What’s Up With The Ski Industry Right Now?

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has impacted travel plans globally. One particularly hard-hit has been the ski industry, which relies largely on spring skiing sales as a major form of revenue.

For skiers, the refund process has been a roller coaster (mogul-coaster?) as well, with season passes, ski-and-stay hotel packages, and other prepaid expenses – like rental packages and airport transportation – to navigate.

Add to that the fact that ski staff are often largely seasonal employees who have had to travel home – in many cases internationally – and the resulting refund process has been…ahem…glacially slow in some cases.

Most of you have probably started the process at this point, but there’s a good chance there are still unresolved questions or refunds. And while there are still some unknowns, namely the million-dollar “What about season passes?” question, I figured it would be worth rounding up the information that we do know.

Because if I can’t be skiing, I can at least (sort of) write about skiing.

Big Sky – straight from the “where I would rather be” collection

Ski Resorts’ Responses

First, a little background on how things work at the big North American ski resorts. The two big players are Vail and Alterra, and if you’ve planned a trip to any major ski hill, there’s a chance it’s owned by or partnered with one of these two companies.

Both companies closed down the majority of their resorts around the same time (around March 14th), and both released statements shortly thereafter. You can read about Vail’s policies here, and Alterra’s response here. Even with all of the unknowns still in existence, it’s clear that Vail has done a far better job communicating than Alterra (and its partner companies, Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective).

This is likely due to the fact that Vail has a greater degree of ownership and control over its resorts, but that’s a story for another post (or a book).

The readers’ digest version is that both companies have assured customers that they are eligible for “refunds or credits” on bookings impacted by early closures. In practice, it seems like refunds can be expected, but the timeline is one to rival SBA loans.

Vail has already claimed that it may take 6-8 weeks to receive a refund if you use their generic online form, while Alterra hasn’t specified a timeline.

Waiting for a refund might feel like this…

Some individual resorts have offered far more lax and generous policies. For example, Sun Valley and Snowbasin – which are loosely partnered with Vail but independently owned – automatically processed any refund for reservations dated March 16th or later, with refunds landing in accounts within 14 days.

By and large, ski resorts have been scrambling to get refunds processed, while questions still remain around retroactive refunds for 2019-2020 season passes, and what next year holds.

Getting airfare and hotel refunds

I won’t get too into the ins and outs of airline refunds, since we keep an updated running list of policies here. The list covers major airlines, as well as most hotel loyalty programs, including some third-party booking sites like hotels.com.

That said, if you had a trip planned to, say, Crested Butte or Mammoth, there isn’t a Hyatt or Hilton to be found.

If you haven’t been able to get through yet, or you’ve been waiting out the rush, I would start by going straight to the property itself – if you can – to get any refunds processed regardless of how it was booked. You may end up getting bounced back to the ski resort’s central reservation system if they own the property, but I’ve found it to be generally easier to deal with the property directly – if it’s still open.

This is also true if you booked through a third-party agency like Booking.com or Priceline. While the transaction may have been run through the third party site, the ultimate say on refund policy goes to the hotel, and the booking site will have to eventually contact them anyway.

We’re still waiting to get a refund processed from a mid-March stay that got cut short, but the conversation with the hotel was far more effective than the call with the booking website.

Total time on the phone with hotel was five minutes. Total time on the phone with Booking.com was over an hour.

Rental car refunds

Ski trips often require driving to the middle of nowhere, which means we’re more likely to see people renting cars than, say, if they’re traveling to a city or beach resort. Given that most car rentals typically default to a “book now, pay later” model, this is an area that hasn’t gotten much attention.

However, there are two glaring exceptions to this:

  • Pre-paid rental cars
  • Trips that have to be cut short

Cancellation policies for pre-paid rental cars

Luckily, most rental car companies have been pretty generous with cancellation policies.

