(Of course, there will always be more to say, so please add your comments and thoughts below)
We love skiing, we went for the first time in 2006 and have never looked back. I remember stepping out of the coach halfway through a three-and-a-half-hour transfer from Toulouse to Arinsal in Andorra to see the Pyrenees framed by a clear blue sky and filling my lungs full of air so clear it was instantly transformative. This was the air that Heidi and her Grandfather (I know that was the Alps) put so much faith in to cure, and those were the picture-perfect mountains that inspire poetry, and invite challenge with a hypnotic attraction that hides a deadly underbelly.
A skiing holiday is a true experience that combines not only exercise and fresh air in a beautiful environment, but also includes the unique way of life you adopt while there with drinks and meals in extraordinary settings, the après-ski culture and a supportive likeminded community. As the coach or car begins the final climb and the snow begins to make its presence felt it is as if there is an on and off switch shutting you off from the everyday and throwing away the rule book.
I have skied with a young family, grown up children and hopefully one day I will be lucky enough to ski with grandchildren or even great grandchildren. I do not jest, you see some incredible “older” people on the piste and they are always in front of you.
Over the years since 2006 we have visited different European ski resorts (I am yet to grace the American, Canadian or Japanese slopes) and experimented with many different travel and accommodation options. In my overview I have tried to pass on some of this knowledge to help if you already ski or if you are considering taking the plunge.
How to get there
Major tour operators such as Crystal, Inghams and Neilson offer packages which include your flight, transfer and accommodation to which you add at an additional cost lift passes, tuition and equipment hire. There are more companies online, but just look out for an ABTA number and that they are ATOL protected. Some companies will search for you across a range of providers, such as the Personal Travel Agents at Co-operative, whereas other such as the Holiday Hypermarket are linked to Crystal Ski only as is TUI.
There are many smaller often family run ski companies that are best when recommended or booked after a bit of research or scrolling through reviews. One excellent example is Simply Dolomiti which is a family run business based in the Italian Dolomites. The Italian Dolomites is an excellent do it yourself ski destination as it is accessible from Venice Marco Polo and Treviso airports which have cheap flights from the UK if you book early.
European ski resorts are also accessible by train. The Eurostar Ski Train runs direct from St Pancras to the French Alps where you can catch connecting buses (major tour operators like Crystal also offer this option). A money saving option is to buy a local or area pass that includes the Les Arcs resorts as the snow train goes to Bourg St Maurice at the foot of the ski area, and your lift pass includes use of the funicular lift to Les Arcs 1600 which is connected through the ski season to other resorts in the area by a free shuttle bus.
Taking a Friday overnight ski train down and a Saturday overnight back gives you two extra ski days in the resort which both being “change over Saturdays” are much quieter on the piste.
Do it yourself and self- drive options
The internet has made it so much easier to put together your own ski holiday. With accommodation you can use hotel booking sites or visit “Pierre et Vacances” for French resorts. The well- established company Erna Low offers accommodation in France, Italy, Switzerland as well as the USA and Canada and can help you build your ski holiday.
What type of ski holiday you choose depends on who you are travelling with, their ski experience and your budget. Groups of friends can take advantage of Airbnb and budget flight options, although some rooms might get quite tight giving you an excuse to eat out. Families might look to take advantage of the early booking discounts that the major operators offer and try booking a chalet or aparthotel. Chalets are excellent for family groups especially extended ones, because there are different sized rooms or rooms across one floor that are great for when children are too big to share with you, but you cannot rely on getting adjoining rooms in hotels. They also provide meals and extra social space for spreading out. Aparthotels are great for families too, as they offer a larger apartment like room within a hotel and the use of the facilities in it. In recent years there has also been a growth in three or four-day ski breaks often via coach.
