Travel

Cut-price peaks: how to plan a ski trip on a budget

Is it still possible to snag a cheap winter sports break? From choosing accommodation to picking the best time to book, we reveal the tried and tested methods to making your ski trip more affordable.Saturday, 5 October 2019

By Ben Clatworthy
Packing for skiing

Where to go?
Cost-conscious skiers should avoid Switzerland (in a small resort last winter, a pizza and beer in a nondescript restaurant cost £40). The big-name French resorts can also be costly, especially for lift passes and on-mountain lunches. Resorts in Austria tend to be easier on the wallet, while Italy is very attractive to budget-conscious skiers. In the Post Office Money Ski Resort Report last season, four Italian resorts (Bardonecchia, Sestriere, La Thuile and Cervinia) all featured in the top 10 for best value.

Eastern Europe and the lesser-known ski regions remain reasonably priced, with cheaper accommodation, lift passes and piste-side dining. Bansko in Bulgaria is repeatedly named the best-value resort in Europe and facilities have improved vastly in the last decade. Kranjska Gora in Slovenia is also inexpensive. Closer to home, savvy skiers should also consider the resorts of Andorra; El Tarter, Soldeu and Pas de la Casa are all served by British tour operators and have low on-the-ground prices. These resorts are also family-friendly, with slopes suited to beginner-intermediate skiers, although there’s good off-piste freeride terrain too.

The French Pyrenees can’t compete with the Alps in terms of the number of resorts, but there are considerable advantages for budget skiers — hotels and apartments can cost as much as half those in the Alps. Purpose-built La Mongie, which is part of the Grand Tourmalet area, makes a good base although it lacks in charm. Closer to the Spanish border, Peyragudes is more modern with good intermediate runs. Or opt for Saint-Lary-Soulan, a spa town with tapas bars and a whopping 100km ski area.

Kit considerations
Once-a-year skiers are generally best off hiring kit in resort, especially given the high cost of ski carriage on many airlines. The quality of gear has improved dramatically in recent years; shops often stock a range of piste and all-mountain skis as well as several makes of boot for different foot shapes.

You can often arrange kit hire online in advance to find good deals and packages. If you ski regularly, consider investing in your own boots (although this isn’t the case for children as their feet grow faster than the boots wear out).

Learn your lesson
Ski schools tend to have fixed prices for group lessons, usually detailed on resort tourist office websites. Walk-in rates are usually more expensive than advance booking.

Where to stay?
Catered chalets
Once the mainstay of ski holidays for the British, catered chalets are facing an uncertain future (see Hot Topic on p.71) in Switzerland and Austria because of strict law changes, while the tightening of employment rules in France mean operators are facing ever-increasing costs. Prices are creeping up but lots of operators (Inghams, Neilson and Skiworld) still offer late deals, or early-booking incentives. Planetski.eu, a specialist ski website, runs a blog on ski deals during the autumn and winter.

Self-catered apartments & chalets
Self-catering can be attractive, especially for families and big groups. But remember: resort supermarkets and grocery shops are often very expensive. Driving from the UK can be a cost-effective option, and allows you to bring your own food. Alternatively, hire a car and stock up in a big hypermarket before driving to the resort. Warning: many companies market one-bed apartments as suitable for a family of four.

Hotels
Ski hotels, particularly in Austria and Italy, tend to be family-run and offer good value, half-board packages, typically with buffet breakfasts and three-course dinners. Some British tour operators now offer chalet-hotels, blending the two, but be warned: you may have to sit with other guests at dinner.

Hostels
A new breed of hostel is springing up across the Alps attracting a new market with design- and budget-conscious digs. Now it’s all about bold, vibrant communal areas, well-designed rooms (and dorms) and cheap eats. Good picks include the wellnessHostel4000 in Saas-Fee (Switzerland), The People Hostel in Les Deux Alpes (France), as well as ho36 in Les Menuires and La Plagne (both France). Action Outdoors offers bargain family packages in select French youth hostels during school holidays.      

When to book
Book early: Bag deals in early September. Operators often entice early bookers with the likes of free or discounted lift passes, free lessons or complimentary childcare.

Fixed travel dates: If you’re travelling during the school holidays, book early as prices, especially during February half term, quickly skyrocket, most notably the cost and availability of flights on Saturday/Sunday changeover days. Package tours are usually more cost-effective.

Book late: Skiers with date flexibility should consider booking last-minute for discounted deals. Operators don’t want empty seats on planes and ‘cold beds’, which make them no money. For the best deals, be flexible as to the resort or country on offer. If booking accommodation direct, check flight prices first, as exorbitant airfares could sour that sweet deal.

Train, plane or...
Driving to the Alps can be a money-saving alternative to flying (although it’s important to factor in about £80-100 for tolls). Outside peak season, especially during the week, it’s easy to snap up a cheap plane ticket, but school holiday dates are notoriously expensive; last year, on the morning EasyJet released its winter flights, tickets for the first Saturday of the Christmas holidays were double that of the day before. The golden rule: book flights sooner rather than later — or very last-minute when fares drop to shift unsold seats. In peak season, package holidays can be more cost-effective than DIY trips, as operators either have seats on their own planes or bulk buy elsewhere.

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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