  • National, Enterprise, and Alamo have waived all cancellation fees for pre-paid rental cars
  • Avis and Budget have done something similar albeit a bit more opaque, indicating that “If you need to change a reservation, you can do so without incurring any change fees.”
  • Hertz, Thrifty, and Dollar have waived change and cancellation fees on prepaid rental cars in “travel restricted areas,” and are issuing 24-month travel credits on all prepaid rental cars booked prior to March 13th.
  • Silvercar doesn’t charge change or cancellation fees to begin with.

The biggest hurdle, once again, is that these policies typically don’t extend to third-party booking companies, who operate at their own discretion. Typically, they will default to whatever the service provider wants to do, and many third-party car rental companies are working toward waiving cancellation fees on prepaid rental cars, but it’s just not guaranteed.

I would expect that you’ll ultimately be able to get your car refunded, but it will almost certainly take more time to process if you’ve booked through a third-party provider.

Early returns

With trips being cut short left and right, many people have had to return their rental cars early. While this can sometimes result in a lower rate (Enterprise, for example, credits you back for any unused days), others may actually charge you more for returning a rental car early, particularly if it impacts a discounted weekend or weekly rate.

With all that said, that should be largely negated by the generous cancellation policies that are out there right now. If you believe you’ve been overcharged for a rental car that was returned early, it’s worth checking your statement and calling the provider.

Lift tickets, rentals, lessons, and other expenses

Each ski resort, whether independently owned or owned by a publicly traded company, has taken its own approach to cancellation fees. It’s probably easier to talk through this based on the resort chain, rather than the expense type.

Vail Resorts

If you visit snow.com, Vail is encouraging all guests to use their internal cancellation form. All of the Vail-owned resorts’ COVID-19 pages redirect back to their master statement, so you’re probably stuck with this system, especially when it comes to lift tickets, lessons, and anything else that’s booked through their central reservations system.

With partner resorts like Telluride and Sun Valley, I would reach out to the properties directly because their policies differ. Again, Sun Valley and Snowbasin are offering automatic refunds, Kicking Horse and Fernie have basically said “call us for a refund” but seem equally concerned with stopping uphill traffic, and Telluride is…doing their part to flatten the curve?

In any event, there’s plenty of opportunity here for experiences to…range…so please feel free to comment below on any refund successes/failures you’ve had.

Happier times at Whistler-Blackcomb, circa 2013

Alterra Resorts (Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective)

While Alterra’s statement on their closure was fairly generic, they did indicate that “other bookings” will be addressed as resorts work to issue refunds, and have seemingly left it much more in the hands of their partner resorts. Rather than trying to sum it up, I figured the easiest thing would be to provide the link for each individual resort’s COVID-19 page. That said, most of their policies involve something to the effect of “contact us for refunds, and expect long wait times” Here they are:

Additionally, Alterra partners with the following resorts, each of which has its own refund policy:

Independently owned resorts

To be honest, there’s not much left – especially when it comes to destination resorts. Based on the sample size of mid-sized resorts that I’ve looked at in the Pacific Northwest, Montana, and New England, it appears that most of them are taking the same approach. Refunds are available, please be patient, and they’ll make a decision soon about season passes.

Liftopia

One of the most popular ski booking sites in the country, Liftopia has basically absconded its PR efforts by requesting that customers contact them directly regarding COVID-19 cancellations. A quick Google search of “Liftopia COVID 19” yields a couple of blog posts tracking resort closures and a statement that they are working with their resort partners to determine the best course of action for processing refunds.

While I haven’t had to deal with any Liftopia cancellations this season, previous experience indicates that you do indeed need to process refunds directly through them, rather than the ski resorts themselves.

Their entire COVID-19 policy reads as follows:

Due to COVID-19, Liftopia has temporarily furloughed a number of employees. As a result, our responses may be delayed. Thank you for your patience.

You can contact Liftopia however is easiest for you.

One the one hand, they’re in an unprecedented situation where they not only have to deal with a huge loss of businesses, but a myriad of different cancellation policies with each of these partner resorts. On the other hand, it would be nice to see a couple of sentences about how they are working with partners to provide the best possible solution and they understand our frustration

Season passes – the elephant on the slope

With the season largely ending in mid-March, ski resorts have been faced with an unprecedented situation, and a limited staff to make these decisions. This is a tricky situation – on one hand, the season was well underway when resorts had to close, and season passholders had three months to get on the slopes. On the other hand, if someone purchased a pass specifically with a March trip in mind, there’s a very real chance that they didn’t get their money’s worth.

