Affordable Skiing in Switzerland

With the continuing strength of the Swiss Franc, a ski or snowboard holiday in Switzerland may not look affordable, but there are many ways you can make a Swiss winter sports holiday fit into most budgets. Here are some of my tips:

Take advantage of the best public transport in the world

Every single ski resort in Switzerland can be reached by public transport, and furthermore virtually anywhere you book to stay will have good public transport access. That opens up a host of opportunities to stay in inexpensive accommodation outside the ski resorts, but within easy access. One suggestion is to stay in Interlaken, and do day trips to the Jungfrau resorts of Murren, Grindelwald and Wengen. Interlaken is lively and full of good priced accommodation options. From Chur, the cantonal capital of Graubunden, you can easily reach Davos and Flims/Laax. You might also want to mix business with skiing, and it is possible to get a full day skiing on a day trip from any of the major commercial centres.

Use Snow’n’Rail

The Snow’n’Rail scheme provides 20% discount off the combined public transport and lift pass charges for virtually every significant resort in Switzerland. Agsin, this works well if you are staying away from the ski resorts themselves.

Stay in inexpensive accommodation

With a reputation for quality and service, even very basic lodgings can provide excellent lodgings. Perhaps the best tip is to stay in a Youth Hostel. Many resorts have outstanding hostels with easy access to the slopes – even St Moritz. Most of the hostels offer en-suite facilities if you don’t want to share a bathroom, and the dormitories vary from singles upto 20 beds or so. Most offer half-board and sell wine and beer.

Eat and drink out judiciously

Eating out can get very expensive in Switzerland, and you can easily run up an eye-watering bar bill. However the supermarkets offer good value. Many places offer catering facilities, so you can eat in, and you can always have a few apres-ski tipples back in your accommodation. Many Swiss also take their lunches with them when they ski and take advantage of the picnic rooms available at most resorts, although I usually find Swiss soups offer a nourishing and inexpensive lunch. In Switzerland it is also acceptable to drink alcohol in public.

Take advantage of deals

The Swiss are generally reluctant to offer discounts. As one hotelier put it “You are taking advantage of the people willing to pay the full price”! However the strong franc has focussed minds and all sorts of special offers abound. Many resorts include free lift passes with hotel bookings ahead of Christmas, allow kids to ski for free on all or some days. In the next couple of months I will highlight special deals as they become public. The Swiss Tourist office has a number of deals posted Swiss Vacation deals.

Go to less well-known resorts

You get an amazing range of skiing and snowboarding at resorts like Verbier and Zermatt, but many of the lesser resorts offer equally challenging runs, plenty of off-piste terrain and – arguably – much better facilities for beginners and intermediates. Also, using public transport, it is possible to combine visiting a number of cheaper inexpensive resorts in one trip and actually have access to more slopes in total than if you stayed in one more highly priced resort.

Book online in advance

Many things are cheaper booked online than in person – some things, like the Swiss Transfer Ticket, are only available outside Switzerland. In addition you often have the opportunity to buy online in the currency of your choice, often at a lower price than the cost in Swiss Francs.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Switzerland

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleSir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, had a long association with Switzerland, even making a claim that he was “the first to introduce [skiing] for long journeys into Switzerland”. On a trip to Switzerland his wife contracted tuberculosis and the family decided in 1893 to move to Davos (in what we call Graubünden but which the French call the Grisons) where the crisp, clean mountain air and the clinics were famous for their impact on the well-being of patients with respiratory problems. Interestingly Conan Doyle was himself an MD, having studied medicine in Edinburgh. To while away the time Conan Doyle, a keen sportsman, tried many diversions. In his autobiography, “Memories and Adventures” (1924, London) he recounts:

“As there were no particular social distractions at Davos, and as our life was bounded by the snow and fir which girt us in, I was able to devote myself to doing a good deal of work and also to taking up with some energy the winter sports for which the place is famous.”

He continues:

“There is one form of sport in which I have, I think, been able to do some practical good, for I can claim to have been the first to introduce skis into the Grisons division of Switzerland, or at least to demonstrate their practical utility as a means of getting across in winter from one valley to another. It was in 1894 that I read Nansen’s account of his crossing of Greenland, and thus became interested in the subject of ski-ing. It chanced that I was compelled to spend that winter in the Davos valley, and I spoke about the matter to Tobias Branger, a sporting tradesman in the village, who in turn interested his brother. We sent for skis from Norway, and for some weeks afforded innocent amusement to a large number of people who watched our awkward movements and complex tumbles. The Brangers made much better progress than I. At the end of a month or so we felt that we were getting more expert, and determined to climb the Jacobshorn, a considerable hill just opposite the Davos Hotel. We had to carry our unwieldy skis upon our backs until we had passed the fir trees which line its slopes, but once in the open we made splendid progress, and had the satisfaction of seeing the flags in the village dipped in our honour when we reached the summit. But it was only in returning that we got the full flavour of ski-ing. In ascending you shuffle up by long zigzags, the only advantage of your footgear being that it is carrying you over snow which would engulf you without it. But coming back you simply turn your long toes and let yourself go, gliding delightfully over the gentle slopes, flying down the steeper ones, taking an occasional cropper, but getting as near to flying as any earth-bound man can. In that glorious air it is a delightful experience.

“Encouraged by our success with the Jacobshorn, we determined to show the utility of our accomplishment by opening up communications with Arosa, which lies in a parallel valley and can only be reached in winter by a very long and roundabout railway journey. To do this we had to cross a high pass, and then drop down on the other side. It was a most interesting journey, and we felt all the pride of pioneers as we arrived in Arosa.”

