When it comes to upscale vacation spots in Colorado, Aspen and Vail are usually at the top of most people’s lists. Both towns offer visitors summer and winter activities. However, despite their upscale reputations, they are quite different communities.
While you will find that both communities offer quaint downtown areas with shopping and high-end restaurants, there are some stand-out differences to consider when comparing Aspen vs Vail.
If you are looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life, you will probably want to consider Aspen. This town sits four hours from Denver and in the winter can be a challenging drive.
However, once you arrive you will find that Aspen is less crowded and is not full of Denver locals out for a quick weekend ski or hiking adventure. Aspen is also renowned for its luxury accommodations and world-class shopping and dining. If you are in search of a spot with the best the Rockies can offer, Aspen is your vacation spot.
Vail is a bit more of an affordable option than Aspen. It also offers a shorter drive and more accessibility from Denver and other airport hubs. The drive from Denver to Vail is just an hour and a half, so with an early morning flight, you could be on the slopes or trails by lunch.
You will find that weekends in Vail are busy, and lift lines are long. However, Vail is the perfect spot if you want a single mountain with terrain for your whole family.
Aspen and Vail offer summertime activities, so you may want to consider adding them to your summer vacation retreats.
There is much more to both communities. Follow along with me as I take a closer look at Aspen vs Vail, and provide you with an honest comparison of both communities.
- More luxury lodging options and world-class restaurants
- Four different ski resorts for a range of terrain options
- Not as crowded as other Colorado ski towns
- Plenty of summer-time activities
- Amazing ski terrain on one mountain
- Easily accessible by car or plane
- Varied dining options
- More affordable lodging options
A Quick Overview & Comparison: Aspen vs Vail
When I think about Aspen vs Vail, I always think Aspen as a less crowded, more accessible ski town option. Sure, you will find that the drive can be a bit of a chore, but when you get to Aspen, you will love the four ski resort options. When I talk about accessibility, I mean that there is a ski hill for every visitor.
Aspen Mountain is arguably the most well-known resort near Aspen. However, it is not made for beginners. Families will love checking out Snowmass or Buttermilk for more beginner and intermediate terrain. Thrill seekers will thrive on the expert-level trails at Aspen Highlands.
Apen also offers the classic mountain-town charm. The town was initially incorporated in the late 1800s as a silver mining town. When the mining boom faded and Aspen turned into a ski town, it kept much of its original mountain, mining town charm. Along with high-end shopping, and upscale restaurants, Aspen has plenty of history and unique things to see and do.
If convenience is an essential factor, I would choose Vail. Vail is located just off Interstate 70, and is a straight shot from Denver International Airport. You can rent a car and make the 1.5-hour drive or reserve a spot on one of the many shuttles that travel daily between Vail and DIA. If you want to cut your travel time significantly, there are commercial flights to Eagle County Regional Airport, just 35 minutes from Vail.
The other factor that I think makes Vail a great choice is affordability. For the budget-conscious traveler, Vail has significantly more affordable lodging options and more budget-friendly dining. You will still find that Vail has luxury hotels with ski-in rooms and some exceptional restaurants in Vail.
But not every lodge or restaurant is expensive, and you can easily find family-friendly places to stay. The one thing you won’t find at any ski resort in Colorado is a “cheap” lift ticket. So when it comes to affordability, you will need to budget accordingly for your lift tickets no matter where you ski.
Aspen vs Vail: A Quick Guide to Choosing
Aspen Mini Guide
- Location Size – 858 square miles
- Population – 7,019
- Rainy Season – March-April
- High Season – December to April
- Top Sights – Maroon Bells, Wheeler Opera House, Aspen Brewing Company
- Major Airports – Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and Denver International Airport (DEN)
Aspen offers visitors the best of winter and summer in the Colorado Rockies. The charming town is full of history and a level of class that you won’t find in other Colorado mountain towns. The long drive from Denver also means you will enjoy less crowded restaurants and shorter lift lines.