As of right now, most resorts haven’t yet made the call on what they’ll do regarding season pass refunds. A few resorts – Breckenridge, A-Basin, and Whistler-Blackcomb, for example – are considering reopening (which you can do when you have snow until July). Taos is the only resort that I’ve seen that has definitively committed not to offer refunds on 2019-2020 season passes.

But most resorts are still hustling to process refunds, and haven’t yet made a decision on how to handle the issue of season passes – including Vail’s Epic Pass, Ikon Pass, and pretty much all of Alterra’s partner resorts. The prevailing language seems to be that resorts will notify passholders in either late April or early May regarding their decision.

What you can do

If you feel strongly that your season pass should be all or partially refunded based on cancelled travel plans, by all means reach out to the ski area and voice your concerns. I would do this over email, or take to social media – in as tactful a way as possible (try to avoid barraging frontline employees if you can). Resort representatives as high up as Vail’s EVP of marketing are keeping an eye on all of these communications, and I honestly think they don’t know what they’re going to do yet, given how they keep deferring the decision.

If you are going to take to the social media streets, you’ll probably have more pull if your trip of the season got cancelled, than if you skied 75 days and were hoping for 100, but it’s certainly worth addressing, especially if you can do it in a measured, tactful way.

What about next season?

The other challenge right now is that spring is typically the best time to buy season passes for next year. Of course, with uncertainty around the travel industry and obvious cash flow issues for so many who have lost employment due to COVID-19, this is a much tougher decision than usual.

Some resorts have already begun to address this – Vail has deferred all auto-renew fees into May, and plenty of individual resorts have refrained from raising their season pass prices when they had originally planned. But it’s still a tough call. Personally, I’m waiting it out given the amount of unknowns. If anything, we’ll probably pick up something like the Mountain Collective – which offers a high level of flexibility at a relatively reasonable price.

But honestly, I’m curious to see how the top resorts and season pass providers treat their passholders – and that could certainly have an impact on my decision.

Bottom line

Some resorts are moving faster than others, but it looks like all in all, everyone is doing the right thing when it comes to refunding any pre-booked reservations. Bigger resorts and third-party booking services will likely take longer, and some of the smaller resorts may not have the cash flow to be quite as generous, but by and large, the messaging from the ski community has been largely customer-focused.

And you can bet your apres beer that I’ll be updating as soon as we get a final verdict on 2019-2020 season passes.

What has your experience been with ski trip cancellations?

Comments
  1. I’m sure this is helpful for slope enthusiasts. To me, reading this brings up my normal feelings from skiing: It’s *exhausting*. Tons of time, money, and effort for very tiny morsels of adrenaline rush. To each their own, of course. I’m sure the investment is easier to mentally “amortize” if you ski frequently and/or BYO gear.

  2. We had a VRBO at Copper, the unit owner was very cooperative and authorized a full refund. VRBO took about 2 week (showed up while I was typing this) to refund. As for Copper, we had three 4 packs and Woodward package, none of which were utilized. Contacted Copper they said they are still working on a plan, but our neighbors with the same package got a refund so we shall see. I am really hoping Copper does us right.

  3. It’s frustrating that Ikon hasn’t provided any updates in a month. At a minimum, they should offer some kind of assurance that if days are cancelled next season, they’ll provide some sort of refund of unused pass value. Squaw has done this in the past in the context of bad snow seasons. Second, they should offer to rollover unused value from current passes toward next year. It’s annoying they haven’t even changed their 20-21 marketing posted in early March

  4. I am so glad I was able to get my trips in before this mess happened. I don’t like skiing during spring break anyway just because it’s so much more crowded. My ski club decided to cancel its spring break trip just a few days before it was due to leave which turned out to be a good thing because the resorts shut down the Sunday 3/15 after the club was due to arrive on Saturday the 14th. Our club is working with the resort and for us it will work well just to book same time next year so that makes it simpler I hope.

