Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Europe Ski Tips

It’s prime ski season in Europe, and the snow this year is some of the best in several seasons. Here are our Top 15 Europe Ski Tips.

Pick Your Resort Carefully
Ski resorts in Europe can be far bigger than even the largest North American resorts (such as Whistler or Vail). Conversely, they can be small, intimate places ideal for relaxation and romance. Just don’t go to Val d’Isere, France, expecting a quiet, cozy French village; likewise, don’t go to Murren, Switzerland, if you’re looking for vast slopes and great nightlife.

Most Resorts Cater to Week-Long Vacationers
Europe ski weeks are usually Saturday to Saturday. Many, if not most, resorts cater almost exclusively to those time frames – thus, lodging is harder to find day-to-day (or more expensive); trains, taxis, and transfers are more frequent on the Saturday and weekend in/out days; even airfare can vary between midweek and weekend. On the same theme, if you prefer uncrowded slopes, avoid the UK half-term and the French school holidays. There will most assuredly be more crowds in Europe than at North America resorts, but still, the European school breaks are like U.S. spring breaks on steroids.

Ski Lodging Options
Lodging varies widely at European ski destinations. You’ll have your choices of “self-catered” vs. catered chalets (condos); large vs. small hotels; slopeside vs. village lodging; hotels with meals (usually in the hotel dining room) and without; and several other permutations. Make sure you understand the options. We’ve stayed in “self-catered” lodging where not even the toilet paper was included.

Bring Your Boots
And your goggles, helmet, gloves, and one pair of ski clothes. Rent skis and poles. Your feet are the engines of your skiing. Rental boots in Europe can fit just as badly as rental boots in the U.S. For skis, you should have excellent options of some of the best and latest models.

Rent the Skis You Want
Don’t be talked into renting a ski too long, too short, too old, not suited to your ability, or badly tuned. European ski shop employees are no different than in the U.S. – underpaid and indifferent.

Consider Skiing with a Small Day Pack
Stuff it (lightly) with snacks, an extra warm layering garment, and maybe shoes. At the big resorts, weather can change on one part of the mountain and you might easily be half an hour or more from getting back to your starting point. Also, many resorts are strung out along a long valley, and you might start at one end but finish your day several miles away. A pair of walking shoes/boots in your day pack can make the bus/taxi/walk back much more comfortable.

Take a Few Little Repair Items
We always travel with zip ties, a Leatherman tool, and duct tape. As with weather and resort layout, you may find yourself a long way from a ski shop (even one on the hill). A small kit can come in handy.

Adopt the Euro Long-Lunch Attitude
Lunch at most European ski areas is seldom a sandwich-in-the-cafeteria situation. Go native. Also remember that most resorts have an actual town at their base – you can easily eat lunch in a real restaurant (yes, in your ski clothes) almost as conveniently as on the hill.

Euros Start to Ski Late In the Day
Since many skiers stayed up late the night before, many resorts don’t start getting crowded until 10 or 11. Join the fun at night, or have an hour to yourself by being on the lifts when they open in the morning. A surprising number of skiers close the hill, too. Maybe it’s those long lunch breaks they take.

Lift Lines
The renowned unruly lift lines (queues) of the past are mostly fading with high-speed lifts, but be ready to be shoved a bit. Start early; ski while everyone else is taking lunch; ski the lower mountain when other skiers are up high; etc.

Out-of-Bounds Skiing
If you ski out of bounds (off piste) be aware that it’s perfectly legal, but if you screw up you’ll be charged for rescue. Buy the optional rescue insurance (which usually only costs a few Euros) with each day’s lift ticket.

You’ll almost certainly have to check a bag with your airline, but make sure your boots are in your carry-on. In your checked bag, bring just one pair of pants, parka, etc. Spare or replacement clothing can be purchased anywhere. (Besides, it’ll be Euro-trendy. And we guarantee you will neither be the dorkiest nor the trendiest-looking skier on the hill.) Considering the transportation hassles and the ridiculous airline baggage fees, we suggest not traveling with checked skis.

Everything Ski-Related is Available, But...
While you can find just about everything at European ski resorts, the shops may not have your favorite sunscreen, energy bars, or personal items. If you really want something specific, bring it from home.

Bring a Few Passport-Size Photos
They’re necessary for multi-day lift tickets. Most ticket booths have photo kiosks, but it’s a lot easier to bring your own photos.

Partake of the Regional Culture
If you’re skiing Les Trois Vallees, spend a few days wining and dining in Paris before or after your holiday. Or if you’re skiing in Austria, spend time with Mozart and opera in Vienna on the same trip.

Val d’Isere, France