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Resort and backcountry skiing and snowboarding in Europe and Asia, including our famous reader-submitted No-Bull Snow Reports.
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First time Europe. Looking for insight.

Thu Feb 18, 2021 8:19 pm

Hello all. I have been reading thru some of the posts about skiing in Europe and it seems there are a few in here with excellent knowledge on it. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind helping a guy out a bit. I am beginning to pour over my first trip to EU for skiing and have found the amount of information and locations to be daunting. I wonder if I can give you my bullet points if anyone would be willing to help me zero in on some places that might fit the bill. I value the opinions and real world experience of the ski-purist aspect on here vs. random google searches that list “top 10” things.

Anyway, here is my ability and desires.

45yo strong intermediate, who can handle most blacks on normal North American resorts/ basic Snowbird-esque blacks. I don’t seek out nor care for crazy hard or extreme. I like varied and undulating terrain so I can change up turns and work my way down in controlled manner and enjoy my time vs. Super G ripping down the mountain. No thanks. I also love off-piste, finding nooks, exploring and trees. (I know there isn’t a ton of tree stuff in EU but its not a total deal breaker. I don't expect Steamboat but some aspect of this would be nice) In a word, variety.

Things I am looking for is obviously snow quality, lesser crowds. Authentic experience with towns, food and local flair and less touristy. I am not going to be partying but I do want a beer and food at quaint local haunts. When in Rome kind of mentality. I do not care about fashion or being seen. So experience-centric is favored. For comparison I am definitely a Brighton, Alta or Powder Mountain guy over Vail, Aspen guy. I know this sentiment isn’t an apples-apple comparison when talking EU but you get the drift.

I would also like to get to a few different places that might offer good contrasts over the course of say 10 days. Have you a sense of a good “loop” or route that you have done or would suggest for something like this. I haven’t gotten to the transportation aspect yet but I am open to suggestions for sure. Multiple countries/local cultures is a plus. I know across a mountain might not offer a huge variance of culture but I’m tossing that in as a ‘would be cool’ thing. (This isn’t a necessity)

Any insight on this would be greatly appreciated, I am finding the scale of places is insane and adds to the mystery. I have come to sort of figure out that a large place like Val d’Isere for example, seems to have many “sections” or pods of lifts and bases. They are all called different names (towns) but are all under the Val D’Isere umbrella? Am I reading that right? (this is part of the daunting aspect of figuring some of this out. What is resort built bases vs actual villages.

Its kind of an entirely new world and I look forward to seeing where it goes. Thanks so much for the help and information. If I am leaving out anything important let me know. I am super flexible and have an open mind on all this.


Re: First time Europe. Looking for insight.

Fri Feb 19, 2021 12:25 am

My Euro experience is summarized here.
Below the tables are links to my trip reports. From those references I'm generally going to fairly high profile places. Check out James' reports for some more under-the-radar places. Under-the-radar in the Alps can be very large scale by North American standards.

As far as weather/snow is concerned, we usually recommend Weather -to-Ski for the big picture of overall reliability of individual resorts. For short term forecasting We Powder is probably best.

I'm personally a fan of the above tree line terrain, no doubt stemming from my formative ski seasons at Mammoth. But like Mammoth, most resorts in the Alps are extremely limited during storms. Throw in the natural variability of snowfall and I've come to adopt the plan of only reserving plane ticket and car rental far in advance, then deciding where to go on short notice.
1) The Alps are quite compact vs. western North America, so you really can drive from one end or the other in one or two days if weather/conditions so indicate.
2) It helps that our trips are generally 2+ weeks. This plan is harder but still viable for 10 days.
3) Holiday periods need to be avoided, not only Christmas but the whole month of school holidays (vary by country) from second week of February to first week of March. Spring skiing is more popular than in North America so the weeks before and after Easter are popular too.

Most of James' and my trips have been during the 2-3 weeks before the February holidays. March after those holidays is good too but stick to the higher altitude places then.

