Besides choosing the right ski resort for yourself, there are a few more things to consider when traveling and vacationing in Europe.
On this page you'll find information to help ease some of your anxieties about traveling to and staying in Europe if this is your first ski vacation abroad. And for the Alpine veterans, this page might contain some helpful tips or at least a few reminders.
Charlie Leocha, who has been skiing worldwide for over two decades, guides you through the basics of Getting To Europe, Getting Around Europe, Accommodations and Meals and European Skiing Basics.
Getting To Europe
Time and money
Unfortunately, too many Americans dont seriously consider skiing in Europe. They may seriously dream about it, but dismiss the idea as too costly or too time-consuming. Skiing in Europe is neither.
The first step in planning a European ski vacation is to get across the Atlantic. Crossing the ocean and getting to the re-sort is the major cost to be borne: for example, while transportation to Aspen, Colorado, from New York City consti-tutes about 37 percent of a typical weeks ski vacation budget, the travel segment of a similar ski trip to Austria represents about 50 percent of the total cost. But transatlantic air travel is also where a clever traveler can save the most money.
If you are a do-it-yourselfer, even the transfer from the airport to the resort can be used to save both time and money, if you plan ahead. Remember, though, that there are tradeoffs between cost and convenience: you want to go to Europe to ski and see as much as possible, not to spend endless hours in bus or train stations waiting for connections. Its worth doing a little homework to get the best deal, and a travel agent or tour operator can help out with the specifics.
After studying pricing at ski resorts and airlines, we feel that the best overall values are available through tour operators or when making arrangements through the Web. These packages, whether organized by an operator or created dynamically on the Internet, are not group tours where everyone is herded onto a bus together, but rather tours which take advantage of group discounts and negotiated air and hotel rates. You will fly with friends you choose and will receive coupons or passes for transportation to the resorts. Some operators use buses, others trains, and some even provide rental cars, all for remarkably low prices.
Also, with the advent of direct flights from the West Coast to Europe and code sharing, time and expense are no longer the major factors they once were for people living in once non-gateway cities.
The gateways to the Alps are Zurich, Switzerland; Geneva, Switzerland; Frankfurt, Germany; Munich, Germany; Salzburg, Austria; Milan, Italy; Lyon, France.)
Getting across the Atlantic
Transatlantic airfares have been at all-time lows for several years. There is plenty of capacity and service from almost every area of the country, which makes getting to Europe more convenient, easier and less expensive than ever. And, of course, winter air travel works to a skiers advantage, because prices are often 40 to 50 percent lower than in the peak summer months.
A travel agent and tour operator can be extremely helpfu
You have two basic choices for transatlanti Scheduled
airlines There are many advantages in taking a scheduled airline. For one, the airline must ad-here to its general schedule. If there is a problem with the aircraft, passengers are normally transferred to a flight on another airline. In emergencies, a scheduled airline of-fers flexibility lity
as Expedia and T
is the option of landing in one city and leaving from another. Called Open Jaw in travel jargon, this type of ticket might let you land in Milan, ski the Italian side of the Matterhorn for a week, ski Austria for the second week, then fly home from Munich. You can also ar-range limited stopovers for an additional charge, depend-ing on your ticket, making it easy to squeeze in a few days in Amsterdam, Paris or LondIt helps toossi
ble. You may have to bookand payin advance by as much as a month to get special fares that approach the lowest charter prices. Arrival and departure datesMost tour packagers work with scheduled airlines who sell them blocks of seats at near-charter ence
even if its to take a more expensive flight based on conveni
rates. This sav-ing is passed on to you. By working with a reputable packager through your tr Charter fligexce
llent connections for skiers. There are some problems with charters. Often you are only guar-antee
te rather than a time. The charters also reserve the right to reschedule your flight, cancel it or add fuel charges. Your best protection is to fly with a Try to get some form of flight cancellation insurance in case you dont leave on the planned date, and also get additional medagen
s are com-plicated and seem to change dailyeven with scheduled airlines. And when c
t who will guarantee theical insurance to cover the cost of an emer-g
Getting Around Europe
For the independent skier who wants to get the most out of a European ski vacation, a rental car offers the most flexibility and is a bargainespecially when two skiers share expenses. Rental cars can be picked up directly at the airport upon arrival. Aside from making it a breeze to get to the ski resort, a rental car gives you the free-dom to ex-plore the surrounding area or take a short side trip when ski conditions arent perfect or you just want a break from skiing.
What license do you need?
