Traveling on a budget is never easy. The most realistic way to make budget travel work is to pick an affordable destination. Perhaps it’s a small town off the beaten track, or its a city known for it’s low cost of living, or for international travelers it’s a country whose economy isn’t doing too hot. Vail Colorado is none of those things. Known for luxury, grandeur, lavishness, & extravagance; Vail is definitely not a discount destination. While this may be, it does not mean you should write off the stunning ski village just because you can’t afford the $300 Ribeye at Flame (& yes, that’s a real thing…). Take it from me as somebody who is currently spending my second season living in Vail on a seasonal worker’s salary. This place is spectacular regardless of income level. Visiting Vail on a budget is not incredibly easy, but it’s certainly possible. Here’s how:
Pick Your Accommodation Wisely
Always check Airbnb although in this area it doesn’t always have the best deals. The Vail Valley is currently experiencing a housing crisis pushing prices up across the board. Most “affordable” options are going to be rented out to seasonal workers & locals. Leaving the higher end vacation properties as the only options listed on Airbnb. These can end up being a good deal if you have a large group to fill a multi-bedroom house & split the cost.
Consider Minturn or Avon the next two towns over from Vail. Currently I am living in Minturn & absolutely love this small mountain town. Personally I think it has more character than Vail. Unfortunately it doesn’t have too many accommodation options. Avon on the other hand has quite a bit of options but isn’t particularly budget friendly either as it is home to Beaver Creek & Arrowhead. 2 more high-end ski areas. Both towns have transportation to Vail via the Eco Bus which runs $4 each way.
Honestly, finding an affordable place to stay in Vail is going to be the hardest part of visiting Vail on a budget. Unfortunately there is very little insider information that I can provide that will significantly help you in this aspect. My largest piece of advice (as mentioned later) is to avoid the holiday periods including spring break.
Eat Where the Locals Eat
Avoid on-mountain dining like the plague. These restaurants are owned by Vail Resorts & are happy to charge you for the convenience they offer. To put it in context, while working as a ski instructor at Vail I was privy to 50% off at these restaurants. I still didn’t eat there…
Frankly as a local in Vail I did not eat out much. Opting instead for homemade meals (think eggs, ramen, soup, tuna & rice). When hitting the mountain I primarily went with lunch & snacks in my jacket pockets. This is a win-win in my opinion as it saved me money, plus I never had to waste precious ski time stopping for lunch, eating my pocket meal on the chairlift instead. If you are considering this option check out the City Market in West Vail (with free daytime parking on the free in-town bus route on the street right in front of the store). Plus, as a new addition to the area for the 18/19 season the Vail Market in Lionshead Village has surprisingly great prices. Don’t waste your time with the Lionshead General Store though.
Throughout last season I did make it a point to try out some of the more affordable options at-least once, largely for the purpose of being able to make informed recommendations. Also, Vail is fairly renowned for it’s culinary scene & I think it’s important to treat yourself every now & again (Even if I never dropped a paycheck on a steak).
In Lionshead I would recommend:
The Little Diner – Breakfast classics from morning to afternoon, plus hearty lunches in snug digs with counter dining.
Moe’s Barbecue – Easygoing chain serving Alabama-style pulled pork & other meats smoked in-house.
Bart & Yeti’s – Longtime institution lures locals with a rustic feel, an outdoor deck & traditional pub grub.
Garfinkel’s – Popular sports pub offering American grub, a wraparound bar & large deck with mountain views.
In Vail Village:
Loaded Joe’s – Cozy, casual venue with coffee & sandwiches during the day & beer, wine & music at night.
Blü Cow Café – A fun modern European style cafe serving the cultish Swiss Hot Dog, Ernst’s famous soup, Elk Brats, paninis, and other unique foods, handcrafted cocktails, European and local beers.
La Cantina – Authentic Mexican food, large servings affordable prices.
In West Vail:
Westside Cafe – Cozy spot for down-home cooking from breakfast to dinner, plus cocktails like a popular Bloody Mary.
