The complete guide to your first family ski holiday

I usually blog about tech but I'm going off piste with this post - it's for all my non-skiing friends and friends who used to ski but haven't taken their kids yet

! COVID-19 Update Umm so I wrote this post in Jan 2020... a lot has happened since then. If you do decide to go skiing, make sure you are covered in case of cancellation. A lot of accommodation options are offering fully refundable rates.

First up, the bad news: you’re probably too late for a ski trip this season, unless you can go out of school holidays. The good news is that now - while social media is awash with ski holiday photos - is the ideal time to start planning for the 2020/21 ski season.

How much is it going to cost?

Ok, cut to the chase - the cost is the most likely reason why you would not take your family skiing, so let's talk about money first. Brace yourself… For a family of 4 for a week during February half term, you can easily spend upwards of £5,000. Christmas and Easter can be done a little more cheaply. You can flex this within limits by choosing location, timing and accommodation, but if you’re travelling with school-age children you can expect to be limited on at least one of those fronts. Don’t expect many big discounts for larger groups or children vs adults.

Where does the money go? Well...

  • Flights. This is the biggest price-hike for peak times! Flights that might usually be £200 return for a family of 4 rarely come in at less than £1,000 for the peak ski weeks in school holidays. Get organised and be ready to book the second they go on sale - installing the Easyjet app and/or following them on social media gives you a heads up of exactly which date the flights go on sale on. It has been known for us to set alarms for 5am that day and then spend the time clicking refresh on the EasyJet website until the flights are released...
  • Transfers from the airport to the resort. For a family of 4 a private transfer might work out the same price or cheaper than a coach transfer and be much faster and more comfortable. Budget 300-600 euros return for transfers for a family of 4, depending on how far the resort is. Hiring a car might be cheaper, but I’ve known some people who have been caught out and missed flights due to a dump of snow falling overnight and not having snow chains - also be aware that some hire companies don't allow you to take cars over country borders. Not to mention that mountain passes and potentially icy conditions aren’t always everyone’s idea of fun when it comes to driving. Either way, don’t forget to bring car seats for your kids - most airlines will let you bring these for free, and in some countries they’re a legal requirement even in taxis. I’ve found ski-lifts.com to be easy and helpful for booking transfers.
  • Accommodation. Budget 4x what you'd expect to pay for accommodation on any other holiday. A week at a comfortable but unexceptional 4-star hotel can easily set you back 2,000-3,000 euros on a half-board basis.
  • Lift passes: You can expect to spend nearly 300 euros per adult for 6 days’ skiing at the better resorts, with child passes being somewhere upwards of half the price. Cheaper resorts can be as little as 150 - 200 euros. So expect to budget anywhere between 500-1,000 euros for this, depending on the resort and ages of your kids. While this might seem expensive, remember that it covers all the slope maintenance including snow-making, so more expensive lift passes often means more snow-sure pistes. And if you're traveling with younger kids, friendly and helpful lift attendants are likely to be greatly appreciated! Choosing cheaper options here might end up being a false economy. Every resort has a different cut-off ages and price bands for child and junior passes - if you have younger skiers (under 8 years old) it might be worth checking if they get free passes.
  • Ski lessons: Expensive but essential! Expect to spend 10-15 euros per person per hour for group lessons of 2-4 hours per day for 3-6 days, and around 50 euros upwards per hour for private tuition, usually with a minimum of 2 hours. Again, for a week I usually budget 600-800 euros for lessons for our family of 4.
  • Equipment hire: Budget around 400 euros for a family of 4.
  • Lunch and snacks: Having a hot chocolate high in the mountains while surrounded by stunning views is part of the ski experience, but dining out in such remote locations doesn’t come cheap. Think of a reasonable price, then double it. Sorry, it’s just the way things are.

When to go?

Most families are constrained by school holidays: Christmas, February half term and Easter. Each of these have pros and cons.

At Christmas, you’re facing potentially less snow-sure conditions so make sure you pick a resort with plenty of snow cannons. If you’re really determined to make the most of your ski time, keep in mind that the days are shorter.

In February, you’ve got the best chance of the best snow conditions, which makes skiing a lot easier and enjoyable for learners and experienced skiers alike. But as holidays coincide across the UK, France and Germany, the slopes get crowded, the lift queues are long and prices are high.

At Easter, you can expect “spring snow” conditions - icy in the mornings, slushy in the afternoons. This isn’t usually a problem for experienced skiers at higher resorts who can ski lower slopes in the morning and higher slopes in the afternoon (or, as one more hedonistic instructor advised, ski all morning and drink all afternoon) but can be hard going for skiers stuck on the nursery slopes. Things can get congested as skiers seek out North-facing or shaded slopes for the best ski conditions. The weather can be warm but still unpredictable - our kids’ first year skiing ended up with them sweltering in temperatures that got up to 17° and strong sun the week before Easter, but the resort still had sub-zero temperatures and over 50cm of snow the following week.