The driver of the car usually must be at least 19 years old and must have a valid drivers license that has been in effect for at least one year. (The age requirement increases for some more luxurious automobiles.) It is not necessary to have an International Driving Permit when driving in Europeyour home state license is acceptablebut it is a good idea. The AAA issues them, and they are good for a year. Fill out an application and give them two passport-type portrait snapshots. By mail, start the process a month before your departure. If you live near an AAA office, you can accom-plish the entire process there, including photos, in less than an hour. International Driving Permits cost $10. Call AAA for details and the location for the nearest office issuing International Driving Permits at (800) AAA-HELP. Remember, even with the International Driving Permit you will still need your U.S. state license as well. Canadians can call (800) 336-HELP for information on the nearest location to pick up an international license. You can get an application over the Web from www.aaa.com.
BEWARE: We checked out the Internet for International Drivers Licenses. Watch out! There are scores of sites claiming to issue international driver licenses, but none are as inexpensive as the AAA license deal. We found pricing for $34, $40 and $230.
NOTE: In Europe, especially in the Alpine countries, you need to have what is called a Green Card (carte verte) for insurance. This is provided by rental companies, but it is best to make a quick check of the documents when you pick up your car.
Getting the best rates
If you make reservations two to seven days in advance of your arrival with any of the major car rental compa-nies, you qualify for special European vacation rates. These run about $200 to $250 a week, exclud-ing taxes. (If youre comparing car rentals to possible train travel, this will mean that each person will pay about $400 for a full months automobile useplus gasoline, which even in an extreme case shouldnt run more than $200 apiece.) The only requirement for this rate is that you keep the car for at least five days. If you return it before that, you will be charged at the daily rate, which often can cost more than keeping the car the entire week.
While all car rental companies may offer reasonable rates throughout the year for tourism, only Auto Europe (800-223-5555) guarantees that they will find the lowest rate. Auto Europe also can organize camper van rentals, handicap vehicles and chauffeur services.
Another tip: If the need to rent a car comes up while traveling in Europe, it is normally less expensive to call back to the U.S.A. (or go on the Web) and make your reservations with the U.S.-based office. Auto Europes rates require a minimum rental of three days, however, even the three-day rate from Auto Europe is often less expensive than renting a car through a European rental car office for a single day. Check the Auto Europe Web site at www.autoeurope.com for a list of toll-free numbers that will connect directly to the Auto Europe call stateside center.
Generally, there are no drop-off charges if a rental car is returned in the country where it was picked up. Some rental companies will allow rental cars to be dropped off in other countries for no drop-off charge if the rental is for at least 21 days. There are some companies that will allow one-way rentals, but only to a limited group of cities. Ask whether your case falls into one of these categories and if not, pick up and drop off in the same country.
Collision damage waiver/insurance
If you rent your car with a credit card which provides collision damage waiver (CDW) you have adequate protec-tion. Diners Club, American Express, MasterCard Gold and Business and VISA Gold and Business all provide this coverage automatically as long as you decline the CDW option on the rental contract.
This credit card coverage covers the card holder and additional drivers as long as they are correctly signed up properly with the rental company and appear on the contract. Read the fine print. Some credit card companies do not cover your car if you were driving on a dirt road or in the case of hit and run accidents and so on. Check also to see whether this is primary or secondary coverage. Primary coverage is what you want. Secondary coverage only comes into play after your own insurance company pays for damages ... then the credit card com-pany pays the difference. Most credit card collision damage is primary in Europe, while back in the U.S. it is normally secondary.
In the U.S. most collision insurance coverage applies to rental cars as well as to your own automobile, but in Europe most American coverage is not valid. You should have some form of collision damage insurance. According to Auto Europe the normal rental contract deductibles in Europe range from $2,000 to $5,000.
Even with your credit card coverage, your rental car company may demand a se-curity deposit to cover the deductible until everything is settled. You must, in most cases, settle with your credit card company and then reimburse the rental company. Taking the European collision damage insurance allows you to walk away from any accident without mountains of follow-up paperwork.
If you are planning on renting a luxury or four-wheel-drive vehicle, check with the credit card to make sure that the car you are renting is insured under their CDW plan. Some makes and models of automobiles are excluded from coverage.
Rental car operators highly recommend the purchase of CDW for anywhere from €3 to €30 a day depending on the make of car. It makes your life easier in the event of an accident. If you can handle the hassles of doing some of your own accident paper-work during the settlement, credit card companies allow you to save money.
Collision damage used to include other types of damage such as theft of the vehicle. These days, theft insurance has been separated from collisionyou must purchase it separately.
According to Auto Europe many countries have made theft insurance mandatory. Where theft insurance is mandatory it is included in Auto Europe rental charges at a discounted rate.
When theft insurance is not required, we recommend purchasing it even if you are covered for collision through your credit card CDW.
Most major airports now assess an airport pickup surcharge.
Additional driver charges of around €22 per rental or about €10 a day will be added to your bill if you need to have an extra driver listed on the contract.
