With much of the country still blanketed in deep powder and many resorts pushing back closing dates, it may be hard to start thinking about next season, but believe it or not, it’s that time already. Ikon and Epic, the two biggest global multi-mountain passes in the industry have changed the face of ski travel, and both debut at their lowest prices for the year before the current season sends, which is right now.
This has been one of the greatest ski seasons in recent memory, with storm after storm blanketing the Rockies and Tahoe with fresh powder that has stretched all the way back to the start of the season. In fact, I skied Deer Valley, Utah, the first week of December thanks to an extra-early opening caused by amazing pre-winter conditions, and that has just been amplified in the months since (Read my recent detailed feature about one of the greatest luxury hotels in all of skiing, the St. Regis Deer Valley, here).
The vast majority of America’s top destination ski resorts and pretty much all of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah, California, and Nevada have been better than most locals can remember. Japan, which in recent years has emerged as the Bucket List dream trip for skiers and snowboarders, also had a strong season. But let’s not forget that the Northeast got off to a very slow start and Europe had a relatively terrible snow year.
All of this means that no one knows what next year holds. Maybe Europe will be awesome and Colorado skimpy. There’s no way to predict which mountains will get the best snow, but the thing about these passes is that they all cover many different parts of the world, and if it snows someplace good, it’s likely that these passes will let you ski there. There are now only a very small number of marquee resorts in North America that are not on one or the other, and most of the largest resorts internationally are covered as well.
This winter I wrote a feature here at Forbes on “The 10 Best Places To Use Your Epic And Ikon Passes This Winter,” five top picks for each, and that’s worth reading a you consider the choice.
Both have pros and cons, but the main rationale for choosing one over the other is you, where you live, how avid a skier you are, and how you travel. The biggest fundamental difference between the top shelf offerings is that the Epic Pass is unlimited at most places it is taken, including some of the world’s most desirable resorts, such as Vail and Whistler/Blackcomb, while the Ikon Pass is more of a sampler, offering 7-days free at most of its properties, including most of the highest-profile choices like Deer Valley, Sun Valley, Big Sky and Jackson Hole, which makes it great for travel but not so great if you actually live at or near one of the resorts it covers and plan to ski there a lot. But Ikon does have unlimited skiing at about a third of its resorts, including notables such as Steamboat, CO and California’s Mammoth and Palisades (formerly Squaw Valley). In short, the Epic Pass is like a traditional season pass on steroids, while Ikon is more of a passport for exploration and road trips.
However, the reality is that for most traveling skiers 7-days is more than enough for any one trip and again, this limit mainly affects those who live near one of the resorts. Even then, in some cases there are multiple options, such as the Salt Lake City area, where Ikon has five resorts with 7-days each and one unlimited, and that’s enough for even the most zealous. Likewise, there are multiple resorts convenient to Denver, including unlimited.
There are a lot of details to consider with both passes, most importantly what resorts are covered, as well as additional benefits. There is so much to take in that I concurrently wrote a separate article just on exactly what each pass includes for 2023-2024, and the highlights of each. Before you buy either, read this!
The Epic Pass went on sale earlier this month and Ikon today. Both are currently at the lowest prices they will be offered for, and both have early bird zero down deals, so it makes sense to plan ahead. Here are the main points to consider when deciding which is right for you.
1. Where Do You Live? If you are at or near a big mountain (or have a second home) that is on Epic Pass, the choice is a no brainer. Say you live near Vail, Beaver Creek and/or Breckenridge Colorado, all relatively close together. An Epic Pass give you the full unlimited season of skiing at home and away. But this is less clearcut if you live at a ski hill on Ikon, like Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in WY. In this case you might be best off just buying your local season pass if you intend to ski more than few days at home. It might also make sense for you to get a second pass, Ikon or Epic, if you plan to travel to ski.