The other decision you need to make in the Alps is how much you want to ski off piste. In many places you need a guide for safety reasons and even if terrain is not that exposed you can benefit from guiding in learning your way around.

I suspect this answer was more general that specific. Both James and I have been to a large number of places and could answer questions about specific places we have been. I'm about to start a 3 week road trip so trying to keep this first cut response concise. But you'll get a lot of specifics from Weather-to-Ski and James' and my trip reports.

Re: First time Europe. Looking for insight.

Sat Feb 20, 2021 8:36 am

jnelly wrote:45yo strong intermediate, who can handle most blacks on normal North American resorts/ basic Snowbird-esque blacks. I don’t seek out nor care for crazy hard or extreme. I like varied and undulating terrain (...) I also love off-piste, finding nooks, exploring and trees.

Things I am looking for is obviously snow quality, lesser crowds. Authentic experience with towns, food and local flair and less touristy. I am not going to be partying but I do want a beer and food at quaint local haunts. When in Rome kind of mentality. I do not care about fashion or being seen. So experience-centric is favored.

This ^^ basically describes me so my experience will hopefully be pertinent to you.

As Tony mentions -- while I've skied/enjoyed several large circuits (Portes du Soleil, Megève, Espace Diamant in France, Jungfrau and St. Moritz in Switzerland, and the Arlberg, Hochkönig, Silvretta Montafon, Ischgl, and Kitzbühel in Austria), my sweet spot is the second- or third-tier ski areas, many of which sport Alta-size acreage and larger (often significantly so) vertical drops. He is the opposite, occasionally hitting the smaller places when it makes sense, but concentrating on the big, high-altitude circuits. I'll add feedback this weekend.

Re: First time Europe. Looking for insight.

Sun Feb 21, 2021 2:21 pm

Tony thanks for the links! They are great. Ill being the process and surely be asking more specifics, but this is a good starting point and all stuff I want to put in the hopper.

James I really look forward to seeing what ya got, I like that we're on the same wavelength there. I knew I'd have to dig a bit more to get to good insight about the "2nd 3rd tier" places so I am super interested to flesh this out more! Thanks guys!

Re: First time Europe. Looking for insight.

Mon Feb 22, 2021 5:20 am

Before starting with recommended ski areas or regions, I suppose that this is as good a place as any to list Euro trip-planning best practices (I can't recall if we've done this before). Some of these might be common sense; however, not necessarily to a first-timer.

The obvious guidance both from a price and crowd-avoidance perspective is: do not visit major ski regions during Xmas/New Year's or the Euro school holidays (depending on the country and region: from the second week of February to the second of March). End of story, don’t do it.

One of the few upsides from the pandemic is that most airlines have adopted Southwest's longtime no-change-fee policy where you can cancel not only domestic but also European flights without a penalty. The fare is saved for a year as a travel credit. One assumes/hopes that the policy will continue post-COVID.

Road warriors know that cashing in a frequent flyer award earned from an airline affinity credit card (United Mastercard, Delta AMEX, etc.) has historically been the way to go. While the regular tariff these days is 60K miles roundtrip to Europe, we've seen some unbelievable FF promotions in recent years, with Chris C nailing the biggest steal a couple seasons ago: a preposterous 26K miles roundtrip from San Francisco to Zurich. Also, fire sales often pop up where it's worth spending the money on the fare and saving your miles for a different opportunity.

Most people prefer to go to bed early on arrival day to sleep off the jet lag; however, I find that skiing right after landing is a good way to get myself acclimated to the time change. Living on the East Coast is advantageous in that you can catch an early evening nonstop from JFK or EWR to a gateway airport (Geneva, Zurich), arrive by mid-morning, and make at least three hours of turns on arrival day. Sleep enhancers on the outbound flight can make all the difference. There's also a new jet lag app; however, I haven't tried it yet.