If you can take your kids at another time, aim for late January to early March for the best snow, but try to avoid the peak holiday times across Europe when slopes will be busy and prices high. Check out this helpful European-wide school holiday calendar

How to choose a resort

Nearly all resorts now have their own website, offering services and advice in a single location. In addition, websites such as igluski offer resort reviews and opinions.

It can take more than a week to fully explore even a mid-size resort and there is a lot to be said for going back to the same resort again and again. Here are the top things I look at when considering which resorts to book:

Altitude: Choose a location with high altitude to ensure the best chance of good quality snow. I would always look for a resort with a good selection of slopes above 2000m, ideally going up to 2500m or higher. Good snow is easier to ski on!

Slopes: If you’re a complete beginner, remember that you’re likely to be restricted to nursery and green slopes for the whole of the first holiday, which are often at lower altitudes. Check out the piste map and read reviews for skiers at your level.

Lifts: some lifts can be tricky for beginners. Younger children (under 5) may also struggle with some chairlifts. Nursery slopes often have “magic carpets” (like airport travelators but with matting that the skis grip on) but are often only open to ski groups and instructors. Button lifts may look tricky but are easily mastered even by beginners, as are gondola lifts (also known as telecabins). Chairlifts can be easy but aren’t always; chairlifts for children and beginners have moving mats and gates to make entry easy, but some chairlifts are much faster or higher, making them really difficult for smaller children. Never fear - lift operators are there to keep you safe and will always stop lifts immediately if someone struggles getting on or off the lift. Resorts that rely on a single gondola to get up to a wider ski area are likely to have long queues in the morning (and possibly also in the afternoon to get down again).

Non-ski activities: If you know you all just want to ski then that’s great, but what if you try it and don’t love it? Many resorts will have some spa facilities available in some of the hotels which may be accessible to the public (for a fee) even if you’re not staying at the hotel. Snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, husky-dog sledding, skating or tobogganing might be on offer. Take a look at the resort website and see what’s on offer.

Apres ski: If you’re travelling with a family, then apres ski isn’t likely to be high on your priorities and you might prefer to head to quieter resorts - you don’t need all-night parties keeping you and the kids awake!

What makes a family-friendly resort? It’s not just about the slopes; for me, family-friendly resorts are as much about the other people on the slopes. Choosing a resort that has predominantly families on the slope and you’re likely to find that the other skiers and boarders are much more patient and considerate with your kids! That may mean choosing one of the smaller resorts.

How to choose accommodation

Location, location, location: Walking in ski boots while carrying skis is difficult enough, but becomes a lot harder if you’re also having to carry your kids’ gear while walking at their pace... 500m is my maximum! If it’s longer than that, consider booking separate ski lockers at the bottom of the slopes. It’s not a given that ski-in-ski-out will be a good option since the access can be narrow, steep or icy and therefore difficult for beginners - check before you book.

Accommodation type: Hotel or self-catered apartment are the main options for most families. A chalet (either self-catered or catered) may be an option for bigger families and groups but I’ve never tried it myself. In an apartment you often get a bit more space and better self-catering options, but hotels have the benefit of breakfast or half-board options.

Kids club: An added bonus of staying in a hotel is that it may have a kids club. Kids get tired and sometimes they need a day (or at least an afternoon) off from skiing - in those cases, the kids club will give you the chance to spend the time on the slopes while someone else looks after your kids (nb: most won’t take under-3s). For those reasons, I usually choose a hotel.

Assume they mean a sofa bed: Whether it’s a hotel or apartment, if they advertise the accommodation as “sleeps 4” you can expect one double bed and one double sofa bed unless otherwise specified, so be prepared. A lot of people find that a sofa bed is not an ideal option after the physical demands of a hard day’s skiing, and siblings are not always thrilled about the idea of sharing a bed. Check with the hotel directly if you’re fussy about your sleeping arrangements.

Book early: The best hotels get booked up well in advance for holiday weeks - one hotel we enquired with would only allow returning customers to book the February half term week and didn’t have any availability for us even though we were booking a full year in advance! Check the hotel terms and conditions - many will have a free cancellation period even for their pre-booked/non-flexible rates or refundable rates that aren’t much more expensive.

Package or independent?

Package holidays can be reasonable value outside of peak times but you can save a lot of money by planning everything independently over peak times. As a guideline, the holiday I arranged for my family of 4 in 2018 cost around £5500 but would have cost over £8000 for the exact same setup through a well-known tour operator.

The idea of having a tour rep on hand is tempting if you’re new to ski holidays but I’ve usually found hotel reception staff to be more knowledgeable and helpful than tour reps, especially early on in the season when the reps are often new. In well-rated hotels, reception staff are usually happy to help with everything from finding your way around to booking medical appointments if needed. Many hotels often have arrangements with ski hire shops which may allow you to get a small discount on your equipment hire.

