Editor’s Note: This story is frequently updated with the latest updates on ski passes and ski season. It was last updated Oct. 19, 2021.
Snow and ski season isn’t upon us yet, but it’s time to start planning if you’re going to hit the slopes this winter. And anyone looking to buy a ski pass for the 2021-22 season eventually confronts the same choice: Ikon vs Epic Pass?
Together, these two popular ski pass programs cover the vast majority of North America’s most popular ski resorts. Over the past decade, nearly every major ski area in the U.S. has chosen sides and joined one of the two mega passes.
And while the upfront costs are by no means cheap, it beats continually paying the eye-popping lift ticket prices if you’re an avid skier or snowboarder. Ikon Pass clocks in at $1,149 for the 2021-22 ski season. Epic Pass cut its prices nearly 20% this season, with the pass now running $819. It debuted last spring at $783.
But the differences between the Ikon vs Epic Pass go far beyond the price. Which pass makes the most sense for you depends on which resorts you plan to visit, how often you ski or snowboard, and more.
This week, the high-elevation Colorado ski area Arapahoe Basin (Mountain Collective/Ikon passes) opened its lifts, signaling the start of the ski season in North America. We are underway!
So let’s dive in and compare these two mega ski passes.
- Doing the Math on an Epic or Ikon Pass
- Ikon vs Epic By the Numbers
- Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a Ski Pass
- Other Money-Saving Tips for Ski Season
- Ikon vs Epic Pass: A Regional Guide
- Best ski pass for Colorado
- Best ski pass for Lake Tahoe and California
- Best ski pass for the Northeast
- Best ski pass for Utah
- Best ski pass for the Northern Rockies (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming)
- Best ski pass for the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Canada)
- Best ski pass for the Midwest
- Best ski pass for the Canadian Rockies (Alberta and British Columbia)
- Best ski pass for the rest of the world (Europe, Chile, New Zealand, Australia and Japan)
Doing the Math on an Epic or Ikon Pass
I don’t blame you if the debut prices of $799 or $1,049 don’t seem affordable to you. But let’s put it into perspective.
With prices of up to $1,000, buying one of these mega passes won’t make sense for everyone. If you ski just once or twice a year, it doesn’t make much sense at all.
But if you’re an avid skier or you’re planning more trips to the mountains this season, you can pretty quickly offset the upfront cost of an Ikon or Epic Pass.
Last season, Vail in Colorado charged $229 for a single-day ticket during Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. That’s nearly one-third the cost of this year’s Epic Pass, which gets you unlimited ski days at 60 ski resorts – including Vail itself!
Vail and Deer Valley in Utah are the priciest ski options in the world, but they are hardly the exception for astronomical daily lift ticket rates at major ski destinations. Iconic destinations like Jackson Hole in Wyoming (part of the Ikon pass), Big Sky in Montana (also an Ikon resort), Park City in Utah (Epic), and California’s Palisades Tahoe (part of Ikon, formerly known as Squaw Valley) all routinely sell single-day tickets above $200.
That means a few days of skiing or snowboarding at just one of these resorts can outweigh the initial cost. If you’re planning to head to multiple resorts this season, the savings can quickly add up.
And the savings of these ski passes go beyond lift tickets, with some valuable discounts available on both passes.
- Epic Pass holders get 20% off food and non-alocholic beverages, ski and ride lessons, rentals, and airport transportation from Denver (DEN) and Eagle County-Vail (EGE)
- The Ikon Pass offers discounts on summer activities, once-a-month pre-opening lift access, 25% off buddy passes, 15% off food, beverage and retail, and lodging deals at select resorts.
So if you are like the more than 59 million skiers and riders who hit the slopes in the United States last year – despite the global pandemic, it was one of the top five skier visit years in U.S. history! – one of these passes could make a world of sense. But which one?
Ikon vs Epic By the Numbers
Based on the lofty costs of day tickets and the mega passes’ access to dozens of world-class ski resorts, you can squeeze tons of value out of both the Ikon and Epic.
In addition to those two most popular options, there are some budget options like the Mountain Collective and the Indy Pass that can also be appealing to skiers and riders.
Here is a breakdown of all four major ski passes by the numbers:
|2021/2022 Ski Passes||Ikon Pass||Epic Pass||Mtn. Collective||Indy Pass|
|Total Number of Resorts||54||60||23||80|
|Unlimited Access Resorts||14||36||N/A||N/A|
If you are going to spend five days or more at either an Ikon resort or an Epic resort, the full pass will be worth it by the week’s end.
