A family ski holiday can be a beautiful thing. It’s a chance to escape everyday routines, share some adventures with your kids, and show them there’s more to the world than iPads and supermarket car parks. And that’s before you’ve even considered the activity anchoring the whole experience: whizzing down a snowy mountain on skis.
But when should you go?
Aye, there’s the rub. The mainstream ski season stretches from early/mid-December to early or mid-April, with a few high-altitude resorts starting earlier and finishing later. It’s a good stretch of time, and contains three separate school holidays. But picking the right week for a holiday can be difficult. Snow conditions change. Prices can rise and fall alarmingly between high and low season periods. Resorts can be heaving, or quiet.
What’s more, this winter, 2016-7, there are some added intricacies. After two poor starts to winter, skiers are fretting about the possibility of a snowless Christmas. Easter is late in 2017 too. And some school holiday dates are far from helpful, especially when it comes to the restart after New Year.
None of these problems is insurmountable – and some offer the chance of finding a great holiday at a bargain price. But if you want to wring maximum value from the season ahead, you’ll have to keep yourself informed about what’s on offer, and at what price – as well as keeping an eye on the state of the snow with our snow reports.
Here’s a survey of what lies ahead.
Christmas and New Year
But don’t write off the festive season just yet, for two reasons.
First, in both years, only a small number of resorts were completely unskiable. High-altitude resorts with good snow-making systems were in reasonable shape, with many managing to open 50% or more of their pistes. Even if we get another poor start to the season, resorts such as Val d’Isere, Tignes, Val Thorens, Cervinia, Obergurgl and Ischgl should be able to offer a decent amount of skiing (check out our list of reliable Christmas resorts here).
Secondly, talk of snowless slopes has combined with awkward school holiday dates to depress demand. There are already big discounts around for trips to low-altitude resorts. For example, family skiing specialist Esprit is offering a free child place for every adult booking this Christmas to either the Chalet Aventine or Karine in Les Gets. Meanwhile, Ski Famille is cutting £1000 off the price of a Christmas holiday for a family of four in the same resort.
I wouldn’t suggest bagging one of these low-altitude deals just yet. Even if a ski holiday’s heavily discounted, it’ll still seem expensive if there’s little or no snow. But if you keep an eye on our snow reports over the next month or two, and see that winter is off to a cold and snowy start, then grab them with both hands. After all, low-level resorts are often much closer to our idea of what a Christmassy ski resort should look like. Some, notably Les Gets, make a real fuss over Father Christmas, too.
This is usually a canny choice for families with private-school children. They break up early, and get a sniff of low-season pricing for a refreshing pre-Christmas escape. This year, some state school families will be joining them: because a few local authorities are breaking up on December 16 too. Package holidays for the week are generally 20-40% cheaper than Christmas week, and 45-60% cheaper than February half term.
Bear in mind however, that many tour operators have shifted their departure dates off the weekend, to avoid the fact that Christmas is on a Sunday. Some departures are on Friday December 16, which are the ones to go for. Others start much earlier in the week, which is much less feasible.
At this point in the season, you should pick a resort with high-altitude skiing. In Tignes, for example, Mark Warner has a week from December 16 in its highly-rated chalet-hotel Aiguille Percee, for £2,736, including flights from Gatwick and transfers (that’s the total price for two adults and two children but doesn’t include childcare, which costs from £155 per child extra).
Meanwhile, Crystal has kept to Saturday-to-Saturday holidays over the Christmas period. It’s currently offering a week from December 17 at the Hotel Austria in Obergurgl for £3,168 for a family of four, including flights from Gatwick and transfers.
Some families fight shy of Christmas week in the mountains. After all, there’s Granny to think of, and all the comfort and traditions of home to miss when you’re away.
But it can be a brilliant week to go skiing – especially if you’re bored of the usual Yuletide sloth, or worried that the whole festival is sinking under the weight of its materialism. After all, you’re going to be outdoors and active for the whole week – and airline baggage allowances will mean you won’t be drowning in presents on December 25, either. For the first few days of the holiday the slopes are usually blissfully quiet too. Most Europeans wait till New Year is approaching to launch their ski trips.
This year, many Christmas package holidays are starting on December 23, although some get going on December 18, 19 or 20. The idea is to avoid the weekend, so you don’t spend Christmas Eve in a plane or transfer bus. Packages are generally 30-35% cheaper than the peak February half term week.
One company that’s not shifting dates is Crystal, which is running its holidays from December 24-31. Persuading families to fly out on Christmas Eve and back on New Year’s Eve won’t be easy, and prices are already being discounted, even in high-altitude resorts.
With Esprit, a week from December 23 at ski-in, ski-out chalet-hotel Crystal 2000, at the top of Courchevel, will cost a family of four £3,668, chalet board and including flights from Gatwick and transfers. Childcare starts from £199 per child.