Vail Ale House – Sports bar feel with over 20 craft beers on tap.
West Vail also is home to a Mcdonald’s, Subway, Qdoba, & Yellowbelly.
Know Thy Happy Hour Specials
Don’t Buy Your Lift Ticket at the Window
In fact don’t buy a lift ticket at all. Full price lift tickets are the biggest mistake any Vail skier can make costing about $200 a day. On the other hand the Epic Pass is a surprisingly fair deal. Paying for itself in about 5 days of skiing plus you get access to many other mountains throughout Colorado & the world. My advice is to pick up an Epic Pass as early as possible to score early bird pricing & rack up as many days on mountain as possible. While technically it is not allowed I have seen Epic Passes resold for a good chunk of change as well.
If you do opt to purchase lift tickets instead of a pass, be aware there are many ways to find discounts. Liftopia for instance generally has discounts for non-peak periods. With your best bet being to purchase in advance.
Another option for those not interested in paying for either the pass or tickets is to simply go skiing for free. Read how here >> The Art of Poaching Ski Lifts – A Guide to Skiing For Free
Rent Gear Elsewhere
Ok, so to be honest I personally have no experience with gear rentals. I purchased my equipment before coming to Vail for my first season. Just to brag for a quick second I would like to note that I got my skis off Ebay used for only $60 including shipping. I also picked up my boots & poles at an off-season sale from a small ski shop near my hometown. All together I probably spent less on my gear then a week long rental costs. Which brings me to my first point.
If you are a frequent skier, even just a couple days a year, consider the benefits of purchasing versus renting. I’m definitely not suggesting you walk into a shop in Vail & pick up some brand new gear. I’m just saying that rental gear can be an overpriced, uncomfortable, hassle that those who own don’t have to deal with. If you are looking for gear be sure to check out our Guide for Finding Heavily Discounted Ski Gear.
If you are going to rent, however, it is probably not wise to do it in Vail. From everything I have heard from friends & read online there are much better options. If coming from Denver stop by a shop over there or one of the ones along I-70 on the way out to save a fair amount.
Definitely Avoid the Holidays
Christmas in Vail is a no-no for those looking for an affordable vacation. For reference, when searching for housing this season I found a 4 bedroom rental listed at $5,000 a month. Thinking it sounded reasonable (especially considering how many seasonal workers could cram into that much space) I clicked on the listing. As it turned out the property had different prices for different months with the price spiking to $50,000 in the month of December! The sad part is they will probably get that much… or more through short term renting. Without getting on my soapbox I will simply once again reference the Vail Valley housing crisis mentioned earlier.
Outside of Christmas & New Years another peak time to avoid is the spring break period in March. The kids are out of school, the weather is mild, & families are flocking to Vail like crazy.
While I am not personally aware of the affects this has on prices the Burton U.S. Open is a very large event held in Vail annually. Sure, it’s an exciting time to be in Vail with concerts, parties, & the events themselves going on; but, I doubt it is a great time to try visiting Vail on a budget.
Consider the Mud-Season
The mud-season (off-season in spring following the mountains closure) is without a doubt the most affordable time to visit Vail. Unfortunately, there is no skiing to be had during the mud-season. If you are looking for a ski vacation this piece of advice is not for you. Vail has quite a bit more to offer than just skiing though, so if you are a little more indifferent to this aspect of Vail than mud-season might just be ideal for you. Due to the decreased demand hotel’s prices drop. Many restaurants also offer off-season menus with more affordable options. Plus, if you enjoy shopping most stores offer end of season sales, especially on ski gear. Mud-season is perfect for those looking to enjoy the impeccable Vail architecture & renown culinary scene at a discount.
Don’t Fly Into Eagle Airport
If your travel plans include flying to Colorado you should choose to fly into Denver not Eagle. While the Eagle airport is a little more convenient for getting to Vail it comes with a hefty price hike. Shuttles run from Denver International to Vail regularly & cost about $60. Compare this to the several hundred you will be charged to fly into Eagle & the choice is a no-brainer.