Child seats cost approximately €35 per rental.
Heading into Eastern Europe
If you are planning to take a rental car into Eastern Europe make sure to inform the company. Many rental car companies will not allow cars to be brought into Eastern Europe because of high rates of theft. Auto Europe has the largest selection of vehicles available for travel into the former Soviet Bloc, however, rates are higher than regular rentals.
Ask for a ski rack and check your chains
When you make reservations, be sure to tell the agent that you will require a ski rack and chains. Chains are usu-ally provided free when ordered in advance, however in Austria there will be an extra charge. Ski racks cost extra (for example €35 per rental in Austria) in some countries. When you pick up the car, the ski rack will be easy to see, but youll have to check closer for the chains. Make sure the chains provided are the correct size for the car. You are the one who will be putting the blasted things on, so you should take a great interest in making sure they are the right size. Check the number on the box carefully against the size of the tires. There is nothing more discon-certing than finding out that the chains are one size too small when you are stuck only a few hundred meters from the top of a pass.
Special airline car-rental deals
Airlines often offer reduced price cars or free cars with many promotions to Europe. You may be able to take ad-vantage of them.
- You normally must travel with another person for the deal.
- Your deal is only for one week, or three days in many cases, and then you begin paying the regular rateseither weekly or daily. These may be high enough to wipe out the original savings if you remain in Europe for a week or two.
- You will have to pay the insurance, taxes, gasoline, and any drop-off charges in most cases.
- Ski racks and snow tires are much harder to come by with these deals.
The superhighway systems in Italy, Spain and France are simply put, expensive. However, the time they save is normally worth the money spent.
NOTE: In Switzerland cars must pay an annual autobahn toll to be permitted on the superhighways. If you rent a car outside of Switzerland and plan to drive on the superhighways, make sure your rental car has the appropriate up-to-date Swiss highway toll sticker before you drive on the Swiss superhighways. The police will not let transgressions go unfined. The hassles can easily ruin a vacation.
Germany has no tolls and no speed limits.
Austria charges about 75¢ per day for a toll sticker payable to the local rental car company. If your car does not have a highway sticker you may be fined if you are caught on the superhighways. You can purchase a temporary sticker good for the length of time you will be Austria at the border.
Taking the train
There are good train transfers from Munich to Garmisch and the Austrian resorts; from Zürich and Geneva to most of the Swiss resorts; and from Milan to some of the Italian resorts. The major problem with rail travel is the hassle of dragging equipment on and off the train, compounded by the usual need to change trains at least once on a trip to an out-of-the-way resort. The Swiss railways are the only ones with a workable luggage trans-portation system: baggage can be checked in at the train station at Geneva or Zürich airport and then delivered to your resort. The system works in re-verse, with the luggage actually checked through to your fi-nal destinationNew York, London or anywhere. Cost for the service is about SFr10 per piece of luggage.
Virtually every Swiss resort except Champéry, Cran-Montana and Flims are easily reached by train. If you plan to stay in your resort, you can be comfortable taking the train and finding your luggage at your hotel when you arrive.
Four people sharing a car always save money over a train and, in many cases, two people can save money, or they will find the price difference so small that car rental is the way to go. Renting a car provides much more freedom and allows side trips in case of bad weather on the mountain.
The Eurailpass and other national train passes are not much good for a ski vacation. It is better to pur-chase a second-class ticket to the resort; remember, since skiing is your object, you probably will not be on the train long enough to justify buying a long-term pass.
Accommodations and Meals
Where you sleep, live and eat constitutes the most ex-pensive part of your stay at a European ski resort. Lodging and meals vary widely, not only with the type of hotel or restaurant but also with the season.
Use this guide to select a hotel or apartment that is near the slopes and near the center of town. Or if you want a quiet spot on the outskirts of the village well help to point you in the right direction.
Choosing a hotel
IIf you take a package tour or make your arrangements on the Web, your decisions are made long before you arrive at the resort. Most of the popular hotels used by tour packagers and available on the Internet are included in this guide; the descriptions should help.
If you arrive in a resort without reservations, plan ample time to select a hotel. This means taking about a half hour to check out what the room situation is like.
The local tourist office will steer you in the right direc-tion and will tell you which hotels have rooms available. Ask for three or four recommendations, then check out the rooms in person. In low seasonJanuary or Aprildont be pressured into taking a room you dont want; in most cases, there are plenty available.
Many times rates at hotels and pensions vary signifi-cantly even within the same categories. After choosing where you want to stay, youll need to decide whether to take full or half board, or only break-fast (see below). Make sure to ask if any reductions are available. You may get a special rate by staying a full week or by staying through Friday night and leaving on Saturday, the day most ski weeks turn over.
