15 budget tips for visiting Lake Tahoe

Sapphire blue and encircled by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is almost mirage-like in its beauty.

Its reputation for world-class ski resorts, lake beaches and hiking trails precedes it. But in this popular alpine beauty spot, it’s all too easy to carve a canyon-sized hole in your bank account. 

Planning a budget trip to Tahoe is a balancing act. Bus travel is cheap, but being car-free can limit your ability to reach out-of-town budget hotels. On the other hand, driving gives you greater flexibility to choose budget accommodation, but you risk being stung by high fuel costs and parking charges.

However, bargains exist and there are plenty of ways to stretch your dollars. Here’s how to halve your costs so you can focus on splashing, schussing and strolling around the USA’s second-deepest lake.

Consider carpooling to share the cost of driving with other snow sports enthusiasts © BX Photography / Getty Images

Daily costs

  • Hostel bed: $37
  • Tent site: $25–35
  • Basic room for two: $110–200
  • Ski lift ticket: from $94
  • Park and ride shuttles: free
  • Coffee: $3–5
  • Sandwich from a cafe: $10–13
  • Dinner for two at a casual sit-down restaurant: $65
  • Pint of craft beer: $6–8 

Average daily cost: $150350

1. Travel by bus or train for big savings

Swapping car rental for bus or train travel can help you stash your cash. You can reach lively, old-timey Truckee (CA), 15 miles north of the lake, from San Francisco for $30 by booking in advance with Greyhound. There are also weekend coach services from the Bay Area through Tahoe Ski Trips (from $95) and Sports Basement (from $99).

Coming from Los Angeles? With ample time and a high pain threshold for public transit, mixed bus-train routes to Truckee start at $62 with Amtrak. 

2. Look for carpool buddies on winter sports forums

As soon as the first snowflakes settle in the Sierra, NorCal’s skiers and snowboarders start feverishly planning their trips to Tahoe. That means plenty of potential carpool buddies! Browse forums like Snowpals to connect with drivers offering rides for gas money or passengers who could lighten your own driving costs.

One gigantic warning: if you’re trusting another driver, ask if they have winter tires or carry chains (and know how to use them). Each winter sees unprepared drivers spinning off the road because their vehicle can’t handle icy conditions; don’t be one of the statistics.

3. Fill up your tank before getting to Tahoe

Gas stations in towns like South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City (both CA) tend to charge higher prices than elsewhere; “I should have filled up in Reno/Carson City/Placerville” is a common lament. You can also use an app like GasBuddy to identify the best-value places to pump up.

A road and car park next to a massive lake backed by a mountain range
Fuel is more expensive around Lake Tahoe and there are parking costs to consider too © miroslav_1 / Getty Images

4. Plan your parking carefully 

In summer, beaches and hiking top the list of free things to do in Lake Tahoe, but parking often isn’t free – and the dollars add up if you’re hopping between multiple sights in a day. No wonder there’s a lively economy of drivers surreptitiously handing over their parking stub as they depart a state park lot.

The best strategy is picking a base for each day. Bring a picnic to Emerald Bay State Park ($5 daily parking fee) and you can easily fill a day with hiking, beach time and seeing stately Vikingsholm Castle. Likewise, Donner Memorial State Park (daily parking fee $5 winter, $10 summer) has an engrossing free museum about pioneers crossing the Sierra as well as 8 miles of hiking trails. 

You can also seek out hikes with free parking: there are shoulder-side spots along Fallen Leaf Lake Road, which leads to the stunning namesake lake.

5. Hop aboard free shuttles to Tahoe’s ski resorts

South Lake Tahoe is ideal for car-free skiers, as you can walk straight to the gondola that whisks you up to Heavenly Ski Resort. Other towns have weekend shuttles that get you to the snow for zero cents (bonus points for no parking costs and the ability to grab a couple beers on the mountain). Check schedules for the TART Park & Ride, which connects Truckee and Tahoe City to Palisades resort.

6. Sleep for cheap along Highway 50 

One of the perks of having your own vehicle is more flexibility in where you book your accommodation. The cost of South Lake Tahoe hotels rises the closer you get to either the lake shore or the ski lifts, but there are cheaper rooms (think $110 on winter weekends) dotted along Hwy 50 south of town.

The nearer you are to the lake shore, the more expensive your accommodations are likely to be © Alexander Davidovich / Shutterstock

7. Crash in Carson City instead

On summer weekends, you’ll be lucky to score a room in South Lake Tahoe for less than $300. Instead, you can save big by staying in Carson City (NV; 28 miles northeast of South Lake Tahoe). Nightly room rates for motels there can drop as low as $110 on summer weekends ($80 in winter) but think highway-side chain motels rather than charming alpine B&Bs. Other spots to hunt for bargain accommodation are Minden and Gardnerville (NV, 20 miles east of South Lake Tahoe).

8. Gamble on a trip in April, September or October 

The most expensive times of year to visit Tahoe are summer (June through August) and winter sports season (December through March). Outside of these times, there’s no guarantee of beach weather or good snow, but the savings are immense and there are always things to do in Lake Tahoe. 