In addition, the better-run ski destinations operate increasingly as a single entity, with hotels, rental companies, ski schools, etc all working together to create a seamless experience for visitors.

What do I need to get before I go?

You don’t need to buy expensive kit to stay warm, dry and safe on the slopes, and many of the more expensive brands are often more about Instagram credentials than performance on the slopes. Spending a bit more may reduce weight or bulk in your clothes, but these aren’t likely to be top concerns for beginners.

Head to Decathlon to get the full family kitted out with good quality gear at budget prices. Trespass and Mountain Warehouse are also good budget options. Don’t assume you can buy any equipment at the resort - while there are often lots of shops, they usually sell only high-end gear at inflated prices, so while you can get a decent base-layer from Decathlon for under a tenner, you’ll be hard pressed to find one for less than 80 Euros at the resort.

Check my list at the end of the post for a full list of equipment.

Other tips

Any age is a good time to start: My youngest daughter was only just 3 when we first took her skiing, and maybe that was a little young. In fairness, we were expecting to put her in snow kindergarten but when we turned up they weren’t actually running it - so we had to put her in ski school instead. I have to admit that she didn’t look like she was having the most amazing time for most of the week! There was a little conveyor belt of kids being taken up a small slope, picked up, pushed down the hill, picked up again when they invariably fell over, put back on the conveyor belt… and repeat. We didn’t think she’d learnt much but when we went the following year she was able to turn and stop without really thinking about it. On the other hand, I was staggered to learn that the two late-teens showing perfect technique on the hardest slopes had had their first ski trip only four years earlier.

Get lessons: In some resorts you’re only allowed on the starter slopes with a registered instructor. Even as a highly experienced skier I’ll choose lessons (for black runs and off-piste you might see this listed as mountain guide rather than ski instructor, but you can expect to get some great tips on technique either way). A good ski instructor will know where the quieter or more interesting skiing is and in some resorts people on lessons get to skip the queue for the lifts. Group lessons are the usual approach and are good for beginners and experienced skiers, but if you’ve been skiing a couple of times before and really want to improve quickly (e.g. in order to be able to keep up with your kids) then consider investing in private lessons. They’re pricey but can really make the difference. Don't be tempted to get your expert-skiing friend to teach you - qualified ski instructors know what to look for and have a whole host of tips and exercises to adjust and improve your technique. Don't be tempted by an unregulated instructor either - they won't have the relevant insurance.

Take a good book and a pack of cards: It’s likely you’ll have a day or two when the weather makes skiing impossible. Low clouds and/or snow can cause low visibility or “whiteouts” which makes skiing difficult or impossible. More often, high winds will close ski lifts, leaving only a few open (and impossibly crowded to boot). If you’re extremely unlucky, you might find that weather ruins most of your holiday… unlikely, but it happens, and gutting when you’ve spent so much money. Ski insurance will reimburse you some of your money, but not all of it.

Slope colours are only a guide: Don’t rely on slope colours. For a start, they’re different in Europe vs North America. In Europe, the slopes progress from green to blue to red to black, but even blue slopes can have short sections that are steep or technical. Between European resorts, it’s subjective - some of the blue runs I’ve skied in Andorra would have been reds in Obergurgl. Watching my kids on blue runs with a steep drop on one side is far more hair-raising than watching them hurl themselves down a wide, well-groomed red. And conditions count for a lot! A technical blue in poor conditions can be harder work than a wide, well-groomed black run - and more likely to result in injury in inexperienced adults (kids usually find technical runs easier, as they have lower momentum, lower centre of gravity and shorter skies which make turning easier). Watch out for narrow blue runs that are used as a major access routes - they often become very icy and/or choppy by the end of the day. Learn how to recognise which slopes are within your skiing ability and don’t let others in your group push you into trying to ski something that’s too difficult. A ski instructor is the absolute best way to find slopes that push your level without taking you out of control.

Go long-haul: The cost of going to Canada or the US can be comparable with the cost of the Alps for February half term and you are unlikely to have to deal with the busy slopes and queues for lifts in quite the same way. On the downside, kids and jetlag isn’t always the best combination.

Go Friday, return Sunday: For resorts that cater primarily for the week-long Saturday to Saturday ski trips, you’re unlikely to be able to arrange accommodation for the extra Friday or Sunday night. However, we’ve found skiing to be blissfully empty on the Saturdays in these resorts. Our favourite hack is to fly out late on Friday, stay at an airport hotel at our destination and get an early transfer up to the mountain, giving us the chance to get our skis sorted and on the slopes for Saturday lunchtime, then do the same but in reverse on the following Saturday, staying Saturday night at the airport. The hotel is usually happy to look after bags until check-in is available.

