Heard on Radio 4: outraged parents complaining to earnest consumer journalists – You and Yours, perhaps? – about the scandal of tour operators charging extra during the school holidays. Rampant profiteering at the expense of poor powerless parents! A shameful incitement to take children out of school and ruin their chance in life! Something must be done! Never mind energy prices, Mr Milliband, how about a price freeze on ski holidays?
To which one may be tempted to give the radio a good shake and say, welcome to the market economy. Ever heard of supply and demand? Yes, it’s painful, the way we parents are trapped in the budgetary vice at the very moment when our finances are most stretched. But staggered school holidays are not the answer. Parents with children at different schools won’t want them on holiday at different times. If half term was staggered over a four week period, tour operators would say ‘thanks very much’ and extend through-the-roof pricing from one week to four.
The half term skiing problem is always a popular subject for punditry at this time of year. Stand by for all the usual platitudes and devastating glimpses of the obvious. Book early, shop around, be flexible, choose a cheaper country. Creches and Kindergartens may be full too. Have you considered the Pyrenees or Bulgaria?
Don’t buy a holiday from a tour operator. The rule is: package holidays are good value in low season, DIY is cheaper in the school holidays, because accommodation providers in ski resorts don’t raise their prices by nearly so much as tour ops. It may be too late to buy an affordable flight or train ticket (this is still an option for Easter, but you need to book Eurostar pdq), in which case you may have to drive out. If you do, and book a self-catering flat, you will be able to save extra by stocking up at home and/or a hypermarket en route. (Sorry, you know this. DGO).
Choose a small resort, preferably in a remote location. Even when every bed is occupied, the lift queues will be manageable and you will get decent value for money from your expensive holiday. Peak season skiing in a big resort, by contrast, is stress on snow, especially if bad weather limits the amount of skiing on offer.
Small may not in itself be enough: the resort also needs to be awkward of access from nearby towns or other villages. This is a great problem in Austria, where there is an almost unlimited amount of B&B and hotel accommodation in easy commuting range of ski resorts such as St Anton and Kitzbühel. Lech and Zürs try to protect their residents’ ‘experience’ by closing the ticket office to day trippers when they consider the slopes full. They say they do, anyway.
Here are a few suggestions, based on some of our more successful peak-season holidays. No apology for the fact that several are in Switzerland. Yes, it’s expensive. If necessary, self-cater. The biggest waste of money is standing in lift queues. In these resorts you won’t (for long).
Grimentz. The village has had a prodigious growth spurt this millennium, and queues are starting to become an annoyance. The new Zinal lift link will help this year, and it will be a few years before beds catch up with lift capacity out of the village. It’s the lifts on the upper mountain that urgently need an upgrade.
Mürren. A few hundred hotel beds, no access by car, 2000 vertical metres of exciting skiing, with Eiger view, a new spa in the village and a new 007-experience at top station. Mid Feb in Mürren is more relaxing than deepest January in Verbier.
Gargellen. Since they replaced the access chair lift with a comfy gondola, the tiny village has one of the best ratios of beds to uplift in the Alps. The Madrisa is one of the world’s best ski hotels too. I can’t guarantee it has space at half term, but one of the Easter weeks might be OK, and the Madrisa is not quite the only place to stay. Gargellen is good for late snow.
Andermatt. The skiing here is so tiring, I found myself longing for the respite a lift queue would offer when I took my son on a family off-piste course with the SCGB at half term. Big development is on the cards, but it won’t affect the equation for a few years yet.
Vallorcine. A little old village with good self-catering (L’Ours Bleu) well placed for an efficient lift and a great ski area. Unfortunately, shopping facilities are still lacking, so it helps to have a car. It’s tempting to ski other bits of the Chamonix valley, and a relief to get back to the peace and quiet of Vallo’.
Ste Foy. Popular with powder seekers on day release from Val d’Isère, little Ste Foy has good piste skiing too. If driving out and/or back over a big holiday weekend, research the traffic warnings before you set off and plan the journey accordingly. Bear in mind that the village of Ste Foy is about 6km from the ski area (Bonconseil), and some ‘Ste Foy’ chalets are similarly inconvenient.
Jackson Hole. Any week of the winter (until the end of February, anyway) is a great week to ski at Jackson Hole, and UK half term is no more crowded than other weeks. Junior ski school worked well for us, with small classes and a great attitude. The journey is a hassle, though, and don’t believe those who tell you children are unaffected by jet lag. My son was too tired to appreciate the cowboy charm of Jackson and went back to school needing a rest.
I realise this list is far from exhaustive – no more than a snapshot. To find out about hotels and property rental agencies in these resorts, google them of click the names above for a link to the resort website. Don’t forget to book ski school too, if you need it. Sorry, you knew that.