To the Rockies and back without a car

A mother-and-son adventure in pursuit of a low-cost skiing vacation

It started innocently enough: my teenage son begged for a ski trip to the Colorado mountains. His frugal mom decided to teach him how to save a few hundred bucks so he might be able to indulge his passion when on a college student’s budget. Thus was born our ski-by-bus adventure.

Except for tickets between D.C. and Denver, I was determined to make all other connections from home to the slopes and back by public transportation. We cheated slightly on the home side, but proved that one can do this for less than $50 round trip plus airfare, a true bargain compared with the $800 for a rental car. And while my experience was considerably complicated on the trip-planning side, the solutions do exist for public agencies and private bus services to fix the hassle of separated route and schedule information.

Early morning flights mean really early morning bus and train rides

I encountered my first trip-planning surprise on WMATA’s Ride Guide when I learned that my local suburban bus could not get us to the Metro early enough to make it to the airport by 6 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight. While we could have walked one mile to catch a different bus at 4:45 a.m., we instead took my husband’s offer of a ride to Metro.

Landed in Denver — now what?

There are several transit options that will get you from Denver International Airport to the resorts in Summit County. All require transfers. Schedule alignment with our flight arrival drove our decision to spend the extra cash on a private carrier — the Summit Express. It cost us $49 per ticket for a direct ride from the airport to the Frisco Transfer Center. For another $16 apiece, we could have transferred to their SUV and been delivered to the door of our condo in Copper. But what fun would that have been? Because our luggage was buried deep in the trunk of the bus, we just missed our connection to the free Summit Stage, but only had to wait 30 minutes for the next bus to Copper Mountain, which dropped us off within a block of our ski-in/ski-out condo in the East Village.

Had we arrived later that morning, we could have taken the RTD bus to Denver’s Union Station and connected to a shuttle bus over to the Greyhound station a few blocks away and then boarded a Greyhound bus to Frisco station. Total cost just $24. [Ed. note: a month later, the RTD A Line opened, which runs from the airport to Union Station.]

Those arriving in Denver in the afternoon can take the RTD to Union Station and transfer directly to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s new Bustang regional bus service.

Off the ski path: How to find a place to stay on a transit route

The trickiest task was finding accommodations close to a bus route. Evidently, this is not an oft-requested bit of information and is not a pre-established filter on either Airbnb or Vacation Rentals by Owner sites. I focused my search on VRBO, where at least property owners can highlight their “ski-in/ski-out” locations on the subject line. At a minimum, resort shuttles serve their ski-in/ski-out condos. With more knowledge of the local geography, or a lot more time, I may have been able to find less expensive off-resort accommodations on the bus route.

While airlines seem to be in a race to strip customers of basic niceties, bus companies are adding perks to attract new customers. Free Wi-Fi on longer-haul routes is now the norm, and real-time bus tracking apps, such as Summit Stage’s Smartbus, are becoming more common.

On the mountain

Breathtaking. Glorious. Enough said.

The return to D.C.

Because of earlier blizzards in Denver, our flight back was delayed three hours and we did not land at National Airport until about 1 a.m. Yes, we could have taken two Metro trains and probably made a late, Friday-night connection to our bus, but we opted for a $22 taxi ride. Transit is great, but I appreciate fallback options. A younger, poorer college student may have forgone the splurge and paid the $3.60 transit fare to get home. [Ed. note: under Metro’s current repair plans, late-night service is no longer available.]

Unfinished business: The need to make trip planning easier for the rider

Establishing that we could forgo the rental car was not a painless process: piecing together the various transit options required hours of research about the area and service providers in order to discover the best bus options between Denver airport and the slopes.

Starting with only the names of a handful of ski resorts and no initial knowledge of the counties or transit providers, I had to track leads from the airport and resort websites, knit together potential itineraries based on individually published transit schedules, check pricing, and verify stop locations in Google Maps. Before I could book a flight I had to learn enough about local transit to ensure that I was flying in at a time-of-day when I could make same-day connections by bus. Even with some hints from transit-connected colleagues in Colorado, I still had to call the RTD and Summit Stage customer service lines to properly identify stop locations.

All in all, perhaps the most demanding aspect of this trip was not the physical toll skiing took on my legs, but the prep work.

How to fix this

It doesn’t have to be this difficult. The technology exists to enable travelers to access this information in seconds from a single website or mobile app, just like many transit users in our cities are able to do today. For there to be a nationwide one-stop shop for transit users looking to not only travel by transit within cities, but between cities and towns as well, every service provider – whether publicly funded or privately owned – needs to voluntarily upload their route, schedule, and stop information into the national database designed for this purpose.

Google developed the General Transit Feed Specification in 2005 for its transit trip planning app. It has since been adopted as the standard by most transit agencies, with almost all the largest urban transit agencies and half the nation’s transit agencies overall sharing their data. To enable third-party app developers to publish the schedule information in easy-to-use formats, transit providers also need to provide a Creative Commons license for its use. Last March, then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent a “dear colleague” letter to all transit providers urging them to upload their data in support of the National Transit Map project. While the public policy purpose behind the project is to connect workers to jobs by identifying gaps in transit service, this effort may result in more accessible transit information that can be used for leisure travel as well.

In conclusion

All my trip planning was worth it. The $800 paid by our friends, with whom we shared a rental condo, got them ski racks but no four-wheel drive. They had the white-knuckle pleasure of driving through two snowstorms on a mountain pass – the kind that would shut D.C. down for at least two days. The only purpose their vehicle served mid-week was to store their skis in the parking garage. We got to leave the driving to a professional; enjoyed electrical outlets and WiFi on the comfortable, new Bustang; and had time to take a peek at the fabulously refurbished Union Station in downtown Denver.

But most important, my son learned the ropes of affordable transit travel that will help him enjoy his passion during his financially lean college years ahead.

Photo, top: The author’s son waiting at a Summit Stage bus stop (Twitter).

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Carolyn Russell

Great info, Jana! What a time-consuming endeavor. Your research should benefit others since you learned what needs to happen between transportation services and cities.

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