Cheap Flights 101
When you’re planning a ski trip, use this scoop to beat the airlines at their own game.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Getting to ski resorts has never been easier. This year, for example, Steamboat’s airport added connections to San Francisco and Washington-Dulles, Mammoth added Denver and Las Vegas, and Jackson Hole added Washington D.C. (DCA, BWI, and IAD). Adding Denver and Las Vegas is an especially big move for Mammoth: it opens massive doors to the Midwest and East. People coming from New York, Chicago, or Minneapolis can now get to Mammoth with just one stop in between.
United Airlines and American Airlines have also both expanded service to Gunnison/Crested Butte. United will run two round-trip flights a day from DIA to Gunnison, as well as a daily service to Gunnison from Houston and Chicago O’Hare. American will run a daily service between Dallas-Fort Worth and Gunnison, with additional service during the holiday peak.
Flying may be convenient, but it’s not cheap—a ticket from Denver to Jackson Hole booked a month in advance can cost almost $900 if you choose the wrong day. Although you’ll probably never again have the opportunity to buy a standby ticket and hop on a plane for 50 bucks the night before a big storm, there are ways to make a storm-chasing itinerary hurt the wallet a little less.
1. Plan ahead.
A study from CheapAir.com released earlier this year analyzed billions of bookings and found that on average, a ticket purchased between 29 and 104 days before the flight departure will be within $10 of its lowest price. Fares will always fluctuate in accordance with airlines’ ridiculously efficient pricing programs, but if you buy your ticket between one and three and a half months ahead of time, you’ll snag a ticket well before the airlines start forcing people into bankruptcy for last-minute trips.
2. Be flexible.
If you have the luxury of choice in scheduling your ski trip, start your vacation planning by looking at flights. ITA Software, a company owned by Google, runs a program called Matrix Airfare Search. The matrix has an interactive calendar displaying all current fares for any listed departure date, which may save you hundreds of dollars: the $900 ticket to Jackson costs $500 if you depart one day later.
Another option is Hipmunk.com’s pricegraph. It shows all flight options for the next 90 days and highlights the cheapest. It can be incredible if you have the choice to travel, well, whenever. Tucked in between the $500 to $900 tickets to Jackson from Denver, for example, is a four-day, roundtrip ticket with direct flights for just $168.
After you’ve found the right departure/return date using ITA or Hipmunk, it might be worthwhile to check the dates using kayak.com (unless you found a ticket to Jackson for $168. In that case, buy it immediately). Kayak has a fare-checker that analyzes price trends, and advises you to buy your ticket now or wait a while based on the likelihood of price fluctuation.
If you absolutely must buy a ticket for the next day to get to a new storm’s stash before anyone else, be aware that airlines are legally required to refund any ticket cancelled within the first 24 hours of its purchase—just in case it dumps at your hometown hill.
3. Search for special discounts.
A quick online search for “ski trip bundles” will return tons of results on packages that include flights, lodging, and skiing, which can extensively cut costs. Sites like ski.com, orbitz.com, and expedia.com offer discounted hotel rates and the option to include a flight.
If you’re a student, take advantage while you can. Sites like STA Travel and Student Universe can both provide student-only discounts, but they aren’t guaranteed to be cheaper than elsewhere. Make sure to stay thorough in your searching.