Sunday, September 18, 2011

Choosing a ski resort – what the guidebooks didn’t tell you


This is a guest post by Dee Mason.

If you’re going to be throwing a considerable sum of hard-earned money at a skiing holiday, you want to be sure that it’s going to be worth it. Guidebooks can tell you (almost) all of the practical things you need to know to help you choose the right resort, whether you want information on the best ski hotels Bulgaria has to offer or the best time of the season to ski in Colorado, but can they simply tell you if you’re going to enjoy it? Besides the hiring fees, lift pass costs and altitude stats, you want to know what the skiing is really like, how easy it is to get from the hotel to the top of the piste and whether or not the mountain restaurants are too busy to sit down in with your steak hache frites. So, to remedy the inadequacy of guidebooks to tell you the stuff that really matters, here are some handy hints on what to look for when booking your skiing holiday.

"The quality of the
equipment to hire at the
resort is something which
is not always talked
about in guidebooks."
Sometimes the seemingly-irrelevant factors can be the real deal breakers for holidaymakers, such as the length of the lift queues. It sounds obvious, but this doesn’t necessarily correspond to the popularity of the resort. Val Thorens in the French Alps, for example, is a very popular resort, but because it is spread out over quite a large area the majority of the lift queues are not too long. If you head over in to Meribel, however, there is only one route back to Val Thorens so you can end up queuing for a while. This is not fun in any weather and is generally an unfavourable way to spend the afternoon. It may feel like an arduous task for something so futile, but it might be worth spending a few minutes just checking customer reviews before you book; if people are angry about wasting their holiday queuing rather than skiing, they tend to make it pretty obvious.

Guidebooks may be able to give you facts and figures about the ratio of skiers to boarders in each resort, but this doesn’t necessarily give you the full picture. Firstly, while some resorts may have a great number of boarders, there will often be an area of the resorts at which the boarders will congregate, particularly around the snow parks and powdery off piste. If you’re the sort of skier who panics every time they hear the ominous swoosh of a board behind them, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to avoid the resorts which attract boarders. As a general rule, boarders prefer off-piste to piste and hate moguls and ice, so as long as there’s variety, you should be fine. I would also advise boarders to look out for and avoid boarder-unfriendly resorts. They usually make it fairly clear on their websites as they brag about the sections of the mountain which are off-limits to boarders. Alternatively, many reviews, particularly on boarder-specific websites, will give you a better idea of the atmosphere of a resort for boarders.

The quality of the equipment to hire at the resort is something which is not always talked about in guidebooks but can be very important, as can be the level of service provided by the rental shops. There is usually a range of rental shops from the budget to the luxury in each resort, but it’s worth checking before you go. Generally, aim for the rental shops which buy in new gear each season, rather than those which just buy last year’s stock from other shops. Saying that, there can be some fantastic deals which won’t be in the guidebooks because they’re always changing. Some shops do a buy one get one free offer if you book online, so it’s another thing which is worth checking well in advance. As for the level of service, you want a shop that’s going to change your skis or board for you straight away if there’s a problem, no questions asked. There are many reviews online which should provide you with the relevant information.

Although guidebooks will give you some information on the demographic which is attracted to each resort, I would recommend having a look at the reviews, even if it’s just on the resort’s website. Looking at the photos, particularly of the après ski, can give you a good idea of whether or not it looks like the sort of crowd you want around on your holiday. If it’s night life you’re looking for, for example, look for photos of clubs in the mountains and fluorescent, baggy ski gear on young, tanned individuals. Alternatively if you’re booking a family holiday with young kids, a swimming pool either in the resort or in the hotel and perhaps a bowling alley might be the things to look for.

And finally, one thing which I highly recommend considering, if only briefly, is the amount of flat-piste in the resort. A guidebook can tell you in great detail how incredible the pistes are and how amazing the off piste is, but it will conveniently leave out the bit telling you that at the end of an awesome run down from the top, there’s half a mile of up hill to contend with. On countless occasions have I almost wrenched my shoulder out trying to pull a helpless-looking boarder along with a pole, and subsequently forgotten just how good the skiing was until that point.

Guidebooks can be fantastically useful blocks of paper, summarising the basic things to get you started on planning your skiing holiday. However, if you really want to make sure you get the absolute best for the price that you pay, check out the reviews online to give you a variety of opinions and make the most of the most up to date deals and offers on ski and board hire.

Dee Mason writes regularly on travelling and and skiing. He can be reached at

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