Businesses typically roll out April deals to keep boarders and skiers interested while the powder snow dwindles. These range from discounted Lake Tahoe hotels to prix fixe menus and kids riding free on snowmobile tours; find some of the best on Visit Lake Tahoe’s deals page. 

Fall weather is unpredictable (pack shorts, and thermals, and sunscreen…) but Lake Tahoe hotels haven’t yet raised their rates to dizzy winter heights, local life is more laid-back, and hikes, such as Eagle Falls Trail and the 9.5-mile Truckee River Legacy Trail, blush scarlet and gold.

Plan the best time for your visit to Lake Tahoe with our seasonal guide

9. Stay on a Sunday night

Every Monday, Tahoe’s coffee shops fill with folks toting laptops. Many of them are weekend visitors who have capitalized on low Sunday hotel rates, and drive back to the Bay Area after clocking in remotely. The most expensive nights to stay in Tahoe are Fridays and Saturdays; for lower hotel costs, plan your weekend trip to straddle a Sunday.

Paddleboarders float out on an alpine lake as the sun shines
The cost of equipment hire adds up quickly, so save some money by sticking with one activity at a time © topseller / Shutterstock

10. Pick one summer activity per day

Kayaking, SUPing, cycling… the gear rental costs all add up. Choose one activity per day for maximum bang for your buck. 

When we last checked, Olympic Bike Shop offered the cheapest by-the-day rentals ($44) for you to tackle view-laden paths like the beachside Tahoe East Shore Trail and pine-forested Pope-Baldwin Bike Path. If you’re getting a kayak, doubling up can be highly economic. Two people renting a double kayak for the day costs around $120 (compare it to renting two single kayaks for $200). Rental outfits like Kayak Tahoe have multiple spots around the lake.

11. Do the math to maximize your ski pass

The cost of ski passes can bulldoze your budget, so take time to weigh up your options. If you’re on a short trip and just want a taste of Tahoe snow with views of the lake, some of the most economic resorts are Homewood and Sierra-at-Tahoe, where day passes for adults start at $104 and $94 respectively. Compare that to Palisades where a day pass begins at $167 on weekends ($142 on weekdays). 

For a few days of skiing, consider the IKON Session Pass ($449), which gets you four days of skiing at Palisades with the option to use one or more of your days at other ski resorts in North America and beyond.

More than a week of skiing is the tipping point where it makes sense to buy an entire season pass. For example, the Tahoe Local season pass is $621 with access to Tahoe resorts Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar, as well as other resorts in Colorado and Utah.

12. Frolic in the snow without a ski pass

Traveling with the family can get expensive, but if you just want your kids to experience the snow there’s no need to pony up for ski passes. The Tahoe area has five SNO-Parks (we especially like the forest scenery at lakeshore Blackwood Canyon SNO-Park). All you pay is a $15 permit cost then you and the family can sled, make a snowman or introduce your pup to the snow. Buy your pass online and make sure you arrive early to secure a parking spot.

13. Chow down for cheap at bars and pizzerias

Tahoe is a popular playground for the rich, and you could easily sink your cash into multicourse fine dining overlooking the lake. Fortunately for frugal travelers, there are also plenty of casual dining and mid-range spots.

In South Lake Tahoe, grab $5 burritos at Taqueria Jimenez or good-value pies and cocktails at Base Camp Pizza. Over in Tahoe City, check out Mountain Slice, where it’s $5 for a cheese-heavy pizza wedge, or the Fat Cat Bar & Grill for meatball subs or its infamous donut burger (save money by still being full come breakfast time!). There are sub-$20 dinner options in Truckee, too, like Maki Ali’s poke bowls.

14. Dodge expensive on-mountain dining

Skiers and boarders are a captive market. Breathless from gliding through powder snow, they’re likely to pay anything for a hot meal and a coffee at Tahoe’s on-mountain restaurants. But the cost is as steep as that double-black diamond trail. 

Coming prepared with protein bars or a sandwich lunch is an easy way to avoid the inflated price tags. You can grab picnic ingredients at grocery stores at major towns around the lake, like the Safeway in Tahoe City and Raley’s in South Lake Tahoe. 

15. Hit local happy hours

Save your toasts for late afternoon, when happy hours light up Tahoe’s bars. Around South Lake Tahoe you can satisfy both hunger and thirst at Stateline Brewery with $6 draft beers and $10 pizzas (3 to 5pm Thursday to Sunday). Kalani’s does $4 beers and $8 cocktails (5 to 6pm Monday to Friday) while the Emerald Bay Bar & Grill keeps vibes high and drink prices low for three very happy hours (3 to 6pm daily); check its website for other specials, too. 

Meanwhile in Tahoe City, it’s well worth hitting family-run stalwart Jake’s on the Lake (4:30 to 6:30pm Sunday to Thursday) or Tahoe Wine Collective for $2 tasting pours (4 to 7pm), plus regular happy hours and occasional free live music.

Source: lonelyplanet.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *