Whistler on the cheap
With a bit of advance planning, you can enjoy the Whistler, B.C., ski resort on a budget and — thanks to recent big dumps of snow — spring skiing and boarding should be good for many weeks.
Seattle Times travel writer
Ski/snowboard and lodging
info and more. www.whistler-blackcomb.com or 888-403-4727.
www.whistler.com or 800-944-7853.
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Once upon a time, my dad had the chance to become a very early investor in Whistler, the ski resort in southern British Columbia.
It was the early 1960s. What is now Whistler Village, crammed with fancy hotels and snazzy restaurants, was just a rain-sodden clearing in the woods with a couple of bears rooting around. Dank forests cloaked what are now glorious, miles-long ski runs on the side-by-side Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. And getting there had meant a bumpy drive on an unpaved logging road for the last 35 miles, not today's easygoing highway drive.
"This will never amount to anything," my dad pronounced, according to family lore.
Famous last words. Whistler now is a world-class ski resort — with prices to match. Walk up to the ticket window for a same-day lift ticket and you'll pay about $100. Get a slopeside room at a luxury hotel and you could easily drop $350 a night. And, thanks to the weak U.S. economy (and strong Canadian one), the U.S. and Canadian dollars are nearly equal, making Whistler more expensive than ever for Americans.
But with a bit of advance planning you can enjoy Whistler much more cheaply. And thanks to recent big dumps of snow, spring skiing and boarding should be good for many weeks; Whistler Mountain is open through April 25, Blackcomb through May 23.
Here's how to save money at Whistler — and some of these strategies apply to summer visits when you can bike, hike, golf or just laze around. (Prices are in Canadian currency; a Canadian dollar is worth about 97.2 cents per U.S. dollar, meaning the prices are a little less in U.S. dollars.)
Room rates vary dramatically depending on when you go. They're sky-high at Christmas-New Year; still high in the winter, and drop substantially in late March and April.
Hotel/condo discounts: On a mid-February visit I snagged a room at the Listel Hotel in Whistler Village, just a three-minute walk from the base of the lifts, for $115.50 a night. That was about 30 percent off the usual price at that time of year at the 98-room hotel. The room was perfectly comfortable, with two double beds, a flat-screen TV, mini-fridge and coffee maker.
I booked through the Whistler-Blackcomb Central Reservations website, run by the same company that runs the ski operations, during a 72-hour sale when heavily discounted rooms are offered on short notice. Whistler-Blackcomb offers last-minute deals and lodging/lift packages at www.whistlerblackcomb.com
Tourism Whistler, the resort's official visitors bureau, also offers discounted lodging, including last-minute deals (some overlap with Whistler-Blackcomb's) and accommodation/lift packages that include free parking or a free extra night's stay. See www.whistler.com (click on "packages and deals").
(I tried to get a luxury room through Priceline, the discount website, through its bid-for-a-room, but had no luck.)
Whatever hotel you choose, don't forget that taxes will boost the bill by about 14 percent.
Rent from owners: Get more space, and often a lower price, by renting a condo or home directly from owners through AlluraDirect, which has offered vacation rentals at B.C. ski resorts for years. More than 500 units in Whistler are listed through www.alluradirect.com, and there are safeguards such as rental-owner verification and credit-card payment. That makes it more secure than getting a vacation rental through Craigslist ads; there have been some Whistler rental scams on Craigslist.
Hostels, "couch-surfing": To truly cut costs, stay at Hostelling International-Whistler, a new four-story building that was athletes' housing during the 2010 Winter Olympics. You'll pay about $35 a night for a bunk in a four-bed room; there's a big shared kitchen/dining area, lounges (with pool tables and TV) and a cafe. A few private rooms also are available.
The hostel is in an isolated area about a 10-minute drive from Whistler Village, but a bus to the village stops outside the door. And the hostel, unlike most Whistler Village hotels and condos, has free parking. Many hostelers are in their 20s and 30s, but it's open to all ages. www.hihostels.comAnother dormitory-style place is UBC Whistler Lodge, operated by a University of B.C. student group. A dorm bunk is $36 a night. www.ubcwhistlerlodge.com/For free places to stay, the young (and young-at-heart) could try "CouchSurfing," an organization that lets visitors connect with residents who offer free stays on their couches or in spare rooms, including a handful in Whistler. www.couchsurfing.com
Beware of parking fees
Park your car and forget about it since Whistler Village is compact and pedestrian-friendly. But be prepared for sticker shock. Many close-in hotels and condos charge about $18 a night for garage parking or more (the Westin Resort's winter rate is $28). But some hotels and condos (and hotel/lift packages) offer free parking, so shop around.