In the summer, Aspen is just as popular with visitors as it is in the winter. Not only is the town still bustling with activity (unlike many ski towns), but there are just as many recreational opportunities in the summer as in the winter.
One “can’t miss” sight is the Maroon Bells. This trio of peaks set above a glassy lake is probably the most iconic view in Colorado. There are also tons of mountain biking and hiking trails to explore.
Vail Mini Guide
- Location Size – 72 square miles
- Population – 4,735
- Rainy Season – March-April
- High Season – December to March
- Top Sights – Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, GoPro Mountain Games, 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company
- Major Airports – Eagle Regional Airport and Denver International Airport
Vail is still considered one of the more upscale communities in Colorado. However, it is also one of Colorado’s most convenient and centrally located mountain towns. I pick Vail as the affordable and convenient option when comparing Aspen and Vail.
If you are visiting Vail, you can easily spend some time in other ski towns along I-70. Spend a day hitting the slopes at Vail and then check out some other Colorado ski towns. The other great thing about Vail’s location is how easy it is to get here.
Even in the winter, travel on I-70 is relatively easy. And if you are not inclined to drive, you’ll find plenty of shuttles from the airport and between ski towns. If you want a fast arrival, look at the local airport.
For the budget-conscious, Vail offers a bit more value for the money. There certainly are luxury accommodations, but visitors who don’t want to spend a ton on a hotel room can find great options in Vail or neighboring communities.
Regarding skiing, Vail offers one mountain (or head down the road to Beaver Creek). However, Vail is a legendary ski area and hosts many world-class ski and snowboard competitions. The Winter X-Games have been held here numerous times.
The 8 Key Differences Between Aspen and Vail
Now that you know a little bit about Aspen and Vail, I offer some additional ways that the two communities differ and how they fit different tourist needs.
Which Is Better for Activities
I like Aspen best for activities. Not only is Aspen situated close to four separate ski resorts, but it also has some unique tours, iconic sites, and plenty of recreational activities.
I like to start with the Aspen Historical Society tours of the community. The historical society offers a wide variety of tours around town (most are walking tours) to some of the more important and historically significant sites in town. If historical tours are not your cup of tea, Aspen offers fun experiences like scavenger hunts and ghost tours.
If you would rather do recreational activities, there is skiing, but in the summer, consider trying your hand at mountain biking at one of the four ski resorts near Aspen. Great National Forest also surrounds Aspen lands with miles and miles of hiking and biking trails.
Vail has excellent access to National Forest lands, hiking, biking trails, and unique tours and experiences. Still, your best option is Aspen if you want to fill your day with activities.
Which Is More Family Friendly?
I would pick Vail as a great family-friendly community over many other mountain towns in Colorado, including Aspen.
Not only is Vail much more affordable than Aspen, but it has a relaxed atmosphere and a wealth of amenities explicitly geared to kids, making this community an ideal place for a winter or summer family vacation.
Since most people consider Vail for winter vacations, I’ll start with the winter amenities that families love. First, Vail is one mountain show the whole family can ski at.
The ski school is world-class, and the mountain has two terrain parks, with one (Avanti) specifically designed with kids in mind. The mountain has challenging bowls, extreme skiing, and some of the best beginner and intermediate runs for the whole family.
In the summer, Vail has ice cream parlors, skate parks, rock climbing, hiking, rafting, and family-friendly breweries, making Vail a fantastic spot for families year-round.
Which Has Better Nightlife?
Aspen is often the preferred escape for some of the world’s best-known rich and famous, so it is hard to compete with its nightlife. If you are looking for a mountain town with great nightlife, Aspen is where you want to be.
What sets Aspen apart from other Colorado mountain towns is the year-round availability of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Most other mountain towns don’t have nightclubs, but Aspen does.
The nightlife in Aspen is even better because it doesn’t close in the summer. There is also something for everyone. Check out hip bars, jazz clubs, and even your typical dance club.
