First off, let me be a little more specific. This is a first timer’s guide to skiing the Alps, not a first timer’s guide to skiing, where you happen to be in the Alps. I wouldn’t recommend this trip unless you are at least a somewhat experienced skier, as the size can be quite daunting.
The mountains in Europe are simply bigger, more grand, jagged, and certainly nothing short of spectacular. It’s almost laughable when Canadian and US resorts boast the longest, or second or third longest vertical in North America considering that it is just a fraction of some of the resorts in Europe!
The resorts offer a full gamut of terrain, from well-groomed pistes to drops that will take your breath away. The piste skiing in the Alps is quite different to North America and other parts of the world. Typically most European ski resorts are wide-open slopes above the timberline. There is no single "trail"; the entire mountainside is one. There are only a small proportion of actual marked trails (on-piste), so most of the advanced skiing is off-piste.
Check out my mom tearing up the slopes! ^
The idea of having no set boundaries and nothing off limits is virtually outlawed in America, but practically encouraged in Europe. Looking up at the mountains from the bottom of the lift, “Holy shit..” was my first thought followed by “what did I get myself into??”
I learned to ski very young; growing up we would take family ski vacations out West almost every year and hit the local slopes every Sunday. As I got older I went less and less, and was definitely a bit rusty. For those skiers who aren’t as advanced (or a little out of skiing shape, like myself) don’t worry, there are five or six undemanding, ego-building runs along the off-piste trails. These runs turn a bit here-and-there, move over to the side and then bend back, or follow the shoulder of the hill on much milder gradients and are very enjoyable to get your skiing legs back.
Skiing in the Alps was always a far-off fantasy of mine. Adding up the cost of airfare, resort fees, rentals, transportation, and everything else that goes along with it had my mind made up that this was something I would never have the luxury of experiencing. Going into this junket, I knew it was going to be a once in a lifetime trip. However after leaving the trip, I knew that this was just a taste of what would hopefully be the first of many!
The Cost: Definitely not as much as I thought it would be.
Remember my blog about my best airfare deals of 2015 where I mentioned Norwegian Air is offering round trip flights from New York to Oslo for about $350? From Oslo our flight to Geneva costed $40. We added a couple of stops to London and Stockholm before heading back to the states, which costed about $100.
Making the total cost for airfare about $500 per person.
Originally, I had planned for us to take a $20/person shuttle from the Geneva Airport to our hotel across the border in France, where we would be skiing. However, after landing at 7:30pm, we quickly learned that the buses stopped running to the mountains and that shuttles needed to be booked online at least 24 hours in advance...oops. Quick change of plans, rental car it is!
I had never rented a car in a different country before. I dont know why, but the thought never really crossed my mind. The rentals are handled just like you would do in the United States. We made our reservation online through Expedia.com, gave a credit card, signed some papers, and boom, two day rental car for $92.
From getting to our hotel, renting equipment, getting to the ski lift, and getting back to the airport in Switzerland, I could only imagine what a nightmare it would have been if we ended up just taking the shuttle as planned. Renting a car couldn’t have worked out better and I highly recommend it. The drive was so picturesque!
*Side note, make sure you get a GPS!!
Where to stay:
Figuring out which mountain you would like to ski was the hardest and most confusing part of planning for me. In the United States, there are different resorts on the mountains that all have their own ski lifts, hotels, rental shops, etc. Europe is not that way at all. Because the villages in the Alps preexist skiing and over time have been connected by lifts, one of the coolest aspects of skiing in Europe is going from village to village, and even country to country! In many resorts, you can do circular tours where you never ride the same lift twice! The vast number of resorts was extremely overwhelming for me to choose from. There was no “right choice” or “best mountain” to ski. I recommend doing a little research online and narrowing down what exactly you’re looking for. I really wanted a mountain that was relatively easy to navigate and one that gave me access to lifts in both France and Switzerland. Best choice for me: Portes du Soleil. Encompassing thirteen resorts between Mont Blanc in France and Lake Geneva in Switzerland, Portes du Soleil ranks among the two largest ski areas in the world.
Each little town that provides access to the lifts have their own special charm and identity. Again, the number of choices was extremely overwhelming! From luxury spas to chic little chalets, you can pretty much find something that appeals to everyone. Hit the internet and read reviews to get what you’re looking for. I choose a town that was centrally located called Morzine. From there I went on Booking.com to pick my hotel: Bonne Valette for €76/night (about $86 usd). The hotel was inexpensive, clean, offered free parking and wifi, and was centrally located, which is pretty much all we were looking for in a stay.
Lift tickets and ski rental:
Lift tickets at European resorts are far more reasonable then in the USA, reason being the lifts are run as part of the town’s parks & recreation department. Taxes support it, including tourist taxes, so they don’t have to sell real estate, lessons and food to make the business work. Instead, the local businesses take care of business, and the town takes care of the ski area to attract people to the businesses. Rentals can be found at several shops throughout town, and lift tickets can be purchased right at the bottom of the chairlift. There isn’t a go-to, one stop shop to buy and rent everything at, which was very confusing for me. We went to a small mom and pop rental shop where the owners spoke hardly any English. Just like renting a car, renting skis in Europe is the same as you would do in the US. They measure your shoe size and height on the spot, the only confusion we had was not knowing our weight in kilograms (which I now know 1 pound = about .45 kilos). We were able to rent helmets through the shop, but not goggles, so pack your own if you want them.
Total price for skis, boots, poles, and helmet: €40 (about $45 usd)
Lift ticket for individual day: €48 ($54 usd)
The bottom line, I found that with the cost of lift tickets, rentals, transportation, food, taxes, and lodging factored in, the European trip costs about the same (maybe even less) than it would for someone in the United States to take a vacation to the Rockies-- but far more rewarding!
Of all the places I’ve skied in the United States: Montana, Utah, Michigan, Vermont, you name it, they don’t hold a candle to what the Alps have to offer! If skiing the Alps isn’t already on your bucket list, add it! Trust me, this is something you’re going to want to experience in your lifetime!