How to Book a Ski Holiday
Posted by Fraser EwartWhite
Booking a ski holiday seems a pretty straight-forward task but is strewn with pitfalls and often ends with disappointment. Here at Powder White we are embarking on our 13th ski season and have literally booked thousands of ski holidays for people, be they catered chalets, hotel holidays or self catered accommodation. Following are some simple guidelines that will help you consider what is important when you book a ski holiday so that you end up with the skiing holiday that you want (whether it be with Powder White or not!) or skip to our infographic at the bottom of this post for a quick guide.
1. Choose the type of holiday you want – packaged or unpackaged?
Packaged – for a lot of people this is the simplest way to book a skiing holiday – all in one go. Simplicity has one advantage – it is simple! But like with many simple things, there is little room for flexibility and you have to fit in with the Tour Operators schedule, which may not suit you (think flights at hideous-o-clock in the morning, glorious shared transfers with a stag-do, and the on-bus hard sell). And surprisingly it may not be cheaper….
Unpackaged – this can require a bit more work, but leaves you in control on certainly the travel element of your holiday. You can choose the method of transport (plane, train or automobile), the time you travel, your departure and arrival points, and then how you choose to get to your ski resort (private transfer, shared transfer, car hire or even helicopter). Whilst this all seems like too much work, this is when you ask for the Operator to do the work for you – and they would be more than happy to oblige. Also it allows you arrive early in resort and leave late, meaning you can achieve an extra days skiing over the packaged punters. And if you are clever with the flights, it can work out to be considerably cheaper than the packaged option….makes you think!
2. Choose the type of accommodation you want – Chalet, Hotel or Self Catered Apartment?
This sounds obvious but the three holidays are completely different experiences at different price points, so it is worth considering what sort of holiday you want when you book a ski holiday.
A Catered Chalet Holiday – this is when you take over a chalet (or part of a chalet), and for 6 out of 7 days you are looked after by a ‘Chalet Host’ (girl or boy) who will cook and clean for you and generally assist with your holiday. Long gone are the days of spag bol and paintstripper wine (well – certainly not at Powder White!), and now a lot of catered chalet companies will offer excellent, albeit not quite restaurant standard, quality of cuisine. The day starts with a hearty cooked or continental breakfast, followed by the infamous Afternoon Tea of cakes, breads and spreads, and concluded with canapés, a three course evening meal, cheese and coffee. Food is plentiful on a catered chalet holiday so do not expect to lose weight! In my opinion, the most important differentiator to a chalet holiday versus a hotel holiday is that the whole chalet is yours for the week – so if you chose to chill on the sofa and watch a DVD all day, then that is your choice. You do not have to be on best behaviour as you tend to have to be in a hotel (sometimes difficult with tired children) and it is a lot more relaxed – a home from home experience – but with staff! Chalets tend to occupy the middle strata of the price range – but they do offer incredibly good value as you get a lot of bang for your buck.
A Ski Hotel Holiday – this is as a hotel holiday that could be anywhere in the world, but with skiing thrown in. You book a ski holiday hotel on a room by room basis, and can choose the board basis – either Bed and Breakfast or Half Board. Depending on the Star Rating of the hotel, the décor and service can range from basic (2*) to utterly luxurious (5*) and there is a very strong correlation with how much you will pay! In some of the leading resorts (Courchvel 1850 and Val d’Isere spring to mind) there are some hotels that are bordering on 6* – but you will need very deep pockets, especially during the peak weeks (New Year and Half Term) where you will not see much or any change from £100k for the absolute uber-luxe suites. The restaurants within the hotels should be of a very good standard, with a lot of Hotels in the Alps boasting Michelin stars, and there is a certain degree of formality – which may or may not suit your holiday. If you are looking for proper professional service, great quality food, and a more ‘formal’ experience, then a Hotel holiday is for you. Great for couples who want romance in the snow – not so good for young families. Unsurprisingly, the Ski Hotel holiday tends to occupy the upper strata of the price range.
Self Catered Apartment Holiday – this does exactly what it says on the tin – it is an apartment where you cater for yourself. This tends to be the cheapest option for a skiing holiday, and if you don’t mind cooking for yourself, doing the washing up and making your own bed, a lot of the apartment blocks in ski resorts offer doorstep skiing and a great solution to get on the slopes without breaking the bank. Self catered apartments had a bit of a bad reputation as being a bit run down and dirty. In fact, over the past ten years millions have been pumped into Residences, so now some of the higher end apartments even challenge some the catered chalets. Also a lot of the Residences have additional features, such as swimming pools, which adds a new facet to your holiday. Not to be dismissed as they have become a very viable accommodation-type for your skiing holiday.
3. Have a budget in mind
Again, this may sound obvious, but it is best to have a ball park figure that you want to spend on your skiing holiday, rather than embarking on your search only to realise that your aspirations and your finances are hopelessly mismatched. Your budget may well determine what type of holiday you can have (hotel, chalet or self catered apartment). If you let the operator know what your budget is, they should be able to offer you options that meet that budget – rather than you trawling the internet and ultimately wasting your own time.
