A week on the slopes needn’t cost the earth. Time Out’s ski guru Dominic Earle picks the cut-price pistes of the season.
With lift prices for the mega resorts nudging above £200 for six days on the slopes, and tour operators reducing capacity and upping prices, this year it’s harder than ever to afford a fix of the white stuff. But head for the right place at the right time, and it’s still possible to find a good deal in the mountains this winter.
Skiing before Christmas might seem an alien concept, but it’s a great time to get in a couple of cheap days on the pistes – as long as the snow’s OK. One place virtually guaranteed to be up and running is Val d’Isère (www.valdisere.com), which opens for business on November 27. Normally Val might be beyond the budget of most skiers, but their early season offers between 27 November and 12 December (three nights for the price of two, plus a three-day Espace Killy ski pass and one free entry to the leisure centre swimming pool for €242) mean you can enjoy the world’s best ski resort for a lot, lot less.
January is perfect for a budget trip, with good snow and empty pistes in abundance, and a great place to head is Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland and budget can go together, and one of my favourite hotels in the Alps is the Riders Palace in Laax (www.riderspalace.com). This ultra-hip snowboarders’ hangout sports cool cubic architecture and hosts high-voltage parties, with live gigs from artists such as Dizzee Rascal – a world away from the usual alpine thigh-slapping. The high-tech building is constructed from stone, wood and glass, and the 70 rooms range from bunkrooms to king-size doubles. The bar runs for 20 hours a day and the weekends feature DJs at the in-house club. To top it off, the surrounding area is a boarder’s paradise, with snowpark, half-pipes (shaped daily from mid-October) and epic off-piste.
School holidays mean February is not a time to be budgeting in the Alps, so it’s a good time to save the euros and stay at home instead. It’s a truly wonderful thing that in these days of budget flights and baggage restrictions, you can still get on a sleeper train at Euston with as much clobber as you like and wake up the following morning in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands (www.scotrail.co.uk). The train stops at Fort William, from where it’s a bus or cab ride up to the slopes at Nevis Range (www.nevisrange.co.uk). Scottish skiing has suffered terribly in recent years, but Nevis Range is the country’s highest skiing area and in February there should be plenty of snow. It also trumps its local rivals with the famed back corries – when the snow’s fresh, they provide an off-piste experience unrivalled in these isles.
At Easter, I’ll be cramming the car full of kids, skis and sun cream and driving the ten hours or so across France to stay in an apartment in Flaine (www.flaine.com) or La Plagne (www.la-plagne.com). Both are more concrete box than chocolate box, but come late March/early April altitude takes precedence over aesthetics. Flaine is not hugely high, but it sits in the lee of Mont Blanc and benefits from excellent snow – and as an added bonus, if you buy an adult six-day lift pass (April 9-15), you get a child’s pass free (a saving of €159 per child). It’s also one of the closest resorts to Calais, which makes it ideal for self-drive. As for La Plagne, it is one of the best ski resorts in the world with endless intermediate pistes, gentle off-piste powder and a supremely efficient lift system – and all within a snowball’s throw of Eurostar’s weekly ski train from London (www.eurostar.com), which drops off at nearby Aime. The resort is also home to an Olympic bobsleigh run. If you want to hear your screams echoing around the valley climb into the 90km/hr self-steering mono bob, lie back and think of England as you shoot down the track towards oblivion – the perfect way to sign off the season.