Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Madd Money: The Economics of Snowboarding

As we enter the middle of December, I have both feelings of anticipation and a sincere need to do a personal gut check… this is my favorite time of the year, the months between December and April. It’s snowboarding season in my area, or at least it is struggling mightily to become such (not much snow yet, but we are hopeful).

The act of snowboarding and the price of snowboarding have changed dramatically over the past decade and a half. Back in 1993, the classic “day trip” of the average Bay Area snowboarder was easily under $100.00. That would be a day trip of just myself, driving from the San Francisco Bay Area, paying for gas, packing my own food for the trek, purchasing a basic ticket, riding a full day, and then driving home at the end. Due to the nature of my home and my family, multi day trips are a rare occurrence in my reality. The average tank of gas cost somewhere around $23 (multiply that times two, realistically), and the average lift ticket ranged anywhere from $24 to $40 if you really wanted to splurge at a fancy place. this pricve of course expands when you factor in family members who also come along for the ride.

Today, even with the slide in gas prices of late, an average tank of gas costs about $35 (times two) and good luck finding a ticket that’s not bumping up around $40 even at the smaller ski and riding areas. Places like Squaw Valley and Heavenly Valley have become true luxury visits (and at almost $80 a lift ticket, I need a real good reason to go there now, like a truly spectacular event).

Still, my family enjoys snowboarding, and it’s a sport that I truly adore and love. So what’s a man to do when he digs riding but wants to maximize the ride while also maximizing the value? Is it possible?

The answer is yes, but it requires a little bit of creativity, flexibility, and shedding of attitudes in many cases. The first place to start is gear. Now I’ll be the first to admit, having been a competing racer and freestyle rider for several years, I have had my share of “gear snobbery”, and when you are racing or otherwise looking for a competitive edge, yes, there may well be value in nit picking over the minutiae of the gear that you use. However, for most everyday average riders, the difference between a mid-level board and a top-flight flagship board is not detectable. Paying $200 or $300 more for a professional grade competitive board may make you feel better, but mechanically, it’s not going to make a noticeable difference (the one place I differ on this philosophy is with boots; if you are going to splurge on any piece of gear, the difference of $50 to $100 when it comes to a pair of snowboard boots can make a world of difference. Still, a good boot fitter can make a pair of mid level boots every bit as fabulous as a top tier pair of pro endorsed boots for considerably less).

When it comes to clothing, you want to dress for the purpose, and OK, if you want to have a little fun and express yourself, go ahead. Still, with a little searching, you can get very good quality gear (jackets, pants, thermals, 2nd layer, gloves, hats, etc.) for reasonable prices, and sometimes, if you look during the off season, you can get tremendous deals on gear at the end of the season. Not such a great approach for growing kids, but for adults, that’s really the best time to buy. There are also a number of clearance places that deal with just overstock snowboard and skiing outer gear. One of my favorites is a place in Santa Clara called Wintersport Warehouse. You can get some great deals on gear especially towards the end of the season.

One of my favorite social exercises is the “gear swap”, where you go to an all day event at a place that sells gear, usually in their side yard or back parking lot. Bring your equipment and check it in along with a price you are willing to let the gear go for. You can also designate whether or not you would be open to trade. For kids equipment, this is probably the best place to go, because the equipment being offered for swap is often kids gear that has been outgrown. Check your local shop and see if they have any information on whether they will be offering a gear swap or if they know of another vendor or group that does (these don’t necessarily have to be stores that do this. It’s just as likely you may see a high school, community college or church do the same thing).

Lift tickets are priced at a premium to those who are the casual riders who go at the busiest times (Friday or Saturday). If you can make arrangements to ride midweek, you can often save as much as 50% off a weekend ticket. If you are a regular rider who is willing to commit to a single mountain, the season pass *can* be a good deal, but you have to weigh in the true cost of such an item. Most mountains require you to ride about eight total days for the cost of the pass to break even, though many mountains offer better deals if you are willing to purchase a pass earlier in the year. I’ve had experiences with season passes, and if I lived closer to the mountains, I’d definitely take advantage of them, but seeing as I live about three hours away, the benefit is less of a bargain. Many stores offer discount tickets, again a bigger discount the farther in advance you purchase them. It also works to your advantage if you go at no peak times of the year (read: holidays and extended weekends). This is fine with me, as I am not a fan of big crowds and big lines. Spending even more money to get less riding in, not a benefit.

Finally, depending on your flexibility, if you are a lone rider, you may find that leaving the driving to someone else may be the best option. There are often shuttle services where you can stow your gear, get on a bus, and let someone else handle the driving. The average seat on one of these deals is about $48.00. For a lone rider leaving San Francisco, that’s a pretty good deal, all things considered. The down side is that there are usually only a few resorts that they go to, and often the bigger, higher priced places. Still, with the savings on gas, you can often still pay for the higher priced ticket and come out ahead than going it solo (plus saving wear and tear on the car). More than two people going up, however, it makes more sense to drive up on your own and split the costs.

I plan to keep a close eye on the costs associated with this season as it ramps us. For me, the quality of the riding time matters more than all of the other costs, but lets face it, watching costs and keeping expenses low translates to more riding time for the money, and frankly, I can get behind that goal very easily :).

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