Make sure that you understand exactly what the room rate includes. Are the listed prices for the room or are they per person? Are the prices with breakfast only, half pension (see below) or full pension. If you insist on getting clear informa-tion at the start, it makes your trip much more pleasant.
Staying in British-style ski chalets
Ski Chalets have recently become one of the most popular ways for British skiers to stay and ski in style, without paying whopping hotel rates. What the rest of the skiers of the world havent yet realized is that they can use them, too.<
A chalet takes the convenience and informality of an apartment and the amenities and gourmet cuisine of a hotel and lumps them all into one fantastic package. Chalets are often converted private homes or small hotels, fully catered (breakfast, afternoon tea and snack and three-course dinner with wine), and run by professional hosts who cook, clean, and do the shopping. Many are ski-in/ski-out or near the slopes and even employ their own ski guides to get their guests acquainted with the mountain.
Chalets are best suited for young, sociable skiers looking for an easy way to form a group of friends to eat, ski, and party with (some chalets sleep up to 35 people!). Chalet-goers should be easy-going and not too squeamish about sharing bedrooms (there is a charge for unused beds or rooms), but in return you will stay in some of the nicest accommodations around with a group of people who may challenge even your apres-ski and nightlife stamina.
Staying in a chalet, youll also be able to customize your own vacation. While the meals and service included in the basic price are first-rate, there are a number of extras for you to choose from if the basic package just isnt enough. When you book your vacation, be prepared to specify if you want vegetarian meals, premier service (with even more amenities and gourmet cuisine!), or even, packed lunches for the slopes, etc.
One thing to remember: chalets can be a great alternative for families (with discounts for children and nanny services at an extra charge); however, many of the chalets listed by various travel companies do not accept children under age 16 unless you book the entire chalet. If you are travelling with children, you will probably need to lookfor smaller chalets for your family or inquire about special family chalets that will cater to your needs.
Chalets are available at most major French resorts and at a few Austrian, Swiss, and Italian areas as well. There are a number of tour holiday operators to call or write to for information. Be aware that most prices they will quote include one-weeks lodging, food, ski guides plus round-trip airfare from London (or snowtrain from Calais), so be sure to tell the sales agent if you are not travelling from the U.K. All companies below have discounts for large groups and for children. The major tour operators are as follows (individual resort chapters list which ones provide chalets in the area):
Crystal Holidays (Internet: http://www.crystalholidays.co.uk E-mail: [email protected] Phone: 0870 848 7000) claims to have the largest service, with chalets in almost all resorts in Europe.
Inghams (020 8780 4433; e-mail [email protected]) has an impressively long list of chalets at major ski resorts in France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Andorra.
Thomas Cook/Neilson (08705 141414; e-mail [email protected]; Web site www.neilson.co.uk) has chalets in 11 of these resorts. Or contact your travel agent.
Simply Ski (020 8742 2541; e-mail [email protected]), and Chalet World (01952 840 462) have chalets for rent at most French resorts and a very limited number in Switzerland and Austria. First Choice (0990 557755) also has chalets in France and Austria.
Thompson (0870 606 1470) has chalets in 15 of these resorts.
We mention Ski Chalet availability in each resort, however please refer back to this page for phone, fax and internet connections.
Country by country
Hotels in different European countries are organized and run by different standards. These standards affect how the hotels are listed and what amenities you can ex-pect within their various categories.
Accommodation in Italy, Spain and France is controlled by a government rating system which is too difficult to explain and often seems to make no sense. Hotels grouped within the same category with similar room rates often vary greatly. Some regulations produce confu-sion, such as a requirement in Italy that to be classified as first class, a hotel must have at least 40 rooms. Thus, some 36-room super-luxurious hotels with fabulous rooms and perfect service are listed as second class.
Hotels and other accommodations in the mountains are usually far cleaner and the service far superior to what you normally find in the rest of France and Italy.
Switzerland, Austria and Germany are no-nonsense countries. The hotels are clean and neat. The rating system is based on stars, with the highest rating being five stars, which means luxury class. The hotels tend to be accurately rated. In these countries it is actually hard to find a real dive.
One fact of life in the mountains during the winter sea-son is the requirement to take at least two meals, or half pension (see below), in the hotel where you are staying. During high season this requirement is firm, and some hotels may even insist on full pension. The price is well worth it in most cases. In your hotel search, however, ask several locals which hotels or pensions have the best food. This research should also enter into your decision on where to spend your week in the resort.
Season by season
For the lowest prices, the best season to stay in any resort hoteland to eat at any restaurantis low season. This is normally from December 1 through the weekend before Christmas, then again from the weekend after New Years through the first weekend in February, and again from the end of March through the month of April. The exact dates vary. Be sure to check to see when the low season starts and finishes.