Which Is Cheaper?
While neither Aspen or Vail are on the inexpensive side of the cost spectrum, Vail is most certainly the more affordable of the two communities.
It is essential to point out that the affordability of both communities is highly dependent on the time of year you visit. Both Aspen and Vail will have a substantial increase in lodging rates during ski season. Vail, however, is more affordable even during the high season.
I recommend booking your hotels early if you are traveling during the winter. Also, when traveling to Vail, consider other communities just a short drive away. Minturn is a great option that has lodging that is even more affordable.
Check out Vail Racquet Club for great high-season rates in the ski village.
Aspen does have some good lodging values. If you want to enjoy Aspen during the ski season, book early. My pick for affordable lodging in Aspen is St. Moritz Lodge and Condominiums.
How Does the Food Compare? Or Which Is Better for Restaurants & Eating Out?
There is no better place to eat (perhaps in the whole of Colorado) than Aspen. There is hardly a corner in this small town that doesn’t have a restaurant with an award-winning chef or a menu that will blow your mind.
This mindblowing food experience isn’t limited to just dinner. Aspen has amazing dining spots for breakfast, brunch, and lunch as well. Aspen offers dining options that range from fusion to down-home cooking to barbeque. A couple of restaurants that you should add to your list (you’ll need reservations) include Steak House No. 316 and Matsuhisa.
Which Is Easier to Get To?
While Aspen and Vail have airports nearby, Vail is the easiest to get to.
The Aspen-Pitkin County Regional Airport has many flights, but most are on small, chartered planes. There are some limited direct flights from DIA and other communities, but you’ll find that these flights are expensive.
On the other hand, the Eagle County Regional Airport that services Vail has multiple direct,] and daily flights on American Airlines. 35 US cities have direct, non-stop flights to Vail. Keep in mind that you will likely pay more for these smaller direct flights.
If you would rather save money, consider flying into Denver International Airport and driving to Vail. From DIA, Vail is just a 1.5-hour drive on I-70. If you don’t want to hassle with a rental car, plenty of shuttles will take you directly to your Vail hotel.
Which Is Easier to Get Around Town?
Aspen is such an easy town to get around in. First, the whole community is entirely walkable if you stay in town. Walking from place to place is easy if you want to leave your car at your hotel or condo. Aspen also has a public shuttle system that will take you around town.
If you want to explore the villages at Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, or Snowmass, some shuttles will take you from Aspen to these communities as well.
Vail has shuttles, but you will find that the community is spread out across the valley. Getting from point A to point B can take some time. The shuttles between the village and downtown Vail are less frequent during the summer.
Which is Better for Summer Activities?
Colorado, in general, offers so many great summer activities. Both Aspen and Vail will keep you and your family entertained. However, I think Aspen is the better summer location of the two.
Unlike many other ski towns you can visit in the summer in Colorado, Aspen does not close down restaurants and reduce lodging opportunities. This is a thriving community that remains open all year long.
Aspen is also located centrally to some other great Colorado locations. You can drive to Glenwood Springs, Buena Vista, or the Maroon Bells.
The four ski areas around Aspen also offer a host of activities. Ski slopes become popular hiking and mountain biking spots. Chairlifts are open year-round at the four ski resorts, offering visitors a change of scenery and a quick ride up the mountain for an easy downhill hike or bike.
Aspen also offers plenty of community activities. They have pools and parks for family entertainment. Aspen’s parks and recreation department also has a full schedule of summer activities, including concerts and festivals.
Vail does work great as a central location for summer activities. However, when the ski resort is closed for the summer, the town changes, and you’ll struggle to find enough activities to entertain you and your family.
5 Questions to Help You Decided to Travel to Aspen or Vail
If you are still trying to decide between Aspen and Vail, here are some other frequently asked questions about visiting Aspen and Vail.
Is Aspen or Vail Better for Resorts?
Both Aspen and Vail offer plenty of resort options. While Aspen has many upscale and luxury resort offerings, I prefer Vail for resorts.
