Can I go skiing this winter? How to book and where to go this season

From social distancing in-resort to insurance and where to book, we help you glide through the new normal of winter on piste.

By Nick Dalton
Published 22 Nov 2020, 08:00 GMT, Updated 24 Nov 2020, 16:13 GMT
Winter skiing

With some ski resorts having opened for summer skiing and most others set to do so by early December, distancing systems will be well tested by the time British skiers arrive at Christmas.

Photograph by Getty Images

The big push this winter on the pistes is to reassure skiers keen to forget the traumas of the year, and to help the industry recoup losses from the previous, abruptly abandoned season. With a reduction in UK skier numbers forecast, travellers/skiers can expect natural social distancing, and ski areas across the map have been working hard to develop anti-coronavirus strategies. With some having already opened for summer skiing and most others set to do so by early December, distancing systems will be well tested by the time British skiers arrive at Christmas.

How will resorts adapt?

You can expect to find chairlifts with closed-off seats (no real problem, as those big new chairs often sail off half full), cable-cars that no longer resemble rush-hour Tube trains, and smaller lift queues with skiers a ski stick’s length apart. Dining might involve reduced restaurant menus, and apres-ski bars will be thinned out, with crowds gravitating to open-air drinking spots. Ischgl — the Austrian ski town for the Alpine party set, which last season had the country’s biggest cluster of coronavirus cases — has one of the most comprehensive Covid-safe programmes. Visitors must prove they’ve tested negative within 72 hours of checking in or pay for an in-resort test. Skiers can expect disinfectant misting and free ski buffs, plus colourful neck cosies that can be pulled up over the face — this season’s top face mask fashion. Ski masks are likely to be a common uptake, if not compulsory, and throughout Austria, tourism employees are being given Covid tests. Vail Resorts, which runs 37 resorts across North America, Canada and Australia, has imposed a raft of measures, including face masks at all times, and so far, bars remain closed so apres will be a DIY affair. 

What will prices look like?

Ski companies are seeing slow bookings amid ever-changing quarantine regulations and FCO advice, yet the industry has spent autumn confidently planning ahead. “Skiers are resilient people; I’m positive we’ll have a good season,” says Paul Carter, CEO of Hotelplan, the parent company of ski outfits including Inghams, Esprit Ski and Ski Total. He says there won’t be notable discounts (“If demand softens, capacity will tighten”), although Richard Rice, the founder and chairman of Ski Safari, tailor-made ski holiday specialist, says he’s seeing good prices on hotels and flights even in high season. 

Can I get insured?

Yes. Travel insurance is slowly starting to include coronavirus, covering various aspects such as cancellations and inability to travel, and in some cases even covering you to travel against FCO advice (see our Ask the Experts Q&A on p.75). Hotelplan’s extra-cost travel insurance covers these additional elements, and Crystal Ski Holidays (the UK’s biggest ski company), while recommending individuals take out travel insurance, itself covers treatment should you fall ill abroad or while travelling home. When it comes to general travel insurance policies, ensure winter sports activities are included. And however you choose to book — DIY or ski package — always use a credit card (not debit card) as purchases over £100 (and up to £30,000) are protected under UK law.

Where should I go?

As long as skiers realise things are likely to change from week to week throughout the season — from local lockdowns to UK quarantine edicts — then the choice is yours. If industry-wide campaigning for Covid tests in airports gathers enough momentum, the ski season will get a much-needed boost.

If you want to go somewhere tried-and- Covid-tested, France is a good option; it saw some slopes open for summer skiing in resorts such as Tignes. Austria, too, has seen summer openings at glaciers including Hintertux, near Mayrhofen. Zermatt, in Switzerland, opened its Matterhorn glacier in June. And even Italy, the country that closed its resorts earliest last season, has been on the UK’s low-risk list. Scandinavia  currently escapes travel restrictions. Norway even managed to reopen one resort, Myrkdalen, late last season, so had the first experience of social distancing.

US resorts are dealing with things with their usual professionalism but with British visitors currently banned from entry they look like being off-limits — although the upcoming presidential election could bring change. Canada, without the same restrictions, could be a better bet.

All ski resorts are striving to make themselves safe and attractive but face fast-changing rules. What is a given, though, is that despite low visitor numbers there are few bargains. But, as Crystal’s Chris Logan says: “I wouldn’t worry about the lift queues!”  

How do I book?

DIY trips, with budget airlines, car hire and individually booked hotels, can be harder to unpick if things go wrong. For example, an airline might still serve a destination even though local infrastructure issues make it harder to get there and have a proper ski experience. That said, many Alpine hotels have flexible booking and cancellation policies. But most skiers don’t travel DIY. So, the rule this season is: choose tour operators with ABTA, ABTOT, and ATOL protection, offering a financial safety net and a guarantee of getting home should your operator fold or travel regulations change. But be prepared to chase refunds and haggle over rebookings. Before you book, it’s worth checking how your chosen tour operator responded to issues caused early on in the pandemic.

Chris Logan, MD of Crystal Ski Holidays, part of the TUI Group, which uses TUI  ]Airways, says it swiftly brought 10,000 people home after last season fell apart, and is ready to do so again this season.

But what happens if you can’t travel? Companies have varying options. Crystal Ski Holidays is offering free amends to bookings for the whole party if someone is diagnosed with coronavirus, has symptoms or has been asked to self-isolate, or if your local UK area goes into lockdown. Hotelplan, meanwhile, offers free amendments and, if it has to cancel your holiday due to governmental rulings, lets you pick an alternative trip or get a full refund. With Ski Safari, if you want to reschedule your trip (destination, accommodation, flights and dates, even as far ahead as winter 2021-22) or exchange it for a 2021 Freedom Treks cycling holiday, you won’t have to pay a thing until the final balance is due, 10 weeks before departure. Tailor-made ski tour operator Ski Solutions, meanwhile, offers free changes to destination or date (for this season or next) up to 12 weeks from departure. And once you’ve paid a deposit to More Mountain, which has chalets and apartments in France’s Morzine, you can swap your holiday for one up to 24 months in advance. Paid in full? It’ll give you a credit note valid until 30 April, 2023.

For now, catered chalets for groups of up to 10 in self-catered apartments are selling well — not least because catered chalet stock is down (due to Brexit and Covid issues). And there are some incentives out there: Mountain Heaven, with chalets in France, is offering a £200 per person discount on group-booked chalets if you’d prefer to cook for yourself rather than have staff do it.

Editor's note: Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some resorts across the Alps (France notably) are delaying opening or closing where already opened.

Published in the Winter Sports 2020 supplement, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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