The bargains in January are wonderful. Resorts are virtually guaranteed to have snow and facilities will not be crowded. In low season the resorts are not packed to capacity, so the kitchen and hotel staff have time to provide exceptional service. In addition, the on-site facilities, such as sauna, steamroom, pool or exercise room tend to be less crowded.
Early-season and late-season bargains are always a bit dicey in terms of finding good snow. Should anyone be making decisions on whether to visit the Alps before Christmas or after Easter, opt for a trip in the Spring. The experience is delightful and the certainty of snow is far highter than in December.
Pensions are usually smaller, family-run affairs that cost significantly less than hotels. The pension guest in many cases feels a part of the family.
Some lodgings have a bath and toilet in the room, others have the bath and toilet down the hall or just next door. Most pensions recommended in this book have rooms available with private bath and toilet. If you do
not mind a semi-private arrangement, you can request that type of room and save even more.
Many pensions, especially in the mountains, offer full restaurant service and will include all three meals in the price during the ski season. Many require that you take at least half board (see below) when staying for a week. It usually is well worth the price.
Bed & Breakfasts or Garnis
Bed & Breakfast (B&B) and Garni mean the same thing. A B&B is what the name implies: room with breakfast only. Normally, you can-not take lunch or dinner there. This means heading out to discover local restaurants.
The Bed & Breakfast arrangement is often the least expensive in a mountain town, other than staying in pri-vate homes or apartments. Do not let yourself be fooled by the low price, though. Remember, you will have to pay for your meals in restaurants, which will add significantly to your costs. Although pensions and hotels may appear to cost more, when meal prices are taken into consideration, they may really be a bargain.
Garnis and Bed & Breakfasts do offer several advan-tages. First, you have a chance to try different restaurants and different styles of cooking during your stay. Second, you can often save money by eating less. Hotel menus include a full meal with all the trimmings and each is priced on the assumption that you eat everything on the daily menu. You may only want to eat a plate of spaghetti and be on your way. In other words, you pay only for what you eat.
Full pension/full board or Half pension/half board
That is the question
Full pension, or full board, means that your hotel will provide breakfast, lunch and dinner each day of your stay.
The meals are served at set times in most hotels and pensions. If you miss the mealtime, the establishment is not required to provide an alternative meal (but some of the better hotels will offer you a meal in a smaller grill rather than in the main dining room).
When you agree to full pension, ask whether the hotel has either a box lunch to take with you or a coupon arrangement with a restau-rant on the slopes. If the hotel does not have such an ar-rangement, you will be required to return to the hotel for every meal, which can really cut into skiing time. (Or, simply forgo the meal even though you are paying for it.) This could be an important consideration when de-ciding between hotels.
Half pension means that the hotel will offer breakfast, plus one additional meal, normally dinner, every day of your stay. Often referred to as half board, this is often the best arrangement. You are free to eat what you want and where you want during the day while on the slopes. If you plan to go out on the town to dine at a special restaurant, you can arrange to have lunch at the hotel that day and be free for dinner elsewhere.
In high season many hotels require you to take full pension. But in low season you can often get the room at half pension only, or with break-fast only.
The basic meal is all that is included in the full- or half-pension price. Any wine, water, extras, changes from the menu, coffee or liqueurs are billed as extra charges.
What is breakfast?
Depending on where they come from, its called petit déjeuner, Frühstück, desayuno, or prima colazione. Here is a primer on what you can expect.
In Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Italys Val Gardena region, breakfast means yogurt, cold cuts, cheese, jams and jellies, butter, rolls and endless coffee or tea. In some hotels, you get boiled eggs and juiceall included in the breakfast with the room.
In France, Spain and most of Italy, breakfast means a bas-ket of rolls, sometimes a few sweet rolls, butter, jam and jelly with coffee or tea. Juice and eggs are almost always extras.
Staying in apartments or chalets
An economical alternative to staying in a hotel, pension or B&B is to take a condominium, flat (apartment) or chalet. They are often scattered through the town and offer reasonably priced accommodations.
Apartments (condos) are most popular in Switzerland and France, and the Italians are now beginning to get their condominium rental arrangements organized.
They come in all sizes. You can rent a studio, which is perfect for a couple, or an apartment for four, five, six or eight people. The price per person drops considerably as the size increases. These are fantastic bargains: the daily cost can be as low as €20 to €30 per person if two share an apartment.
Units are normally rented with a fully equipped kitchen, all utensils and a dishwasher. Bed linen and a clean-up are sometimes included; in other cases there are charges for them. Check also for a utility fee: it may be included, or you may pay for the electricity used at the end of the stay.
You can cook your own breakfast and as many meals as you want, which will save a lot of money. There is usually a super-market nearbyoften on the ground floor of the building. Grocery prices are about the same as, or slightly higher than, those in a large European city.
If you decide that you would like to stay in a flat or chalet, contact the resort tourist office and ask for a list-ing of the units that will be free when youre going to visit. The tourist office will send you a list; make your choice and return the information to the tourist office. You will usually have your confirming corre-spondence with the owners.
If you arrive with no arrangements, the tourist office will make several calls and send you off to see several apartments and speak with the owners.
The leading apartment and chalet rental firm in the world is Interhomein some resorts it virtually con-trols the apartment rentals. Interhome has offices in Britain and in the U.S. In the U.K., contact Interhome Ltd., 383 Richmond Road, Twickenham TW1-2EF, United Kingdom; tel. 01-8911294. In the U.S., contact Interhome at 124 Little Falls Road, Fairfield, NJ 07004; tel. (800) 882-6864, fax (201) 808-1742.
Staying in a private home
Private homes at many resorts will rent out rooms. These rooms are normally very inexpensive, with prices ranging between those of a B&B and an apartment. If you are traveling alone, a private home is often the best bargain you can get.
Staying in a private home can give you a better feel for the local scene: you pick up hints on the best places to go on the slopes and in town, and in many cases you will find yourself treated like a friend of the family.
Start at the local tourist office. It has addresses and phone numbers of the families who rent out rooms. The tourist office often will call and make arrangements. Ask to see several rooms and then make your choice. These rooms normally do not have private bath and shower. You share with the family in many cases.
In some cases, the room price includes breakfast but the arrangements vary from house to house. Expect to pay €20 to €30 a night, depending on the re-sort and season.
Make sure that baths or showers are included in the price; if not, ask for the price and the best time of day to take a bath or shower. (Hot water can be at a premium just after the slopes close for the day.)
European Skiing Basics
What should a skier expect when arriving at a European resort? Culture shock aside, there shouldnt be too many surprises, because the U.S. ski industry has been modeled to a great extent on the long-established European resorts.
In most cases you will be able to ski into the town or village where you are staying. Of course, this doesnt apply if you are staying in a city such as Innsbruck, Salzburg or Interlaken.
A friend had just arrived in Switzerland from New England the week before Christmas and we were getting ready to go skiing. Her preparations amazed me. She began by putting on lots of bulky clothing: sweaters, a jacket and other Arctic-expedition para-pher-nalia.
Whoa, I said. What are you doing? You want to be able to move on the mountain, dont you?
I dont want to be cold, she replied.
Well, youll melt if you dress like that, I said.
After this argument she reluctantly agreed to take off half of the clothing and risked taking my advice to wear only a turtleneck, a sweater and a wind-breaker.
The point is this: Skiing in Europe is not a freezing proposition. The weather is very mild in the mountain ar-eas. Even in the coldest sections of the Alps, the winter daytime temperatures hover at around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Windy days, few and far between, usually her-ald a coming snowstorm.
What to wear
Try to dress in layers, and because temperatures are relatively mild, you will rarely need more than a ski jacket over a turtleneck shirt. On most days, a turtleneck worn under a light sweater and a windbreaker will be more than enough. Dont underestimate the temperatures, though; they drop rapidly when youre sitting in the wind on a long chair lift ride. Europes use of T-bar and platter lifts will help keep you warmer, although American skiers may swear at staying on their feet.
Protection from the sun
Europes resorts are no different from any others when it comes to sun, especially in spring. Sunburn or snow blindness can ruin any vacation, so use sun screen and lip protection, and always wear glasses or goggles. The glasses do not have to be tinted; the glass itself stops most harmful ultraviolet rays. Goggles are even better, especially on overcast days when they help you find trail contours.
General snow conditions
Snow in Europe is not as dry as Utah or Colorado snow, owing to lower elevations and milder climate. Nor is it ice half the time as in New England, because of more constant temperatures.
Most of the trails are well above treeline and are only defined by grooming machine tracks and signs posted to help out in white-out conditions.
The best snowfall seems to take place in January, making both January and February good months for ski-ing. Plan to go in January, since February and March are also the most expensive times to ski or snowboard, except for the Christmas, New Years and Easter holiday periods. The week before Christmas is normally a pretty good time to go, but chancy in terms of snow.
Spring skiing sees the Alps at their finest, with prices at most resorts again at low-season levels. If you want an adventure, head off-piste with an instructor for spring ski-ing. In his company you will learn the best times to ski different areas as the day progresses and the sun warms the snow. The secret is to get onto the run just before you begin breaking through the crust and then move to the next part of the mountain.
Before you go, take a close look at your health insurance to be certain you are covered in case of an accident. Most poli-cies pro-vide worldwide coverage, some are limited in the case of skiing accidents, and others group skiing acci-dents under the broad category of accidental injury, which may mean that your deductible will be waived. Know what cov-erage you have. If you do not have enough, arrange to buy special ski insurance. Your agent should be able to point you in the right direction.