It’s not that Vail’s resorts are better, but it is nice to find quality resorts in a ski community with a range of nightly rates. Vail offers a spectrum of alternatives at nightly prices, providing affordable and luxury options.
Aspen offers some fantastic, world-class luxury resorts. But they lack the affordable options that you will find in Vail. Sure, the resorts in Aspen are beautiful and some of the best in the world, but the pricing of these resorts isn’t great for all visitors.
When Should You Visit Aspen or Vail?
Since both are considered ski towns, the best time to visit either is during the ski season. Between December and early April is the high season for both communities. During the winter Aspen and Vail are in full swing, and you get the full spectrum of what the ski town offers.
However, the high season in both resorts is more expensive. If you want to experience the ski town but need to watch your budget, both towns are more affordable and still offer the ski town experience during “mud season.”
Mud season in ski resorts is when the skiing isn’t great, and the resort is winding down for the summer. Generally, mud season runs from mid-April to early June. When visiting any ski town in Colorado, mud season still offers you plenty of amenities, but you’ll pay less for lodging.
Summer and fall are great in Aspen, so if skiing isn’t your thing, check out this town in early July. This is the peak of wildflower season, and Aspen and its surrounding National Forests are the best place in the State for wildflower viewing.
If wildflowers don’t interest you, late September to early October is the perfect time to view the changing aspen leaves. And what better place to view golden aspen than in Aspen, CO?
Is Aspen or Vail Better for Skiing?
I wish there were a simple answer for which resort is better for skiing. Both towns offer some of the best skiing in the world. But your chosen location must be based on your skiing ability and preferences.
Aspen is excellent for intermediate to expert skiers. You can pick up the chairlift to some of the best extreme skiing in the United States, steps from downtown Aspen. Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands are located just on the edge of town.
If you want to stay in Aspen but need a more family-friendly ski resort, you must drive a bit to Snowmass Mountain. This ski resort has lots of good beginner and intermediate runs.
Vail is my pick for families and beginner to intermediate skiers. The great thing about Vail is that the mountain offers chill beginner runs and an amazing ski school, but it also has steeps and bowls that will challenge the most experienced skiers.
Is Aspen or Vail Better for Christmas?
I love Aspen at Christmas time. There is a certain charm to the holiday decorations on Victorian-era buildings and homes. But Vail is also a great spot at Christmas time.
If you are looking for luxury brand shopping for your Christmas gifts, Aspen is where you need to be. Some unique experiences at Christmas time in Aspen include activities at the historic Wheeler Opera House and Hotel Jerome. Aspen also has a great Christmas market where you can buy unique gifts from local artisans.
Vail also has a wonderful Christmas experience. The ski village gets decked out in beautiful decorations. The lighting of the community Christmas tree is an annual event that many people schedule their vacations around.
You will also find some excellent Christmas markets offering everything from fine art to handcrafted foods and beverages.
Aspen or Vail: Which Is the Better Choice?
If you are traveling to Colorado just to ski, in my opinion, Vail is your best and most convenient option. It is right off of I-70, the village has excellent lodging and dining options, and the ski resort is versatile enough for beginners to experts.
However, for the entire ski town experience, Aspen is hard to beat. The historical community has lots of history, luxury shopping, world-class dining, and four ski resorts that offer terrain for all levels of skiers. As a ski town, Aspen cannot be rivaled.
In my opinion, the other factor that makes Aspen the better choice is the availability of activities all year round. Not only will you find great skiing, but spring, summer, and fall activities will entertain the whole family in the Aspen area. And you don’t have to wonder where you’ll eat or stay because the town and ski villages are the same.
When considering Aspen vs. Vail, Aspen is the best overall location. Despite its higher prices, there is not much you cannot find or experience in Aspen. However, Aspen isn’t for everyone, so if you are looking for a family-friendly, affordable alternative, Vail will not disappoint.