going according to plan for the big guys, Vail and Alterra. By raising the cost of a day ticket into the stratosphere, and keeping their pass costs low, they’re almost forcing you to buy their loss leader, the mega-pass.

first tracks in the afternoon
Indy Untracked at 2pm

It’s no secret, the play is to get skiers to buy a mega-pass and plan destination trips to their mountains on the pass. They know they’ll make up the lost ticket revenue on hotel rooms, hamburgers and parking. And those same skiers will buy those burgers and beers and parking spots at mega-pass mountains when they ski closer to home.

So yea, I’m not exactly mainstream. I love small, family-owned independent mountains. I don’t care too much about vert, if the snow is good, I can have a great day on a 500-foot mountain. I have little tolerance for crowds or competition for powder.

$18 walk up lift ticket at McCauley

For me, the price of lift tickets is a small part of the cost of skiing.  Beyond gas and tolls and gear, we’ve got a small cabin in the Adirondacks, that gives us flexibility when choosing ski days and chasing fickle eastern storms. There’s cost that goes with it, including taxes, utilities and plowing.

Understand I’m not complaining, far from it. I’m actually pursuing a dream I’ve had for 30 years. My point is that the cost of lift tickets is a small part of what I spend, and has little impact on my decisions about where to ski.

Snow Ridge delivers

But even if I don’t fully understand the motivations of a million-plus mega-passholders, there might be one thing we have in common. When I go skiing, I want to experience the exuberance of the mountains. I want to drive away from the hill singing at the top of lungs. My goal is to create memories. I want to be a Yogi Berra-ism: He’s has so many memories, he can’t remember them all. 

I didn’t do the Pass Math on my season this year, but if I did, it might make Pass Math Bro cringe. I had two passes — a Plattekill pass and an ORDA Ski3 — and I skied 24 days, 11 less than my longterm 35-day average. Out of that total, I bought single days tickets for a handful of Indies, I had a day at Killington and did some backcountry. I loved watching our NY ski weather page all week, knowing I had the flexibility to hit the Catskills or the Adirondacks, weekday or weekend. Follow the snow, no reservations, just make a last minute call and go.

ski heaven
Indy Nirvana

Even with a month off for covid, it was one of the best seasons of my life. I had seven powder days with almost no competition, and another 10 days that were very good or better. February 2 was a day I’ll never forget. The price of my lift ticket never entered my mind.

I admit I can see the appeal of a mega-pass for a mid-week skier in the right location. I’m dreaming of retiring to the Adirondacks in three years and I’m hoping to ski 100 days a year for a long as I can. When that happens, I’ll certainly ski Killington and Pico and Sugarbush, in addition to my VT Indy favorites, Magic and Smuggs and Jay. But for me, if I ride lifts on a weekend, it’ll likely be Gore, Whiteface, Plattekill, McCauley, Snow Ridge, Titus and the Indies of New York.

What passes did you buy this season? What were your goals? Did you achieve them? Teach me something; tell me a mega-pass success story, where all your dreams came true. I’m especially interested in the experience of weekend and holiday skiers. Leave a comment below.

33 comments on “Season Pass Math Fail

  1. Hi fives, Harvey.

    You know my story. Getting back into it after a 20 year hiatus was driven by my boys and their newfound love of the sport. We went Indy last year and loved it. When Doug opened pass sales in the late spring we bought our Indy+ for this coming year, price increase and all.

    I got in 20 days last winter, not bad for a weekend warrior with a mid-week day here or there. Like you, I dig the small ski area vibe. I grew up skiing the bigger resorts in VT and hated the crowds and attitudes that they seemed to attract.

    Discovering Magic last year, thanks to Indy and the recommendation of a few friends, was awesome and we might consider a season pass there for 22-23 (with the Indy add-on, of course). It’s just under two hours from us, scratches all of the itches, and I can continue up the road to hit a dozen other spots if I want to extend my weekend.