Several companies offer this insurance and surpris-ingly (amazing what you can find in the fine print) some credit cards include similar insurance if you purchase your airline ticket or pay for your vacation with the card. In addition, you can purchase ski insurance once you ar-rive at the resort. Carte Neige in France is easy to purchase at most resorts. Local tourist offices have de-tails--and it is often sold with lift tickets buy it.
Photocopy important papers
Make a photocopy of your passport pages showing your photo and personal information, and write down your passport number. Also, make photocopies of your airline tickets and the credit cards youll be taking.
Make two copies: Keep one with you, separate from your passport, tickets and credit cards, and leave the sec-ond copy with a friend or relative.
If you somehow lose everything, these backup records will be invaluable. The passport copy will help in getting a replacement at an overseas consulate or embassy. The ticket copy may help in getting a replacement and alerts the airline to look for a stolen ticket with that number. The credit card num-bers will make reporting stolen cards and limiting your liability much easier.
Telephones in the Alps
The telephone system in Europe works well, especially in this section of the continent. At the end of each resort section we have included the local prefix for the resort, the equivalent of an area code in the U.S. If you see a number in parentheses preceding another phone number it is normally a town prefix.
The prefixes are normally noted as a zero followed by one to five digits, then after a closed parentheses or dash, the local number follows. When calling inside the same country, you must dial the entire prefix including the zero; however, when calling the resort from outside that coun-try, normally, you would dial the country code, then the prefix with-out the zero, then the local number.
In Italy you still must always dial the complete phone numberit will start with a zero. When you call into Italy dial the country code 0039 followed by 0.... The old prefixes have been incorporated into the phone numbers.
In France you will notice that there is no city prefix. It is included in the eight digits which make up the number. Only Paris has an additional prefix. Most of our phone numbers are listed as xxx xx xx xx. When you call from outside of France dial the country code, 0033, then dial the number as we show it in the book. When calling within France you must always dial zero first.
In Switzerland the prefixes are part of the local number. Dial the full numbe
r noted when calling from within Switzerland. When outside of Switzerland add the country code.
If calling a resort from within Europe, just dial the country code as shown below, including the double zeros. If you are calling the resort from the U.S. you must dial 011, then the country code without the double zeros, then the prefix without the zero, then the local number (except in Italy where the zero must also be dialed).
Country codes are as follows:
If you see phone numbers of varying lengths even within the same resort, it is not necessarily a misprint. In the Alps the phone numbers are not all the same number of digitsin fact, the main number of a hotel often has
Calling from Europe to the U.S.
It is simple to direct-dial from any of these European countries to the U.S.A. The prefix for the U.S. is 001 in most countries. Then dial the area code and your local number.
Purchase a telephone card overseas. They are easy to use and charges for calls to the USA are often less than using a stateside telephone card.
There are scores of Internet cafés in Europe. They can be found at virtually every resort mentioned in this guidebook. Prices are amazingly inexpensive. If you are an email junky, you can rest assured that you will not have to bring your laptop along to access your messages.
Credit cards and travelers checks
Most large resorts and full-fledged hotels accept major credit cards, but dont expect the smaller pensions and ho-tels to accept them. The normally accepted cards are American Express, Diners Club, Visa and MasterCard (called Eurocard in Europe). You can leave store credit cards and Discover cards at home.
Some resorts allow skiers to pay for lift tickets with credit cards but they are few and far between. It is best to come prepared with adequate cash or travelers checks to cover your ex-penses. American Express offers the best-known travelers checks, but in the Alps almost all are easily exchanged.
In Germany, Switzerland and Austria credit cards are accepted by restaurants and hotels but not with the frequency they are taken in the U.S. In France, Italy and Spain, however, credit cards are accepted for virtually all transactions from car rentals to highway tolls to some taxi cabs.
Credit cards often have advantages you wouldnt think about. They offer toll-free numbers for assistance in finding doctors and lawyers should you need them. Most credit cards also have a buyers protection plan that may insure gifts you buy from theft and damage during your travels. And some cards will help with arrangements back home should you have an unfortunate accident. Read your fine print.
The basic rule of changing money at a bank applies at ski resortseven more so than in most places. Hotels and restaurants that accept travelers checks almost never give you a rate of exchange equal to the one you can get from a bank. Plan ahead and save yourself the difference. To change a small amount of money, it is often better to exchange it at your hotel, because there is no mini-mum exchange fee.
The most advantageous exchange rates are available when receiving a cash advance using a credit card, however, make sure the credit card does not charge an overseas charge fee or have an exhorbitant cash advance fee. These fees can add up to seven percent. Normally, credit cards issued by credit unions and a handful of smaller banks do not assess cash-advance fees or overseas charge fees.
If your credit card charges a two percent overseas charge fee and a cash-advance fee, it is best to take travelers checks or cash and exchange them at a bank overseas.
That said, you can get cash advances in local currency with a MasterCard or Visa at most banks in the Alps. In France and Spain cash machines are the most convenient means of getting Euros and often provide the best exchange rates (if you ues a low-fee credit card). But plan aheadthere is a limit on daily withdrawals. Dont wait until the last day when you have to settle your bills to head to the cash machine.
The cash advance service is available from many banks and automatic bank machines as well. Use your low-fee credit cards for a cash advance or your bank card. Though you pay a service charge (which you pay to change money anyway), you will be getting the best interbank ex-change rate with the credit card.
Again, beware the added charges many credit cards add for overseas charges and pay attention to your cards cash advance fee. If your card charges a two percent overseas fee, it will be no better bargain than using travelers checks or exchanging cash.
Dealing with the Euro
Almost all of Europe has switched to the Euro as a standard currency. The major holdout is the United Kingdom and for purposes of this book, Switzerland. All prices are listed here in Euros, even though the Swiss Franc is still legal tender in Switzerland. In most cases prices will be listed at resorts in Euros and Swiss Francs.
Taking your own equipment
Most airlines will allow you to check your ski equipment onto your flight for no additional charge. However, check with the airline for their policies. Most airlines consider skis and ski boots one piece of luggage and they become part of your three free pieces of luggage. Some airlines, such as Iberia, simply dont take skis.
Upon your arrival in Europe, have a word with the personnel in the baggageclaim area to find out where to pick up your equipment. Skis are often delivered to a separate part of the baggage area.
Equipment rentals are available at your resort. Ski rentalsdepending on the quality ski you wantrange from about €6€20, with discounts for periods of three days or more and weekly rentals run-ning €33€75. Bring your own boots, however, because these are extremely important to your comfort. We have yet to find rental boots that are comfort-able. If you rent boots, expect to pay €5€10 a day, or €18€40 a week, de-pending on the quality of the boot.
Etiquette on the slopes
The Austrian Tourist Office lists 10 rules for the slopes, which, although not especially profound, make good sense and should be followed by everyone.
1. Keep equipment in good condition.
2. Do not endanger others or destroy property.
3. Ski in control, keep weather and terrain in mind.
4. Its the uphill skiers responsibility to avoid the skier below him. Give other skiers a good safe margin.
5. After stopping, look around before starting again.
6. Get up quickly after a fall and do not stop in blind spots on the trails.
7. If you walk up a slope, keep to the edge of the run.
8. Obey all signs and markers.
9. You are obliged to help injured skiers. Protect them from further risk and get first aid.
10. If you are in a skiing accident, you are required to furnish identification.
Dealing with European lift lines...or lack of them
One major difference between skiing in Europe and the United States can be seen in lift-line etiquette. In the U.S., lift lines are relatively orderly: a line for singles is main-tained along the far right or left, and nearly everyone takes pains to avoid stepping on or skiing over another skiers equipment. The result is that you almost never get jammed together as you move through the lift line.
Not so in Europe. Although the lift lines in various countries on the Continent differ as to the degree of pushy behavior, in general they are a free-for-all. Until you reach the point where barriers have been set up to funnel skiers into the lift, there are no controls. He who moves the fastest and shuffles forward the most aggres-sively is usually the first to get up the lift. While there is a mild effort not to blatantly trample over each others skis, you may presume that your equipment will be stepped on no matter what you do or how angry you appear to be.
Here are some tips to handling lift lines:
- Before you enter the line, see whether it turns to the right; if so, go to the far outside left of the line. If the line turns to the left, go to the extreme right. If you have ever tried to turn a sharp corner with skis on, you will understand the wisdom of this. There is no mercy shown in the lift line. Once stuck on the inside of a sharp turn within the barriers, you are in troublethere is no room to swing your skis. Ive seen skiers snap out of their bindings to make the corner.
- If the line is almost straight, get on its outside edge. You will quickly see that the mass of skiers funnel down the narrow barriers on either side. Those who get caught in the middle get squeezed from both sides and move about half as fast as those on the outside of the crowd.
- Another solution is to follow a snowboarder, whose board cuts a wider swath.
- Maintain a sense of humor. It will be tested, especially on weekends and school holidays.
- The best time to ski and avoid crowds is during lunch time. Youll find clear slopes, shorter lift lines and fewer frustrations. In Italy, Spain and France, the lines all but disappear as everyone heads in for a big lunch. The noon-hour dif-ference is not as great in Switzerland and Austria.