Chris Thompson has been MD of family-skiing specialist Ski Famille for 12 years and first got involved with the business over 20 years ago. With a ski-mad eight year old and a fearless toddler in the family, he knows more than most about preparing for a family holiday in the mountains.
Maybe it’s just been snowing at home, and the children have built a snowman in the back garden. Or perhaps you’ve been longing to get away to the mountains yourself. Either way, you’ve started dreaming about a family skiing holiday, and you’re wondering if this is the winter to make your first trip.
Are you mad? Or a genius?
Well, that all depends on when, where and how you do it. Skiing isn’t the easiest skill in the world to master, and children can find it tough going to start with. But if you introduce them to it in the right way, most will quickly master the basics, and grow to love their time on the slopes. It’ll do wonders for their self-confidence, too.
So here, to get you started on the right path, are 11 steps towards a successful family ski trip.
Don’t start them too young
Opinions vary about the right age at which to start your kids – and there’s a good sample of them expressed in Welove2ski’s feature “How Soon Can My Children Start to Ski?”
But as a rule of thumb, I’d say don’t plan to put them into proper ski lessons until they’re in Reception at school. It’s a rare child who is ready for formal instruction under the age of four – especially in the unfamiliar surroundings of a ski resort. You may find they don’t really start to relish the experience until they’re five or six.
If your child has older siblings already skiing, then it can be very different. Little brothers and sisters are often desperate to get started, so they can be part of the gang. But your first-born is likely to find it a bit overwhelming at the age of three.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your children to the Alps before then. They’ll enjoy trying out skis on a flattish patch snow with Mum and Dad each day (some ski schools and tour operators also offer short and gentle introductory sessions to give three year olds a taste of skiing). And they’ll love whizzing around on a bum board or a toboggan – sometimes for hours on end. So if you find good childcare, you can mix your own skiing with some happy family times on the snow.
Holiday with friends/family who have children of the same age
You’re heading into a magnificent mountain environment: but one which will seem very strange to your children. So, it will help them if they have friends, siblings or cousins alongside them when they start in ski school.
It’ll be more fun for the grown-ups too, if you can take over most or all of a chalet with your own group. With chalet staff to cook and clean for you, and – in some cases – providing in-house childcare too, you’ve got the makings a big, boisterous house party.
These kind of big, multi-family groups can work in self-catering accommodation, too, provided the grown-ups are well-organised, and don’t mind doing the cooking. But here’s a thought: how sure are you that everyone will pull their weight when it comes to the chores?
Rather than booking one big apartment, how about getting a couple that are close to each other instead? You’ll be able to eat/socialise together when you want, but also retreat to your own camp each night and not have to worry about living amongst someone else’s dirty laundry.
Pick a child-friendly resort
Not all ski resorts are the same. Some are party towns. Others sit at the bottom of plunging pistes: the kind that suit strong legs and stout hearts, not the uncertain snowplough of a four year old. So avoid the advice of your adrenaline-junky ski friends, and aim for a family-friendly ski resort which has as many of the following as possible:
*Good, gentle beginner-friendly pistes at a snowsure altitude.
*Easy slopes to progress to once your children have mastered their snowplough turns
*Ski schools that are used to dealing with British families
*Lots of activities on offer when the skiing day is done, such as tobogganing runs, bowling alleys, soft-play areas, swimming pools, firework displays and the like.
Look for accommodation near the ski-school meeting point
Walking a four or five year old to the ski school meeting point each morning is not the speediest operation in the world. So don’t book your ski accommodation on the far side of a resort (unless there’s a shuttle bus service to take you there). Always ask for a precise location before you book, and double-check on the resort’s own maps that the chalet/hotel/apartment really is “two minutes from the nursery slopes” (detailed maps are habitually posted on official resort websites).
If you book with a family-friendly tour operator, they’ll almost certainly take the children to ski school themselves each morning, and may even have their own minibus if it’s a bit of hike. But still: it’s reassuring to know your little ones are not going far.
Book the children into group lessons at a good ski school
It’s fine to muck about with your children on the snow when you’re three. But when it’s time to knuckle under and master the basic skills, nothing beats a ski school.
You can book either group or private lessons. Private classes are significantly more expensive, and of course your child will get the instructor’s undivided attention. But it’s worth remembering how much children like to be around their peers, and how – once they start enjoying themselves – they love sharing their excitement. They don’t get that when they’re on their own with a grown-up, and some instructors will tell you that chidren in private lessons get bored more quickly as a result.
