All the answers to your burning questions about how to make sense of the upcoming ski season, including new social distancing rules and restrictions, cancellation policies, and what to do about those pricey season passes.
Unlike the close-knit gameplay of sports like basketball or football, skiing seems auspiciously well-suited for pandemic life. The open air, the natural distancing between skiers, the already protective uniform of gloves, goggles, and face masks… That said, being in the presence of others doesn’t come without risk, no matter how many layers of scarves and gaiters you put between you and your neighbor. Lifts and gondolas leave little room to stay separated, while base lodges famously overflow during morning and lunch hour rushes, when scores of ticket-holders come to gear up and chow down. And let’s not forget about après-ski.
For those willing to brave the crowds as well as the elements, this ski season can provide a desperately needed breath of fresh air for you and your legs. But before you pull on those boots and head to the lifts, there are a handful of new visitor guidelines and safety precautions in effect this ski season that might affect your flow. For all your burning questions about the 2020-2021 ski season, you’ve come to the right place.
I can’t wait to hit the trails. Which ski resorts are actually open?
You might be surprised to learn that most if not all U.S. ski resorts are planning to open this upcoming winter season. But while the actual act of skiing won’t feel that different, the rest of the experience undoubtedly will, thanks to a new set of rules and restrictions put in place to safeguard against the possible spread of COVID-19.
Crowd control will be the most heavily felt change. Resorts are putting limits on the amount of available lift tickets and season passes and are regulating how many guests are allowed on lifts and trams at any one time (see below for individual resort info).
What should I expect when I get to the mountain?
The National Ski Areas Association has put together an informative best practices guide that outlines what many resorts are doing, and what visitors should do, too. Among the most important requirements? Surprise—a face mask. That balaclava isn’t going to cut it this year. Instead, face coverings are now required at all times for all guests (children included) no matter where you are on the mountain; you’ll need to wear one while waiting in lift lines, on chairlifts and gondolas, and inside lodges except while seated at a table eating.
Lift lines will be socially distanced, and loading chairlifts and trams will come with newly enforced rules to keep parties together and limit contact. And lessons have a few changes of their own (more on that later as well).
In addition, many resorts are encouraging cashless transactions in order to limit hand-to-hand interaction (All resorts that operate under the Epic Pass are actually requiring it). Lodges and restaurants will either be operating at reduced capacity or closed altogether.
Among the victims of this pandemic-riddled season are the scenic aerial tramways at Cannon, Squaw Alpine, and Jackson Hole, which have been closed down until further notice. Also off the docket this season are full-service bars and après-ski activities. Sorry revelers. For sundowners and post-mountain shenanigans, you’ll have to enjoy the party back home.
I usually leave buying lift tickets to the last minute. Is that still okay?
Procrastinators and fair-weather skiers, we have some less-than-stellar news for you. The good old days of waking up to a fresh snowfall and driving up to the mountain last-minute are behind us—at least this season.
While select resorts like Jay Peak and Bretton Woods are allowing limited day-of ticket sales at walk-up windows, most ski areas are now requiring that lift tickets be purchased in advance in keeping with reduced capacity restrictions and limited cash transactions.
Walk-up windows will remain open for ticket pickup, but reservations are becoming the norm. In certain cases, including all Vail Resorts (STOWE, VT!!!), advance tickets will also be assigned to a specific day and a specific mountain versus a range of days in order to keep tabs on incoming crowds.
I’m nervous about getting on a lift with other passengers. Should I be?
Crowded lift lines and riding with passengers outside your party was once a necessary evil at ski areas in times past, but COVID-19 has forced resorts to rethink the way they load and offload skiers and snowboarders on the mountain.
On top of reducing the number of daily ski pass sales (which will limit the amount of people on the mountain at any one time), ski areas are putting systems in place that will also space out lift lines, load chairlifts more infrequently, and limit those on the chairlift to the same party or with enough space to adhere to the six-foot social distancing rule.
Specifically at Epic resorts, singles lines will continue to be available, and loading chairlifts will operate as follows: to related parties, to two singles on opposite sides of a four- or six-person lift or gondola, or to two doubles on opposite sides of a six-person lift. Other areas, such as Big Sky and Whitefish, are getting rid of singles lines altogether, instead requiring solo riders to wait in the same socially distanced line as everyone else.
The bottom line: No ski resort will force anyone to ride with an outside party if they do not feel comfortable doing so. Phew.
Given the changes, should I get insurance?
As with anything in life that requires making reservations and cash payments in advance, insurance can save you from losing out on hundreds of dollars due to unforeseen circumstances. This especially holds true for season pass holders, who fork over as much as $1,000 for an all-access ticket—a chunk of cash they won’t be able to enjoy if they get sick, pregnant, or injured during the ski season. Add to that a worldwide pandemic without a cure, and never has the future been more up in the air. Some potential scenarios:
What if you or your friends pre-book an epic ski trip, only to fall ill? What if you’re as healthy as can be, but a sudden jump in COVID-19 cases forces your mountain to close for the week or—the horror—the rest of the season?
Obviously, insurance can make the pain from these situations hurt a little less, at least on your bank account.Tripadvisor’s Annual Travel Insurance offers two comprehensive plans (but make sure to check the Covid-19 coverage). And this year, two of the best ski passes money can buy have implemented incredible coverage for the 20/21 season. Epic Pass is automatically including Epic Coverage with every one of their passes this year. Under the Epic Coverage policy, passholders are eligible for a full or prorated refund (depending on their coverage selections) if any of the following occurrences happens between December 8, 2020 and April 4, 2021: illness, job loss, injury, and certain resort closures including those due to COVID-19. Epic Coverage also protects up to seven Priority Reservation Days.
