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Ski Holidays Q&A: Snow is falling in Europe, but when will we ski again?

With the first of the winter snow falling in Europe, what have ski resorts done to make skiing safe, and when might we hope to take to the slopes?

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Freeriding on the Austrian slopes

Freeriding on the Austrian slopes

Freeriding on the Austrian slopes

Parts of the Alps got over a metre of snow last weekend, but will Irish holidaymakers get to ski Europe’s slopes this winter?

Once Covid forced ski resorts to close back in March, and Ischgl in Austria’s Tyrol got singled out as a “superspreader”, this season was under threat. So far, at least one operator (Hotelplan/Inghams in the UK) has cancelled all departures until February. Others have gone out of business. The rest hope they can survive this season to rebuild for ’21/22.

Switzerland will open its resorts, but those in Austria, France, Italy, Germany and Andorra will not open to international visitors until January. Austrian ski-resort hotels and restaurants will stay shut until January 7, while ski lifts at French resorts may not begin to operate until January 20.

It’s a major blow for Alpine nations whose cultures are steeped in skiing, and who generate billions over Christmas and New Year.

While skiing and snowboarding take us to wide-open mountain spaces, the fear is that hospitals could struggle to cope with ski injuries during a third Covid wave, and also that the virus will spread during travel to and from resorts or in ski-lift queues, restaurants and bars.

However, the ski market is a resilient one, and ski lovers will generally do their utmost to reach the Alps. As Fiachra Diskin, who heads up new online platform mountainpeople.ie, says, “This season will be about adopting a wait-and-see approach, booking late and asking yourself at that moment in time, ‘Is it safe to go skiing right now?’”

Will we be able to ski this winter?

It could certainly be possible. Several tour operators have skipped a year entirely to focus on next year’s 2021/22 season, but if you can’t wait that long, look to the second half of this year’s, from mid-February to Easter (April 4) 2021. Mid-term begins on February 13 for Irish families, and February 20 and 27 are possible peak weeks in 2021. By March, the worst of the Alpine storms are usually over and days are longer, sunnier and healthier. Of course, there remains huge uncertainty about coronavirus, so nothing is guaranteed.

Will skiing be safe?

Resorts across the Alps have put a staggering amount of work into preparing for a safe winter and, in general, booking everything online in advance — from lift passes to ski hire and ski school — will be the safest option. Skiing is outdoors, which is fundamentally safer than indoors, but of course there may be higher risks where people congregate: around lifts, bars and après ski, for instance.

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Safety protocols differ between countries, regions and resorts, but you can expect longer gondola and cable-car operating hours to spread out usage. Some resorts say they will not limit the number of people in gondolas but will ask skiers to board with their own group and insist on masks being worn. Resorts with ski buses will make more of them available to allow for social distancing.

In the SkiWelt resort of Soll, a favourite of the Irish, resort bosses hope to open for international skiers after January 7, along with hotels and restaurants throughout Austrian resorts. Mass testing will also be carried out on all workers who engage with customers.

In France, the ESF (French ski school) is offering family lessons where parents and children learn together in a bubble. In Austria, the Being Tested label aims to give confidence to families booking accommodation, ski lessons and equipment. Thousands of companies signed up for testing in advance of the season.

Many ski areas will also use apps to let skiers know where ski-lift queues are likely and offer ways of avoiding them — for example, Paradiski’s Yuge app.

Will there be an après ski scene?

It’s après, but not as you know it. Forget crazy schnapps sessions: this winter will be far more sedate, with seated service only, even outdoors at the famed La Folie Douce cabaret bars in France. In Austria, seated groups will be limited to six people while French resort bosses are saying après will be more relaxed. Think laid-back lounge style at the Altapura or Tango hotels in Val Thorens. Alternative activities like night skiing or snowshoeing by starlight will feature, but if your group loves to party after skiing, it might be a good idea to plan for the following year.

How else will skiing be different?

“Because there will be fewer people travelling, you won’t see the big coach transfers of previous years. Instead we’ll be focusing on private transfers from airport to resort,” says Michelle Anderson of Topflight. “Our resort reps will be working in a more low-key way: there won’t be welcome meetings and contact with reps will be over the phone; it will be a ski experience with a difference.”

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Zell am See in Salzburgerland, Austria. Nikolaus Faistauer Photography

Zell am See in Salzburgerland, Austria. Nikolaus Faistauer Photography

Zell am See in Salzburgerland, Austria. Nikolaus Faistauer Photography

Where might I go?

