I’m going to tell you how to take a ski break for a day. You can literally check out the snow reports one day, be skiing or snowboarding the next, and be back in the office the following day. In other words, you can take one day off work and ski the Swiss Alps for a full day in the mountains. How’s that for a day out the office!
Why Switzerland? Well it has fabulous resorts within easy reach of Geneva Airport; you can use public transport to get to the slopes; and accommodation at short notice is widely available if you stay in the valleys rather than the mountains. And it is no more expensive than France for a quick break and much more convenient than Italy or Austria. Although Innsbruck in Austria is quite convenient for a number of resorts, there are fewer flights.
I’m not going to push Easyjet, but it is a good choice for getting to Geneva from the UK, with several flights a year from Gatwick and regional airports. BA is also a good choice if you have lots of Avios points. And if you want to take your skis with you, Swiss will carry them for free. Typically Easyjet flights start from about £26, but get pricey at weekends. At a day’s notice it can cost less than £100 pounds return for an evening flight out, and either an evening flight back the next day or an early morning flight the following day – both of which will get you back in the office the next day with a full day’s skiing.
Geneva Airport has a station in the airport itself with direct trains running to hub towns from where you can get to the slopes, either by a single train journey or a very reliable bus service.
You can stay in a resort, but with a late flight and an hour time difference it is a push if you leave the office to take an evening flight. I would recommend you stay in one of those “hub” towns, somewhere like Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux, Aigle, Martigny, Sion, Sierre or Visp. It all depends on how much travel time you are prepared to put in to and from respectively the airport and your preferred ski resort. Some towns on the main line service to Brig from Geneva Airport are particularly convenient for specific resorts, e.g. Aigle for Portes du Soleil (Champéry), Villars, Les Diablerets and Leysin; Martigny for Verbier and Les Marécottes; Sion for the central section of the 4 Valleys (Nendaz, Veysonnaz or Siviez) and Anzère; Sierre for Crans-Montana; and Visp for Saas-Fee or Zermatt. I could mention other resorts, but on the whole they require longer transfers or are much smaller.
Most towns have convenient and reasonably priced accommodation near the main railway station that can be booked at short notice, typically via Bookings.com.
You are spoilt for choice about which resort to go to. Saas-Fee and Zermatt are open for longer seasons than the rest, and mid-week skiing is usually only available at the others from the start of December. During peak season Leysin, Villars, Les Diablerets and the Portes du Soleil are the nearest significant resorts to Geneva.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Flying out of Gatwick on a Wednesday at 6.20pm, arriving at Geneva at 8.55pm, book into the Lausanne Youth Hostel or Hotel AlaGare both walking district from Lausanne station. Get up early and get a full day skiing in Verbier, leaving your stuff in a locker at the base station for Verbier. Return to Lausanne in the evening and take the 7.00am Easy jet flight getting you into Gatwick at 7.35am.
Another example: Take the same evening flight and book into a hotel in Aigle. Ski Leysin the next day, then take the 9.35pm flight back getting you into Gatwick at 10.05pm.
The costs depend on a number of factors. Costing out the first option, you might spend £100 on flights, plus transit costs to a UK airport. You can bring your skis on Easyjet for £39 or hire in resort for about the same if you book in advance. With Avios points I’ve done a return BA flight for £60. The return train fare on Swiss Railways from Geneva Airport to Lausanne is about £40 and the cost of a combined ski and travel pass (the Snow’n’rail scheme) for Verbier will be about £100. Lausanne is about 50 minutes from Geneva Airport and just over 2 hours from the gondola station serving Verbier. Accommodation near the station will cost you about £80 for a night. Food and drink are best bought from supermarkets and it is totally acceptable to drink alcohol on the trains.
On my trip to Saas-Fee last week I took advantage of an all-season ski pass I bought for under £200. I also have a half-fare card which halves the cost of rail transfer in Switzerland and I have Easyjet+ which gives some perks flying Easyjet. I am over 60 so travel in the UK is free or heavily discounted. And I have a pad in Switzerland about 1 hour 30 minutes from Geneva Airport and half an hour from the nearest ski resort.
I also have a pass for 25 other leading Swiss resorts that cost me around £200 for the whole season. The benefit of also having the Saas-Fee pass is it gives me good skiing early and late in the season.
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.
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.
I have always liked Sion, but one of its main attractions in the winter is how convenient it is for hitting the slopes – you can even see pistes from the city centre. The city is on the main line between Geneva and Milan and, reputedly, has the largest bus station in Switzerland in terms of destinations served (23 in total). From the bus station you can get direct services to Anzère, Veysonnaz and Nendaz (both in the Four Vallées), the resorts of Val d’Herens, including Arolla and even the lifts serving Vercorin (in the amazing Val D’Anniviers). By train, with just one change, you can get to Zermatt, Verbier, Crans-Montana and a bunch of other resorts. Incidentally, my tip for getting quickly to the best of the pistes is to go to Haut-Nendaz Télécabine and jump on the free shuttle bus to Siviez, where you are right at the heart of 412km of piste.