Meanwhile, with chalet specialist VIP, a week from December 19 at the Hotel Theodul in Lech will cost a family of four £5,596, chalet board and including flights from Gatwick and transfers. There’s a private nanny service available at the hotel, which starts from £625 a week.
New Year Week
Traditionally, this is one of the most popular weeks of the year. Lots of big groups of British adults, as well families, are out in the resorts – along with what feels like half of Europe. Prices are usually high.
But this winter New Year holidays are different. Some tour operators have stretched holiday packages to eight or nine days. You arrive on a Friday, and fly home on a Saturday or Sunday. That way, tour operators have got their normal changeover days back in place for the rest of the season.
Some companies, such as Mark Warner and are also offering four or five night minibreaks from £699pp.
The stretched holidays aren’t selling particularly well – because they don’t finish until January 6 or 7. Some have already been discounted. There could well be more deals on offer nearer Christmas.
With the Family Ski Company, eight nights from December 30 – January 7 at Chalet Anna in Reberty 2000 (a suburb of Les Menuires), will cost a family of four £3,676, chalet board, including transfers but not flights. That includes a saving of £350pp. Childcare starts from £419 per child, including ski school.
With Ski Famille, eight nights from December 30 – January 7 at Chalet Nicole in La Plagne will cost a family of four £3,999pp, chalet board and including flights from Gatwick and transfers. That includes a saving of £250pp.
February Half Term
February half-term break has always been the plum week for family skiing. Yes, the slopes are busy – especially in the French Alps – and holiday prices high. Holiday prices are routinely more than double what they are in mid-January. But it’s also the moment when most families have the fewest commitments, and the snow is at its most reliable. Even in 2015, and 2016, after bumpy starts to the winter, conditions were exceptional in mid-Feb.
Unusually, this year, there are two half-term weeks in the UK.
1st half-term week (Feb 11/12 – 18/19)
Most of southern England as well as London, the Midlands, some of Scotland, and virtually all private schools are off for this week. Holidays have sold well, especially those offering English-speaking childcare. But there’s still some availability. In part that’s because demand is spread over two weeks. But it may also be a reflection of the current economic uncertainty.
Whatever the cause, there are still rooms left at some of Esprit’s most popular chalet-hotels – including the Ducs de Savoie in in Val d’Isere and Les Deux Domaines in La Plagne. At the Ducs de Savoie, a week from February 12 will cost a family of four £5,963 chalet-board, including flights from Gatwick, and transfers.
Meanwhile, with Crystal, a week from February 11 at the Chalet Violetta in Canazei costs £4,408, chalet-board, for a family of four, including flights from Gatwick and transfers. Childcare starts from £549 per child, including ski school and equipment hire.
Looking for something cheaper for half-term? If you don’t mind doing your own cooking, and in-house childcare isn’t a requirement, then consider a self-catering apartment. It’s the type of accommodation most other European nations use when they ski. It also works well for budget-conscious British families with a few ski holidays under their belts.
2nd half-term week (Feb 18/19 – 25-26)
Now it’s the turn of the North and patches of the South (for example, Hampshire and West Sussex). Demand is lower and so are prices.
For example, a week from February 19 for a family of four at the Esprit’s Ducs de Savoie is 23% cheaper than it is February 12. A week at Crystal’s Chalet Violetta is 30% cheaper.
Bargain hunters are also more likely to get last-minute discounts for the second half-term week than the first; especially if they’re not too fussy about which resort they go to, and they don’t need a tour operator which offers specialist childcare.
Easter can be a great time to go skiing – sunny, super-relaxed, and full of great skiing (if you adopt spring-skiing tactics). But you do need to be careful which resort you choose. Altitude is a real asset at this time of year, and the list of resorts to target is remarkably similar to the ones you’ll need for a snowsure early-season trip.
Lots of people know this, and the focus on a handful of reliable resorts means prices in the likes of Tignes, Obergurgl, Val Thorens, Les Menuires and Val d’Isere are not much lower than at half-term. W/c April 1 or 2 is the peak week this winter, as that’s the first week most state schools have off. Sometimes prices are only 10-15% cheaper than for February half term.
Private schools break up a week earlier than the state schools. Holidays starting on March 25 or 26 are about 25-30% lower than the February half-term peak.
Easter is also the time that upmarket family specialist Powder Byrne runs its ever-popular ski academy with ex-racer Martin Bell in Zermatt. The academy is aimed at 11-15 year olds and costs £695pp for five full days.
Finally, there is the controversial option of taking a term-time trip. Anecdotal evidence suggests more parents are now doing this – in the wake of Jon Platt’s successful appeal against a fine for taking his daughter out of school. (However, it’s worth noting that Platt’s local authority is appealing against the latest decision.) Given many mid-January ski holidays are half the price of the February half-term peak, you can understand the temptation.