What:This discussion is my attempt to share lessons learned about the planning and effort associated with family road trips to distant ski destinations. The focus is on strategies for successful multi-day family trips. Much of what I cover is common sense stuff for any kind of auto trip, but with a targeted slant for the special circumstances, gear, and challenges associated with families traveling in winter for the purpose of skiing and snowboarding. I’ve also enlisted help from a pair of fellow mid-Atlantic ski dads who share some of their corroborating road warrior tips.
As the head of a household of six skiers I’ve taken dozens of ski road trips over the years. The vast majority of them occurred in my native mid-Atlantic region, but I’ve also motored many times to New England. And in the days before $3 per gallon gas I made three road trips from Virginia to ski in Colorado.
My history with ski road tripping actually dates back to my own childhood in the 1960’s when my dad took the family on weekend jaunts from Northern Virginia to ski areas in Pennsylvania such as Blue Knob or Camelback. Back in those days we sometimes towed a trailer, sleeping in tundra-like conditions at ski area parking lots. The first out-of-region road trip I remember was a pilgrimage by seven of us to the “Ski Capital of the East” Stowe, Vermont, including a side trip to the Olympic-caliber slopes of Whiteface, New York during Christmas vacation 1971. Dad always had good taste in ski areas and no fear of the open road.
When:Expert ski travelers may visit the mountains frequently with finely tuned routines to evade congestion, but most neophytes will benefit from carefully considering the optimal timeframe for their trips. Quiet weekdays are always the best scenario for a family day on the slopes. I try hard to be on a mountain for those odd winter holidays when my kids are out and other school systems aren’t.
However, like my dad in bygone years, most of us regular family types are still tied to standard school breaks or other common holiday periods. Any variance you can schedule from these times, such as traveling the week before Christmas or staggering your stay to a day or two beyond a national holiday, will make a big difference in the quality of your experience. If you’re willing to drive far enough to find snow I have found that Spring Break/Easter Week can make for a better quality family trip than the ultra prime times of Christmas Week or President’s Holiday Weekend. Spring skiing generally brings kid-friendly weather, lower costs, and far smaller crowds.
If you just can’t avoid a particularly blockbuster day/weekend, get there early. Ski a bunch early. Try to ski through periods when most folks are taking their noon lunch break. Rest in the mid afternoon when the hill will be most crowded, then if the troops still have energy return to the slopes for the last 90 minutes the lifts are turning. Utilize less popular trail pods (e.g., Wisp, Maryland’s Main Street chair, or Snowshoe, West Virginia’s Silver Creek area) or secondary lodge facilities (e.g., Wintergreen, Virginia’s Lookout Day Lodge) to avoid lines. Don’t hesitate to seek tips from ski websites such as www.dcski.com, www.epicski.com, and those of individual ski resorts for inside scoop on beating crowds and high costs. The limitless reach of Internet message boards is a beautiful thing for do-it-yourself travel planners.
How:Take some time to prepare for the demands of road travel. Save a generic ski trip packing list on the home PC and customize it appropriately for each new trip. Psych-up your travel companions during the pretrip phase with resort brochures, ski flicks, or snow reports. Pack games, iPod’s, videos, books, snacks, drinks, pillows, etc. to help everyone pass the highway time. I can unequivocally state that an in-car DVD player and the second film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy saved my sanity on an epic Virginia to Colorado ski road trip made by my family of six in 2003. I also endorse traveling with multiple families or extra friends in one or more vehicles to enhance safety, introduce favorable group dynamics, and help with fuel, food, and lodging costs.
If you’re heading to New England or equally distant locales leave home early and try to rack up mileage before the mid-day meal break. Minimize potty stops and/or negotiate to have them occur at set intervals coinciding with gas fill-ups. I use soft luggage for maximum vehicle packing possibilities. Roof racks and cargo carriers can also be a good aid. A vehicle with four wheel drive is great for snowy conditions. Maintaining a good set of tires is a smart idea, along with paying attention to the status of your engine, wiper blades, and antifreeze. There are all kinds of specialty winter/ski products to add to a road warrior’s arsenal, but I’ve also survived many a trip to ski country in standard sedans or minivans little more equipped than the typical mid-Atlantic motorist.
Discount lift ticket purchasing is a topic that could merit a tome of its own. A few of the more obvious options for families include prepaid online discount tickets, retail specials through grocery stores, gas stations and the like, military and student discounts, multi-day/half-day/night-ski/beginner-only tickets, early or late season discounts, lift and lodging package deals, and good old season passes if you’ll be frequenting one area. There are many other creative ticketing strategies from discount cards (like the Advantage Card from Liberty, Whitetail, and Roundtop in Pennsylvania), to working/volunteering at a ski area in exchange for passes. A growing number of ski areas (such as Blue Knob, Pennsylvania) are offering very versatile four or six packs of heavily discounted lift tickets transferable among anyone during all or most of the season as long as they are prepurchased during the fall or early winter. Where there is a will, there is a way. A glimpse at DCSki’s Bargain Tracker section will give you more specifics on this topic.