If you live in a city and sometimes ski near home, the choice will be heavily affected by your local drive market mountain of choice. If you live in New York and on weekends drive to the closest big mountains, Hunter, NY and Mt. Snow, VT, then Epic is for you. Part of the Epic Pass strategy has been to target smaller local mountains outside big cities such as Wilmot Mountain near Chicago and Afton Alps near Minneapolis. Epic has lots of smaller ski resorts in places like Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. This way you have your home mountain covered and can take your big away ski vacation to a destination resort on Epic.
But if you live someplace like Salt Lake City, you are surrounded by high profile Ikon resorts Deer Valley, Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Snowbasin and Solitude, and you can also drive to Jackson Hole. So check out the other article and see what mountains are near you.
2. Where Do You Want To Go On A Ski Vacation? If you already have a dream destination in mind for next season, that might be more than enough to tip your hand. For instance, this winter my wife and I skied in Italy’s Dolomites, a trip we had planned a year in advance. In years past my wife got an Epic Pass but this year she went Ikon because we knew right away that one trip would save her $350. We also went to Deer Valley and Sun Valley for long weekends, both on Ikon. A one-week ski trip here or abroad can be a big reason to chose one over the other.
Both have extensive overseas options, including top resorts in Japan, Italy, Austria and Australia, while Epic dominates the rest of Europe, France and Switzerland.
3. How Many Trips Do You Take A Winter? Many skiers take one big or weeklong trip a year, but this season I took six, and by chance five of them (Dolomites, Sun Valley, Deer Valley, Banff’s Ski Big 3 in Canada and Niseko, Japan) were on Ikon, making it a good year for Ikon. But North America’s most popular destination ski resorts, Whistler/Blackcomb, Vail and Breckenridge are all on Epic along with a lot of other high profile destination resorts, so if you have more than one trip and they are to mountains on one of these passes that can clinch the deal.
Of course, if you have a pass because of where you live, it makes a lot of sense to also plan your big trip to someplace that takes the same pass, especially given how expensive lift tickets have become (the $350 we saved in Italy could have been twice that here). But considering how much ski vacations cost, the lift ticket savings should not necessarily force you to choose between doing what you want to do and doing what saves you some cash. I’m a fan of going skiing where you really want to go skiing. As an extension of this, for avid skiers doing multiple trips, there is a rationale to buying both passes, since they are basically priced to pay for themselves in about one 5-7 day trip.
4. Are You Serving In Or Retired From The Military? If so, Epic wins the day. Vail was founded by veterans of the 10th Mountain Division and the company has maintained a close relationship and honors that with deep discounts. The full Epic Pass sells at its lowest price for $909, but for active and retired military – and their dependents – it is just $159. This is the biggest bargain in skiing, less than one day at most mountains costs, and too good a deal to pass up. A version for veterans and their dependents is $519. Ikon also has a military discount, but it is far less ($729 instead of $1,159) and has to be purchased for active military through their base recreation department.
5. Are You Trying To Beat The Crowds? Skiing and snowboarding were already growing, but every form of outdoor recreation exploded in popularity during the pandemic, and recent years have seen record lift lines at some popular resorts. Travel agents have told me that more than ever before, clients are asking to be sent someplace less crowded as their number one requirement for a ski vacation. I did a feature here at Forbes on “5 Ski Resorts To Beat the Crowds,” five top choices I stand by, and four of them were on Ikon. Epic has the most popular resorts in the U.S and Canada, which translates to the most skiers and snowboarders. Both have less-crowded, under the radar options, but in this regard, I think Ikon has the edge.
6. Would You Go Summer Skiing? Avid skiers head to the Southern hemisphere to hit the slopes in our summertime, and while both passes cover Australia and New Zealand, the top international choice is South America and the Andes, closer and better, and only Ikon goes there in the form of a standout, Chile’s Valle Nevado.
7. Do You Already Have a An Ikon Pass? Epic offers all early birds the same deal, but Ikon gives a $100 discount to current pass holders who are “renewing.” On the other hand, Epic is $250 less to start with.
But while you shop, remember that there is still a ton of snow out there, and right now that includes all of the West and Northwest, so keep making turns!