    Love the photo of Lone Peak! Big Sky is one of my happy places.

  5. Sadly I didn’t lean how to ski until mid 20s or so and it wasn’t until 30s before I ventured out west. Then I had a good 15 trips exploring Utah, Colorado, Idaho, ,Montana and Nevada. I sucked at skiing but didn’t get hurt or fall much and the scenary made all of the hassles worth it. Probably the only time I could forget about work and other stuff since I was enjoying the scenery and worried about getting hurt.

    This does go back to the fact that once you give someone money, you’ve lost leverage and are hoping/counting on written guarantees or good faith. I’m always surprised how trusting people are with prepaying stuff, giving account information to places like Venmo, auto billing, etc.

    You should minimize that as much as possible since when things go wrong it is a painful process. Just try calling an airline or a bank right now. I saw someone on hold for 5 hours trying to deal with Chase.

  6. If you look at a map showing per capita cases of COVID-19, you can very clearly make out the major ski areas in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, even New Mexico. Pretty interesting how well it spread through ski resorts.

  7. As a season pass holder, I am not sure I need any adjustment. In theory, the season was shortened by a few weeks and if I had one last big trip planned maybe I’d be annoyed and others could be, but I expect many season pass holders got a lot of days in earlier in the year.

  8. I am not holding my breath re: 2019-20 Ikon or Epic passes. I will be pleasantly surprised if they do anything, even just credit or a renewal discount than usual.

  9. My Trip to the Schatzalp in Davos, Switzerland (really nice old school hotel with a small private ski resort) was cancelled by the tour operator without even asking them when the COVID situation escalated in Switzerland (2 days before leaving for that trip, but not from far). All the money was promptly wired back to my bank account. In the meantime we’re allowed to travel uphill alone or with persons from the same household again here in Tirol, so I’ve been skinning each day since the start of the week.

  10. season pass holders need to get over it. a few years ago we had a terrible snow season, limited terrain into Jan and then (Sundance) our typical ~Apr 1 closure date. This is no different, get over it.

  11. Robert is exactly right. As season pass holders, we understand that it’s a seasonal and variable activity. Sometimes you get a December-May season, sometimes it’s shorter. One year my local mountain didn’t even open due to lack of snow. That’s nature, skiers deal, and get out our mountain bikes if the skiing isn’t good.

  12. “That said, if you had a trip planned to, say, Crested Butte or Mammoth, there isn’t a Hyatt or Marriott to be found.”

    The Westin Monache Resort is literally ski-in, ski-out at Mammoth.

  13. I have both Ikon and Epic passes, and I do not need nor do I expect a refund. I got 10 days on my Ikon Pass and 6 days on my Epic. I think refunds should only be a question for those who have 3 or fewer days used. They do track how many days each passholder uses.

  14. Echo the VRBO comment above. So many slopeside houses and condos are VRBO. Mine was great – gave a 75% refund and is keeping my 25% deposit towards a future rental. I think this was fair since I plan to be back for the next season.

  15. You know the airline industry is dead when OMAAT has to talk about………skiing(!!)

    What next? Kayaking? Morris dancing? Knitting? Tai chi?

  16. So my ski resort of choice is telluride but sadly did not get to go this season. I am actually Australian and our season begins early June. The ski resorts don’t seem to know what to do. I suspect the entire season will be scrapped. Will be interesting to see (1)what happens to season pass holders (mine is part of epic passes) (2) resort entry fees (3)prepaid ski lessons for private or group and (4) accommodation.

  17. Alterra and Vail will want to avoid any type of situation where they have to offer cash back on 19-20 season passes. Their cash flow is being hit on three fronts.
    They have lost the last 4-6 weeks of the ski season
    they very well could lose a majority of their summer biking and lodging business as well. regardless bookings would have frozen after 3/15 further cutting off a source of incoming revenue from summer business.
    Additionally most folks that would be buying the 20-21pass who collectively would be loaning the resorts hundreds of millions of dollars for six months will either be in a wait and see situation or have financial concerns holding them back.

