Snow Biz: Your guide to the new ski season
Yes, money's tight, snow has been scarce and there are far fewer holidays on offer. But you can still enjoy a great skiing trip if you choose wisely. Peter Hardy offers advice
Two questions will dominate the thoughts of most skiers in the run-up to this year's season: will there be enough snow in the Alps and, given the economic climate, can I actually afford to go? There's no easy response. But if you choose your resort with care and pay equal attention to how you spend while there, where you stay and when you go, the answer to both can still be "yes".
Three difficult financial seasons have inevitably resulted in some dramatic changes in the ski industry, with far fewer holidays on offer and a marked switch to higher and more traditionally "snow-sure" destinations in Italy and Austria.
Almost every tour operator has its back to the wall. Survival of the fittest has become the name of the ski game. This autumn, more than ever, you should check that your tour operator is fully bonded before parting with your money. Paying by credit card directly rather than through an agent may also provide some financial protection in the event of a company failure.
However, the survivors seem determined to maintain prices at last year's rates where possible, and in an attempt to woo increasingly nervous customers, the strongest are offering all kinds of "added value". This could include anything from free lift passes and two-for-one ski or snowboard rental, to free child travel, packed lunches, hotel drinks vouchers or unlimited wine and beer.
Will there be lots of last-minute bargains this winter? You bet. The number of holidays available continues to drop, and the pick of the chalets will go early. But there will still be plenty of capacity, particularly in the tail-end of the season.
Last year Christmas fell on a Saturday and most operators opted for inconvenient St Stephen's Day flights. This season is likely to be just as tough. Easter falls a fortnight earlier -- on April 8. But the December calendar is arguably even more difficult, with the largest mass-market tour operators operating Saturday flights to the majority of their destinations, on Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Across Europe, Christmas is celebrated on December 24. So one blip in the weather or air traffic control at either end of your journey -- remember the snow chaos last year -- and turkey is off the menu. The same applies to getting back home for the New Year's Eve countdown.
But the difficult dates have already made the low-cost pre-Christmas week a virtual sell-out and, unbelievably, New Year is already being discounted.
Last season was a contrasting tale of two continents. While North America basked in the best cover it had had for 36 years, most of Europe struggled to stay white.
France had its driest winter since 1949. Even high resorts such as La Plagne and Val d'Isère received less than half of their average snowfall. One notable exception was Isola 2000, above Nice, which clocked up 6m (20ft) to make it the snowiest resort in France for the third consecutive year.
It was a similar story in neighbouring countries. Switzerland, apart from St Moritz and a corner of the Engadin, received nowhere close to average snowfall. Verbier got just 2.5m (8ft) compared to its normal six.
Austria suffered from more of the same, with low resorts such as KitzbÃ¼hel struggling with 1.6m (5.2ft) in place of the usual 2.6m (8.5ft). By contrast, Andorra and the rest of the Pyrenees fared better than they have done for the past three winters. But only Italy escaped the blight altogether, with snowfall close to average in most resorts. Little Limone in Piemonte, two hour's drive south of Turin, got 9.7m (32ft), earning itself the title of Snowiest Place in the Alps 2010-11 along the way.
But in general, giant investment over the past decade in snow-making paid huge dividends. Most visitors were surprised and delighted by the extent of groomed skiing available, despite the infrequent snowfalls. Only off-piste enthusiasts were left frustrated.
But that was last winter. Look on the bright side -- snow cover across the Alps really can't be worse this season. In North America, confirmation that La NiÃ±a is back in the Pacific has raised hopes of a repeat of the record snowfall. Last season saw a particularly strong episode of this occasional climate anomaly that influences snowfall.
In Europe, early signs are promising, but we will just have to wait and see.
In my experience, it's impossible to judge what ski conditions are likely to be over Christmas and New Year until the first week of December. Therefore, my advice as always for holidays before late January, is to head for resorts that offer high-altitude skiing, preferably with a glacier.
Top of my list are Val d'Isère, Tignes, Alpe d'Huez, Les Deux Alpes, Zermatt, SÃ¶lden, Kaprun, Obergurgl, Hintertux and Obertauern. While the safe alternative is to cross the Atlantic and head for Vail, Breckenridge or any of the resorts within easy reach of Denver.