Last fall, when season-pass promotions started arriving in my mailbox, I decided to conduct an experiment that would end my annual anguish over whether to buy a pass or pay each time I ski. If you love to ski but are limited by work and family to less than 30 days a year, you know the horrid bind: You crave the passholder's freedom to "ski at will," yet you know that you might not ski the 30 or so days needed to break even¿that is, to drive your per-day cost of skiing below the cost of a day ticket.
To resolve this problem once and for all, I designed a test: Instead of spending $900 on a season pass (the approximate price for my local Vermont resorts), I used that money instead to open a bank account that I would draw on to ski¿whenever desire and circumstances allowed, for however long or short I wished, wherever I wanted, without thinking of the costs.
To make this work, I would have to discipline myself to act like a money-blind passholder. Good science, of course, demanded that I remain oblivious to my shrinking account. To make my lift-ticket purchases as abstract as possible, I had a debit card attached to the account and used it to buy my tickets. I even persuaded my friend Alice to reconcile the statement each month so I wouldn't know the running balance.
My skis first hit snow on Nov. 21 at Sugarbush, Vt.¿at 2:15 pm. I actually laughed out loud as I dished over $31.50 for 90 minutes of skiing. Having broken that ice, I soon stole away regularly for secret ski fixes: I would pay full fare to ski a few runs before lunch; sometimes I skied an hour in mid-afternoon or enjoyed first chair before work. Doing my best passholder impersonation, I even played hooky from the office one powder morning and dropped $52 to ski three hours at Stowe, Vt. I soon found myself becoming a savvy consumer. Twice I skied on "Can Day"¿once at Stowe, once at Sugarbush¿when bringing a few food stuffs earned me a $20 lift ticket. Several times I saved $10 with coupons I'd earned buying Mobil gas. Three times I carved up Cannon, N.H., for $14 on Two-For-Tuesday. And¿happy day¿a guy in the Sugarbush parking lot actually gave me a $51 lift ticket because he had been called away on an emergency. His beeper, my gain. These savings required almost zero effort. (And I never even explored the many ski discount cards available.)
Yet the savings added up. At season's end, my 22 days of skiing at six resorts¿which would have cost me $900 or more had I bought a season pass¿had tapped my savings account for only $682, or about $31 an outing. Needless to say, I was pleased. So this fall, it's a no-brainer. Those season-pass offers are going in the trash, and I'm going to the bank¿to write my own season ticket.
Of course, if money is no object, here are some passes to the kingdom.
U.S. Ski Team Gold Pass
Cost $4,000 ($3,300 tax deductible)
Terms 350 issuedUnlimited use.Transferable.Good at more than 250 ski resorts nationwide.Sold out last year.
Why Buy? This is the Rolls Royce of ski passes. Bet you can't keep up with passholder Martina Navratilova. (800/809-7669)
Colorado Ski Country USA Gold Pass
Terms 450 issuedUnlimited use.Transferable. Lands you on the lifts at 25 Colorado resorts. Sells out nearly every year.
Why Buy? Second only to the U.S. Ski Team Gold Pass in alpine panache. Ski Colorado anywhere, anytime. (303/837-0793)
Michigan Gold Card
Terms 400 issuedGood for one day at each of the state's 22 ski areas.
Why Buy? Ridiculously cheap. Look at your options. Ice fishing on Mullet Lake? (248/620-4448)
California Gold Pass
Terms 100 issuedGood at 36 resorts; limit of 50 days per resort. Transferable.Usually sold out by Halloween.
Why Buy? Surfing the break at Trestles is way coold in December. (415/543-7036)
Utah Gold Pass
Terms 100 issuedGood at Utah's 14 resorts; 40 visits per resort. Transferable.
Why Buy? What else is there to do in Utah? About 95 percent of passholders re-enlist each year.(801/534-1779)
Vermont Corporate VIP Pass
Terms 135 issuedGets you nine days at each of 14 resorts. Transferable.
Why Buy? Only statewide pass in Vermont. Tell your boss it's a tax-deductible business expense.(802/223-2439)