    Unless they have massive reserves and see it as a way to maintain loyalty it would be risky to refund season pass holders in cash.

    They could offer items that do not require them taking a direct hit this spring such as making renewals much more tempting.
    offering extra days on new passes
    reducing blackout periods
    add more independent mountains to their passes
    Offer two free lift tickets for next year for the person who might not be in the position to renew.

  18. @Mitch Cumstein – Yep, my bad. I actually meant to update this before publishing and completely blanked. Thanks.

  19. I called Brighton Resort and they had the refund in my account in less than a week. Super easy process with them, spent less than 5 minutes on the phone.

  20. I skied 32 days this year. No need for a refund on a season pass. Season was a little shorter this year and it really wasn’t very good in Tahoe. It figures most of the snow hit after the resorts closed. That’s life and Mother Nature.
    I signed up for my 20/21 pass already. Praying for a good snow year

    See you next year

  21. Hi from Tahoe,

    Hopefully everyone will also think about how many people work in the ski industry who have been laid off or outright fired. They are severely hurting right now. There is plenty of snow up here and no business.

    I saw a guy asleep in a mound of snow next to a bush near the Truckee Safeway this morning. Some people are living out of their cars. Some people are going hungry.

    Thanks for thinking about these folks.

  22. I accidentally booked insurance on my Vail Epic pass, so have initiated a refund claim request due to the reasons offered in the claim process. When I first originated it, it asked if it was due to COVID-19 which I indicated it was, then they asked me to substantiate my claim by providing information than there was indeed an issue that prevented our ability to ski (well, you closed the mountain) and the day later the Gov announced the rest of the mountains should close. I’ve had response from the adjuster saying that it will take longer than normal. It’s been 2 weeks and still nothing.

  23. The Canadian dollar has taken a massive hit because of Covid-19 so skiing will be really cheap next season. Whistler in BC has some of the best slopes in the world. The Westin Whistler Resort is right at the base of the lifts and the gondolas pass right by my hotel window. All the major chains have resorts as well. With the $US at $1.46 Cad your money will go a long way over the next few years when the border reopens.

  24. I sure feel bad for the workers in the ski industry, especially those in the smaller mountain towns with nowhere to go.

  25. @John… I agree.
    I can ski.
    But have never heard of this Alterra company before…. what’s next?

  26. We traveled to Tremblant to Ski in March. When we arrived, it had closed that day due to Covid-19. Our ski school booking direct with Tremblant was refunded, as was all the lift tickets arranged with our travel companions. Our AirBNB was also offered as a 100% refund.

    The tickets we booked via Liftopia were a bigger challenge. We booked 4 day lift tickets for 3 people via liftopia for Tremblant. After a week or more of calls and emails back and forth with Liftopia, they refused to offer any refund on the lift tickets, which were about $700K Canadian. Instead they offered credits for future lift tickets. Their comments around aligning their refund policies with the individual resorts is not true, as Tremblant were offering 100% refunds directly to their customers. All in all, not a great experience with Liftopia, who are now holding our money as a credit, which I consider as an interest free loan we have involuntarily provided them. Beyond trying to use our credit a some later date, we will never use Liftopia again. Terrible customer service in light of unprecedented times with Covid-19.

  27. Skiing is another form of legalized gambling. You put money down and hope for good luck. We live in Mammoth Lakes with both Alterra and Epic passes. Our town is dead and the workforce struggling. Everyone should expect to feel at least some financial pain from this pandemic, but the seasonal workers and small businesses will bear the brunt of it.

  28. Does it really make sense to reward Vail by purchasing a 2020-21 Epic ski pass when they have so far refused to refund or even extend pass products from the current season?

    I purchased 4-day passes for my entire family to use during spring break, but all the resorts were closed by mid-March. This makes me reluctant to trust Vail Resorts with any advance payments (and no, pass insurance doesn’t cover pandemics).