Where:Pick your destination carefully. In my experience large crowds, either on the highway or on the slopes, are the number one downer for family ski trips. If you’re traveling midweek in January or any time in late spring the ski world is pretty much your oyster. But if the family trip must take place during a peak time, I’d seriously consider selecting a smaller, less busy ski area like Bryce Mountain or The Homestead in Virginia, or Hidden Valley in Pennsylvania. Smaller is better particularly if you have beginner skiers and your stay does not exceed two or three days. Most kids under the age of ten won’t be requiring crazy nightlife, nor will they care if the vertical drop of an area is 500 or 2,500 feet. In fact, they’re far more likely to enjoy an empty 500 foot hill than a mad scene at a bigger mountain. You’ll probably save some coin too. Another option for crowd avoidance may be selecting a more remote (relative term) ski area like Blue Knob or Elk Mountain in Pennsylvania, or for a New England example, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
Although I’ve been involved in some insanely high mileage, short duration ski road trips, I think for most folks 200 miles may be the breakpoint between a distance that is doable for a weekend road trip and a longer stay that should include three, four, or more days of skiing. There are many fine ski destinations in New England that are worthy of a longer trip. Though by no means an exhaustive list, a few that I have personally visited that were especially family friendly are Smugglers Notch and Okemo in Vermont, and Sugarloaf in Maine. What families should be looking for in a 3-7 day ski destination is a mountain with a variety of trails including terrain parks and halfpipes, a sizable self contained base village with slopeside lodging, a well laid out beginner area, and a good ski school with plenty of skier services.
Your choice of accommodations on a family trip involves important tradeoffs. Although the cost is markedly higher, there is extreme convenience in slopeside lodging for families with younger children. I recently had a good first experience utilizing www.VRBO.com (vacation rentals by owner) to find a relatively low cost, slopeside condo in the month of April at Keystone, Colorado. Virtually every resort has a centralized service to assist with reservations too. Private homes or condos with a full kitchen can provide economies over a standard hotel/motel room, especially for larger families or groups. They allow for dining-in and taking mid-day rest breaks in the comfort of your own place.
Choosing more basic lodging that is a short drive from the slopes will usually stretch your dollars. When I’m in this lower budget mode I will also often brown bag my own food and drinks to reduce mid-day meal costs, avoid long ski lodge cafeteria lines, or picnic up on the mountain. I try to set-up the family base of operations at a secondary lodge/section of a ski area, rather then in the very heart of the action. Springtime tailgating in a ski area parking lot can be a low cost way to refuel and enjoy some aprés ski socializing before making the drive back to lodgings or home.
While less desirable then a multi-room, multi-bath, slopeside condo, motels situated along major highways about 10 or 20 miles from a chosen resort can offer some of the best underused bargains during the winter. This is particularly true in areas where summer tourism is bigger than winter visits, such as the White Mountains of New Hampshire or the Catskills of New York. This type of roadside motel location can also facilitate “commuter” type vacations where multiple ski areas are visited from one central point. “Suite” type motels with kitchen appliances are good and I especially like those offering a free breakfast bar and an indoor pool/hot tub. Starting the day with a full belly and finishing it with a good soak makes for happy little people.
Who:If you’ve read this far then I shouldn’t have to remind you that you’re in this for the family. Bring lots of patience and compassion. A lyric from a Beatles song comes to mind, “and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” If you match the kids with a good instructor or baby sitter, then you and the spouse should even get to enjoy part of the day for yourselves.
On really cold days dress kids warm with many layers that can be peeled off if necessary. Watch for frostbite and take frequent breaks. If they’re not on wind hold, gondolas can be a sanctuary of warmth. Feed kids good. Pack your pockets with calorie laden treats for fruitful lift rides.
Take the time and expense to make sure your spouse is onboard with any road trip game plan. Take good care of non/light-skiing spouses, grandparents, or other relatives/friends tagging along for the ride. Figure out a way for them to have fun too, maybe with a nice dinner out or some aprés ski nightlife and shopping. Adult trip companions are worth their weight in gold as aids in the dressing, feeding, baby sitting, and overall childcare process. As an experienced ski vacationing dad and husband one of the credos I live by is: if momma ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.
Remember to inform kids about a rendezvous point or contact procedures if they get separated from you. Give older kids a cell phone. Put a phone number to call “in case of emergency” in the pockets of everyone. Most kids love a challenge, but don’t induce a sweet little ripper to try a difficult run way over their heads. I’ve been guilty of this and it can sometimes haunt a kid (or newbie adult) for years. Beware of trying to teach beginning skiing/boarding to your loved ones. It can frustrate the learner and the amateur instructor, making for a bad day all around.
For some extra perspective I solicited road trip tips from a couple other experienced mid-Atlantic ski dads. I’ve paraphrased and bulletized some of their travel advice below.
From David Duling of central North Carolina:
From Woody Bousquet of Northern Virginia:
Why:With a little strategic planning winter sports loving parents can expect nice payoffs from family travel. If you perform your family ski tripping job properly in a few short years your kids will become your loyal cadre of ski buddies, ready, willing and able to ski you into the ground. Always be on the alert for close encounters of the family kind, whether they’re on a chairlift, in a traffic snarl, or splashing in a motel pool. The esprit de corps built during adventurous ski travel can improve cooperation in many other phases of family life. Undoubtedly, gearing up for a family ski travel adventure can be a hassle, but usually during every trip there are enough learning moments and flashes of family unity to make it all worthwhile. When everything clicks and there is a direct transfer of the joy of skiing/snowboarding from one generation to the next - you know you done good.
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.