There is no such thing as a school holiday cheap ski break, with demand easily outstripping supply February half term and Easter are always expensive, and often twice as much as some term time dates. It is frustrating too that all the offers that are available on learn to ski packages or other equipment options do not apply in the school holidays when they are needed the most. The only options are to book early, or take a gamble and go for a last minute bargain. The latter is much rarer in school holidays, and it is difficult within the school dates with a family to be flexible enough or to risk losing out completely.
For those who have more flexibility with dates there are some bargains to have between the school holidays. If you were prepared to book within a week of departure in January Crystal was offering an apartment in the resort of Flaine in France for £200 per person that is £650 in the half term week. Last minute term time bookings can also allow you to upgrade to a half board or all-inclusive option in a luxury hotel that at other times might be out of your price bracket. Skiing at the very end of the season sometimes allows you to bag a bargain or a complimentary upgrade, although you must take a gamble with the snow and some facilities might not be open. Resorts such as Val Thorens in France has a long ski season going through to the beginning of May because it is so high.
It is worth while doing some research on the nature of your resort, especially if you are travelling with a young family to find out if it has a party reputation or is quieter and family focused. Austria has the reputation for the liveliest après-ski; we once met two girls wandering aimlessly around the very quiet and beautiful French family resort of Belle-Plage looking for any clubs, adding that the previous year they had skied in Austria and had partied non-stop.
Family friendly ski resorts in France include Avoriaz, La Rosiere and La Tania.La Tania is a smaller purpose-built resort in the Three Valleys which offers access to the more expensive resorts of Courcheval and Meribel. It sits in a wooded valley with beginner slopes in the centre of the village. Le Ski Lodge in La Tania offers excellent après-ski, is family friendly and offers good value meals. Wengen in Switzerland, Alpbach in Austria and Pila in Italy are other family friendly options. There are plenty of party resorts to pick from including St Anton in Austria, Chamonix in France and Sauze d’Olux in Italy.
All accommodation options are available in ski resorts from all- inclusive hotels to Airbnbs. Our hotel in Arinsal had a wonderful family room and the children loved the buffet meals although some people were not impressed. When you ski you become incredibly hungry, and for us the buffet option satisfied our voracious appetites.
Since then we have stopped in apartments in France that vary very little in layout whatever resort you stop at. They can vary in size considerably and it is always important to check especially if you are a larger family group how the apartment manages to accommodate so many. You can find that an apartment for six may only have one double bedroom, with a sofa bed in the lounge and bunk beds in the hall or corridor. This is particularly important when you are checking through last-minute offers or discounts which always give the price for the cheapest room options, and when you change the arrangements the price may increase by another hundred pounds per person.
On the other hand, you may get an awful lot for your money; on a recent stay in Les Arcs 1950 at Le Village our apartment was huge, and on the beds, were complimentary robes and slippers for use at no extra charge in the steam room, sauna, jacuzzi, gym and open-air swimming pool. Although it took some doing to jump in, swimming under a star lit sky surrounded by snow and mountains was an unforgettable experience.
We have used Erna Low many times for ski holidays to the resorts of Belle Plage, La Tania and Courcheval, booking Eurotunnel through them and driving ourselves. Erna Low offer a free Flexi Plus upgrade with your booking which allows you to turn up at Eurotunnel and board the next available shuttle, and allows access to a complimentary lounge with snacks, drinks, newspapers and magazines.
If you have sufficient time and stamina, you can save money doing a self- drive, especially if you have a family and are tied to school holidays. For example, you could expect to pay approximately £800 per person for a package deal that does not include tuition, hire of equipment and ski passes. Some of the apartments used are available on the Erna Low site and may cost approximately £1200 (depending on size and location) and that is for the apartment not per person. To this you must also add the tunnel or ferry crossing and fuel, tolls and an overnight stop if you choose to make one.
It is worth noting that it is worth giving some thought to planning your drive especially if you have a young family with you to iron out potential pitfalls and flash points.
