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.
Snow’n’Rail is the popular scheme organised every year by the Swiss Railways which provides a significant discount on the combined lift and public transport ticket prices for over 40 resorts. The booklets listing the offers are available from stations in local language versions, and the online brochure also provides details in English.
There are no new resorts for 2016/7 although les Portes du Soleil is back after a one year absence. Toggenburg, Hoch-Ybrig and Val D’Anniviers have fallen off the scheme, sadly, and a couple of minor resorts are now only listed online.
After modest increases last year, it is perhaps not surprising to see significant increases in some of the offers. Adelboden, the 4 Vallées, Saas-Fee and many Graubünden resorts have seen hikes around 10%. However Zermatt has kept prices flat, as have a number of other resorts, including Les Diablerets, Leysin, Villars, Grindelwald, Wengen, Mürren, Gstaad, Meiringen, Sörenberg, Melchsee-Frutt, Klewenalp, Airolo and Stoos – some routes from Luzern have even fallen slightly.
Tickets can still get pricey, even with the discounts, especially if you do not have a half-price rail card. Without the additional discount, a full day skiing or snowboarding in Zermatt from Basel or Zurich will set you back around 270 SFr. Conversely, with a half-price card, a day in Engelberg will give you change from a 100 Sfr note. Meiringen, Sörenberg and Klewenalp, in particular, provide very good value for the extent of piste available.
For more details of the new season prices visit the resort pages at SwissWinterSports.
The Snow’n’Rail schedule for the Winter Sports season 2015-2016 is now available. This is the wonderful scheme run by Swiss Railways that provides a 20% discount on the combined lift pass and public transport connections for most of the leading resorts in Switzerland. This is a unique offering – the Austrian Railways run a similar scheme, although nowhere near as extensive.
The offers are now available online (in English, French, German and Italian), and in a brochure available free from the booking offices of most Swiss Railway Stations. The brochures are available in German, French and Italian depending on the language of the locality in which the stations are situated, but only the German version comprehensively covers all the resorts in the scheme.
There is not much change from last year. Most prices have stayed the same. For example an adult day trip to Zermatt from Basel if you are in possession of a Half-Tax Card is still SFr 166.40. A comparable offering is SFr 75.40 for Klewenalp, again the same as last season.
The resort coverage has changed slightly – Vals is now included.
However the most glaring omission is the Portes du Soleil. This massive ski area was one of the most impressive destinations under the Snow’n’Rail scheme, but it looks like they couldn’t come to an agreement with Swiss Railways for this season. Hopefully they will be back for the next one.
What looks like a new resort on the list, Chäserrugg, is simply a rebranded name for what has been referred to in previous years as Toggenburg or Obertoggenburg and covers the charming, linked resorts of Alt St. Johann and Underwasser. Included in the lift pass are the slopes around Wildhaus, but it appears that the routing of the offer to Wildhaus via Buchs is no longer available at a discount.
Some resorts can be accessed by train alone, others you need either a scheduled bus service or use of a linked ski bus. Details are all listed at the resort reports at the Swiss Winter Sports web site, and I can vouch for the rourting information as I have used the scheme for every resort myself!
Resorts covered by the scheme are as follows:
In Northern Switzerland: Braunwald, Chäserrugg and Pizol.
In Graubünden: Arosa Lenzerheide, Brigels, Davos Klosters, Disentis 3000, Engadin St. Moritz, Flims Laax Falera, Motta Naluns (Scuol), Splügen and Vals 3000.
In the Bernese Oberland: Adelboden-Lenk, Gstaad Mountain Rides, Jungfrau Ski Region and Meiringen-Hasliberg.
In Ticino only Airolo.
Several resorts are included in the category Alpes Vaudoises, including Villars, Les Diablerets and Leysin.
In Valais: 4 Vallées/Mt-Fort, Aletsch Arena, Blatten-Belalp, Crans-Montana, Grächen, Lauchernalp/Lötschental, Leukerbad, Visp Area, Saas-Fee/Saastal and Zermatt & Cervinia.
In Central Switzerland: Engelberg-Titlis, Klewenalp-Stockhütte, Melchsee-Frutt, Andermatt-Sedrun, Sörenberg, Sattel-Hochstuckli and Stoos.
Not for the first time this season Brits travelling to or from European ski slopes were left stranded at the weekend when heavy snowfall closed runways at Chambery, Grenoble, Lyon and Geneva and caused traffic chaos on routes to and from the French Alps.
This couldn’t have been at a worst time, with half term not only swelling the ranks of would-be skiers but leaving them stuck with bored, tired kids. Some families even ended up back at school, with a school hall in Grenoble being among several emergency shelters employed by the French authorities.
I am off to the Vaud Alps this weekend and I’m sticking to the train all the way down. I’ve never yet been prevented from hitting the slopes by a glitch or weather conditions on Swiss, German and Austrian railways. Visit Snow and Rail for the lowdown on how to hit the slopes by train.