Jane Bolton is MD at Erna Low Ski Holidays. She’s been selling holidays in Europe and Canada for the past 18 years and regularly drives her family to the Alps for their ski trips. “Loading the family into the car and driving to the Alps means you can travel at your own pace, stop along the way to break up the journey, and save a heap of money on flights”.
Here are a few hints and tricks to make the trip go smoothly:
If you want to avoid the winter weekend queues in – and above – Gatwick and Geneva airports, take to the road. Driving to the Alps gives you the flexibility to travel with as many pairs of skis/boards and as much luggage as you want – something you won’t be able to do on the majority of airlines.
One way to go is with a ski-drive specialist operator who’ll arrange your accommodation, breakdown insurance, Channel crossings, winter driving tips for the motorway, and even any stopovers you might want to make en route. Otherwise you can always make your own arrangements. Here are some winter driving tips to help make the journey easier:
1. Prepare Your Car
Think about your tyres before you hit the snow. Winter tyres are ideal (and they will also give better performance in the UK at anything below 7C). If you live in the Alps, changing over to your winter set is part of the autumn routine. It’s surprising how few UK drivers do it. If you have snow tires you may well not need chains, but in most Alpine countries carrying them is a legal requirement.
Buy or rent them before you leave home – Snowchains.com is the largest importer. You can also get the basic models at French autoroute service stations. We strongly recommend spending extra money to buy the easy-fit varieties that can be attached in just a few seconds per wheel. If you’ve ever tried to fit the basic model at night in a blizzard, you’ll understand why.
This might sound patronisingly obvious, but people have been known to fit chains to the wrong wheels, so be sure you know whether the front or rear wheels drive your car – if the chains are not on the driving wheels, they are not going to do much good. Only 10% of cars are rear drive and they are mostly BMWs and larger Mercedes and Jaguar models.
2. Look at The Pros of Driving
We mentioned having space for luggage and skis – but if you want to maximise this, add a large roof box or ‘rooftop cargo carrier’ like the Motion XXL produced by Thule – which has a 630 litre capacity and will fit six to eight pairs of skis or just a couple of skis and a lot of other luggage.
If you’re driving you won’t have to worry about taking only small bottles of liquids of less than 100ml in your hand luggage – like you do when flying, and if you’re self-catering you can save money by doing a big shop at the valley supermarket before arriving in the resort where prices are higher due to being a captive market.
Also, airlines have been known to lose luggage or send it to the wrong place. There is nothing more frustrating than having to spend 24 hours (or more) without your clothing/ski boots/skis as they have been left sitting on the airport runway or flown to Florida instead of France. This, of course, can’t happen if you’re taking luggage in your own car.
Another added bonus is having a car with you in the resort. You might want to make a day trip to a nearby resort, drive to a distant part of the ski area or to a restaurant that’s outside the village.
3. Be Entertained
You can listen to music, talking books or podcasts. This is particularly good if you’re travelling with younger children who can be entertained by hours of Harry Potter or Roald Dahl.
I strongly advise to pack the car with a selection of fun activities that your children can enjoy along the way. Ipads and tablets are ideal for playing pre-downloaded games from the app store and watching a variety of films.
It’s important to download these before you leave to avoid using internet on the road, which can lead to heavy costs. Remember that downloads from Amazon sometimes only have a 48-hour viewing period and you are not always able to download additional material when overseas unless you have a VPN connection.
I’d also suggest you to invest in headphones for the kids and also a dual jack adaptor so that more than one child can watch the same thing if they wish to on their own headphones. This means you can listen to the radio in peace or just enjoy the rare silence. Another good option is a portable DVD player with a selection of their favourite films to choose from.
We have tried several different DVD options and the most successful combination for us has been a dual screen option so that both our children can watch separate films and there is also an option for them to watch the same one too. The DVD gets power from the lighter socket whilst travelling along, so there is no risk of running out of battery.
Playing games that everyone in the car can join in with is another fun way to pass the time. Besides the well-known games such as I-Spy, the alphabet game and 20 questions, try old-school colouring and activity books with a selection of crayons (probably not pens in the car). These should keep kids entertained for hours.
4. Cross The Channel Without a Hitch
Consider whether the tunnel or the ferry makes more sense. The tunnel obviously wins in terms of speed, but does not give the driver much of an opportunity to relax. Depending on your starting point in the UK, would 90 minutes on a ferry provide a well-timed break of the journey?
If you go through the tunnel, consider buying a Flexiplus upgrade. It allows you to just turn up and get straight onto the next train without queuing. You can then either visit the lounge for refreshments and wifi, or stay in your car and you’ll be given a goody box of snacks, newspaper, and a bottle of water. Our Flexiplus upgrade will prove to be invaluable for arrival and departure dates over Christmas and New Year this season, when you can choose when to travel rather than be tied in to specific dates.
