If you’ve ever planned a ski vacation, you know that getting your ski gear to the mountain is not simple and not cheap, especially when planes are involved. We looked into whether it’s better to check your ski bags, ship them or just rent stuff when you get there, and we’ve discovered some definitive truths, and steps to take, when it comes to price and convenience.
When you should check
The first step: Get out your luggage scale. (Or buy one.) No matter how you decide to transport your gear, every method has weight restrictions, so it will be a helpful tool no matter what.
The next step: Figure out if you can get free bags with your ticket. Two free checked bags would be ideal: one being your suitcase, and the other being your ski bag. One little bit of good news is that if you have separate ski and boot bags, six of the largest airlines — United, American, Alaska, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue — will count them as one piece of luggage. These airlines also don’t penalize you for these bags’ outsized dimensions, though the two bags do need to weigh, together, less than 50 pounds. Not going over the limit should be easy in most cases. We weighed a large, wheeled snowboard bag containing two boards with bindings and boots, and it was only 27 pounds. Overweight bag fees start at $150 round trip and go up. For $150, you could rent gear for at least three days.
So if you’re a premier member on any airline, fly that airline if you can and take advantage of your bag allowance. Problem solved. If you’re not, then try to fly Southwest, which allows two free checked bags with all tickets. Problem also solved. As daunting as it sounds, getting oversized luggage through the airport isn’t that bad. The bags are out of your hands almost immediately, especially if you can check curbside. (Don’t forget to tip.)
When you should rent
Free bags aren’t a possibility? This is when you consider renting equipment. It’s easier and more convenient than it may seem at first, and comes with a few advantages. The gear is always tuned up and ready to go (a fresh wax on your neglected skis or board can cost you $50), and the shop will have the right equipment for the terrain, which may differ from your home slopes. Renting can also be a great deal for families: Children under 12 often get a free, or at least discounted, rental with each adult rental. Finally, if you usually take public transit or a shuttle from home to the airport, you won’t have to lug the gear.
Whether renting gear is cheaper than paying to check the bags depends mostly on how many days you’ll use it. An average adult rental package is about $50 a day, and often less. Will you be on the mountain for two or three days? Then renting is cheaper than checking two bags.
What if you’ll use the gear five days or more? That’s where you think ahead; you’ll pay about the same for two bags as you will to rent for five days. So if you’re going to be skiing longer than a week, paying for baggage becomes worth it again. Can you get by with checking only your ski gear and living out of a carry-on? Checking one bag costs at most $60 round trip, so it’s cheaper to pay for the bag than rent, as long as you use your gear more than once.
Don’t want to wait in a rental line on the mountain? If you have access to a car, rent from a shop in town; it may even have better prices. If you don’t have a car, see if Ski Butlers serves the area. The service will bring the rental gear to your hotel or condo door, and then pick it up when you’re done. The standard adult package is $50 a day. That falls on the high end of rental pricing, but you can get a 10 percent discount if you book a week in advance.
When you should ship (almost never)
There is only one type of person who needs to ship their stuff: someone who’s absolutely set on using their own gear and can’t check a bag. Why not? Maybe you’re traveling in a large, fractious party and need your hands free in the airport. Maybe your gear absolutely must arrive by a specific date. Maybe you’re not heading straight to the ski hill but visiting other places first and don’t want your gear tagging along.
No matter what your scenario, know this: Shipping is never cheaper than checking luggage. We got price quotes from four luggage shipping services — Ship Skis, FedEx, Luggage Free and Luggage Forward — for sending one ski bag from New York City to Breckenridge.
The least expensive shipped bag — which, by the way, can weigh no more than 25 pounds — costs $140 round trip. The most you could possibly pay for a single checked bag, which can weigh up to 50 pounds, is $120 round trip.
Yes, that’s only a difference of $20, but that’s the one-bag price. The disparity grows from there. For two bags (again, each one can weigh, tops, 25 pounds), the cheapest shipping option is $110 more expensive than paying to check your one 50-pound bag. Also, if you’re shipping a ski-bag/boot-bag combo? Surprise: They don’t count as one bag anymore. You’ll have to pay for them as two separate bags.
With shipping, you also have to plan ahead to get the best deal. The quotes we used for comparison are for five-day ground service, meaning you need to ship your bags out almost a week before your trip.
Shipping services do offer one major advantage: They pick up your gear at your house. If you don’t have a car or shuttle that can get you to the airport with all your stuff, and renting gear is not an option — or money is simply no object — then the extra convenience may justify the extra cost. Of those four shipping services, Ship Skis generally had the best rates; Luggage Free came close, letting you to ship a heavier bag (up to 32 pounds) for nearly the same price. Luggage Forward was, all-around, more expensive than the others. And skip FedEx too: it charges an extra fee for pickup, and the rates aren’t great, even with the company’s ship your gear program, which gives you discounts on certain FedEx services.