Getting the most from your Family Ski Trip
Cast your mind back, way back. Back to when there was just you to think about. Before the kids came along. Skiing with kids may be a whole different ball-game, but it need not be as expensive or as limiting as you imagine.
Recall (wistfully) how you used to go skiing with your mates year in, year out. You were hooked after that first winter trip away – remember that? The sun holiday packages suddenly lost their appeal and you began feverishly checking ski webcams from October like a person possessed!!
Those were the days when you hit the slopes in full party mode. You hunted for resorts where the après ski was just as important – maybe moreso – than the snow conditions themselves. One of the mates organised the booking with a travel agent and you just handed over your hard earned shekels and went along. No stress. No fuss. Just turn up. It didn’t seem a huge deal to hand over a grand for a week skiing with the mates, not to mention the amount spent on all the extras…. And by extras, I mean scoops, shots, partying.
Along came 1, then maybe 2, 3 or more children. And that kind of cash per person for a week’s holiday suddenly didn’t seem such a good deal.
The call of the snowy mountains is strong. You still dream of returning to the slopes. And besides, didn’t you promise yourself that if you ever had kids, you’d introduce them to all things mountain early on?
1. Package Deal or DIY?
The easiest thing to do is hunt for a family package deal. This is what I recommend for anyone who has never experienced a ski holiday before. Let the reps take care of the lesson bookings, lift passes, ski rental packages and so on. But take mental notes so you have more flexibility in years to come.
Keep reading though – you still need to consider the some of tips I’ve outlined below so that you get the best package deal possible for your family!
If you’re a seasoned cheap flight and accommodation hunter and have been skiing a couple of times, it’s all very manageable to do it yourself if you keep some of the following considerations in mind.
Choose a resort that is easily accessible for you – i.e. airport within an hour or two of the resort, perhaps reasonably priced transfers/public transport options if you don’t fancy hiring a car and driving.
A high enough altitude resort for guaranteed decent snow. Otherwise check the resort’s track record for snow in recent years. Even though some runs might be always open thanks to snow production, it’s not quite the same experience if the only white stuff you see is on piste or the cream on your hot chocolate!
4. Think Green
A resort which is suitable for beginners – one with plenty and plenty of greens – regardless of your own ability. It ensures that you will be relaxed and comfortable looking after your children if you plan on doing a few runs together as a family. When you go skiing in full on Mammy (or Daddy) Mode, your own technique suffers as you watch every twitch the kids make.
5. Discounted Ski Passes
Ski Pass Prices. A huge chunk of the cost of a ski holiday for families. They can often work out more expensive than your budget airline flights! Many resorts offer free or reduced-price passes for children. There are myriad options on this and really it very much depends on the age of your children. The younger they are, the better.
In France, most resorts (over 85%*) offer family discounts, with free passes for under 6s and cheaper family passes in off peak season. In Italy, you can find some resorts where free passes are offered for under 8s, and again in off-peak season, you can find even better deals for families! The upper age limit for free passes in Switzerland and Austria is 9, but in some Austrian resorts, children can ski for free with paying adults until they are 15 years of age! Admittedly, there are restrictions to off-peak times in many cases, but still! 15!?! The only downside to bringing children to Austria, I feel, is the lack of a smoking ban. It’s such a friendly place, but the smoky atmosphere lets it down in terms of suitability for families.
If you have very young children, check that your resort offers lessons to that age level. For instance, ESF in France will teach children as young as 2 and a half or 3. In Italy and Austria they need to be 4 years old, but many places will have a creche facility with a snow garden for them to play in so you can still have a couple of hours of freedom. It’s a nicer experience when everyone can share how they got on though, so if you have someone under 4, go to France! You can check if the resort has the coveted ‘Famille Plus’ label.
6. Lesson prices and times
First off, lessons are arranged with the notion that everyone arrives and departs at the weekend. This is fine if you are on a package deal, but if DIYing it, beware that cheaper flights might cost you on lessons. Try to stick to the weekends if you can, otherwise chances are that you’ll be paying for private lessons.
Lessons usually come in 5 or 6 day packages. Dropping the 6th day for every member in the family can add up to quite a saving. Your ski pass will cover 6 days of skiing, so you can either use it the day before your lessons to find your ski legs and get the most from your lessons – or – use it at the end and make a family day out of it.
Keep your eye out early on. Some ski schools offer discounts on lessons booked before the season starts. Sometimes as early as October. Sign up to newsletters of potential resorts as early as possible to keep informed. You can unsubscribe later on.