For public parking, some day lots near the lifts last year began charging $8 a day for ski-season parking (there's no overnight parking). However, some outlying day lots and the parking area at Creekside, a Whistler Mountain base area south of the village, remain free. Day-lot parking policies are being reviewed and may change.
Saving on lift tickets
Whatever you do, don't saunter up to the lift-ticket kiosk and buy a same-day ticket. It will cost you $95 — a whopping $106.40 with tax.
Here's how to avoid paying full price:
Edge card: This discount lift card, available only to Canadians and Washington state residents, cuts up to $19 off the price of a standard adult ticket. (Discounts vary according to when and how many days you ski.)
For spring boarders and skiers, there's a good perk: Buy next season's Edge card starting April 4 and, for the rest of this season, get unlimited skiing for an extra $79. Card-holders also get discounts on merchandise and more. See www.whistlerblackcomb.com/edge
Buy in advance: Get a discount if you buy lift tickets in advance and as part of a hotel/lift package through Whistler-Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler or vacation-rental companies.
Ski late in the season: Once Whistler closes, lift prices drop for Blackcomb-only skiing (starting April 26) to $55 for an adult ticket.
Ski a half-day: Ski from 12:30 p.m., and the standard adult price is $70.98, plus tax. The afternoon rate drops to $40.89 after Whistler closes.
Last minute tickets: Buy discounted tickets at the 7-Eleven convenience store in Squamish and get about $17 off a daily ticket. (Squamish is midway between Vancouver and Whistler.)
Kids ski, stay free: If you've got children and are going in the next 10 days, March is "Family Month" in Whistler. Kids 12 and under can stay and ski free (for arrivals until April 3) if adults purchase a lodging/lift package. Some restaurants also offer free kids' meals. See www.whistler.com/familymonth
(B.C. schools have their annual two-week spring vacation March 21-April 1 this year, so there will be kids on the slopes.)
Eating out gets expensive. To avoid that cash drain:
• Stay in a condo or a hotel suite with a kitchenette so you can make some of your own meals.
• Bring food from home or shop in Vancouver or Squamish. Grocery prices are higher in Whistler, although the MarketPlace IGA in Whistler Village North is a sprawling supermarket with everything you could want, including lots of prepared meals.
• Bring wine or beer with you. Alcohol is heavily taxed in B.C. A bottle of semi-decent red wine that cost $7 in Seattle was more than $12 in Whistler. Under Canadian customs regulations, each visitor of legal drinking age (19 in B.C.) can bring a limited amount across the border, such as 1.5 liters of wine (for the rules see www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/publications/pub/bsf5082-eng.html#s5x2).
• Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have lots of on-the-slopes places to eat, from sprawling cafeterias at 6,000 feet to cozy log huts.
I shared a table at Whistler's Roundhouse Lodge with an Italian skier: "This is not good," sniffed Anna Paolini as we picked at our bland vegetable stir fries (about $13 each).
Take your own lunch to save money or stick to the tasty carbs up on the mountains: Burgers and fries, fish and chips, or the Belgian waffles at Blackcomb's log-cabin Crystal Hut. With more than 200 runs on the side-by-side mountains, you can burn off the calories.
• In Whistler Village, some bars and cafes have afternoon happy hours in the late afternoon with discounted drinks and food. Check the ads in the "Whistler Question" or the "Whistler Pique," two local publications, for deals. An information kiosk along the pedestrian Village Stroll sometimes has discount coupons for cafes and attractions.
Enjoy the public pool
You don't have to stay in a fancy hotel to enjoy a nice pool. Head to the municipal Meadow Park Sports Centre, two miles north of Whistler Village. Swim laps or frolic in a big pool that includes a "lazy river" — a twisting current to float down, beloved by kids. Or loll about in the hot tub, sauna or steam room. The complex also has an indoor skating rink, squash courts and weight room. Adult admission is $8, with discounts for families and youths. www.whistler.ca (go to "Visitors" then "Recreation and Leisure").
Free shows, free concerts
• Spring skiers can watch professional ski and snowboarding competitions and hear dozens of bands in the annual TELUS World Ski & Snowboard Festival, April 15-24 this year. There's a "Big Air" ski competition; Superpipe; and free outdoor concerts at the base of the Whistler Village Gondola; photo and film showcases; and lots of action at Whistler nightclubs. "Party in April, Sleep in May" is a festival slogan: www.wssf.com
• Catch a free "fire and ice" show on Sunday nights (through April 3) with boarders and skiers leaping through fiery hoops at the base of the Whistler Village Gondola at 7:30 p.m.