Just like anywhere else, you can spend as much or as little as your budget dictates; however, the real value comes from doing a half-board plan at hotels, where breakfast and dinner is included. Left to your own devices, it's amazing how much you can blow by going out for dinner night after night. That's why the half-board format is key and more often than not I’ve been impressed by the quality and quantity. Equally important, it's really pleasant and civilized to head downstairs for meals at your pre-assigned table. You get to know the wait staff, chat with the owners, meet fellow guests, etc. The only thing that usually isn't included in half-board is beer/alcohol.

Lift Tickets
They’re significantly cheaper than in the States, especially when you consider the high amount of terrain per dollar. At many half-board hotels, a six-day lift ticket for the region is added at a healthy discount. An excellent deal at tony St. Moritz, Switzerland when you stay at one of more than 100 participating hotels: you can purchase daily lift tickets to any of the local ski areas for 45 francs/about $50 (when I was there a couple years ago, it was only 37 francs).

A couple times in the past when I spent an entire week at one hotel in a large ski region, I enjoyed taking a train and leaving the driving to someone else. Still, just like in the U.S., a car maximizes flexibility on where and when you can ski, which is a huge plus for me. Moreover, rentals almost always come with GPS (don’t bother paying the ridiculous per-day fee), Swiss Autobahn stickers (which cover highway and/or tunnel tolls), and snow tires in winter. Counter-intuitively, I generally find rental cars cheaper over there than in the U.S., often in the low $200s for a week. Gas is obviously more expensive in Europe; however, the cars tend to be more efficient.

Also worth noting:
-- If you don’t drive a stick, request an automatic in your rental reservation. Virtually all rentals are manual transmission over there.

-- Parking lots at many Swiss ski areas charge $5-ish a day; only the small local’s areas sometimes offer free parking. The reasoning is they feel that people who take public transport to go skiing shouldn’t be subsidizing those who drive, which makes sense, and that the parking lots are owned by the municipalities, not the ski areas. Parking is generally free in other Alps countries.

-- If you’ve never driven over high-altitude mountain passes or on narrow, steep, switch-backed roads with no guardrails keeping you from plummeting over the side, well, sometimes it’ll be easy and sometimes it’ll be seriously white-knuckle. Comparatively: driving to ski areas in the States, even out west, is laughably easy. You can view it as part of the overseas experience or something you don't want to deal with.

Re: First time Europe. Looking for insight.

Tue Feb 23, 2021 6:45 am

As a starting point, here are some NY Ski Magazine articles about regions/areas I skied in Austria and France. Each has links at the bottom to individual daily reports with more pix and descriptions about what makes them stand out compared to stateside ski areas. You can also check out the identical reports on this forum with comments by Tony and others.

Re: First time Europe. Looking for insight.

Wed Feb 24, 2021 7:10 pm

I have a very limited experience of skiing in Europe but thoroughly enjoyed my time doing so. My intermediate family enjoyed skiing the pistes and taking in the fabulous views but only dabbled off the side of the pistes after snowfall. We did notice that very few skiers ventured off the sides so the fresh snow last quite a long time. If you're a beer lover Austria may be worth a look. We flew into Munich (beer halls) and caught the train from there to the Zillertal valley. We stayed in Kaltenbach but there are numerous towns throughout the valley that are connected by an excellent narrow gauge railway and or bus service. The valley ski pass is about 50Euro per day and covers plenty of ski areas including Mayrhofen and Hintertux that you may have heard of. (This area may be considered a second tier area I suppose).
For in my opinion better food and even better value you could consider flying into Milan and grabbing a car. It's a short drive to the Italian town of Aosta which is close to the junction of Italy, France and Switzerland. Accommodation is fantastic value and food is wonderful. You would have to be willing to drive to the surrounding ski areas though. There is one ski area called Pila which is accessed by a gondola from town so no car required but others in the area include Cervinia (joined to Zermatt in Switzerland for an international border cross on skis), Courmayeur, La thuille (linked to La Rosiere in France for another international border crossing on skis), Chamonix in France (through the Mont Blanc tunnel) and the Monte Rosa area in Italy. The beer is not as good here but the red wine is absolutely great and very very cheap. This option would give you the chance of skiing some Euro icons.
Just a couple of ideas from a novice........
Good luck with the planning.

