Colorado is the sweetheart of the Rockies, a place that showcases the natural beauty of the west, from mountain peaks and aspen forests to river valleys and high desert mesas.
Granted, some of the state's top draws are anything but cheap – a ski vacation can cost you a pretty penny – but there are plenty of affordable activities, and some that don’t even cost a dime. Bargains can be had on lodging too, and there are deals on high-ticket items, if you know where (and when) to look. Here are our best tips for getting by on a budget in Colorado.
Flying into Denver is often the cheapest way into the state
Denver International Airport (DIA) is the region’s hub and one of the busiest airports in the country, with direct flights to hundreds of destinations. Fortunately, the large number of flights means lots of opportunities for deals, including on low-cost airlines like Southwest, Frontier and Spirit.
If you’re headed further afield, there are also several smaller commercial airports throughout the state. Flights are typically more expensive (and often involve connecting through DIA), but they let you avoid the cost and hassle of renting a car or taking a shuttle from Denver. It’s worth crunching the numbers for the total door-to-door cost before booking any flights.
Avoid renting a car at the airport
Traveling by car is the most enjoyable way to see Colorado, with mountain vistas and historic towns seemingly around every bend. But car rentals don’t come cheap, often starting around $60 to $70 per day from many Coloradan airports. However, prices drop significantly if you book off-site, which cuts out hefty airport taxes and fees. A quick cab ride to the nearest town’s rental agency can save you hundreds on a week-long trip.
Take a shuttle to ski towns from Denver International Airport
If you’re traveling solo or in a small group, it can often be cheaper to take a shuttle to the mountains instead of renting a car. Epic Mountain Express and Summit Express provide door-to-door shuttle service from DIA to Aspen, plus the major resort towns along I-70, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Copper, Breckenridge and Keystone. Resorts provide free bus service around town and to nearby ski resorts. If you need a car for a day or two, you can always rent one there.
Travel during the low season
From April to May (aka mud season), prices fall as Colorado's ski season winds down. October and November bring another lull, as the weather begins to cool and the fall colors disappear. In mountain towns especially, low season means a slash in rates – sometimes up to half off – for everything from hotels and guided excursions to spa treatments and even pints of beer.
Still, the sun shines as bright as ever, making it easy to enjoy the outdoors without the crowds or the costs. And don’t forget about the state’s cities – discounts aren’t as pronounced, but hotel rates do fall in the low season, and there are loads of cultural offerings year-round.
Stay in a hostel
A growing number of Colorado’s cities and mountain towns have modern hostels, still catering to travelers on a budget yet featuring swanky style and boutique amenities. Most offer private rooms with shared bathrooms, though dorms are where it’s at if you’re looking for the ultimate bargain. Rates often include breakfast, and there are usually kitchens for making your own meals, which helps save on food costs. For hostel leads in Colorado, check out Hostelworld.
Go car camping
Car camping is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to experience Colorado. What better way to take in the state’s magnificence than to be surrounded by it? With hundreds of private and public campgrounds offering overnight stays for cheap, it’s easy to drive up and set up camp. Most have shared bathrooms and fire pits; some even have showers and camp stores. Campgrounds can fill up fast, especially on summer weekends, so make reservations in advance to guarantee a spot, both for federal lands and state park campgrounds.
Take your tent to the backcountry
If being out in the wild is more your pace – no one around and no amenities – dispersed camping is the way to go. Absolutely free, this back-to-basics camping style is permitted on federal lands, away from established campgrounds. And with almost 23 million acres of public ground in Colorado, there are countless options in the state’s national forests or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.
Stop at ranger stations or a BLM office for maps; most dispersed camping areas are accessible by dirt roads and marked with tent symbols. Be sure to pack out everything you pack in, and remember to bring a shovel to bury your poop!
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Stay in a hut
If you love the wilderness but also love a roof over your head (and maybe even electricity), consider a stay in hut. Colorado has an extensive system of backcountry huts that are accessible year-round by trails and fire roads. Some are basic dry cabins, while others are nicer affairs with solar-powered lights, wood-burning stoves and even eco-compost toilets. Check out the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association and San Juan Hut System for the options; reserve early for winter stays!
Base your meals around groceries and farmers markets
Colorado’s restaurant scene ranges from simple homegrown eats to world-class dining, but eating out can add up fast. Instead, plan on prepping your own meals some or most of the time. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have a kitchen in your hotel; you can stock up on self-catered meals, snacks and fruit at local grocery stores and farmers markets – it’s remarkable how filling sliced salami, bagged salad and a baguette can be…plus, you’ll save a bundle.
Ask about discounts
Don’t be shy about asking about discounts! Children often pay less for tours, admission fees, theater tickets and public transportation, sometimes as much as half off the regular rate; ditto for students, seniors and military personnel. If you’re traveling to Denver, consider purchasing a CityPASS, a prepaid ticket package that offers significant discounts for some of the city’s top attractions. Museums around the state often offer a monthly free day too.
Buy an American the Beautiful Pass
Colorado is home to four national parks – Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison – together offering spectacular vistas and wildlife spotting, geological marvels and echoes of ancient civilizations. Each park is vastly different from the other, but all are unmissable for their hiking trails, scenic drives and out-and-out adventuring.
Admission runs $25 to $35 per vehicle (including all occupants). If you know you’ll be visiting more than two national parks, it’s worth buying an American the Beautiful Pass ($80), which includes entry to them all. The pass also includes admission to all federal recreation lands for an entire year, including Colorado’s eight national monuments – an excuse to explore further (or to come back!).
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If you plan to ski or ride, sniff out the deals
Colorado is one of the most expensive ski destinations in the country, with single-day tickets pushing $225 at some resorts. If you’ll only be hitting the slopes for a day or two, you can save a few bucks by buying your tickets online. Going midweek or late in the season also often means lower lift-ticket prices. And if push comes to shove, many resorts offer half-day tickets.
If you’ll be skiing or riding for three days or more, it may well be cheaper to buy a multiday “pack” (usually good for three to five days) or even a full season pass. It may sound excessive, but buying day passes adds up fast. Check out the various Epic and Ikon options, most of which can be used at multiple resorts; just be sure to read the fine print for restrictions and blackout days. For the best rates, buy before Labor Day.
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Ski-town shuttles: Free
Lift tickets: $85–225
State park campsite: $18–28
Hostel (dorm bed): $35–85
Basic room for two: from $90
Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from $100
Cup of coffee: $3–5
Dinner for two (without drinks): $30–100
Pint of craft beer: $6–12
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