    Hope to bump into you in NY this winter. Cheers to you and the family.

  2. My husband and I bought an Ikon pass for this past season. Despite the crowds at the Epic pass ski areas, Sugarbush, our home mountain, was relatively uncrowded most times we went. I can only remember one instance where we took just 2 or 3 runs and then left due to crowds. Most of the season was practically ski on, ski off.

    However, having seen the chaos that ensued at the Epic resorts, we decided we didn’t want to contribute to that business model. We bought season passes to Burke/Jay and MRG for next season. We definitely won’t get a good ski days to pass cost ratio as we are lucky if we get 30 days in, but I feel better knowing my money is going into independent mountains. Also, I plan to participate in one of the 6 – week women’s tele clinics at MRG next season. I am totally psyched for that!

    BTW, apologies for not writing any VT trip reports this past season. The writing spark just never lit for me. I think COVID was weighing more heavily on me than I thought. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I am feeling more like my old self mentally!

  3. I don’t dare do the pass math. My wife and I get season passes in the Summer as a Christmas present for each other. For us it’s more about having peace of mind. Most of our days this year we’re just a few runs. A couple days were just one. If I did the math those would be some expensive runs. A full priced day ticket to a side hill is always happily paid. When tickets get above $75 though I get a little queezy. For years I enjoyed a free pass as a ski area employee, skiing over 100 days a year. Now I pay full price for a handful of days.
    Skis + Snow = FUN
    That’s the math that matters.
    The total sum is priceless.

  4. Agree with most of this! I may go with Belleayre limited (again) or Ski3, but strongly considering no pass and paying more to get more variety.

    p.s. My son got it down to $1.67 day on his Ski3! (sure, pass was only $30, but…beat that Vail!)

  5. My logic with any season pass has been, and always will be, the first day is pricey and all of the rest are free! 🙂

  6. Harvey,
    Fabulous persuasive essay! As a thirty year English teacher in Rochester I give you A+! You make your case clearly and supported it with rock solid evidence and reason. You even snuck in a bit of humor- nice! The photos made my mouth water like Pavlov’s dogs!

    I have been tempted to buy a mega-pass because every once in a while I head to Utah for a week with my buddies, especially now that Park City dropped it below $600. But, my favorite, Brighton isn’t on the list! I’m so old I remember skiing Brighton for $8 in the 80’s! Ladies day for my wife was half off! Oh well.

    As for us now- we get season passes to Bristol Mt. (1200 vertical) in the Finger Lakes- it’s a bit much at $700 each, but I ski about 40-50 days a year and she does about 25. We used to buy the family package as all four kids ski and three raced! I never do the math because skiing is what we DO! Afterwork, on beautiful February days with the sun dropping in the orange-red western sky, the moon rising in the east in that fabulous dusk blue- on a favorite run- you just can’t believe how lucky you are to be healthy enough to make those memories. We love it. We visit Whiteface every other year or so and get so stoked it takes weeks to come down from the high! We look for a small house to buy/rent up there all the time. Mt. Pisgah in Saranac Lake looks fabulous but we haven’t skied it yet. That’s our story. Write more, you know what you’re doing. 🙂

  7. Harvey – Once you get a few of those 100 day seasons in, your lifetime $/day should go down a bit. I wish I tracked my days and money spent since childhood. I love analyzing useless data. Actually it’s hard not to think about this stuff. Resort skiing is expensive especially with a family. West Mountain + Indy for us this year. We’ll see how that goes… Not ruling out corporate megapasses down the road.

  8. Cork!!!!
    LOL!!! Love the logic! I’m stealing it the rest of my skiing life!!
    Charlie A.

  9. I’m with Cork here but i’ll take it a step further. My skiing is FREE as long as i buy the Early Bird price the previous year. If i just keep doing this it’ll never catch up. 🙂

  10. Well done Harv. As a retired military person, I get an Epic Pass for next to nothing (less than Indy) so I have been buying them for the last 3 seasons but never really get that much use out of them. Like you, I prefer the independent mountains and have a home at Magic. I do buy a Magic Pass obviously and also get the Indy add-on and also a Killington Spring Pass and will continue to use this model. I only got in 3 days on the Indy last year but those 3 days were skiing with my 80-year-old dad at Cannon and Waterville. Those were the 3 best days of a really great season. I have no idea what my cost per skiing day was but I do know I got a ton of great skiing with great people in this year.

  11. Great blog Harv nice points, I am on the fence about the mega pass, my thinking is of a midweeker and you kind of got me thinking more into one next season. Last year midweek at the Beast 30 plus days for 550

    One thing nice is travel days I don’t mind skiing for whatever amount of runs I can get in, etc

    Jonesin! Wow brings back memories everyone says that up north, tried in in northern Va years ago and a co worker last name Jones was like WTF. So I looked up and Jones one of the most common down there

    Great pictures, I am thinking a mega pass savings might free me up some $ to take advantage of McCauley, Platty, etc when the snow hits

    Charlie, a client’s mom was Don Alharts 2nd grade teacher, nice grade for Harvey!

  12. You’re making me rethink my ski-nerdism! Had the Ski3 last year first time for me, my wife and 2 kids. We skied Gore about 25x each, a record for all of us by over 10 days! I tracked every day each person skied and calculated out how much our passes cost us per day. I find it fun in a geeky sort of way, it creates some memories for us. “hey kids remember when we skied for $11.25 a day?”

    We’re heading back to Gore this winter (and hopefully for many winters to come) and another Ski3, you’ve got me thinking though. I want to try Platekill, West and some other Adirondack hills I have never had a chance to ski. I’ll probably continue to nerd out with my ski spreadsheets but maybe I’ll include some day trips to explore our new home away from home. A few days at Dynamite Hill may really keep my average cost down 🙂

    Thanks for the post and keeping me thinking about skiing all summer!

  13. XTSki,
    Don Alhart- the ageless wonder newscaster and your client’s mom taught him! Crazy world, luv it! We looked at houses in Rutland to ski at Pico and the Beast in retirement. Beautiful area. Love $11.25 ski days!

    Skiing with your dad sounds beautiful. My oldest is 31 and will only ski if I go with him. I taught him, then he got real lessons, he raced and now we share the good times together again just like we did 20 years ago when we went from hill to hill every weekend.

  14. We have never bought season passes, we like to follow the snow to all the mom and pop hills. This upcoming season we finally broke down and bought passes for Greek Peak. We have our college ID’s so each pass for Greek was $420 and that includes their sister hill in Fabius. We are middle age and really liked the blue groomers at Greek this past year. When tix were 65 each it only made sense. We will still hit other local hills but we could not pass this up!

  15. Right Charlie, I was surprised to see he still going strong, my dad ran his station back in the late 80’s-90’s and he was a nice guy

    Al reminds me of Dick Wood (Albany) another legendary upstate NY anchor man and super nice guy

    One time at a Bills football game my dad says “there’s Danny Wegman” I said why don’t you say hello as he always did seeing anyone, he replied “ because that’s not his wife he’s with” now that doesn’t mean anything wrong was going on but my dad was a quick thinker

    Thanks again Harvey I am thinking a mega pass might work and allow me the $freedom to follow the snow as Erin mentioned

  16. The best job I have ever had is retirement……I can ski when/where I want……I generally ski Gore on my pass, but then BC ski in all of the wilderness here (we live in North River) or go up to Garnet Hill for some kilometers on their beautifully groomed trails. Occasional runs down Raymond Brook Trail. And a few trips to Whiteface. And now it gets cheaper as I hit the 70 mark. And I use the pass in summer with friends and family to show the non skiers the summit after the short hike from the gondi. It’s all a beautiful thing. Life (and skiing) is a gift- enjoy every moment you can.