If you’re stuck to school holidays, there are some benefits of going when it’s busier. One of these is the availability of lunch-time lessons. In Serre Chevalier for example, you can have a lie on, a big lazy breakfast and hand the kids over to their ski school at 11:30am. Then you have until 2pm to do your own thing – whether that means hitting the harder slopes, getting your own lessons, relaxing in the spa or chilling out with a vin chaud (gluhwein) and a book, it’s all good! And – you still have time afterwards to do a few green runs as a family!
7. Free shuttle bus
Many people I know will tolerate the drive from the airport to the ski resort, but then want to avoid driving unless they absolutely have to. If you fall into this category too, be sure to check frequency the resort’s shuttle bus to and from the slopes. Not all skiing is from the door, and indeed a decent shuttle service opens up your accommodation options considerably.
8. When to go?
If you are not restricted to school holidays, don’t go during school holidays!! If it’s your first time skiing as a family, go in the last three weeks of January. It avoids school holidays in most countries, meaning you can avail of the best deals – and have the space to figure out the logistics of lifts and gondolas while holding onto multiple children, all your skis, poles, helmets, bag etc…..
If you’ve been a couple of times, you could save a few quid by going before Christmas if the snow is looking good. Many resorts offer cheaper passes in December, but buyer beware – not all resorts will be fully open or be offering courses yet. It’s also considerably colder. Hard to believe a month would make such a difference, but it does. The sun is gone from the slopes by 2pm, making the slopes bitterly cold. Make sure you bring an additional layer for the afternoons. The pistes generally close earlier by about 30 minutes too.
9. To hire a car or not to hire a car?
In my experience, hiring a car as a family – or group of friends – makes sense. A transfer price that sounds okay for an individual can work out more expensive than hiring a car when multiplied by 4 or more! It can also be easier logistically than trying to figure out how the public transport system works when accompanied by tired, hungry children. It also means that you can do a week’s grocery shopping in one go, instead of buying by the day and ending up spending a fortune.
Car hire in Italy is very reasonable and most car hire companies will allow you to drive into France, Switzerland and Austria. Be mindful though that to drive in Austria and Switzerland , you will need to buy a ‘vignette’ (toll sticker) before you enter the country. Stop off at a petrol station to pick one up. A 10 day vignette will cost you €8.80 for Austria. Great value for the use of their motorways and far cheaper than the €240 on the spot fine if you don’t have it. In Switzerland, they don’t have a holiday option, you need to buy the annual one which is €35.75 at the moment, but having said that – it’s still a lot cheaper than driving any sort of distance on the motorways in France and Italy – particularly if you need to use one of the big tunnels.
If you are flying into Geneva with the intention of spending your ski holiday in France, you won’t need a vignette. The French own a strip of land which comes in one side of Geneva airport and brings you directly into France proper! However… take care when hiring the car. Ensure that you are getting it from the French side.
Hire cars come with GPS as standard nowadays and even if not, data roaming isn’t the issue it once was so you don’t even need to have downloaded your route prior to leaving home. Navigating your way is certainly not the challenge it once was. Driving in winter in alpine areas still brings certain considerations though. What are the road conditions? Is there a legal requirement for you to have winter tyres? Some car hire companies switch to winter tyres as standard between November and April, whereas some will charge for this – so be sure to check when comparing prices so that you’re comparing like with like.
Mountain Rescue might be free in Ireland and the UK, but that is a European anomaly. If you or your child is injured on the mountain, you’ll have to pay for rescue if you don’t have insurance cover. And it is not cheap.
It goes without saying that you should get insured for your ski trip. If you already have an annual mutli-trip family insurance policy, talk to your provider. Most insurers will offer a winter sports add-on for a small fee. Ensure that off piste is included – it might surprise you (or perhaps it won’t!) to discover what an insurance company considers to be off piste!
If you have private health insurance, it’s also worth checking with them. You may get a reduced rate if they are already insuring you for overseas care.
Whether you have private health insurance or not, don’t forget to apply for (or renew) your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to avail of the same healthcare entitlements as local citizens.
And as is always the case with insurance – shop around and compare like with like. Insurance comparison websites are helpful with this kind of research. Many resorts also offer insurance purely for skiing, so it’s worth comparing your resort’s insurance cover too.
My next post will deal with what to do when you get there!
*According to the International Ski Federation