Lessons before the holiday: I haven’t done this, but many do. It’s certainly not essential but can help you get a faster start. A one-off lesson probably isn’t going to have much impact but a few sessions might help you skip the nursery slopes when you get to the resort. Likely to be more beneficial for older children and adults.

Don’t rely on your phone in Andorra: Andorra is not in the EU, so rules on capping mobile roaming charges do not apply - expect very hefty phone bills if you’re not careful! Data/reception coverage is also poor, so don’t rely on phones to keep in touch with dispersed family members.

The Ski Fairy: For younger kids, you might need to be prepared to deploy your favourite behaviour hacks so they get the most from the week. In our family the “ski fairy” has been known to leave little toys or presents at the dinner table for kids who try hard during lessons, have the best fall, carry their own skis, etc.

Put day 1 clothes in hand luggage: Don’t let lost or delayed bags result in a lost day’s skiing. Pack a hand luggage bag with trousers, one pair of socks and a base layer each, and wear your ski jacket.

Equipment: Hire skis, poles, boots and a helmet if you haven’t already brought one with you. It speeds things up if you know everyone’s European shoe size and weight. A good ski hire shop will help you get the right equipment for your height and ability - roughly speaking, skis that are shorter and narrower are easier to turn, and more flexible skis are easier for beginners. Most ski hire shops have different quality bands and it’s definitely worth upgrading to better equipment once you’ve mastered the basics - but upgrade too soon and you’ll find that you just make skiing more difficult than it needs to be. If you find that your ski boots are uncomfortable after the first day then the hire shops are always happy to exchange them for a better fitting pair. If you find a pair of ski boots that you absolutely love, take lots of photos and notes of the size and consider buying a pair in the end-of-season sales. It’s almost never worth buying skis if you’re going to be flying, as the cost of hire is comparable with the cost of transport.

Hit the gym: A friend once told me you need two out of three things to be a good skier; technique, fitness, and fearlessness. It’s certainly held true for our family! The one that you can work on most outside of your ski trips is the fitness and I’ve found that working on core strength and basic fitness and flexibility has been more important that ski-specific exercises. Even just a few weeks at the gym can result with you getting a lot more from your trip.

Checklists

Pre-travel essentials:

  • Ski jacket and trousers
  • Ski socks - at least 3 pairs.
  • Base layers - you probably won’t need trouser base layers unless it’s going to get really cold, but pack at least two base layer tops.
  • Mid-layers, e.g. a gilet or fleece - may not be needed if you’re going late in the season, but layering up is essential if it gets cold.
  • Balaclava or neck warmer/buff - essential kit if it’s windy.
  • Goggles - these are essential; if the weather is good you may prefer sunglasses but goggles will protect your face in windy conditions.
  • Sunscreen and sun protection lipbalm - even in December it’s possible to get sunburn at high altitudes!
  • Insurance: Most standard travel insurance won’t cover winter sports.
  • Ibuprofen: In most European countries you can’t buy painkillers in the supermarket, only pharmacies, and smaller resorts may not have a standard pharmacy. Then you’re left with the option of either getting a bus for ages to the nearest proper town or paying out for a doctor’s appointment just to get ibuprofen. Some resorts ask for passport photos to add to lift passes. Check before you travel and bring these with you to save time.

Pre-travel optional items:

  • Snow boots - nice comfy slip-on shoes that keep your feet warm and dry are great, but waterproof walking shoes are usually good enough unless there’s a lot of snow on the ground around the town (there usually isn’t), and frankly we sometimes just take trainers and deal with it.
  • Helmet - Buying a helmet pays back relatively quickly. If you’re worried about them taking up too much luggage space then you can rent one instead.
  • Recco avalanche reflector: Avalanches are incredibly rare on marked pistes so this is entirely optional and most beginners wouldn’t have one, but they’re also cheap so I see no reason to not have one slipped into the pocket of my kids’ ski trousers or stuck on gear that we own (e.g. helmets).
  • A travel washing line for washing out smelly ski socks or base layers for a second wear later in the week.
  • Plenty of Haribo or other treats - skiing is hard work and a little sugar rush can keep kids (and grown-ups) going for longer. Some ski schools will hand these out, others will actually ask that you stuff your kids pockets with treats before lessons!
  • A large folding bag - When our kids were smaller, skis, boots and everything would get piled in a big blue IKEA bag to be hauled to the slopes.

When you get there:

  • Check in at the hotel and make sure you have the right bed configuration, especially if you’ve requested roll-away beds.
  • Collect your ski equipment
  • Collect or buy your lift passes.
  • Check in at the ski school - the usual setup is to exchange pre-purchased digital vouchers for tickets that are handed over to the instructor. Also check that you know where you’re meant to meet your instructor.

Do you think I've forgotten anything? Do you have any questions? Add a comment and I'll respond!