We just got back from another awesome ski trip to Whistler in British Columbia, Canada. We love Whistler for a couple of reasons. First of all it is just super laid-back. Some of the high end USA ski areas in Colorado and Utah can be pretty stuffy, but Whistler is just full of fun, cool, down-to-earth laid-back folks. Second, it is absolutely huge. It is actual two distinct mountains – Whistler and Blackcomb, connected by the awesome Peak-to-Peak gondola. Each one of those is far larger than most US resorts in it’s own right. This fun tool let’s you compare the acreage visually with several other North American resorts – just hover over Aspen or Deer Valley and laugh at the comparison. When it comes to skiing, size matters 🙂
But as I wrote about recently, skiing is a really expensive pass-time. Particularly if you need to travel a long way. Most regular middle class families I know would think a ski trip to Whistler is a pipe dream. But here I am going to show how easily a trip like this can be put together for a very reasonable cost level. This is going to be the first in a series of case studies that will cover soup-to-nuts how to put together a trip for a group of people, be it a family ski trip like this or a honeymooning couple or whatever.
The Starting Assumptions
For this trip my starting assumptions are going to be:
- An “average” family of two adults parents and two children. If you only have one child, this is easier. If you are this family, well maybe you need to contact me about some extreme manufactured spending techniques to make it work.
- Mom and Dad have reasonable credit and are willing and able to obtain a reasonable number of new credit cards, and they are both disciplined enough to only use the cards for spend they would make anyway and will pay their monthly bills on time so as not to incur any fees or finance charges
- They start this process 11-12 months before they actually want to take the trip (so reading this now is perfect timing for planning a 20014/2015 ski trip)
The Trip Requirements
Ski trips involve more than just flying to a big city and staying in a hotel. Big airports are rarely built next to huge mountains, so you need transfers. And the skiing activity itself requires all kinds of equipment and paying for the privilege of using the lifts. While it is possible to cover all these costs with miles and points, in this case study I am going to allow for some out of pocket costs to cover items that may not be the most efficient use of those miles. But the basic requirements are:
- Get the family from anywhere in the USA to Vancouver and back, with YVR being the closest major airport. Coach will be sufficient but I will also show options for more elaborate travel.
- Get the family from YVR airport up to Whistler and back.
- Get the family accommodation for at least 5 nights in Whistler.
- Get the family ski lift tickets for at least 3 days along with renting ski equipment.
- A maximum out of pocket budget of $999 – just to prove you can do a family ski trip to Whistler for under $1k!
Let’s start putting it together:
Step 1: Flights
The exact strategy to get to Vancouver will depend on where in the US you live. I am going to assume a relatively long distance, so somewhere in the Eastern USA. For longer distance flights the best option is going to be American Airlines who fly to YVR from Dallas with onward connections to, well, everywhere. The reason American is an attractive option is because if you get any of the Citibank co-branded AA cards, you get access to reduced priced awards, and Vancouver is very frequently featured on this list. With this option you only need 17,500 miles per person round trip from anywhere in the USA to fly to Vancouver. With this option we are going to need to get a total of 70,000 AA miles to book the flights. Availability on American Airlines is pretty good in coach outside of the major holidays, so while this would not work for a Christmas trip, it would very likely work for dates in January through March, prime ski season.
In order to get the miles here Mom and Dad will need to get just one credit card each, a Citibank AA card with a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus. This thread on FlyerTalk – one of the best FT threads out there – gives all the gory details on these cards. But as of the time of writing this link would get you 50k after $3k spend in 3 months. Mom and Dad get one each, and after meeting the spend they will both have 53,000 miles in the bank. They will also qualify for one checked bag each up to 4 passengers meaning now they can check 4 bags in on this ski trip. We try to avoid checking bags where we can, but taking a family on a ski trip usually involves a lot of baggage.
So how to make the $3k spend? For this I would suggest Amazon Payments. I would have Mom and Dad set up separate accounts, with each account linked to a different bank account. If needs be, open a new bank account to satisfy this. Then have Mom send Dad $1,000 per month and Dad can withdraw to “his” bank account, and then Dad can repeat the favor to Mom. At the end of 3 months you will have met the spend without actually having spent anything. The credit cards don’t even an annual fee for the first year, so the only out of pocket will be the taxes and fees on the flights, which I can tell you will run around $50 each going to Canada.
