Monday, March 19, 2012

Skiing on the cheap

It's now this side of 4 months till I take six months off work on the trial retirement plan. Yeah, I'm a chicken not ready to take the ultimate plunge yet, but it's a good opportunity for me to see how I manage my finances over the short term.

The whole point of retiring early is to spend my work-free time doing things I enjoy doing, and some of these things are expensive hobbies, like skiing, and until a few years ago, scuba diving (combined with underwater video, ouch!!) I can't really see the point in stopping doing the things I enjoy just because I haven't got a fortnightly pay packet coming in, so the other option is to look at where savings can be made to pay for my not exactly cheap lifestyle.

If we look at skiing, there are some obvious costs, like ski lift tickets, transport, accommodation and food, plus airfare from home. Getting there from home and back costs the same whether you go for a week or for the season. Booking well ahead, finding cheap deals, being flexible with dates, and using frequent flyer points are all ways I've managed to keep this cost very manageable.  If transporting your own ski gear see if you can purchase extra baggage allowance before you turn up at the airport, weigh and re weigh your luggage and don't forget to read the small print!

Having your own ski gear is cheaper in the long run, and not being a sucker for the latest gear helps too. Second hand gear is frequently for sale on the local noticeboards and I've even known people to hit up the local Wastebusters for a cheap pair of skis. As for fashions on the field, like who cares? I've now had that onesy for 15 years and word is they're coming back into fashion! Who would have thought???

You can, of course, do your own ski maintenance, but as someone who doesn't race, my skis only need to go into the shop for a once over a couple of times in the season. Hardly worth the time and effort of doing it myself.

Since food and shelter cost you money wherever you are, the main pointer here is to not go for the luxury holiday high season ski accommodation option, but to put up with the minor inconveniences of sharing a dorm for a few weeks at the local Backpacker hostel. And most importantly, Backpacker hostels come with kitchens, so you are not forced to eat out at overpriced restaurants.

Picking the right place makes the world of difference. My first trip to Wanaka (well not my first, but first since I started going regularly) I stayed at Base in the town centre, just near the local supermarket. Although clean and modern and super close to everything, it was the favoured hangout of the Kiwi Experience bus tours, had few longer stay residents, and was all about party party party. Helped out by the bar and nightclub on the premises! Needless to say, I didn't return there on my second visit. Instead I opted for Wanaka Bakpaka, which is situated overlooking the lake just a couple of hundred metres away. Those 200m make a world of difference in discouraging the riffraff who find it too far to walk from the bus stop, not to mention that the hostel owners actively discourage the bus tours, and have a zero tolerance attitude to mindless drunken behaviour. Not that the latter doesn't occur mind you!!

In the 2 years so far that I've stayed there, the vast majority of residents over the winter have been there for the snow sports, either for the season, or for shorter periods ranging from a weekend to a few weeks. Because it has a fantastic common room, sans TV, everyone gets to know each other, and some great friendships get made. And some pretty mindless drunken behaviour just occasionally makes it to video! Who will ever forget Nick licking that wooden pillar he was "pole dancing" against?

So, putting up with sharing a room with a few others, contemplating the murder of the occasional chainsaw snorer, and slumming it in a shared bathroom, cuts the costs enormously, and means that the money you could spend on a 2 week upmarket ski holiday can go a lot further. Last year I did posh up for a week with Marko in a self contained apartment, and I can tell you that the luxury of sleeping in my own queen bed for a week was not worth the added cost. It didn't help that I preferred the company of my hostel friends, that Marko's excessive drinking annoyed me, and that I had to hitch down the mountain a number of times despite us having a car. By the end of that week I was very happy to get back to my dorm room and some normalcy.

An alternative to the Backpackers, and cheaper again, is shared accommodation. This can be a bit hit and miss as far as quality of digs are concerned, and as a much older person than most of the seasonal crew at a ski resort I think I might cramp their style. Plus I prefer the flexibility of being able to come and go from the Backpackers.

One of the things time gives you, is the ability to stretch the cost. So a season ticket becomes a no-brainer, and getting in at the early bird price reduces the daily cost even further. Last year I managed 30 days on the slopes of Treble Cone making my daily lift ticket cost just over $36 NZD a day. Admittedly, some of those days I didn't spend doing much skiing (remember that little altercation with the snowboarder?) but I think anyone could agree I got good value for money. Another great deal that many people take advantage of is the Jucy car hire, which last year gave people free lift tickets to TC for each day of hiring. For one person, for 2 weeks, you could get up the mountain and onto the slopes for around $50NZD a day. And many of these kind people had room in their cars for me!

Initially I took the bus, but soon worked out that hitching up the mountain was not only easy to do, but it saved me a lot of money and I met some wonderful and interesting people. I also made friends with a few locals who were happy to have ski companions mid week and would pick me up on their way up the mountain. Sometimes I contributed to petrol, but mostly people refused, and I even collected a local admirer who I managed to fob off (admittedly by falling off a cliff, I would not recommend that to anyone!) by claiming injury. Oh, and encouraging Aussie friends to come over for a week or so....

The week Marko was there we frequently gave people lifts too, so it's karma. Who did I meet? Well there was the Irish family living in Kuala Lumpur,  Lachie and Ryan from The Daily Dump Snow Report, a local filmmaker called Chris, an American lass who drove like a demon, and Nick's mate from his ski instructor course. Then there was "Sven" and Sonia from my ski lessons, thanks guys.

I still like the bus though, mainly because it's fixed times, you can leave your gear safely in the bus all day, and the irrepressible Thierry and his silly helicopter comment cracks me up every time. And it's door to door, sometimes that walk in the morning to the hitching spot isn't so enjoyable.....

One of THE best things about NZ ski resorts is you can bring your own food and eat it in the resort restaurant. They even provide a hot water dispenser for you to fill up your noodle box, or cup of soup. This saves a mountain of money, just requires a little forward planning back at the ranch each morning.

Of course any holiday isn't a holiday without some fun and hijinks. But the key to looking at the low cost ski holiday is to keep the spending down to what you might do back home. So rather than going out every night, you just do it once a week - or in my case about once a month! Mind you, when I had friends in town I went out for dinner a bit more, but I mostly cooked at home. And with the best hostel kitchen in Wanaka, who wouldn't??

My big ticket expense each year are ski lessons, and not the cheap group lesson variety either. Last year I did a five day all day course, which was worth every cent, and despite my little bingles, I'm a much better skier now. By skimming on all the other luxuries and not upgrading my ski gear every year or two I figure I can keep this expense in the mix.

Of course, what most people do when spending a ski season in one place, is they get a part time job to support their snow sport obsession. I've thought about applying for the ski field doctor job, but seriously, I just want to ski. So I'll count my pennies instead.

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