The Complete Guide to the ski Season
Take a peek inside Pól Ó Conghaile's ultimate guide to the slopes this winter .
How's the snow looking this year?
Last year's snowfalls were the best in a decade (though, ironically, the recession sent bookings plummeting), and there have been some signs that a repeat may be in order. Heavy snowfalls in France, Switzerland and Italy in October seemed auspicious, and the Tyrolean resort of Kitzbühel made headlines by announcing its earliest-ever opening for skiing.
It's early days, of course, and you don't have to look too far back to the winter of 2006/07, when disastrous snowfalls threatened to make skiers an endangered species. The UK Met Office has also predicted "above average" temperatures this winter but, then again, it also predicted this year's "barbecue summer".
The best advice for finding snow is to travel in the established season (mid-December to March) and with the added insurance of a high-altitude resort, such as St Anton in Austria, Alpe d'Huez in France or Livigno in Italy, though snow-cannon technology has improved hugely in low-lying resorts.
Check up-to-date snow reports at welove2ski.com, ultimate-ski.com or snoweye.com.
What kind of prices can I expect?
The recession has taken its toll on the ski industry. Slopeside folded in the summer of 2008, Sunway is only offering ski holidays through Club Med this year and luxury UK ski company Descent International went down in flames this August -- leaving a trail of creditors that included the Duke of York.
This season, capacity has been cut by up to 40pc. This means we probably won't see the bargain-bin prices of 2008/09, but it also means that tour operators will survive to offer us ski holidays in the first place.
In addition, several operators are offering 'early bird' specials to get the ball rolling. Crystal has €50 off all brochure prices, for example, and Panorama has a €100 discount on Christmas and New Year bookings, plus €75 discounts on all January departure dates to all destinations.
The message is clear: This year's ski market is attuned to the new realities, and fewer seats will mean fewer last-minute steals. If a price looks good in 2009/10, that's because it probably is.
What's the best time to ski?
School holidays are the busiest ski periods, so expect to pay a premium if you want to ski over Christmas, New Year or the 2010 mid-term break (February 15-19 inclusive).
For February 6 departures, for example, Directski.com has one week at the three-star Hotel Zodiac in Livigno for €589pp on a B&B basis. Departing one week later, the price is €729pps.
Likewise, departing February 7, Panorama (1818 200 300; panorama.ie) has a three-star package to Andorra from an average of €559pp. The price jumps to €995pps for the same holiday just one week later.
As a rule of thumb, the cheapest weeks in the brochures are mid-January, when the festive fun is over and the kids are back at school, and mid-March. Leaving on January 2, for example, Topflight (01-240 1700; topflight.ie) has a week half-board at the three-star Hotel Tirolerhof in St Anton at €1,119 per adult. The following week, the price drops to €789.
It's also worth noting that, for most Irish operators, the season winds up from mid to late March. April can still offer good conditions in higher resorts, however, and Easter falls on April 4 next year.
Directski.com serves Lillehammer in Norway up to April 8 and Crystal Ski (01-433 1010; crystalski.ie) has its final departures on April 3. You could also travel independently (see below).
What are the best deals?
Going to press, there were still some ski holidays available for less than €400. Topflight has a Top Ten special for departures on January 9, 10, 16 and 17, with 10 of their favourite lodgings in Austria, France, Italy, Andorra and Bulgaria priced from €399. Available from Dublin, Cork and Knock, these include free child lift passes. Departing January 16, directski.com has a week of three-star self-catering in Meribel Valley, France, from €319pp. Departing January 10, it has a week's four-star half-board accommodation in Arinsal, Andorra, from €459pp. Both prices include return flights from Dublin and transfers.
Departing January 9, Crystal Ski has several good prices in the Austrian resort of Söll, ranging from €399pp to €449pp for seven nights, depending on the guesthouse.
Much of the value to be found this year is not in the lead-in prices, but the extras. Among them: Inghams (01-661 1377; inghams.ie) is offering child discounts of up to 50pc on selected hotels and chalets; Panorama has free kids' lift passes in Bulgaria, Andorra and Livigno in Italy; and Topflight has free child places in resorts such as Zell am See, Alpe d'Huez and Soldeu.
Panorama has also teamed up with UK ski operator Neilson (a fellow Thomas Cook company) this year, and one of the benefits to customers is a free ski-leading service for intermediate and advanced skiers. On a similar note, Highlife (01-677 1100; highlife.ie) offers a guiding service inclusive to its prices.
And for something a little special?
Highlife has 10 centrally located chalets in the French resorts of Morzine, Méribel and Val d'Isère, and it's taking all-inclusive to another level this year.
