Southwest has some awesome deals to Sacremento — the next best option to landing in Reno (currently costs about half the price). Assuming you grab a rental car — the drive up is under 2 hours (to Squaw or North Star) and a little further to South Lake.
Personally I usually drive up from San Jose (Santa Cruz family + surfing first... or second) and the drive is super enjoyable — if you like being behind the wheel. In this case I consider the two hours from SMF a piece of cake — and much easier than the usual drive from Philly (or NJ) to Vermont.
Hotwire has 4x4 Rental Cars for $31/day (less than half the Reno price) PLUS Free Ski bags on Southwest is a HUGE savings if you are bringing your own gear.
Philadelphia to Lake Tahoe has been running $425+ — these cheap ski trips save 40% and get you there with One-Stop on Southwest.
Per the above — Southwest obviously offers two checked bags for free (including Ski / Board bags) which saves AT LEAST $140 round trip. If you factor that in you are saving more like 55% off what it would cost you and your gear to one of the Tahoe adjacent airport options.
As you guys in Philly region have probably noticed — the ski flight dealscape has been barren compared to past pre-seasons. Where last year saw some of the best deals ANY place leaving from PHL — this year has seen practically nothing to the point where I have been debating raising my 'minimum deal prices' in order to show you guys some more love.
It seems like change (and fall) is finally in the air, and the deals are finally flowing to some of my favorite destinations (re: the above sick view from the lift @ Squaw Valley). Here's hoping it stays that way!
Cheap 4x4 Rental Cars
So the main reason to fly into Sacremento (other than the cheap flight) is that all wheel drive rentals practically always 50% less than renting in Reno. This time is no different.
All wheel / four wheeldrive is NON-OPTIONAL regardless of where you fly into — so if you are headed out with a big family (or crew) this is absolutely the cheapest way to go.
Shuttles from Reno run at least $100 each way, per person — so Four people renting the car in Sac is going to save you a minimum of $400. Tons of availability — pick your flight dates then hit HotWire and make it happen.
Cheap Trip Availability (Nov-Jan)
So most of the best deals on this go down between December and the end of January. There is scattered availability in November for anyone who wants to get some early season turns in but the general trend the last few seasons has been for the snow to really kick off at the start of January.
I was out for New Year's last year and things hadn't really gotten started. Still scored a 6+ inch day at Heavenly but it wasn't what it could have been — Tahoe got dumped on for what seemed like a month straight after I left on Jan 4th.
How to Book Southwest
Since southwest doesn't allow direct links to specific dates, the best way to go about this is to hit the Southwest Low Fare Calendar. From there enter the airport you want to fly from (PHL to SMF) and then select January (alternately November, December):
That should land you on the right calendar. You are looking for the flights that are $123 on the way out there, and $123 or $127 on the way back. Generally the sale covers November through December — before elevating another $10 in January.
Once you select a date you want to hit continue at which point you are looking for the Non-Stop 'Wanna Get Away' flights (which for some reason are generally cheaper than those with more stops).
A Note on Stop Location
So one of the key things to keep in mind for ski travel is that ANY stop you take has the potential to land you in an un-intended snow storm. This particular deal has a few One-Stop warm weather locations (Las Vegas, Orlando) that incur a little more flight time.
Alternately you can watch the weather and be prepared take advantage of the Free Change fees on Southwest — ie. if you are stopping in Chicago and they are about to get slammed, swap your flight to a different option (only for those on the flexible side of things).
Southwest Free Change Fees
One of the best parts about Southwest is that they cover free change fees. That is freaking KEY when you may want to push your reservation around to avoid an incomming Philly side storm (or if you find a cheaper price later).
This has saved more times than I can count. The Free Ski Bags things helps too.