But if you still want an alternative to one of the pricey passes, the Mountain Collective comes in at about half the cost of the Ikon – with a good amount of overlap between the it and the Ikon. You will only get two days at each destination, however. If you want to ditch the crowds and costs of the most popular mountain towns, the Indy Pass offers the best overall value boasting a roster of 76 resorts for less than $400.
There is not one right or wrong answer to the Ikon vs Epic question, but here is what you should consider before making a decision.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying a Ski Pass
What are you willing to pay?
It’s important to honestly assess how much your ski season is worth to you. If you play it right and ski within your pass, the cost of the pass should be the only dollars you spend on the slopes for the whole year.
The Indy Pass and its scrappy, smaller ski areas offers the best price point at $399 for the season, with the Mountain Collective and its smaller roster of heavy hitters close behind at $589. These passes only offer two days at each destination with 50% off every additional day. The Epic pass offers the best price point of the unlimited, mega-passes at $819.
How many days do you plan to ski?
If you are planning a week-long trip to a mountain destination, one of the mega passes (Epic or Ikon) will start saving you money after approximately five days. If you have fewer than five days planned, then you should look into one of the smaller passes, or just paying the full day-ticket prices at the resort.
Thrifty Tip: If you skip one of these mega passes, always buy your lift tickets online for a discount. Buying a ticket at the window can be as much as 15% more expensive.
Thrifty Tip #2: Both the Epic and Ikon passes have reduced rate “Ski with a Friend” passes, so you can bring a buddy on your pass for a reduced rate – or hop on the slopes with a friend for a discount yourself.
What kind of experience are you looking for?
If you are a diehard ski mountaineer with designs on backcountry excursions, the pass you buy could be different than someone who wants to take a few laps on the bunny hill and call it an early afternoon for hot chocolate or Bloody Mary’s around the fire.
For the hardcore skier, places like Jackson Hole (Ikon), Palisades Tahoe (Ikon), Telluride in Colorado (Epic), and Taos in New Mexico (Ikon) should be on your radar. For the socialite or shopper for whom a few days of skiing is a nice add-on to a wintry vacation, Vail (Epic), Whistler up in Canada (Epic) and Deer Valley in Utah (Ikon) should be on your list.
Before you buy, research the places you want to go and what you hope to get out of them.
Where are you based?
The answer to this question could be the most important if you want to get the most value out of your pass.
For instance, if you are based around Minneapolis, look hard at the Epic Pass: It’ll get you into Afton Alps, just 20 minutes or so east of the city. If you ski a few days there and then take another trip out west to another Epic resort, you’re getting twice the value. The same goes for Epic-owned Wilmot, which is just north of Chicago across the Wisconsin border.
In fact, Epic has a growing list of smaller, local ski areas near metro areas around the country that could help increase the pass’s value if you live near one.
And consider how you’re going to get to the slopes, too. To stick with the Chicago and Minneapolis examples, you can quickly and cheaply fly from either Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) or Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Denver (DEN) and access Colorado’s resorts. People from both cities can also find direct flights into far-flung locales like Big Sky (BZN) Jackson Hole (JAC), too.
Thrifty Traveler Premium members get the cheapest fares through ski season sent right to their inboxes. Try it for just $7.99 a month!
If you live somewhere that requires a $700 fare with few connections to get to the mountains, maybe consider a pass featuring resorts you can get to more easily.
Other Money-Saving Tips for Ski Season
Even if you buy the perfect pass and ski within it, the costs of ski vacations can add up if you are not careful. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you plan.
Fly with bags in mind
If you have ski equipment, make sure you are booking flights with bags in mind. Budget airlines may entice you with low fares into mountain towns, but then charge you up to $100 for baggage when you get to the airport.
When you are booking airfare, consider upgrading to a ticket that includes bags so you don’t have the hassle of paying for them in the terminal.
Two things to keep in mind as you check ski bags:
- Don’t pay for “oversized baggage” for ski and boot bags if you don’t have to. Most airlines price ski bags as regular luggage, although they come out at the oversized baggage areas at baggage claim when you arrive.
- Some airlines will consider your ski bag and a separate boot bag as one bag, so make sure you don’t overpay to fly your gear to the mountains!