Chalets are managed by a fully-qualified chef -- who prepares breakfasts, freshly baked afternoon treats and three-course evening meals -- and other facilities include hot tubs, ski guiding and a complimentary bar. Highlife's season starts on December 13, with prices from €805pp (€658 for children).
One way to do five-star on the cheap this year is to head east. The luxury Hotel Kempinski offers the highest standard of accommodation in Bansko, Bulgaria, and Panorama has a week there, for departures on January 9 and 16, from €785pp.
What about the hidden extras?
Skiing has a reputation as a luxury item, and one reason for this is that package prices -- however attractive -- are only the start of your outlay. They rarely include the lift passes, equipment hire or ski lessons that can add up significantly for a family over the course of a week.
When it comes to extras, Austria and Italy tend to be cheaper than Switzerland and France. This isn't always a simple comparison, however, as Switzerland offers attractive child discounts and even the notoriously cool French resorts are offering flexibility this season. According to a recent report, the average lift pass in Europe costs £154/€172 per week.
Bear in mind, however, that while booking lessons, ski hire and lift passes through a tour operator may be slightly more expensive, it can also be vastly more convenient.
Can I ski all-inclusive?
Crystal Ski has introduced new brand 'Ski Plus' for the 2009/10 season. In January and March, prices start at €549 for a week's self-catering in La Plagne, France, and €785 for a four-star week in Kaprun, Austria -- and they include lift passes and ski/snowboard hire.
Other operators are following suit. Departing January 16, Inghams has seven nights self-catering in Pamporovo, Bulgaria, from €610pp. The offer includes flights, transfer, three-star accommodation, local lift pass, ski hire and three days of tuition.
Club Med (01-288 6828; clubmedsunway.ie) is another all-inclusive option, bundling flights, transfers, accommodation, meals and drinks, ski pass and lessons. For departures on January 9, it has seven nights at Club Med Wengen in Switzerland from €1,452 per adult and €1,328 per child.
Should I consider skiing for Christmas?
Skiing is the only sure-fire way Irish holidaymakers can guarantee themselves a white Christmas. And while the buffet dinners may not be up to mum's standards, there are tasty bargains. Crystal, for example, is offering €120 off per booking for departures on December 19 and 20.
Directski.com has a week's self-catering from €359pp at the French resort of Chamonix, including accommodation at the three-star La Rivière apartments. The trip departs December 19.
Where is the best family-friendly skiing?
Many Norwegian children start skiing at three years old, a fact that's reflected in their resorts. Norway offers free lift passes for kids under seven (provided they wear a helmet), and most centres have English-speaking childcare, dedicated children's ski areas and reasonably priced ski schools.
If you're travelling to Lillehammer, Topflight offers free kids' tickets to Hunderfossen Winter Park (adults pay €23), where activities include snow rafting, troll walks and a high-ropes course.
Austria is another child- friendly ski destination, with many resorts only an hour or two from connecting airports. Because most are genuine villages where everybody knows one another, it's also an easy place to find babysitters. Resorts such as St Johann, Zell am See and Götzens offer gentler slopes along with facilities such as well-lit tobogganing runs, indoor pools and kindergarten.
Topflight and Panorama are among the operators offering free lift passes for kids in Andorra this year -- another family-friendly ski centre. As well as slopes suited to beginners and intermediates, visitors to the pint-sized principality can enjoy mushing (dog-sled racing), snow-shoeing and the Naturlandia theme park.
Elsewhere, the French resorts of Alpe d'Huez and La Rosière do well by families.
Can baby/toddler come too?
Yes, if parents are prepared to swap slope time, or you're happy to leave your youngster in a crèche. Some children learn to ski from three years old, but four or five is the norm for skiing in proper group lessons, so you can forget about putting a toddler in a class.
Having said that, the Children's Village at the French resort of Val d'Isère is happy to welcome tots from 18 months old -- an age it describes as "ideal" to discover fun and games in the snow. Likewise, the baby club in Andorra's Arinsal resort accepts children from as young as one year old.
Can non-skiers go on a ski holiday?
Ski holidays make for great family adventures, whether the kids are at school or grown-ups are reuniting for some festive fun. Not everybody likes skiing, however, so the secret to a good time for all lies in your choice of resort.
Austria is one of the best all-rounders on offer. One reason for this is that resorts such as St Wolfgang and Bad Gastein are a relatively short transfer from Salzburg, where non-skiers can escape to shop or take in a Mozart concert. St Wolfgang also offers bowling, operetta evenings and sleigh rides, and Bad Gastein has a casino, spa centre and thermal baths.