Re: First time Europe. Looking for insight.

Fri Mar 05, 2021 5:26 am

My European ski goals were to ski the large and small freeride expert meccas. I repeated a few in order to ski better snow/powder or see more parts of the off-piste expanse. (3x - Chamonix, Zermatt, Verbier; 2x - Val d'Isere/Tignes, Andermatt, Courmayeur, Val Thorens/Meribel; 1x - St. Anton/Lech, La Grave, Engelberg, Davos, Les Arcs/La Plagne). Most of these resorts also offer plenty of intermediate/advanced pisted terrain as well (except La Grave, Engelberg).

I have not prioritized the mid/small resorts for a couple of additional reasons - my lack of language skills, desire to join guided groups, and harder to find info on ski terrain/lodging.

To expand on Tony & James's comments:

As mentioned above - the sweet spots are late Jan/early Feb, and most of March. In particular, you can find some very good deals in mid/late January for half-board lodging.

My first couple of trips were booked well ahead of time. This worked great sometimes - like a couple of meters of snow in Chamonix immediately before Christmas 2004/05. However, snow was a bit low-tide (i.e. rocks) at La Grave and 3 Vallees/Val d'Isere when skiing the following winter in late January/early February 2006.

Now, I generally subscribe to Tony's philosophy of pick an Alps gateway city (Geneva, Zurich, Milan) and pick a resort/region with snow. Lodging is readily available.
Why? The Alps are an exceptionally rocky mountain range, and a lot of off-piste might not be available without a 1.5+ meter base in the alpine. Some lower resorts ski fine with less since it's a grassy subsurface.

The airlines used to have great fares and reward flights in order to keep seats filled in the winter months. Not sure if this excess capacity will exist post-COVID - or what routes might be active next winter.

The most expensive part of the trip can be food. Again, I echo the above recommendation and would try to find a half-board plan if possible. Also, breakfast can be a hearty meal in the Alps with meats, cheeses, eggs, bread, fruit, etc. Generally, I fill up with breakfast and dinner and minimize food intake on the mountain. Of course, exceptions are made for some sunny days or a good refuge. Typically I will order Goulash soup or maybe the plate du jour in France.

No. They are illegal in Switzerland. More often Larch forest than pines - which can be tight.

Possible Itineraries
If you are in Europe for 10 days, you could ski one of the large ski complexes and relocate to smaller/mid-size mountains.

My first European ski trip was to Chamonix. It's a great introduction! The town is authentic (touristy, but not a resort, very mountaineering focused.)
What did I like?
Lift Pass (Mont Blanc Unlimited Pass) gives you access to all the Chamonix resorts, but also Courmayeur IT, Verbier CH, Megeve/Evasion Mont-Blanc FR, Mont Blanc Tunnel, Mont Blanc Tram. ... passes#mbu" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;
There are tree-lined/subalpine slopes for storm days at Les Houches or Megeve.
Vallee Blanche - 10k vertical glacial descent. Epic!
Incredible scenery.
Over 10 days (with a car and friends), I skied Grands Monets, Le Tour, Brevent, Flegere, Courmayeur, Megeve, Les Contamines, and Verbier. 8 mountains/3 countries

You could add a stop at a more traditional French village resort like La Clusaz or Morzine at the end (I have not been to either). Val d'Isere/Tignes or Val Thorens/Meribel/Courchevel could be swapped for Chamonix.

St. Anton
Another great option is St. Anton/Arlberg.
Highest snowfall region in Europe.
Massive interconnect: St. Anton, Rendl, Stuben, Zurs, Lech and Warth.
Traditional looking villages
Austrian apres ski

There are other smaller/mid-size areas close by in the Voralberg.

Some European Ski Resources I like:" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;" onclick=";return false;
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