Southwest Airlines is a great option for skiers, as every passenger gets two free bags. Otherwise, consider getting an airline co-branded credit card like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, or the United Explorer Card. All three cards get you a first checked bag free – and up to eight of your companions booked on the same reservation.
If you want to consolidate your boot and ski bag, buy a wide-bodied rolling ski bag with a boot compartment. It could save you money – not to mention the hassle of carrying around multiple bags during your travels.
Here’s the bottom line: Be sure to check the airline’s baggage policies before booking. You don’t want to be stuck ponying up at the terminal.
Plan trips around your ski pass
Skiing within your pass can save you hundreds of dollars – even after factoring in the cost of the pass itself. But maximizing the value requires some planning.
Let’s say you are thinking of a week-long getaway to the Cascade Mountains outside of Seattle with your Epic Pass in tow. You ski a few days at Stevens Pass but then you want to try something new, so you head to nearby Crystal – an Ikon location. On top of the $819 you already spent on the Epic Pass, you’d be spending more than $100 a day to ski at Crystal … while your Epic Pass collects dust.
Instead, head north from Stevens Pass and spend a few days at Whistler-Blackcomb in Canada, another Epic location which means you can ski for free.
Ikon Pass offers a handy guide to string together a few of its resorts at a time, helping you squeeze some more value and ski days out of your winter.
Buy your pass first and then plan your trips. If you ski two, three, or even four-plus resorts on one pass, you are beating the ski conglomerates at their own game.
Plan your trips later in the winter (and avoid Christmas!)
Christmas seems like a logical time for a ski vacation, but the week before and after the holiday always has the biggest crowds of the season – and the least amount of snow.
Skiing during Christmastime will almost surely have you waiting in long lines to ski less of the mountain. Most North American ski areas have only 50-70% of their runs open by the end of December. The best snowfall in almost any region comes between January and March.
Choosing a ski trip in February or March will help you avoid crowds and ski the mountains when they are fully open and at their snowiest. Plus, you are maximizing your chances of catching a storm and skiing some fresh powder!
Other times to avoid a ski trip include New Year’s, President’s Day, and Saturdays, as weekends can get crowded if the ski area is close to a major city like Denver, Salt Lake City or Seattle. Skiing weekdays in January, February, and March will provide the best experience.
Ikon vs Epic Pass: A Regional Guide
The choice of where to spend your skiing dollars this season could very well depend on what region of the country you live in or where you plan to visit this year. Hear which pass we recommend for each region of the world.
Best ski pass for Colorado
The Ikon Pass offers Colorado skiers and riders the best of both worlds. You can ski the I-70 corridor within an hour or two of Denver (Winter Park, Copper, Arapahoe Basin, Eldora) or escape to the more far-flung locales (Aspen and Snowmass or Taos).
Epic is a very close second here, though. Keystone and Breckenridge are also a quick drive from Denver and Vail, Crested Butte, and Telluride are also iconic ski destinations. You can’t go wrong with either pass here.
Here’s a breakdown of the Colorado resorts on each of the four passes.
|Winter Park||Vail||Arapahoe Basin||Sunrise Park (Arizona)|
|Aspen Highlands*||Crested Butte||Snowmass|
|Aspen*||Telluride*||Taos (New Mexico)|
|Taos (New Mexico)|
Winner: Ikon, by a hair
Best ski pass for Lake Tahoe and California
Palisades Tahoe-Alpine Meadows is one of the most iconic North American ski destinations. But collectively, the Epic resorts in the Lake Tahoe area take the cake.
Heavenly straddles the Nevada-California border right on top of Lake Tahoe, and it’s an incredibly scenic resort. Nearby Kirkwood is another big ski area that boasts some great big mountain skiing and heavy annual snowfall.
Here’s a breakdown of the Lake Tahoe and California resorts on each of the four passes:
|Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows||Heavenly||Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows||China Peak|
Best ski pass for the Northeast
This is another close one and depends on where you are based. Stratton and Sugarbush in Vermont and Sunday River in Maine are all classic east coast ski areas. For those based further south, Snowshoe in West Virgina is also a good sweetener here. Plus, if you want to ski into the spring, Killington boasts the longest-lasting snowpack in the east, with the lifts routinely spinning into April there.
The Indy Pass might be a sleeper pick over the Ikon or Epic passes. It has a big roster of resorts and if you visit one or two a weekend, you can squeeze a lot of value out of this pass.