  17. Harv!
    Well said
    what about cost per run… when you only get a few days to ski and buy some advance day tickets, think Gore 3 day tickets, I would say.. if I got below $10 I was happy.
    No.. I had a season like no other… 105 days.. it was cents per run!
    Great Read!
    Cant wait to get back out in the snow!
    NY Mountains Rule!
    Tele Ho!!!! and try the 1 pole Lurk!!

  18. I’ve always gotten my money’s worth out of my Bristol pass. Since “semi-retirement” in 2002 and full retirement in 2018, I’ve gotten below about $10.00 /day in some years. We had the original MAX Pass in 2018 (Colorado) and the IKON in 2019 (Big Sky, Jackson, Utah) and did very well. Not so well on the IKON in 2020 with Covid shutdowns (only fault was ours!) Deferred the IKON for 2021 and hope to use it for Colorado and the East in 2022. We’re both turning 70 next year, so that opens a lot of discounts for us in future seasons.

  19. Harvey, thank you for the gift that you provide us with the website and your writing.
    As a regular Gore skier enjoying the 70+ rate, turning 80 this summer is a shock. How’d I get so old?
    But one significant consolation is the free 80+ skiing avail now @ Killington. That would’ve saved me hundreds of $ this spring as I tried to improve my bumpskiing there.
    Ikon & Epic are striving to get my business but no deep discounts for 80+. Tough to beat Killy.

  20. I bought the Caberfae Peaks weekend season pass and I also bought a Michigan White Gold card which is a punch card good at all but one Michigan ski area. One main goal was to ski at Plattekill again and hope that the double was spinning and I was able to have that happen with the mountain being 100% open.

  21. Beyond burgers, beer and parking, I think part of the megapass math for resorts is most pass-holders won’t actually ski that many days. They’ll make one trip up to Stowe, and one trip out to Vail and ski maybe 8 or 9 days total, but they still get the pass every year thinking they’ll ski more.

    Also not mentioned is there is value in skipping the ticket window. Nothing worse then waiting 15 minutes to buy a pass on powder day.

  22. Oh yeah for sure 119 days skiing
    114 alone in my car!
    Not worth figuring out
    Spring pass 249 Killington after fully vaccinated!!
    Gore and Whiteface 759
    Lots of fuel and good music
    As always a great year to be alive
    See you when the snow flies!
    With a 365 beast pass!! Mega for sure includes Ikon base
    And old reliable Gore Whiteface full season!!

  23. I’m glad you finally ripped this one out, Harv, as I know it’s been bugging you for a while. One counterpoint I’ll make is that for families especially, you can blow your ski budget for the year on a couple weekends if you don’t plan ahead. Walk-up rates and per-day rentals are crazy expensive. So, yes, I do the math every year. I get both kids season rentals in August to get a 10 percent discount, and buy early-bird Ikon passes when the kids price is insanely low ($179 for the base pass). When I took my daughter to Steamboat last year, it was $149 for a day ticket! One day! For a kid! That would have been $450 for the three days we were there – more than double the Ikon Base Pass price FOR THE WHOLE SEASON. She got seven or eight days out of it – the walk-up price for those tickets would have been over $1,000! In the past, I’ve also done the Ski3 discount card for her, which is a big help with a significant discount each day and the sixth day free. Planning ahead a bit saves hundreds and hundreds of dollars, and for families on a budget, that is a big deal.

  24. I agree with you @TheGreatAbyss a significant part of pass value is walking on to the lift, especially on a powder day. In the past there was really no way to make first chair at Gore, if you didn’t arrive with a pass. Not sure if that is still true?

    Stuart is right, I did struggle with this piece. And while I was relatively clear on some of the points I made, I left somethings out:

    • I think season passes are great, and I have no issues with any pass, mega or not. I have two passes and may have more in the future. If you are local or retired they are a no brainer. If you can only ski weekends and holidays, IMO it’s important to think about all the trade-offs.