Here are some suggestions learnt through experience:
- Make an early start, especially if it is the school holidays, and get to the port or Tunnel early. We have a three-and-a-half-hour drive to the Tunnel so leave at 1.30 in the morning to make sure we are crossing at six. The children will sleep, and you can share the driving, which is preferable to leaving later and getting stuck in the traffic with restless awake children and longer queues off the motorway to the Tunnel.
- Don’t forget the one-hour time difference with France
- In the holidays French toll roads can get very busy especially at the “Telepeage” where you pay to use them. To save time invest through Sanef Tolling in a tag for your car windscreen for automatic payment of motorway tolls via your bank account and smugly use their much quieter dedicated lane.
- If you are taking the car you may have the opportunity to take food with you that may save you money at the resort if you have chosen a self- catering apartment.
- Book your overnight stop in advance if you decide to take one. We once stopped in a family “pod” room at Reims in France which was competitively priced, included breakfast and was spotlessly clean. It was at Easter and when we arrived the manager told us she had turned away so many people without a reservation and had run out of anywhere local to send them. We had arrived in Reims after midnight following delays in the UK and numerous “bouchon” (traffic tailback) in France at least knowing our room was secure.
- Make your overnight stop part of your holiday and not just a means to an end. We stopped at the beautiful walled town of Langres which was at the exact mid-point of our journey. Our hotel was pretty as a picture, and we had an amazing evening meal.
- Book your parking at the ski resort in advance. You pay on arrival. Sometimes late in the season you may be able to negotiate the price.
- Make an early start to the return journey. We aimed to start at three in the morning, again sharing the driving with the children asleep, which meant we were down the mountain and breakfasting beyond Lyon before the transfer buses had left.
First Time Skier
We skied for the first time in 2006 in the resort of Arinsal in Andorra. It was not an informed choice but turned out brilliantly. If you have not skied before a small resort like Arinsal is perfect because in the week your ability is not going to run out of piste.
The more you ski the metres of piste within a resort become important as you want a week’s worth of skiing without too many repetitions for your money. As you become more confident you can purchase an area ski pass rather than just a local one (check prices for family options as you can save some money) and this gives you access to far more slopes. Examples include Les Trois Vallees, Paradiski and Grand Massif areas in France, and the 400km Milky Way that straddles France and Italy.
As a first- time skier you can take advantage of the “Learn to Ski” packages offered by most travel companies that include tuition, the hire of equipment and a local ski pass. They are competitively priced with offers available for certain weeks in the season, and as the prices often increase with the size of the resort smaller resorts are the best value. The cheapest places are Kranjska Gora in Slovenia, or the Bulgarian resorts of Bankso or Borovets. Some resorts although larger and more expensive are still recommended for beginners such as Avoriaz in France and Passo Tonale in Italy.
If you are going as a family, you need to consider whether you learn altogether or separately in adult and children only groups. I was very keen for us to stay together as a family, and although the Rep respected that she also pointed out that children learn far quicker and might enjoy being with others of their own age.
In the end we decided to learn separately, and although there was a lump in my throat as we saw them off it was the best thing we could have done. They still remember their instructor Diego who patiently picked up skis, climbed up and down slopes, and did not restrict their youthful enthusiasm and rapid learning curves which a parent’s presence might have done. Our adult group was slower to learn, but there was plenty of laughter and camaraderie especially as we repeatedly fell “en masse” as we stood line to hear our instructions. Looking back, I can see that if the children had been there my focus would have been them rather than me and I would not have got so much out of the experience. Other families that travelled out with us learnt together and were also happy with their decision to do so.
Every year that we ski we love to see the smallest ski school members as wide as they are high with their padded clothing trail behind their instructors balancing effortlessly without poles. Sometimes they attract your attention with their singing or laughter as they follow the actions of their instructor, and we have often passed groups with identifying leaves or twigs in their helmets. Sometimes there are tears often timed perfectly with their ski turns, but that is the exceptional rather than the rule.
When to go?