Elsewhere, Val d'Isère in France has installed a new leisure centre, and Andorra has duty-free shopping, as well as having invested in some fab wellness hotels. It attracts non-skiers to the thermal springs in Andorra La Vella (Caldea).
How can advanced skiers improve, or become instructors?
Pro Ski Training (086 256 8863; proskitraining.com), run by Laois builder Henry Fingleton -- a ski instructor in Soldeu, Andorra -- is starting a new programme to take good social skiers to ski instructor level in one season. Students can enrol in a six to 12-week programme to achieve the Canadian (CSIA) or British (BASI) standards, or a one to four-week programme (from €270) if they are simply interested in improving their skiing.
Ski schools are part and parcel of ski holidays, but if you want personal attention, private instructors can be booked for around €180 per day (a cost that can be shared by a small group). Private instructors also offer good knowledge of the locality.
Is Eastern Europe worth a punt?
Eastern European ski resorts have improved greatly, with quality skiing, unspoiled forests and value for money offering a real alternative to traditional Alpine resorts. Bulgaria is the main contender, and it is serviced by most major operators.
This year, Inghams also has the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia from €457pp. The region has a 100-year history of welcoming tourists, originally the Austro-Hungarian nobility, so the pricing doesn't really reflect the standard of its grand hotels. Lift passes in Slovakia are also around a third cheaper than in mainstream European resorts.
The Eastern Alps aren't the only place to find value for money this year. Eastern European resorts are cheap, but so is Austria if you stay in a B&B. Pamporovo has 30km of piste, for example, the smallest resort Topflight has in Austria has 65km, many resorts are interlinking and the most you'll pay for a pint is €3.60.
Is this a good year to try the US and Canada?
North America is cheap to those who can afford it. Most packages have dropped in price this year, with the US domestic market hit by the recession and a weakening dollar contributing to favourable exchange rates for Irish customers. As ever in the US and Canada, service is excellent.
On the downside, there is a whack of travel involved. Getting to somewhere like Colorado or British Columbia means two flights, transfers and a time difference to surmount. Prices are also exclusive of the 15-20% tips that are widely expected in North American hospitality.
This season, Topflight has seven nights at the four-star Great Divide Lodge in Brekenridge from €999pp, reduced from €1,299pp. It also has a lead-in price of €769 on New Hampshire, which has the advantage of direct flights to Boston.
Meanwhile in Whistler, word is that hotels have been discounting for skiers who fear hassle in the run-up to February's Winter Olympics. In fact, construction is already finished, so the month of January could be a smart time to hit the Canadian resort. Crystal has the three-star Crystal Lodge from €1,275pp for 11 nights in January.
If you are travelling to North America in January, bear in mind two things: it is super cold, and Americans flock to the slopes on weekends.
Ski mid-week and, if you're in New Hampshire, keep the weekend for a city trip (e.g. Boston).
Can I organise a ski holiday independently?
This depends on the kind of holidaymaker you are. Ski holidays in Ireland are dominated by package providers for good reason -- they involve complicated transfers, equipment hire, lift passes and ski instruction on top of flights and accommodation. Bundling them spares you a headache. In peak season too, the best accommodation tends to be pre-booked by tour operators.
That said, some ski hubs lend themselves to independent travel.
Friedrichshafen, served by Ryanair, is convenient for plenty of resorts in Switzerland, Austria and Italy, for example. Both Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly directly to Grenoble (good for France's Espace Killy region) and Salzburg (the hub for many resorts in Austria). Easyjet flies five times a week from Belfast to Geneva.
A downside for those looking to transport skis and boots on budget airlines, of course, is the baggage charges. If you book online, Ryanair charges €40 to carry skis one-way. Aer Lingus allows one pair of skis, boots and poles per person for €30 each way. Both are capped at 20kg.
If you are booking independently, check the local tourist board websites for accommodation offers, or visit the resort's website directly. Interhome (1890 929 400; www.interhome.ie) is a rental agency with a wide range of chalets and apartments in the Alps. A final tip is to Google hotels you see in the package brochures -- operators may be cutting capacity, but hotels don't have that option.
Any last money- saving tips?
Book as a group. Discounts apply to larger parties, so consider teaming up with family, friends or buddies from your local pub or sporting club for your ski holiday.
Think before you buy the gear. Rather than going straight to the high street, what about eBay.ie or your local Lidl?
If you're skiing for the first time, hire your skis and boots and see if you can borrow clothing from friends. Check out the website skiingonashoestring.com for more tips.
Book beyond the hotspots. By booking accommodation in villages a little further from the main resorts, surprising savings can be made.
Nendaz is part of the same ski area as Verbier in Switzerland, for example, and Vaujany is linked by lift to Alpe d'Huez in France.