    • For megapasses, costs will be higher in other areas to compensate for the low ticket yield.

    • Whining about those additional cost indicates a lack of understanding of the business model, or possibly a rejection of capitalism all together (< that’s fine but acknowledge it).

    • Skiing, snowmaking and the required infrastructure, is expensive. Again, with the possible exception of locals are retirees, those of us who can afford to ski have generally benefited from capitalism, and rejecting it seems like a contradiction to me.

    • We are very privileged to be able to ski. If the cost of parking at a ski area really upsets you, you might not be seeing the big picture.

    I prefaced the whole thing on “I’m different from the average skier.”

    I don’t have any desire to ski out west right now (WHAT?!?). That may change when I retire, but it might not. I hate flying for the same reasons I don’t like lift lines and crowds. I’d guess most don’t love it but see it as a means to an end.

    It was all to suggest looking inward and asking yourself if you are getting what you want out of skiing. People vote with their wallet, and the million plus who bought megapasses this year are saying, yes, to them it is worth it.

    Thanks to all for the response to this, it’s makes the effort worthwhile!

  25. I’ve been treating myself to a season pass at Mt van Hoevenberg at the early bird rate. It’s totally worth it, even though I have to plan ahead a bit. FYI if Vermont nordic skiing is your jam, there’s a host of Vermont nordic centers that cross honor season passes:

  26. There’s so much more to skiing than the skiing itself. We all know what those things are and how a dollar value can’t be applied. Whether its the social aspect, the anticipation of the day(s) itself, family unity, or any of the other things we all experience, it’s a great sport to partake in. For my wife and I…no brainer…have a local place to stay and lots of opportunity to hit WF or Gore. These days, we really enjoy the camaraderie with family and friends, including the ADK locals who I’ve met over the years. Been going at it for 48 seasons and still going strong.

    Back to the pass issue…not an issue for us ’cause we always get our days in and have a great time.

  27. “don’t have any desire to ski out west right now (WHAT?!?).”

    Same. I have just as much fun on a powder here on the EC as I do out West. Plus there’s just something gross about all the C02 you’re generating by schlepping you and all your crap on a plane, to an SUV rental car, to park in some parking garage in some over-developed mountain town – all to do a sport that is dying because of what you just did to get there.

    I haven’t been on a plane in 3 years now, and I’m not saying I’ll never go out West again, but they way a lot of my friends are once again hopping on planes to fly all over the world makes me a little sad.

  28. @TheGreatAbyss… this season was my best for powder with 7 pow days out of 24 total. I’m thinking if I’m retired and skiing 100, I should be able to get 20 or 30, without going out of day trip range. Especially with better access to VT, McCauley and Snow Ridge. Distance to Plattekill will be about the same as it is now.

    That will surely feel like a big improvement. Plus, when you live 10 minutes from a mountain (Gore), the decision to ski is a lot simpler. Then for real you can start living the mantra… “you never know until you go.”

  29. Pass math is the fuzziest of all math. It’s like buying a car. If in the end you don’t feel like to got screwed then all is well. We are SKI3 holders that mainly go to Whiteface. We usually get our passes before heading to Lake Placid in August. One year my kids suggested that we ride the gondola 30 times on our summer trip so that our pass would be paid for before we even started skiing. It made sense until I paid the credit card bill…

  30. @Harvey. That’s a dream retirement right there. I’ve got 25+ years until then, and for now the wife wants to stay in Jersey. But I’m glad I discovered Platty through this blog, and hope to do some more storm chasing this winter now that the baby is a bit older.

  31. Correction to my June 18 post above where I referenced free skiing at Killington for 80+.
    As of yesterday, that price has magically changed to $59 for a season pass. No complaints, still a very good deal; just not the “pat on the head“ which free skiing for 80+ signified.

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