When we first visited Aspen, Colorado, my college buddies were as green as they come. Without the help of Waze, we sped our rental car along the fastest route to the party — until we literally skidded to a stop at a 4-foot wall of snow on Independence Pass.
One big laugh later, we U-turned and drove all the way around — “the winter way.”
Back then, skiing on the cheap was a must. But who am I kidding? A husband and two kids later, it still is. We recently stayed in a vintage condo steps from the gondola, where I relived the old days and realized that it is still entirely possible to ski and play in Aspen trust fund free.
Lane Johnson, 30, has been making it work in Aspen for eight years. The king of odd yet cool jobs — from raft and mountaineer guide to Warren Miller ski-flick rep to a recent reinvention in real estate — Johnson knows how to save a buck in this internationally renowned town known more for its celebs than what it should be: universal charm.
“You know the old Skier’s Chalet? Aspen’s original ski-in, ski-out hotel?” Johnson asks. “The Kennedys used to rent it. But I lived there in an old hotel room with a hot plate for $300 a month.”
Thanks to Johnson’s hacks and a little investigative reporting, here’s how we all can do Aspen on the cheap.
Lodging for a thin wallet
Coffee with Vic’s kick
Victoria’s is the hot spot for mountainside coffee. It’s always crowded, but the homemade pastries and quick “brekkie” dishes are worth it. They’ll pack a cheap punch that will hold you over turn after turn.
The pancake hangover cure
Force yourself to get some runs in early-ish by zipping up the gondola to Bonnie’s on Ajax Mountain. The chill establishment serves absinthe-absorbing pancakes all morning (unless your morning starts after 11 a.m.).
How to rig a rentalSki or snowboard gear can add up for a weekend at any resort. Promptly bring 12 beers to the local rental shop (hint Stapleton Ski right across from the gondola) and see if you can make a deal. IPA may have its way.
Best bargain burger
Part of the town’s push to keep some affordable options open, Justice Snow’s (inside the historic Wheeler Opera House) $10 burger is the “hangry” carnivore’s best deal in town.
Cook en suite alreadySave some dough by cooking in your condo. Aspen is one of the only ski towns I know with a serious City Market right downtown, so you won’t even have to guzzle gas to get groceries.
Your low-key local happy hourIt’s come as you are at The Red Onion. Ski boots and pants are welcomed at this locals’ hangout with an unpretentious, inexpensive happy hour.
Save for a splurge meal
There are plenty of places to blow your wad on gourmet food in Aspen, so plan to splurge once per weekend and save the moola on other easy meals.
I like Jour de Fête for a French buffet breakfast that you can control. The cash-only Big Wrap will fit the bill and you can nosh your handheld lunch on the 16-minute gondola ride up the mountain. L’hostaria, with a cozy, authentic vibe, is an affordable option for dinner.
The pool party starts here
The Sky Hotel — whether you’re staying there relatively reasonably or scalping an evening with friends — is the hip spot to swim or hot tub after a day in pursuit of powder. The bar gets hopping early, too. When we were there, fun-looking people I wish I was were literally dancing on the tables at 4:30 p.m.
Get on the bus, Gus
If you’re saving money by staying down valley in Basalt or Carbondale, take the free bus to one of Aspen Snowmass’s four eclectic mountains or into downtown for après-ski. Don’t worry: The last ride leaves at a cool 2:15 a.m., well after the bars close.
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