Winter holidays: Your financial guide
Of a UK population of 63 million, just under 900,000 people ski. Those are the people that make annual, if not more frequent, pilgrimages to the white peaks of France, Switzerland, Italy and further afield. One of the reasons that number is not 10 times greater is because prices can be as breathtaking as the scenery.
A trip to the mountains costs, on average, double that of a trip to the beach. Newbies to the sport might puzzle about how one goes about putting together the pieces of the jigsaw that make up a ski holiday. But ask the right questions so you can put your holiday together properly and you might be able to cut the cost of skiing and join the near-million enjoying the freedom of the slopes.
First and foremost, accept that a winter ski holiday will be expensive. Even once you book a package that includes, flights, transfers and accommodation, the extras of a lift pass to get you on the pistes every day and equipment hire quickly add a couple of hundred pounds to the price of your holiday.
But there are ways to keep costs down.
Firstly, avoid peak weeks. Andy Sturt, managing director and founder of chalet operator VIP Ski, says the past five years of downturn in the market has meant tour operators are "gasping for cash" and use peak weeks to top up their accounts. "It means the operators are murdering the price on the weeks they know people have to go away. Half-terms are double the price of the weeks either side," he says.
"The equation is this: New Year, Christmas and half-terms are x, the rest of the season are half x. People skiing at half-terms subsidise people skiing at other times."
Booking a week in early season, say, December onwards, guarantees decent prices, but there remains a gamble on the snow. Similarly, booking late season (excluding Easter holidays) might deliver a discount on the premium but the snow is not as dependable so late on.
Next to think about is where – consider the size of the ski area, snow reliability and whether the slopes suit your ability. Most Brits still head to the Alps, staying in resorts in France, Austria and Switzerland. You may find a bargain skiing in a new, cheaper resort (in Bosnia, for example) but your experience is far from guaranteed.
Sturt says once you've picked the resort, don't make the mistake of choosing the cheapest option: "If you think you're savvy saving £100 on accommodation by staying on the edge of town, think again. Cough up the extra £100 and save yourself the hassle of trekking to the lifts every morning and afternoon. It'll be worth it."
Booking online is also a must. Bob Atkinson, travel expert at price comparison website Travel Supermarket, says by all means speak to travel agents but you might be charged a premium or admin fee if you book in person or by phone. Plus, operators often put their best prices online.
On top of the best rates from operators, there are also deals to be had through cashback sites and discount vouchers. A quick internet search will pull up websites offering cashback deals, such as cashbackclub.co.uk and quidco.com, with some operating direct through operators' websites, such as Inghams.
Similarly, search for sites such as Groupon or VoucherCodes for cash-saving offers – Atkinson advises not to rely on this but to do it as part of your your wider research. "It's important to remember cashback can be very slow to pay out and often may involve chasing and claim-raising, with many sites not paying out until after you have returned from a trip," he says.
Booking your accommodation and flights separately doesn't necessarily work out cheaper – even with a discount or voucher. "The only advantage to booking flights and accommodation separately instead of a package is if you want to fly from a regional airport,"
says Sturt. "Everyone forgets the cost of the transfer from airport to resort, which if you book separately is yours to pay and could cost around £500. My experience is people who do not book packages, regret it."
The other benefit of booking a package is the Atol protection that comes with it, guaranteeing you won't lose money and will be protected by law if your holiday is cancelled.
One of the most important things to add to your to-do list when booking a winter holiday is insurance. Normal insurance will not cover you out on the slopes, especially if you plan on heading off-piste. Atkinson says to always look out for other ski-related insurance points on your cover, such as loss of lift pass and ski area closures.
He also recommends a policy with at least £2 million medical expenses cover, and one that includes emergency helicopter transport from the slopes to the hospital. Check your policy carefully, and if you have any intention of going off-piste, make sure your policy covers it – because if you fall off-piste with an on-piste policy, your options are pay up or crawl to safety.
"There are no specific scams as such when booking ski holidays but look out for so-called ‘snow guarantees' that offer money back if there is no snow – the threshold will usually be so low it's not worth entertaining," says Sturt. "Also, look out for the headline prices as opposed to all-inclusive. Often the cheaper headline price that comes with add-ons will amount to more expensive than the initially more dear all-inclusive."
Finally, beware the money spent out. It can cost you from €15 (£12.50) for a spaghetti bolognese or a pint of beer. Unless you choose full-board or take a packed lunch, the money spent on the slopes will soon wipe out any savings you make during the booking process.