We have skied in January, February, March and April, and each time the weather and amount of snow have been different and not always as you would expect. Our January week in Arinsal was non- stop blue skies and sunshine, whereas a mid- April week in La Tania saw “white-outs” and heavy snow. If you go in January, there should be enough snow and clear blue skies, but there could also be heavy snow shutting pistes and lifts and reducing visibility. In January in Les Arcs heavy snowfall shut lifts and pistes in the highest resorts, and closed roads preventing skiers using shuttle buses to reach lower resorts which were open.
In April glorious sunshine and blue skies provide the perfect backdrop to a week’s skiing, but too little snow can reduce the number of runs that are open, and sunshine can reduce white snow to dirty and dangerous slush by the end of the day. The après-ski late in the season is all about sitting outside in the sunshine with the longer days, and sometimes a bonus of live music, whereas your days are shorter in January and sitting outside is not always so inviting. Although, this January we sat out on the piste at Les Arcs 1950 with others on deckchairs in glorious sunshine just two days after heavy snow had closed the area completely. Choosing when to ski is all about paying your money and taking your choice.
Out on the piste
We have chosen to eat out on the slopes during the day and have taken our own sandwiches. Whatever your choice you will not be alone; this January we sat in glorious sunshine at Col De La Chal in Les Arcs eating our sandwiches at 2600 metres with many other people enjoying the jaw dropping views, and at Val Thorens last year we sat in the heat eating them with music playing and snowboarders strutting their stuff.
We have also eaten on the slopes which is getting a more expensive option. One favourite is “Rond Point” at Meribel with a large ski in/ski out terrace serving burgers and noodles outside and offering table service inside and out (book ahead to guarantee a seat). For a family of five for food and drinks you quickly pass the fifty euros mark, although it is nothing compared to prices in Courcheval 1850 where a larger beer was thirteen euros. A good tip with Courcheval is to head to 1650 for lunch, it might be a pain to take off your skis and cross the road, but the food is cheaper, as good and the sunshine on a sunny day just as bright.
On the piste there is a mixture of higher end restaurants, as well as self service snack options and take away kiosks. Most sell chips, hot dogs, burgers, pizza, soup and toasted sandwiches with a variety of hot and cold drinks. On the colder days it is lovely to step into the warmth for soup, and on sunny days a toasted sandwich or burger at 2850 metres (Col de la Chambre in Meribel) is well worth the premium.
We always take snacks and drinks with us too. The pouch style “Capri-Sun” drinks are easy to put in pockets with snack bars and sweets. If you take a back pack you can carry water bottles, but always remember to move it to your front when you are using the lifts. Always keep your energy levels up: most ski accidents happen later in the day when you are getting tired, and the snow is getting slushy or the piste is broken up by over use.
Points to think about
- Make sure everyone in your group carries their own piste map and has a charged mobile phone.
- Wear a helmet-enough said
- The piste map includes an emergency number, and the advice in case of accidents is to alert the ski patrol or nearest lift staff. You must give them the name of the slope that you are on and the number of the closet marker (each piste has regular distance markers counting you down as you descend). At the height of the season the hospital at Bourg St Maurice below the Les Arcs ski area treats on average 80-100 people a day who have been injured on the slopes.
- Carry your insurance details with you on the piste
- Use sun tan cream and lip balm regularly
- Keep hydrated and eat regularly to keep your energy levels up
- Check that your insurance covers you for winter sports-if you choose to go off piste you will not be covered so may have to look at paying extra if that is what you want to do
- Keep an eye on when lifts close and the shuttle bus timetables because taxis are an expensive option if you get stuck
- Think about your clothing: thermals, socks, base layer/long sleeved top, jumper, salopettes, coat, helmet, googles and buff/neck warmer. You can find good quality second-hand ski wear on eBay; an end of season sale is good and many more retailers such as Aldi do their own budget range of clothing
Most importantly enjoy it’s wonderful, and sorry in advance as you will become an addict and your habit will cost a lot of money.