One day in February each year, my three children come home from school in London, but go to sleep in Germany. We pile into our old Rover 75 Estate, take the tunnel to Calais, then drive through France, Belgium and the Netherlands before collapsing into bed in Aachen: five countries in an afternoon. The next day we cruise down the Autobahn to Munich or Salzburg, potter around the city and have an early night. The following morning we are on the ski slopes, hours before the plane gang arrive.
For a ten-night ski holiday in February half-term, the most expensive ski week of the year, our total spend is less than £3,500. For five people. That includes travel, accommodation, eight-day lift passes, ski lessons, equipment hire and food. That’s around half the cost of a week’s package holiday, and a fraction of what you’d spend in the Swiss Alps or the US.
We weren’t always so frugal, though. My husband Nick and I met 20 years ago, skiing in the idyllic Swiss resort of Wengen, under the north face of the Eiger, where downhill alpine skiing was invented in the 1920s.
So without skiing my family wouldn’t exist. Nick and I skied extensively throughout North America and Europe; it was our shared passion. Three children and a redundancy followed, so we stopped for ten years. Skiing is an expensive holiday, especially when there are five people to pay for. It seemed out of our reach, particularly since we wanted to ski when the snow was best (February generally), and I couldn’t contemplate taking the children away during term time.
Yet with some research and planning, we manage to ski within our budget. The Sterling/Euro exchange being what it is, everyone will notice costs rising sharply this season. But you can still cut them dramatically.
Driving is convenient for us, and cheap. It takes around 13 hours in all from London to Austria, but French skiing is only around nine hours away. Our total travel costs are around £400 for five (including tunnel, diesel, tolls, plus breakdown cover).
Having a car also means we get fantastic deals on accommodation, since we can stay out of the resort. Prices tumble sharply within a mile, and sites such as booking.com and homeaway.co.uk make finding these places simple. This year we rented a gorgeous three-bedroom apartment in an Austrian chalet, overlooking a frozen lake and sheer-sided mountains; a scene straight out of a fairytale. The owners greeted us with schnapps on arrival and we had a private sauna in the garden. All this for £800, and just a short hop from Kaprun’s Kitzsteinhorn glacier.
We favour Austria since it’s friendly, atmospheric and comparatively inexpensive. You get more for your money than in France or Switzerland, which means we can sometimes enjoy long lunches on the mountain (although we often pack a picnic to cut costs and maximise ski time). Snowmaking is excellent and the lifts are fast. It’s chocolate-box pretty and everyone seems to speak English.
The ski schools generally run all day, for the same price as for just a morning in France. You don’t have to pay through the nose for English-speaking instructors either: as long as you pick a resort served by a British tour operator, your children are bound to have other English-speaking children in their group, and an instructor who speaks the language well. This year our two eldest sons were in a teenage group in Zell am See and had an absolute blast on the blacks and in fun parks.
Lift passes are a big expense, but there are savings to be made. In many Austrian resorts, children under 16 are half-price, and under-sevens are often free. Our five Salzburg Super Ski Card lift passes for eight days covered 2,750km of pistes and cost £960. Driving also means parking right by the ski lifts, avoiding the hassle of buses and of trudging along laden with kit. It also means we can ski neighbouring resorts: this year we ventured to Bad Gastein, Saalbach and Kitzbuhel and were back in time to pick up the kids from ski school.
Finally, the journey across Europe is part of the holiday. Breaking up travelling both ways works well — even with profligate use of iPads there is only so long children will endure being cooped up in a car. Generally, we find an Ibis Budget to crash in for a few hours on the first night. The second night might be in Munich, or in an Airbnb on a farm. En route home we’ve explored Heidelberg and Bruges, so there’s some European culture and history thrown in, too.
Of course our holidays can’t compete with those of the money-no-object set. But we squeeze in two extra days on the slopes, ski several resorts and sample some of Europe’s loveliest cities. For an affordable family ski holiday, you won’t go far wrong with an Austrian adventure.