So you will have earned a collective 106,000 AA miles and used 70,000 to pay for these flights. An additional benefit of the cards is you will get 10% of this amount rebated back, or 7,000 miles. So you will have paid for these flights and still have 43,000 miles left for the next trip (21,500 in each of Mom and Dad’s accounts).
Total out of pocket: $214. Ouch! Where did that come from? Unfortunately Canadian taxes on the return are quite expensive, so more than a fifth of our budget will have to go on the flights. Still the Citibank credit cards don’t have any annual fees for the first year.
Step 1 Alternative: Premium Flights
From the East Coast it’s a decent length flight to Vancouver and there are a couple of interesting premium options. Cathay Pacific flies between New York JFK and Vancouver and then on to Hong Kong with it’s top-of-class business and first class products. In additional Air Canada has several flights from Toronto to Vancouver that go on to various international destinations with it’s pretty good business product. If you want to use one of these options, the reduced pricing goes out of the window and the cost increases anyway because of the increased class in service. But it is still pretty attainable:
Going business class with Cathay using AA miles will require 200,000 miles. We already managed 106,000 so basically need to double up. The easiest way is if Mom and Dad both have businesses and are willing to get a Citi AA Business card. They will need to do this at least 65 days after getting the personal cards, and I will recommend they actually wait at least 3 months before doing so. Banks are generally very liberal with what they consider a business, and there are plenty of reports of people being approved for these cards with businesses that are sole-props with no income and no history. With a business card each under their belt, and then doing the next 3 months of Amazon Payments to meet minimum spend again, our family are now up to 212,000 AA miles. Mom can redeem 100k for two business class round trip flights and Dad can do the same, they will both get a 10k rebate, leaving them both with 16,000 miles each in their accounts and an awesome round-trip to Vancouver including Cathay-Pacific’s awesome business class product.
If you are really not comfortable with the business card approach, an alternative is to for Mom and Dad to each get a Chase British Airways card with a 50k sign up each on that. That will cover a round-trip from JFK each, though BA charge “fuel surcharges” in addition to taxes and fees, though on this route the numbers are modest. And the min spend is just $2k each here so a little easier to obtain.
Total out of Pocket: Either about $214 using AA miles or $304 using BA miles, who pass on a fuel surcharge on Cathay Pacific Flights.
Step 2: Transfers from Vancouver to Whistler
Transfers to ski resorts from major airports are surprisingly expensive. Rental car companies are pretty smart to the local environment and tend to jack up prices, particularly on SUVs and mini-vans capable of carrying ski equipment, in markets close to ski resorts like Denver or – our target – Vancouver. And let us not forget that in order to ski we need snow, but snow is generally not good for driving. While most of the time conditions going up the “sea-to-sky highway” from Vancouver to Whistler are fine, in a snow storm things can get pretty treacherous. As such we always take coach transfers. However these transfers run around $100 per person, so for our family that is a $400 cost. While this is certainly one of the costs an average family might consider making out of pocket, there are again ways and means to cover this.
The best option here is to have either Mom or Dad get a Barclays Arrival Mastercard with a 40,000 point sign up bonus for just $1,000 spend. These miles can be redeemed for $400 in travel spend so would cover nicely the cost of the coach transfers. We have always used Pacific Coach and found the service excellent – you get right on the bus as you come out of the arrivals hall and they will drop you off at your specific hotel. The buses are clean and modern with wi-fi – though the scenery en-route is spectacular enough to keep you away from your iDevices!
Total Out of Pocket Cost: $0. I am going to assume Mom and Dad can meet the minimum spend on this card through normal day to day spend.