4. Have some dates in mind
Dates determine availability. Nothing more leads to disappointment when you try to book a ski holiday and the operator wants to offer a customer a particular property which delights them, only to tell them that it is not available on the dates that they want. Best to go into your search with some fixed dates, so you will only be offered properties that are available. Dates are also intrinsically linked to how much the holiday will cost – if you choose peak weeks, the holiday will be considerably more expensive than low weeks. For your information, peak weeks are Christmas, New Year, Russian New Year, Half Term, and Easter School Holidays; low weeks are the very start and the very end of the season, and January; mid-priced weeks are the rest.
5. Choose your country
Choose the country that you want to ski in will not only narrow down the number of ski resorts to choose from, but also determine the ‘culture’ of the skiing holiday. In general (and I really mean in general) the North American resorts are all about the skiing and the mountain and less about the après ski; whilst European holidays tend to combine the skiing with the après. US and Canadian resorts tend to be incredibly efficiently run, giving the skier access to the whole mountain and offer a lot less restrictive skiing. European skiing tends to be more defined by pistes and relatively restricted off-piste. The après ski is huge in Europe (especially in Austria) and much less so in North America. Do not make the mistake in thinking that the US and Canada have better snow than Europe – both continents can enjoy superb starts to the season and absolutely awful ones as well. With the individual countries all the normal national stereo-types apply, but just to touch on a few ski stereo-types, the French Resorts tend to be larger and very well connected (for example, the Trois Vallees, Espace Killy, Portes du Soleil), Italian resorts tend to be a little cheaper with superb food on the mountains, the Swiss resorts tend to be smaller and like to project themselves as ‘classier’; the Austrian Resorts are all about skiing hard and partying even harder.
6. Narrow down the resort that you want to go to
Ski resorts have an awful lot to offer and there is something for everyone. Things that you should consider before choosing your resort are:
– What standard of skiing is your group? It would be pointless taking a group of beginners to La Grave for example. If your skiing is gnarly, choose a resort with renowned advanced skiing, but equally if you are a group of beginners, choose a smaller ski resort with a good proportion of blue runs. If you have a group of mixed abilities, then choose a large resort that can cater for all levels of skiers (Trois Vallees – Courchevel, Meribel, Val Thorens, Espace Killly – Val d’Isere and Tignes, Portes du Soleil – Morzine, Avoriaz, Les Gets) – this will mean that everyone can find the skiing they want.
– Depending on the time of year you want to go, you need to be aware of altitude and snow history – here at Powder White we are obsessed with the weather forecast at the start of the season, and there are resorts that have very good consistent snow even at the start of the season and the end of the season. A lot of people will say to aim for a high altitude, and this increases the likelihood of snow as the resort is closer to the snowline. Having said that, St Anton, at only 1350m has one of the best snow records in the Alps. And also it is important to remember, when there is no precipitation, regardless of the Altitude there will be no snow – so altitude is no guarantee. Others will recommend resorts with glaciers – there is a certain guarantee of snow with a glacier, but more often than not, if snow is scarce, the glacier skiing will be very limited, very crowded and skied out very quickly.
– How important is the après-ski to your holiday? Ski Resorts differ massively on the post-ski resort atmosphere, from the genteel to the absolutely crazy. By researching resorts online you will quickly gauge which resort best suits your needs – what you don’t want is a mismatch – looking for a quiet holiday and ending up in après-hell, or conversely looking for party central and ending up in the quietest village in the Alps.
7. Choose your Accommodation and Operator
Now that you have narrowed down everything else, you want to choose the right accommodation and Operator. As a general rule of thumb, it if is cheap it will be nasty. If the price is too good to be true, then it probably is. Every year here at Powder White we have calls from groups who have booked phantom properties on Airbnb and other places – be careful and look out for signs of validity, including ATOL/ABTA logos, online reviews (good or bad ones both prove the operator exists!) Really have a good look at the website – in general, very large websites with lots of up to date information will take a large investment in time and effort and would be too much for scammers to manage. In choosing your Operator, go beyond the fluffy descriptions (everything will be luxury) and lovely photos, and speak to them. If they are helpful and efficient during the booking process, this is a good sign that they will deliver a great holiday. If they are a bit useless, then odds on this will carry through to resort. In choosing your accommodation, make sure you choose the right size, the right location, and the right standard – get these basic things right and you will be 90% there. The rest is down to gut feel – when speaking to the Operator, get a feeling for the sort of people you are dealing with, their manners, their knowledge and their competence. Ask the question – would you want them looking after you? If the answer is positive, you are probably on to a good thing.
So there you are. Hopefully these pointers will help you choose the right skiing holiday, so you end up in the right resort and in the right accommodation with the right operator, and be able to enjoy one the most exhilarating sports out there. Good luck!