Here is a breakdown of the Northeast resorts on each of the four passes:
|Stratton (VT)||Stowe (VT)||Sugarbush (VT)||Cannon (NH)|
|Snowshoe (WV)||Okemo (VT)||Sugarloaf (ME)||Jay Peak (VT)|
|Sugarbush (VT)||Mount Snow (VT)||Waterville Valley (NH)|
|Tremlant (Quebec)||Mount Sunapee (NH)||Bolton (VT)|
|Blue (Ontario)||Wildcat (NH)||Berkshire East (MA)|
|Windham* (NY)||Attitash (NH)||Black (NH)|
|Sunday River* (ME)||Hunter (NY)||Blue Knob (PA)|
|Sugarloaf* (ME)||Liberty (PA)||Bryce (VA)|
|Loon* (NH)||Roundtop (PA)||Canaan Valley (WV)|
|Killington* (VT)||Whitetail (PA)||Cataloochee (NC)|
|Pico* (VT)||Jack Frost (PA)||Catamount (NY/MA)|
|Big Boulder (PA)||Greek Peak (NY)|
|Mount-Sainte Anne* (Quebec)||Magic (VT)|
|Stoneham* (Quebec)||Massanutten (VA)|
|Ober Gatlinburg (TN)|
|Pats Peak (NH)|
|Snow Ridge (NY)|
|Suicide Six (VT)|
Best ski pass for Utah
This is a no-brainer. Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to Alta and Snowbird, is one of the most famous ski regions in the world – at least so long s you’re not a snowboarder, as they aren’t allowed at Alta. The best part: you can fly into Salt Lake City (SLC) and ski the same day with the resorts just 30 miles away from the terminal.
Park City, on the Epic pass, is one of the continent’s largest ski areas. But its size is not enough to usurp Alta and Snowbird.
Here is a breakdown of the Utah resorts on each of the four passes:
Best ski pass for the Northern Rockies (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming)
The Ikon pass is the clear choice here.
Jackson Hole is known for its steeps, endless runs, wild terrain, and never-ending snowfall. Big Sky also lives up to its name with a sprawling expanse of runs. But a quick word of caution: The Lone Peak Tram, which takes expert skiers and riders to the Lone Peak summit, will require an add-on to any lift ticket.
Epic’s Sun Valley is also a world renowned ski resort, but Big Sky and Jackson together could make the Ikon worth it.
Here is a breakdown of the Northern Rockies resorts on each of the four passes:
|Big Sky* (MT)||Sun Valley* (ID)||Big Sky (MT)||Brundage (ID)|
|Jackson Hole* (WY)||Grand Targhee (WY)||Antelope Butte (WY)|
|Schweitzer* (ID)||Jackson Hole (WY)||Lost Trail Powder (MT)|
|Red Lodge (MT)|
|Snow King (WY)|
|White Pine (WY)|
Best ski pass for the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, Canada)
Whistler-Blackcomb, the biggest ski resort in North America, gives Epic the edge in this region. You can spend a week exploring that alpine playground and never see the whole thing. The town of Whistler also has nightlife, activities and dining to make anyone’s apres-ski experience memorable.
Stevens Pass is also a great Epic option for those in the Seattle area. Just two hours from the city, Stevens offers a great hole-in-the-wall skiing experience and boasts hundreds of inches of snow every year. Just don’t drive up to Stevens Pass without chains or four-wheel drive!
Here is a breakdown of the Pacific Northwest resorts on each of the four passes:
|Mt. Bachelor* (OR)||Whistler-Blackcomb (BC)||None||Mt. Ashland (OR)|
|Crystal* (WA)||Stevens Pass (WA)||Mission Ridge (WA)|
|The Summit at Snowqualmie (WA)||Hurricane Ridge (WA)|
|Cypress (BC)||Hoodoo (OR)|
|49 Degrees North (WA)|
|White Pass (WA)|
Best ski pass for the Midwest
Here’s where one of the alternatives to an Epic or Ikon Pass really shine.
Just by sheer volume, the Indy Pass is a clear choice for Midwesterners. Lutsen is one of the biggest and best ski destinations in the Midwest – and it comes at a price of nearly $100 for a single day of skiing. That alone could make the Indy Pass worth it if it’s on your list. Buck Hill, Granite Peak, Trollhaugen and Big Powderhorn are also great little hills.