It was an interesting early example of back-country skiing, and I must admit that I have not attempted to make the journey from Davos to Arosa, by skis. One to add to the list.

Conan Doyle wrote prolifically, and no doubt engendered interest in the English public (or at least a section of it) through his enthusiastic reports on “ski-running”, as he often called it. In an article in the Strand Magazine in 1894 he opined “Ski-ing opens up a field of sport which is, I think unique. I am convicted that the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the ski-ing season in March and April”. He described the sport as one where “You have to shuffle along the level, to zigzag, or move crab fashion, up the hills, to slide down without losing your balance, and above all to turn with facility.” Whenever I ski the Jakobshorn, I can’t help but think of Conan Doyle energetically moving crab fashion in his tweeds and eight-foot long skis, “occasionally taking a cropper”.
Conan Doyle on skis, with his wife
However Conan Doyle’s most famous association with Switzerland is entirely fictional.

Conan Doyle was frustrated that most of his writing received little attention, except for his Sherlock Holmes stories. As he wrote in his memoirs:

“It was still the Sherlock Holmes stories for which the public clamoured, and these from time to time I endeavoured to supply. At last, after I had done two series of them I saw that I was in danger of having my hand forced, and of being entirely identified with what I regarded as a lower stratum of literary achievement. Therefore as a sign of my resolution I determined to end the life of my hero. The idea was in my mind when I went with my wife for a short holiday in Switzerland, in the course of which we saw there the wonderful falls of Reichenbach, a terrible place, and one that I thought would make a worthy tomb for poor Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account along with him.”
Sherlock Holmes in an illustration for the Strand magazine meets his fate at the Reichenbach Falls
So Conan Doyle placed the demise of his most famous invention, Sherlock Holmes, at a waterfall just outside the resort of Meiringen in his story, “The Final Problem”, published in The Strand Magazine in December 1893. A small museum, below the church near the station in Meiringen, commemorates the association of Conan Doyle with the area. In the story Holmes spends his last night at the Park Hotel Du Savage (renamed by Conan Doyle as the Englischer Hof) before visiting the Reichenbach Falls, where both Holmes and Moriaty meet their fate. At the fictional spot where this happens a plaque in English, German, and French reads “At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891.”
Lake Geneva
According to his memoirs Conan Doyle also lived in Maloja in Graubünden for a time and in Caux, above Lake Geneva, reached by funicular railway from Montreux.

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The Swiss have a mountain to climb

Swiss franc banknotes
Swiss Ski Resorts were left reeling by the lifting on the cap on the Swiss currency by the Swiss National Bank. It clearly took everyone by surprise, including yours truly who was considering converting some euros to francs, but left it a little too late.

In fairness, many resorts this season will have been locked into the fixed exchange rate, and will be loathe to upset customers by amending them. For customers who paid up front, they have even less to worry about. Similarly Swiss residents, who make up the largest share of winter sports tourists, will not seen any difference at all.
Davos hosting WEF
Nor, I suspect, will the global leaders who descend on Davos this time of the year to talk about world affairs, showboat, get a couple of turns in and generally enjoy an expense-paid outing. The shindig must be great for Davos, at the best of times a fabulous destination, and I suspect the visitors will not blanch at sticking another bottle of plonk on expenses even when they see the price tag. It always seem such a bizarre, even surreal, location for people to go to talk about problems facing the world.

Zermatt similarly is unlikely to feel much pain from the Swiss Franc exchange rate. The dollar and pound sterling have suffered against the franc, but not to the extent of the euro, and Zermatt gets a lot of Anglophone custom. It is also perhaps the best ski resort in the world, and many visitors will reluctantly accept the higher prices as the cost of being in the shadow of the Matterhorn. Reports are that the weakness of the ruble has not deterred the Russians who descend on St Moritz every winter, and Verbier has always attracted a crowd who are relatively price-insensitive, such as the Duke of York.
View over Verbier and the Rhone valley in Valais
The losers are likely to be second tier resorts, and the pain is likely to occur next season. It is probable that the franc will remain strong if the European central Bank does, as is predicted, embark on a massive round of quantitative easing, i.e. print more money, and even the negative interest rates on funds held with the central bank in Switzerland does not seem to have deterred people who still see the franc as a safe haven. I will not be surprised to see the franc tagged again to the euro, albeit at a higher rate than before, simply because it is easier for a central bank to devalue a currency than to appreciate its value. An interesting article here, suggests other reasons why the SNB dropped the cap, but even if the cantonal governments welcome it a wide range of Swiss businesses will be appalled and will certainly canvas for redress.

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Alpine Property Market

Saville’s, the London-based property services group, published its annual survey of the Alpine property market. It is an interesting read, and in tribute to the Economist’s Big Mac index publishes a Kakao index – how much is a hot chocolate.
Gstaad slopes
On this index Gstaad, St Moritz and Saas-Fee rate amongst the ten most expensive resorts in the Alps, but perhaps more surprisingly is that Switzerland isn’t consistently the most expensive. Indeed, on a number of criteria, Switzerland is not so expensive, although it languishes a distant fourth in terms of number of ski visits amongst the Alpine nations. However, it also boasts the best resorts in terms of season duration and snow conditions.

The report focuses on premium ski resorts and the prices are truly eye-watering. However, what interests me as a potential investor in the Swiss property market, is the spread of prices. A small village, with good transport links to a major ski area, provides properties at a tenth of the price of property in a resort like Verbier. The discerning Swiss property buyer can still find bargains. For those who have money to burn, however, a chalet in Verbier recently came on the market for a mere 45 million euros!

The full report from Saville’s is here.

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