  29. Hello from small Czech mountain resort Rokytnice, I love skiing, now I should have been skiing with my family in Italian glacier area Solda, but never think about any refunds. There are more important things to tdo, anyway In Czech we are buying virtual seats to support are soccer clubs we love and I bought the season ticket for my local skiing area couple of days ago. Wish you the best, take care.

  30. Ditto Boraxo! I was disgusted after reading the first email from Vail re: Epic passes. They emphasized their no refund policy. Okay, I get that. I fully accept and understand a no refund policy. But no refund would be if it were ME that decided not to ski the rest of the season. NOT because they closed the services through no fault of mine.
    Yes, I was able to break even on the cost of the pass, but look at the time line please. For California resorts we had a terrible January and February snow fall. Which meant that the last ski trip for me was slushy. Then it dumped. Almost six feet in less that three days and that was early March. And it kept snowing and as I write this, still over ten feet of snow on my favorite slopes.
    So YES, I would have been able to nearly double my ski trips, but no, closed and stay home.
    I’m not asking for a refund. But Vail must do something for their season pass holders such as an incentive for us to take that gamble with them ever again. Even a 10% discount across the board for 2019-2020 pass holders would show a good faith effort.

  31. My friends and I had a trip planned to ski the Powder Highway in BC, March 16 – March 31. We canceled on March 12. All flights and hotels were fully refunded to us. However, we had purchased Mountain Collective passes for the days at Banff, Revelstoke and Lake Louise. When we contacted them regarding a possible refund or credit for next year passes that flatly said, NO. Guess which pass the four of us will never buy again?

  32. I live in Boston and enjoy skiing with my kids.
    This year we had Ikon passes, we alternate between epic + mountain collective and Ikon each has +/-. The season was cut short, thus we missed our usual march and April trips. (we lost out on about 40% of our planned ski season) Ikon has yet to make this right. To date they haven’t offered any refund for the premature closure. In there FAQ- they referred us to the insurance company but don’t specify what expected result would be. As a loyal customer I expect Ikon to own this! Alternatively, if they claim its an insurance matter then as the company that referred the customer to the insurance company I expect them to negotiate a reasonable compensation.
    I’m currently waiting for response.
    I renewed early prior to cancelation of 19-20 ski season so that this wasn’t in my decision tree as a remote possibility for the 20-21 season.
    Today, Ikon offered a $200 early bird discount for purchasing 20-21 passes but haven’t clarified what happens if there is a short or limited season do to Cover-19.
    Additionally they have worsened the terms for unlimited Ikon pass members at their premier resorts: Aspen and Jackson hole (they lost whistler in 19/20 season).
    The major airlines, hotels etc.. are selling fully refundable tickets for next winter. My auto insurance has refunded part of my premium since we are driving much less.
    I understand that the ski areas are under pressure but so is the rest of America. It’s time to do the ‘right thing’.
    I’ll update you when I find out.
    Thanks

  33. Agreed that it’s disingenuous of Ikon to refer to pass insurance that only covers individual medical issues, not pandemics. However, this underscores that season passes are not a good fit for folks taking one or two concentrated trips per year.

    I’m glad that they discounted pass further and extended pre-sale period, but I expect their sales will be very low unless they provide some assurance about the scenario where Covid closes resorts next season.

  34. Not skiing because of bad weather and Highwinds is one thing, closing a hill for a pandemic is another.

    Whistler Blackcomb staff sold us a 5 day epic pass for our March break. We showed up the day before they close the hill. They have our money, they have not provided the possibility to use the service we paid for. This essentially is theft or fraud.

    We have a tremblant pass, I have used it plenty, although it is frustrating not to ski because the hill is still completely covered in snow, we have gotten our money’s worth this year. They are offering a discount for next year, I’m fine with that.

    We once had a ski week in Fernie, it rained for six days, no skiing. Great cocktails, good fun and it is like gambling. A pandemic is not a rainstorm.

    Airbnb, Alamo, and the WestJet were super helpful, quick to respond and fair. That Vail would refuse to refund a pass that we could never use, and still couldn’t use because you can’t fly anywhere, is not OK.

    These are not normal times, closing the ski hills was certainly the right thing to do. So is refunding your present and possibly future clients.

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