The caveat here is that Epic offers unlimited skiing at some popular ski hills near Midwest metropolitan areas like Afton Alps near the Twin Cities or Wilmot near Chicago and Milwaukee. The value of living near one of these ski areas could usurp the low, low price of the Indy Pass – especially if you are planning a trip to another Epic resort this year, too.
Here is a breakdown of the Midwest resorts on each of the four passes:
|Boyne Highlands* (MI)||Alpine Valley (OH)||None||Lutsen Mountains (MN)|
|Boyne Mountain* (MI)||Boston Mills & Brandywine (OH)||Granite Peak (WI)|
|Mad River (OH)||Crystal (MI)|
|Hidden Valley (MO)||Big Powderhorn (MI)|
|Snow Creek (MO)||Buck Hill (MN)|
|Paoli Peaks (IN)||Caberfae Peaks (MI)|
|Wilmot (WI)||Detroit (MN)|
|Afton Alps (MN)||Little Switzerland (WI)|
|Mt. Brighton (MI)||Nordic (WI)|
|Powder Ridge (MN)|
|Schuss at Shanty Creek (MI)|
|Swiss Valley (MI)|
|Terry Peak (SD)|
|Tyrol Basin (WI)|
Best ski pass for the Canadian Rockies (Alberta and British Columbia)
Revelstoke and Kicking Horse are both world-famous big mountain skiing destinations. Fernie and RED Mountain are both more quaint, but still wild and snowy resorts, too.
There is no clear winner here, so if you’re heading to what Canadians call the “interior,” pick a pass that you can mine value out of elsewhere, too.
Here is a breakdown of the Canadian Rockies resorts on each of the four passes:
|Revelstoke* (BC)||Fernie* (BC)||Banff Sunshine (AB)||Apex (BC)|
|RED* (BC)||Kicking Horse* (BC)||Lake Louise (AB)||Castle (AB)|
|Banff Sunshine* (AB)||Kimberley* (BC)||Panorama (BC)||Sasquatch (BC)|
|Lake Louise* (AB)||Nakiska* (AB)||Revelstoke (BC)||Marmot Basin (BC)|
|Norquay* (AB)||Sun Peaks (BC)|
Winner: Toss-up. Epic, Ikon, or Mountain Collective
Best ski pass for the rest of the world (Europe, Chile, New Zealand, Australia and Japan)
This decision depends on where, specifically, you want to go. The Ikon is our choice here because it offers a diverse set of resorts. From Japan’s snowy winters (a little tip: Head there for “Japanuary”) to the Andes Mountains playground of Valle Nevado, there are a lot of great options on four continents outside of North America.
Epic’s list appears to be longer, but all of Japan’s Hakuba resorts, while slightly different, are located in the same region. Epic is another great option here, especially if you are heading to Europe. It boasts areas in Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland, too.
Here is a breakdown of the rest of the world’s resorts on each of the four passes:
|Niseko United* (Japan)||Falls Creek (Australia)||Chamonix Mont-Blanc (France)||Okunakayama Kogen|
|Valle Nevado* (Chile)||Hotham (Australia)||Coronet Peak (New Zealand)||Geto Kogen|
|Zermatt* (Switzerland)||Perisher (Australia)||The Remarkables (New Zealand)||Tazawako|
|Thredbo* (Australia)||Hakuba - 12 resorts* (Japan)||Mt. Buller (Australia)||Shimokura|
|Mt. Buller* (Australia)||Jiigatake* (Japan)||Niseko United (France)|
|Coronet Peak* (New Zealand)||Kashimayari* (Japan)||Thredbo (Australia)|
|The Remarkables* (New Zealand)||Tsugaike Kogen* (Japan)||Valle Nevado (Chile)|
|Mt. Hutt* (New Zealand)||Rusutsu* (Japan)|
|Kitzbuhel* (Austria)||Skirama Dolomiti* (Italy)|
|Dolomiti Superski* (Italy)||Les 3 Vallees* (France)|
|4 Vallees* (Switzerland)|
These mega ski passes won’t make financial sense for everyone. But for frequent skiers or those planning a few big trips this winter, you can start saving on lift tickets fast.
Which pass is better is up to you – there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. The battle between the Epic vs Ikon Pass hinges on how much you plan to ski, where you live, and where you’re going.