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. These places can get gelid, so rigging up your The-House jackets before embarking on that trip would really help. 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. Consider the options from Jungle Vista Inn.

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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Bruson resort review

Nic Oatridge in Bruson, Valais
On a recent excursion down to Valais, I decided to check out Bruson. You can be forgiven for not knowing of this resort as it is somewhat overshadowed by its neighbour across the Val d’Bagnes – Verbier. However on paper it looks worth visiting. It claims to have 51km of piste and, as of last season now has a gondola lift to replace the old bus service. This means it is now directly connected to Verbier, and to the railway station at Le Châble (which connects to Martigny).

The 51km of piste that appears on most literature about the resort sounds pretty impressive, although the resort itself only claims 40km. Still, even on the lower estimate that puts it alongside resorts like Grächen, Klewenalp or Pizol, all of which have plenty to keep you occupied for a day.
Bruson with a view across to Verbier
I have to say I was a tad disappointed. Apart from a section associated with a surface lift up at the summit, most of the resort seemed to consist of variations on a single run near the main chairlift. The variations were on a respectable black run which you could join or avoid through interconnecting blue or red runs and some off-piste cut-throughs in the trees, with the section of the black at the top of the chairlift the steepest part. If the snow was better there looked to be some decent off-piste around the surface lift at the summit. Another surface lift connects a couple of lower runs up to the bottom of the chairlift and the top gondola station. The piste map suggests there are a couple of unprepared trails that take you down to Le Châble at 881m and Bruson itself at 1080m, although I suspect you wouldn’t normally take those even if the snow was good except to get back down at the end of a day. Those runs may explain where most of the 40km of runs comes from, because my estimate for the resort would put it nearer 20km.

With typical Spring conditions the snow got progressively heavier as the day progressed, but between the summit at La Pasay (2163m) and the gondola top station at Moay (1640m) it was fine in the morning. Indeed if there is one thing in Bruson’s favour it is that you have, easily reachable from Verbier, well-prepared slopes and empty lifts every day.
Empty slopes at Bruson
It is not especially cheap. The lift pass just for Bruson is SFr47, but the sector is included in the full 4 Vallées lift pass, so if you have the full pass and are based in Verbier, it is worth an outing – especially for confident intermediates who want to practice technique on well prepared runs without wannabe Beat Fuezes whizzing around.

I found three small restaurants with simple fare. The one half way down the main black run had friendly staff, great views from the terrace, some nice wines and a very pleasant home made vegetable soup served with some local cheese. However it seemed to charge Verbier prices for the privilege.

All in all, an interesting day out, but I wouldn’t hurry to return.

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Ski Insurance

I have Swiss insurance and am a member of Rega (the air ambulance people), but there are some gaps in terms of ski insurance cover. In many resorts there is an excellent service you can buy with your lift pass called Snowcare. It costs SFr 5 per day and covers refunds of ski pass, lessons and equipment hire if the slopes are closed, and costs of assistance and rescue, transport by ambulance and helicopter, medical expenses, sanitary repatriation and legal assistance. The amount is limited, but the ceilings seem reasonable, and the insurance is intended to supplement usual insurance and European Health Insurance Card provisions as applicable. It also does not cover off-piste activities. If you’re looking to switch health insurance, there are several options out there.

You can buy the card at a number of resorts, currently the list includes:

View over Zermatt
Incidentally, regarding Rega, they waive the costs of the rescue missions of members (annual fee: CHF 30), providing that these costs are not covered by a health or accident insurance. That is one good reason to sign up, but additionally they are a non-profit foundation who provide emergency medical assistance by air according to medical necessity and, as they put it: “to rescue, not to pass judgement on right or wrong, guilt or innocence”.

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Where is the Cheapest Place to Ski?

The Crystal Ski Industry Report 2014, produced together with Post Office Holidays in the UK, has assessed a number of ski resorts popular with UK package tour travelers. They have worked out average costs in resort for a package consisting of lift pass, rental and ski school and also for an average lunch. As a result they have come up with their idea of where the cheapest place to ski is. I don’t claim to be surprised with the outcome. I have applied an index to the figures based on an average of 100 to come up with relative prices. Essentially you can read it this way: you can get almost three days in Bansko for the price of one in Zermatt. Since Zermatt is much more likely to give you good snow conditions, has better scenery, apres ski and food, is easier to get to and has five times as much piste you could actually argue Baski is over-priced, but I have had some great ski holidays in Bulgaria and I wouldn’t knock it. However I think the independent traveller, with or without a family, doesn’t need to go to Eastern Europe to find value for money.

The top American resorts seem over-priced compared to the best European resorts, and add to that the cost, time and ecological impact of getting there from Europe, it seems wise to leave them to the natives. Again, I have had some great skiing in North America, but I lived there at the time and it was on my doorstep.
Matterhorn in Zermatt
So the eternal debate is, where is the best value resort to ski or snowboard in the Alps? Italy does well, and can only be faulted on the longer transit times required to get there. For a great ski experience on a tight budget, it is probably the best value. My personal favourite in Italy – if you are watching the pennies but want a great experience – is Madesimo. The best of Austria and France seem comparably priced, with a small price premium associated with Switzerland down to the strong Swiss Franc.

The report actually showed Switzerland gaining market share in 2013/4 over 2012/3, with 6.5% of the market – largely at the expense of France. The report claims prices are going down, but that is surely down to the strong pound since all prices are converted to sterling. Overall the report doesn’t change my perspective, which is that you get what you pay for. The ski and snowboard market is very competitive and the biggest mistake you can make is not about how much you pay, but that what you pay delivers what you want. I would never recommend Zermatt to a family of beginners, but for a competent skier I would recommend you put it on the list of places you visit before you die.

Anyway, on that sobering note, here are the indicies:

 

Resort Country Index
Bansko Bulgaria 54
Kranjska Gora Slovenia 62
Ellmau Austria 64
Livigno Italy 66
Soldeu Andorra 68
Sestriere Italy 73
Morzine France 75
Ruka Finland 78
Val Gardena Italy 84
Les Deux Alpes France 87
Mayrhofen Austria 87
Serre Chevalier France 87
la Thuile Italy 89
Kaprun Austria 89
Courchevel France 104
Val d’Isere France 104
Kitzbühel Austria 111
St Anton Austria 116
Tremblant Canada 117
Saas-Fee Switzerland 118
Wengen Switzerland 122
Winter Park USA 125
Banff Canada 136
Breckenridge USA 141
Zermatt Switzerland 142
Whistler Canada 146
Vail USA 155
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