If you’re worried about gondolas and cable cars, opt for ski areas with fewer of them. At Les Chavannes in Les Gets (Portes du Soleil), you can get around the mountain using mostly chair and drag lifts; the Hochkönig region in Salzburgerland, Austria, is the same. Another option is to stay in a mountaintop village where you step outside straight on to your skis to reach the nearest chair lift — resorts like Avoriaz or Arc 1950 in France and Mürren in Switzerland are examples. It’s also a good idea to choose lesser-known ski villages — La Thuile in Italy, for instance.

Will I need to get Covid-tested?

That depends on the destination. Ireland is currently rated “orange” under the EU traffic light system, but this may change (and remember, you currently need a negative PCR test result to avoid quarantine when returning to Ireland from “orange” countries, and still need to quarantine for at least five days before taking a test when returning from “red” areas). Check the entry requirements and travel restrictions for your destination on reopen.europa.eu, and ask your tour operator and resort for the latest updates.

What accommodation should I choose?

Crystal Ski cancelled its entire chalet programme this winter, but some companies are still offering the option, with a twist. Ski Beat, owned by Topflight, is offering chalets to families on a sole-occupancy, self-catering basis. Self-catered apartments and residences may be popular, allowing you to stay in your own family or group bubble. Through companies like Pierre & Vacances, France is well known for its self-catering, but you’ll also find plenty of options in Austria and Italy. If your budget is high, opt for spacious five-star hotels where social distancing is the norm — the Hyatt Centric in La Rosière, the Daria-I Nor in Alpe d’Huez or Das Seekarhaus in Obertauern, for instance.

What happens if I have to cancel?

Crystal Ski, Topflight and Directski are offering comprehensive Covid insurance. Crystal Ski’s Travel With Confidence cover states that if you get a Covid diagnosis before travelling, you can amend your trip for free. If the company has to cancel your trip or the ski area closes, you will get a full cash refund. The policy will cover your medical costs if you are hospitalised with Covid during your holiday as well as testing costs, quarantine expenses and the cost of a new flight home. Crystal Ski says that it will not take guests to destinations where quarantine is required, either on arrival or on return home. Among other things, Topflight’s Book With Confidence guarantee offers a full refund or voucher to the value of 120pc of the amount you paid if the holiday is impacted by Covid. Directski.com’s Flexible Pledge offers similar cover. Check websites for full details.

All skiers should have their own EHIC card and travel insurance (make sure to add optional winter sports cover). Your insurance will be valid if your destination is listed by the Department of Foreign Affairs under its “exercise a high degree of caution” advisory (dfa.ie), but not under “avoid all but essential travel” — as is currently the case with Andorra and Switzerland. Generally speaking, you’ll have more protection booking with a tour operator.

Will DIY ski trips be possible?

Aer Lingus and Ryanair are both showing key ski routes on sale from around January 11, while Ryanair’s Salzburg schedule starts on December 19 with Saturday flights through to late March — all subject to Covid and demand-related changes, of course.

As for getting to your resort, many skiers will prefer to arrange private transfers this winter via companies like snowlinx.com from Geneva, Lyon and Grenoble or Four Seasons Travel (tirol-taxi.at) from Munich to various Austrian resorts. Shared transfer services like Ski Lifts (ski-lifts.com) and bensbus.co.uk will operate with clients asked to book in groups, load their own luggage, wear masks and inform the company if they are feeling unwell.

Another option is to hire a car — this is a particularly good option in Austria where getting to resorts like Zell am See, St Johann and Westendorf is largely via motorway.

NB: All information subject to change.

ON THE PISTE IN DUBLIN...

Whether or not you make it to the Alps this winter, avid skiers can get their slope fix at the Ski Club of Ireland in Kilternan.

The club has an impressive choice of courses — from ski instructor courses with an Irish qualification (IASI) recognised in Europe’s top resorts to a brand-new Ski Academy, which offers slalom and GS race training, carving clinics, off-piste/touring/skinning and “steeps” courses for expert skiers. There are also four-day fun camps for children and teens, and Freestyle Friday nights for the tricksters in your life.

“For experienced skiers who want to maintain or improve their technique with practice sessions, we will have ski patrollers on the slopes giving tips,” says instructor Rosemary Mayrhuber. “Skiing or snowboarding at Kilternan is a healthy outdoor activity for the winter months and we have done a lot of work to make it Covid-safe,” she adds.

The club’s off-piste and steeps courses are timely — there’s a lot of talk about these becoming more popular in the Alps as people seek out safe, wide-open spaces. These pursuits require experience, skill, stamina and knowledge of the mountains, however — so learning the basics at Kilternan could be a great idea.

For families, next weekend (Dec 19/20) will see the final Family Ski Experience before Christmas, with family ski lessons and a visit to Santa’s Sleigh from €200 per family. Four lessons at the club, including equipment hire, costs €160 for adults and €110 for students, but you don’t have to take lessons to enjoy the slopes.

See skiclub.ie for more.


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