With group lessons, the most reliable results for English-speaking families usually come from British-run ski schools, schools in North American resorts, or those which have close and long-standing relationships with family-friendly tour operators. Most will have guaranteed maximum class sizes and will respond quickly to your concerns, should you have any.
Make sure the school has access to a magic-carpet lift (rather than a rope-tow), that it’s based in a nursery area which is set to one side of busy pistes, and that they have a system for dealing with bad weather, cold children and the call of nature. For lessons during the school holidays, book early. There’s a huge demand for ski-school places during the peak weeks.
Of course, there are many other excellent ski schools about: but check before you book about maximum class sizes, and also about the quality of English spoken. Do all English-speaking children go into the same group? And will they be part of a group of 12 or 13 other children snaking about behind a single instructor if you holiday in a peak week, such as February half term?
Get some professional help with childcare
It’s your holiday too: so you’d probably like to do some skiing yourself, catch up with your other half over lunch in a mountain restaurant, and maybe book the odd massage or sauna.
How do you get the time to do this? There are several options. Ski school will obviously keep them busy for a time. In Austria, four hours of lessons often come as standard, with a lunch break in the middle (you can pay extra for children to have supervised lunches, too). So the skiing day can last from 10am-3.30pm, five or six days each week. Meanwhile, in Italy and France lessons often last 2½-3hrs in the morning and finish before lunch. (Some schools offer afternoon sessions as well.)
Many parents find that for first-time skiers – especially those aged five or under – a half-day lessons are enough. At this point the more established ski schools can often step in with childcare for the rest of the day. The best have invested considerable time and money into this, and offer purpose-built indoor nurseries and restaurants. Some kind of indoor space is essential, in case children get cold, or it’s blowing a blizzard, and you’ll need to check how much English is spoken there, too.
The other option is to book your holiday with a tour operator specialising in family skiing holidays, and get the English-speaking childcare provided either in-house, or in another chalet or hotel nearby. It usually comes at an extra cost, on top of flights, accommodation and transfers; and it can be a comprehensive service if you want it. Your children will be taken to ski school for you, brought back again afterwards, provided with lunch, and then entertained in afternoon with games and excursions, laid on by specialist staff. The supervision often stretches from 9am to 5pm, sometimes with evening clubs too.
Talk it up before you go
Once you’ve booked the holiday, it’s time to start talking it up. So tell your children how much you’re looking forward to going, how much fun you’re all going to have in the hotel/chalet/apartment, and how cool they’re going to look when they’re skiing. Do a bit of research on Youtube to find footage of children skiing comfortably, and don’t forget to show them Pingu…
Take them to an indoor snow centre for a taste of what’s to come
There are currently six indoor ski slopes in the UK, and teaching beginners is their speciality. They all offer taster sessions for children: one-hour costs £22-36, depending on the slope and the day of the week, and includes tuition and equipment. It’s the perfect way to get them used to the equipment and the idea of sliding on snow – and it means they won’t be nearly so disoriented on the first day of the holiday.
Play dressing up games once you’ve got your ski gear
Once you’ve got your ski clothing sorted out, try it on – repeatedly! After all, most children will be thrilled to have a new ski jacket and trousers, as well as goggles, helmet and gloves. Take some photos or videos of them pretending to ski and compare them with footage of people actually skiing on youtube. If you want to get technical you could even look at some ski-lesson videos, such as those on the Ski School App.
Schedule lots of playtime with Mum & Dad
Yes, you need time to yourself. But the moments you’ll remember most fondly are the ones when you were playing with your children. So make sure you schedule some time together each day. The simplest way to do this is to buy/rent/borrow a bumboard or a toboggan, and find a little hillock of snow to muck about on – away from the pistes and any traffic, of course.
Swimming is a great alternative if the weather’s bad, and the most family-friendly resorts, such as Les Menuires, have a plethora of other activities on offer, such as floodlit tubing, toboggan slopes and track-mounted sled runs.
Finish the week skiing together
As you get to the end of the first holiday, your child/children will probably be linking snowplough turns fairly fluently. If they are, they’ll be dying to show you what they can do, and you’ll probably be dying to see them do it. So make sure you get some time together on the snow at the end of the week.
Start on a gentle piste they’re already familiar with, so suggest you ski on their favourite run first, and move on from there only if they are comfortable. What they’ll want is for you to see them doing well, not having kittens at the top of a steep piste they’ve never seen before. Make sure you shoot lots of video, too. In years to come, that footage is going to become absolutely priceless.