Similarly, every Ikon Pass purchased for the 20/21 season, from a 4-Day Session Pass to the covetable 20/21 Ikon Pass, is now covered under their Adventure Assurance policy, which allows any passholder who has not used their pre-purchased pass to defer the paid price for the following 21/22 season—no questions asked. As long as your pass remains unused, you can wait as long as April 11, 2021 to defer your payment. In addition, if an Ikon destination should close due to COVID-19 between December 10, 2020 and April 11, 2021, pass holders will receive a proportional credit depending on the amount of days it remains closed. The amount you receive is dependent upon whether you elected “All Destinations” or “One Eligible Destination” during sign-up.
Unfortunately, for non-covid-related events such as injury or pregnancy, Ikon Pass holders must purchase additional insurance from a third-party provider.
Passes aside, general travel insurance is always smart to invest in, because you just never know. Travel Guard covers lost or damned ski equipment in addition to general travel events like delayed or canceled flights, sickness, or injury, and offers 24-hour support for whenever you need them.
Will base lodges and restaurants be closed?
Many ski resorts have made individual decisions about opening lodges and restaurants in accordance with its state’s indoor dining and gathering pandemic restrictions. At Epic resorts, the majority of on-mountain restaurants will be open at limited capacity with reduced and spaced-out seating and food options. Full-service bars will be closed. Guests are encouraged to bring their own water and snacks to avoid crowds and wait times.
Retail shops are also tricky spaces to regulate. Those resorts that are keeping their stores open are limiting try-ons and enforcing a strict no-return policy.
Where can I gear up or store my stuff if the lodge is closed?
Let’s face it—we’ve all been spoiled by massive changing areas where we can slip on our boots, store our luggage, and take a breather after a full day of runs. If we’re honest, though, these spaces have always been more of a convenience than a necessity.
This season, resorts are doing their best to limit ticket sales so that lodges rarely meet capacity. When they inevitably do, guests will be asked to gear up at their cars.
I don’t even own my own gear. Are rental shops still open?
Thankfully, many ski areas are keeping their rental shops running, with increased policies for cleaning and sanitizing equipment between uses and enforcing social distancing in wait lines.
If you know your boot size and ski or board preference, you will save yourself a ton of time by making an advance reservation online. If you have ample transportation, renting off the mountain can be both faster and cheaper. Otherwise, it might finally be time to pull the plug on those skis you’ve been eyeing all year.
Can I still send my kids to ski school, please?
The short answer is yes, though it won’t be the same as what you may be used to. While both daily and seasonal lesson programs are still being offered by many ski areas, class numbers may be limited and there may be extra restrictions for younger children in light of social-distancing rules.
At Epic resorts, both group and private lessons will continue with a maximum class size of six (four for 5- and 6-year-olds), while children ages 3 or 4 can join one-on-one private lessons indoors. Lessons must be purchased in advance (no walk-ups or day-of lessons available). Season-long programs are offered for children 7 and up—a new age restriction put into effect this year.
Beyond Epic, don’t assume school will be in session. Certain resorts, including some under the Ikon Pass, have stopped group lessons this season, limiting sessions to private one-on-one lessons instead.
With so much uncertainty this winter, is investing in a season pass still worth it?
For those who plan on taking full advantage of the upcoming ski season, you have reason to rest easy. Many resorts have deferral policies in place that will allow you to roll over your pre-purchased pass for the following 21/22 ski season without penalty—so long as it remains completely unused.
Larger season passes like Epic and Ikon, which cover a wide number of ski areas within the same system, have put additional insurance policies in place so passholders can rest easy knowing they are able to use their pass to its full potential—or get at least a partial refund if not. More on that in the next question…
I’m not an Epic pass holder but I’m still planning on visiting an Epic mountain this season. Anything else I need to know?
To make it easier for visitors, all Epic ski resorts are enacting a universal set of rules and safety measures in light of COVID-19 social distancing practices. These include:
- Required facemasks for all guests ages 3 and up
- Cashless transactions only
- Lodges and restaurants will be open and operating at reduced capacity, but full-service bars will be closed
- Group and private lessons will continue with age and group size restrictions and must be reserved in advance (i.e. no day-of lessons available); lunch will not be included
- Childcare will not be available at * Epic resorts this season
- Reservations are required for passholders
- Rental shops will be open and do not require reservations
Here are all U.S.-based resorts covered by the Epic Pass and links to their 20/21 Winter Season rules:
Afton Alps | Alpine Valley/ | Attitash | Beaver Creek | Big Boulder | Boston Mills | Brandywine | Breckenridge | Crested Butte | Crotched Mountain | Heavenly | Hidden Valley | Hunter | Jack Frost | Keystone | Kirkwood | Liberty Mountain | Mad River Mountain | Mount Brighton | Mount Snow | Mount Sunapee | Northstar | Okemo | Paoli Peaks | Park City | Roundtop Mountain | Snow Creek | Stevens Pass | Stowe | Vail | Whistler Blackcomb| Whitetail | Wildcat | Wilmot Mountain
Click here for more information about EPIC’s seasonal restrictions this year.
Lindsey Olander is a writer, editor, and insatiable traveler based in New York whose words have been published by Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Departures, and others. Read more of her work at lindseytravels.com or follow her adventures on Instagram @lindseytravels.