If you are going by ferry, and there are not too many of you, think about paying the extra for something like the P & O Club Lounge. It is a spacious oasis of calm and worth every penny.
5. Break Up The Journey
Most resorts within reach of Geneva – such as Morzine, Chamonix, Verbier, and Val d’Isere – are around nine to ten hours’ drive once you’ve made the Calais crossing. However, you might decide to break up the drive or even make a bit of a holiday of the journey itself by stopping somewhere interesting along the way.
Our favourite places to stop – either for a meal or for a night en route – include Reims and Troyes.
6. Avoid Those Little Accidents
If travelling with children, make regular stops at service stations to avoid little accidents in the car, especially when driving with younger children. There are motorway stops every 20km or so in France, which vary from toilet blocks in a field with a few picnic benches scattered around, to big buildings with restaurants, shops and petrol stations.
One tip is to stock up on the essentials in case the services become very busy (or you get stuck somewhere having to put on chains) – such as water, toilet roll, and snacks.
7. Watch Out
The French are remarkably helpful about signposting their fixed radar guns. If you see a radar sign on the motorway, there will be a fixed grey gun within a couple of kilometres. The favourite one to catch skiers is on the way home almost at the bottom of the steep section of the ‘White Motorway’ down from Mont Blanc/Chamonix – it is partially obscured by a road sign.
If the snow is heavy, you may see an overhead motorway sign saying a road is ‘Fermée aux PL’. Don’t panic – that means it is closed to trucks, not cars.
Heading south from Calais, follow signs first to Paris, then Reims, then Dijon. If you are going towards the Chamonix/Morzine, there are two parallel motorways that go south from Dijon towards Geneva: the A39 is a little shorter than the A6. On the way back, you will pick up signs to Lille once you approach Dijon and then signs for Calais start appearing after Reims.
If you are driving in heavy snow, check your headlights every time you stop, as frozen slush can quickly turn them into a pair of dim candles.
8. Know The Law
There is a new French law which bans the use of Sat Navs which can detect speed cameras. This isn’t good news as most UK Sat Navs do it – and you can receive a fine of up to €3,000. This includes radar detectors, regardless of whether they are in use or not.
Driving your car across France requires car insurance that covers European travel, which you really need to check before your journey. Many policies default to third-party-only cover abroad unless you stipulate otherwise. European breakdown cover is also highly advised; you don’t want to be stranded at the side of the road with no one to call for help.
It is also crucial that you understand the French road regulations, such as – drive on the right! I know it’s obvious, but it is very important you remember that as soon as your car wheels touch French tarmac that you are on the right hand side.
The signage is also completely different, you will get used to seeing signs such as ‘Cédez le passage’ meaning give way, and a yellow diamond shaped sign meaning priority road, and red ‘ARRÊT’ signs meaning ‘STOP’. This does mean that you need to come to a complete stop, as I have witnessed people receiving tickets as their tyres were still rolling…albeit in very slow motion.
You should also know that the speed limits are shown in kilometres per hour (km/h) not miles per hour (mph) and also depend on the road conditions, so don’t go thinking you can put the pedal to the metal on the highways going 130mph – it is 80mph in good weather conditions and 68mph on wet roads. Also be aware that when entering a town there is a reduced speed limit not always indicated by a road sign, but just by the sign indicating your entry to the town.
9. Protect Your Car
Ensure that you car is properly winterised before you leave home – check the battery and follow manufacturer’s advice on coolant. Most importantly, top up your screen wash for temperatures as low as -20C.
Covered parking in a ski resort can be expensive. Parking outside is ok provided you have a shovel with you, so that you can dig your car out if there’s been a heavy snowfall. Some people cover their windscreen and wipers with a plastic sheet to make it easier to remove snow/ice from that area. Alternatively, lift your wipers off the screen.
10. Check The Costs
Eurotunnel is around £160 return and, according to Via Michelin the distance from Calais to, say, Morzine is 875km with tolls amounting to 76€ (about £64) each way, fuel: £72€ (about £61) each way. Total price is £390 return for a family of four at the time of writing, not including meals or any accommodation en route.
On top of this, if you are driving to Austria or Switzerland you’ll need a motorway sticker (or ‘vignette’) for your windscreen costing 10€ for 10 days in Austria and 38.50chf for the annual Swiss version.
In comparison, you’ll need to get to your neearest airport in the UK either by train, taxi or your own car (for the latter, add in the cost of airport parking), flights and transfers x 4. You’re quite likely to spend the whole cost of driving out on two airline tickets, not including the cost of getting to and from the airport at both ends.
If you have any useful tips, or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences driving to a ski resort, please add them into the comments box below.