Step 3: Hotel in Whistler for 5 nights
Whistler has a few great hotel options that are accessible through points or credit card benefits. Having stayed a few places here, I am going to home in on the option I think makes most sense for a family. The Whistler Westin is superbly located near the main gondola at the base of Whistler mountain. We stayed here ourselves for a great week long vacation and thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly recommend this property for families as even the base rooms sleep four people with a queen bed and a sofa bed, and they also have a small kitchen and dining table so you can get some groceries to keep overall costs down. What’s more if you are ok going at off-peak times it is only 12,000 points per night with the ability to get 5 nights for the price of 4, a standard benefit of the Starwood Preferred Guest program. So a 5 night stay would only cost 48,000 SPG points.
To get the required points Mom and Dad again need to only obtain one credit card each and meet the required minimum spend. SPG partners with American Express, and the SPG Amex card is one of the most popular cards in the travel hacking community. It is very popular for the flexibility in being able to convert miles to points, but I also love the hotel redemptions and in particular this kind of “mid-range” property is a good sweet spot for the program. The typical sign up bonus is 25,000 points after making a more hefty $5,000 spend in 6 months. Another great benefit of the program from a family perspective is you can transfer points between accounts if you live at the same address. So Mom and Dad can pool their points together for a single booking and take advantage of the SPG one free night when booking four feature.
So let’s assume Mom and Dad both get the SPG Amex each. To make the $5k spend I am going to recommend they each get a Bluebird card and use this card to purchase a total of $5,000 in Vanilla Reload cards. Load those cards onto the Bluebird accounts and then pay off the resulting credit card bills. This will cost $39.50 each in load fees, but at the end each will have 30,000 SPG points in their account, or a combined 60k. They only need 48k to get five nights so this either leaves room to spare or they can book 6 nights.
Total Out of Pocket Costs: $79 in manufactured spend cost for making the minimum spend on the card.
Step 4: Lift Tickets and Rentals
This is where using miles and points become the hardest, and just go to prove that no trip can truly be “free” unless all you want to do is fly somewhere, stay in a hotel and then fly back.
Three day lift tickets at Whistler will run around $300 per adult and half that per child. The best option here is going to be to get a second Barclays Arrival Card. If Mom got the first, Dad can get the second, or vice versa. AlluraDirect.com has good deals on discounted lift tickets and charges get classed as Travel, thus allowing you to maximize the value of the Barclays points.
Rather than just rely on the sign up bonus, I am going to assume a willingness to do some simple MS on this card to help get us closer to the $900 required for lift tickets. The sign up will start you off with $400 of credit, and let’s assume we use Amazon Payments between Mom and Dad for ten months. That would be twenty $1k payments, though we used $3k each on our AA cards, so that leaves 14 total payments of $1k or an additional $280 worth. And after redeeming the first $400 worth on the coach transfers, you’d get 4,000 points or $40 back. So adding it all up you’d have $400 + $280 + $40 = $720 towards the required $900 spend.
On the rental front there is nothing much that can be done other than to pay out of pocket. But don’t just rely on the main resort provided rentals. They are hideously over-priced and the equipment not that great. I recommend Summit Sports in Whistler (no affiliation) who have good quality equipment, good staff and good prices. A family of four can rent basic gear for about $225 for everyone for 3 days.
Total Out of Pocket Costs: $405 after using the Barclays Arrival cards to reduce the required out of pocket by $720
Wrapping it Up
In order to make this trip happen, Mom and Dad would each need to take out three credit cards each – an American Express SPG card, a Citibank AA card and a Barclays Arrival Card. Each of these are genuinely great travel credit cards, and to maximize the benefits of the card and the time available to meet and then manufacture spend, and in order to minimize the impact on their credit, I’d recommend they apply for all of these cards together at the same time in an “app-o-rama”. I would then recommend not taking out any further cards until they have met the spend and are comfortable handling these new cards. The spend required to make this trip can be summarized as:
Citibank AA Cards: $3k each for Mom and Dad, achieved in 3 months using Amazon Payments
Amex SPG Cards: $5k each for Mom and Dad, achieved in 1-6 months using Vanilla Reloads and Bluebird
Barclays Arrival Cards: $7k each for Mom and Dad, achieved over 7 months using Amazon Payments
The total out of pocket cost, assuming the basic flight options, is just $698, a full $301 under budget! That means more money in your back pocket to cover a meal or two on vacation, or to extend to four or five days of skiing. Enjoy the trip!
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