About this time of year, many of us start thinking about season passes. Should I buy one and if so, for which resort? Or, should I pay as I play?
Two resorts close to DC are Whitetail and Massanutten. Both are under three hours drive from DC with the Nut being closer to the Virginia suburbs and the Tail, closer to Marylanders. Both offer roughly the same vertical and challenge. The Tail has better lift capacity (almost twice that of the Nut) with a high speed, detachable quad serving the main mountain, but the Nut has more reasonable condos for rent or purchase near the mountain.
A standard season pass at the Nut costs $425 dollars for unlimited skiing for an adult, and at the Tail, $499 if purchased prior to 31 October 2001 (the price goes up $100 thereafter). Season passes from Whitetail, Liberty, or Roundtop can be used at all three of the resorts.
If you primarily intend to ski during weekends, you will have to use your Nut pass 9 times to break even, or your Tail pass, 11 times. The weekend lift ticket rate for Massanutten and Whitetail will be $45 for the 2001-2002 season. The only difference (and it is a big one) between the two resorts’ weekend tickets is that Whitetail’s is an 8 hour flex ticket which can be used for any 8 hour window during its hours of operation (usually 8:30 am to 10 pm) while Massanutten’s ticket can only be used during one of two sessions: day (9 am to 4 pm) or twilight (12:30-10 pm). Weekday tickets at both mountains go for $38 at the Tail for an 8 hour flex and $30 at Nut for either a day or twilight session.
Complicating matters further for those interested in Whitetail are several additional discount programs: the Advantage Card and Frequent Five Card. The Advantage Card saves you 40% every time you ski or ride at Whitetail, Liberty, and Roundtop. Plus, every 6th visit is free, all season long. The Frequent Five Card offers you the opportunity to choose the five best midweek/non-peak days of the season and save up to $34.00 per visit! Your card is valid for any five midweek day visits beginning January 2, 2002 through the end of the 2001-2002 ski season, excluding January 21, 28 and February 18, 2002. Your tickets are valid for any 8 hour period. If purchased before 31 October, the Advantage Card costs $79, and the Frequent Five, $110.
Whitetail also offers a potpourri of season pass options ranging from a night only pass for $219 if purchased before October 31, to a pass good any time at Whitetail, Liberty, and Roundtop for $499, again if purchased before 31 October. This pass can also be used at New York’s Ski Windham 4 times per season.
An $1,100 “Transferable” pass, offered to businesses or other organizations, can be transferred between users, for example to reward an employee with a day off at the slopes. This T-Pass can only be used by one person per day.
The Nut offers a non-peak pass good Monday-Friday (non-holiday), and any night for a very reasonable $149. Full-time student passes at the Nut also are only $350 whereas at the Tail, they go for $429 if purchased before 31 October and $529 if purchased thereafter.
I suspect by now that my readers have launched Excel and are furiously cutting and pasting numbers into their worksheets trying desperately to figure out which deal is best for them. Well, do yourself a favor and just ask yourself one simple question: could I really ski 9-11 times at a single resort and not get bored out of my skull?
The Mid-Atlantic does not have Whistler-Blackcomb size mountains where one can ski weeks on end without ever riding the same trail twice, nor does it boast verticals of much more than 1,000 feet at best. What it does offer is an opportunity for those with snow fever to get a quick fix, practice their style, and enjoy beautiful natural surroundings only hours from the metro DC/Baltimore area. The Mid-Atlantic also has an incredible variety of ski terrain given it geographical challenges. Rather than limit yourself to one resort, why not spend a few extra dollars sampling this delightful medley? Along with convenient commuter trips to Nut or Tail, try the big bowls on the North Face of Seven Springs, the awesome descent of Challenge at Blue Mountain, the 1,500 vertical of the Western Territory of Snowshoe, the craggy steeps of Blue Knob, or the beauty of the two and half mile Salamander trail at Timberline.
For resorts too far to round-trip in a single day, use the Internet to find a cheap hotel room and split it with friends. After skiing all day, who cares about rooms anyway? As long as it has a hot shower and a bed, that’s all most skiers ask for and what’s more, you get to spend an additional day skiing! For apres ski, lift a cold one by the fire at the lodge with your fellow Mid Atlantic faithful or on a weekend, check out a local band at Snowshoe, Seven Springs, or a host of other local mountains which offer musical entertainment on weekends.
So, does that mean that no one should buy a season pass? Definitely not! In general, season passes at local resorts are ideal for two types of people: families with lots of kids, and condo owners. Large families benefit from economies of scale. Most resorts offer deep discounts for people who buy multiple passes for everyone in their family. Before 31 October, Whitetail, charges $499 for the first person, $359 for the second person regardless of age, $254 for dependent children, and free passes for kiddies under 5. Families also enjoy the logistical benefits of always going to the same place time and again. They quickly learn the layout of the resort, and can generally find each other quickly when its time to call it quits.
Plus, a season pass purchased at Whitetail, Liberty, or Roundtop can offer a lot of variety, since each pass is valid at all three resorts and includes several trips to Ski Windham, too.
Familiarity with the local environs also helps large families find less expensive and often better eating options beyond the confines of the resort: I hate to admit it, but the Golden Arches often surpasses the cuisine found in some ski resort cafeterias. Finally, kids and others learning to ski will benefit from establishing a long-term relationship with an instructor and testing their newfound skills on slopes they are accustomed to cruising.
For condo owners, the cost savings of a season pass are obvious, but there are a few other “bennies” that they may not be aware of. Telecommuters with second residences can enjoy skiing during the lunch hour and not feel guilty about having had to purchase a ticket for the entire day. Similarly, owners will enjoy the benefit of being able to take a few runs anytime they wish -; especially before that long drive home from the condo.
That leaves just one question outstanding: what about Advantage Cards and other discount deals short of a full-blown pass? These goodies may be the trend of the future. With competition for ski dollars fierce, smart resorts are offering all sorts of discounts and rebates to get people to visit for more than a day or come up during the midweek lull. Some of these deals involve lodging, lessons, and rentals as well.
Blue Mountain offers a great ski and stay package with the Days Inn in Allentown, Pennsylvania (a pit near a truck depot but at least it is clean and seemingly safe). For just $59.95 per person single or double occupancy, you get a room for night and a free lift ticket. Yes folks, that’s just $14 more than a single weekend ticket at Nut or Tail! West Virginia’s Tucker County offers a two day “Ski the Valley” pass good at both the Timberline and Canaan Valley resorts (69 trails in all and over 1000 foot of vertical) during the midweek for a mere $57. Very nice and relatively reasonable accommodations can be found at The Village Inn on Route 32 for a mere $45 a night midweek.
A final word of advice: the early bird gets the worm! The cheapest season passes and discounts are offered early on in the season. Some resorts offer deeper discounts for those who can fork out the bucks before the season even begins. Seven Springs sells its passes for only $299 if you purchase it prior to 1 September. The pass goes up to $399 for those who buy between 1 and 15 September, and then spikes to $499 after the 16th of September. Other resorts offer similar discounts for those who shop early.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.