One other useful thing about Sion is that it has a youth hostel right next to the station, although unfortunately it does not open until late March. However, with so many high altitude resorts in the area it still works well for late season skiing. I recently stayed there and, as a result, got to refresh a lot of content at the Swiss Winter Sports web site. Even though it was April, I found some amazing lift-served powder in Les Marrécottes and a resort run in reasonable condition at Grächen.
There is surprisingly little variety of accommodation along the Rhône valley, with most of the beds in the ski resorts themselves. Sion does have a few hotels, though, and also a good variety of bars and restaurants in the old town.
Perhaps I will get one ski weekend in before the season finally closes, presumably in Valais. It has been a strange winter season. Much heralded as being the 150th anniversary of winter holidays, there was little snow before the New Year and lower resorts will have definitely suffered from lower visitor numbers.
There are probably few things better than a week in Zermatt, especially when there is fresh snow and clear, sunny skies. The recent hike in the Swiss Franc makes what was already an expensive resort, even more so. But, hey, it’s Zermatt! When you’re dead and buried, Zermatt will be off the agenda (unless you are buried in the mountaineer’s graveyard in the resort), so you have to make it here at least once in your lifetime. I reckon I have made at least a dozen ski trips there.
So, how do you make it affordable? There are two main options as far as accommodation is concerned. Option one is to bunk up in a hostel or a lower end hotel like the excellent Hotel Bahnhof. Option two is to share a chalet, especially if there is a deal on.
Until the end of April, Ski Zermatt are offering a 30% discount on Haus Alpa. The chalet is in an ideal location, in the heart of the town, only 300 meters to the Sunnega Cable Car and 500 meters to the mainline station and the Gornegrat railway. It has superb wellness facilities and free wifi. Good skiers can even ski to the front door. Haus Alpa provides two catered penthouse chalets, which sleep 6-8 people at a regular price of CHF 15000-18000/week and seven self-catered apartments, which also sleep 6-8 people at a regular price of CHF 7000-10000/week. That means you can enjoy a luxury chalet for as little as around GBP 60 (CHF 87.50) a night.
Although the catered option is more than twice the price, the discount makes it particularly attractive. Ski Zermatt is part of the Elysian group who have won awards and built a strong following for their attention to detail, the standard of catering and their friendly service. They claim their catering at Haus Alpa is of Michelin star quality, and it is accompanied by an excellent wine list, included in the price.
So, having chosen where you are going to stay, what else do you need? A ski pass covering both Zermatt and Cervinia will set you back CHF 434 for six days, and you can purchase these online in advance from www.matterhornparadise.ch.
I recommend flying in with Swiss to Zurich. Prices start at around GBP 130 return from Heathrow, and the price includes free carriage of skis or snowboard, boots and helmet. You must buy it in advance, but the Swiss Transfer Ticket at CHF 141, is a return ticket from any station in Switzerland to any other station in Switzerland – in your case from the station inside Zurich airport to the station in Zermatt. The journey time is around three and a half hours and you need to change in Visp. Some trains run direct from the airport to Visp, but alternatively you can change at Zurich HB.
The train journey is an absolute delight and infallibly reliable. A useful tip is to pop into the Co-op in the airport and buy some snacks, cold beers or wine for the trip. Supermarket booze is cheaper than in the UK and drinking on the trains is absolutely acceptable – on the train to Visp there is also catering and a trolley service, but not on the last leg. I remember once being complemented on my foresight by the ticket inspector for having stocked up on beer for this last section! Incidentally there is also a Co-op in the middle of Zermatt in a small shopping centre opposite the railway station. If you are self-catering or want to stock up on booze, this is the best value in Zermatt. All the clubs and bars are free to enter in Zermatt, but the drinks can get pricey.
You probably will eat out at lunchtime and there is a wealth of choice in Zermatt and Cervinia. For a cheap but nourishing lunch, a bowl of Goulash soup with bread and a beer will cost around CHF 15 on the Zermatt side, whilst on the Cervinia side you can enjoy a big plate of pasta and a quarter litre of wine for slightly less – remember you will need Euros on the Italian side. If you want a lunch to remember at a reasonable price, I recommend Chalet Etoille. The menu varies, but they always have available their quite stunning fish soup – a small bowl is around twelve euros. You don’t always need to book, but it a good idea to do so – +39 0166 940220.
So how much will it cost you for a luxury ski trip you can organise yourself in an hour, without the hassle of a long coach transfer?
Well, if you take the option of the catered chalet, plan to have three or four drinks out a night and mostly eat a light lunch, a luxury ski trip to Zermatt all inclusive will cost you no more than GBP 1600 per person at current exchange rates. If you want to push the boat out, party hard and lunch in style, you probably want to budget around two grand.
Not cheap, but not a king’s ransom either.
For more details, visit http://www.swisswintersports.co.uk/zermatt.php. Remember Zermatt is high too, and there is extensive piste open in April with much of the Matterhorn and Cervinia sections open through May and more limited skiing right through the summer.