All change: the winners and losers on ski transfer day

Ever had a horrible journey to a ski resort? Spare a thought for the tour operator on - aargh! - changeover day.
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The Independent Culture
Transfer day is hell. Every package-holiday skier knows that, especially those who have travelled to Livigno. The timetable for the trip to the Italian resort, as scheduled by the tour operator Crystal, involves getting to Gatwick airport at 6am on Saturday, hanging around for the 8am flight to Bergamo, a couple of hours in the air, more hanging around, an average wait of 30 minutes on the coach (the tour operator's estimate) for the first passengers who board, and then a five-hour drive to Livigno. Anyone would need a holiday after that.

But we see only the half of it. Livigno is unusual; most skiers in transit to or from Alpine resorts are en route either at dawn (on the way out) or at dusk (on the way home), not through both. Resort staff, however, endure a work schedule that both starts and ends in darkness. No wonder most of them dread Saturdays, the traditional transfer day in the Alps.

Since few skiers ever see transfer day from beginning to end, I asked Jenn Gleckman, Crystal's resort manager at Chamonix, to talk me through it. Crystal's operation in Chamonix is exceptional in that transfers are relatively straightforward, with Geneva airport only 90 minutes away by coach and no customers coming into the resort by train; on the other hand, the proportion of guests who drive from the UK - varying between 20 and 40 per cent throughout the season - is unusually high.

Gleckman is exceptional, too - and not just because she is a 27-year- old Californian from Los Angeles. Thanks to the BBC "docu-soap", War and Piste, tour operators are now deeply cautious about letting journalists talk to their resort staff, so it isn't surprising that Crystal chose as my interviewee someone who, I suspect, is capable both of efficiently organising a piss-up in a brewery and of making it sound more like a Buckingham Palace tea-party.

Her chalet staff start work on transfer day at about 6.30am, waking guests and preparing breakfast before the coach pick-up, from 11 different accommodation sites, for the transfer to Geneva airport. Reps travel with the outgoing guests to see them through check-in, and then wait at the airport with the coaches for the incomers. On the drive back to the resort, they give the new arrivals a welcome talk, and sell lift passes and ski rentals: time is tight, and Gleckman admits "there have been occasions when I've asked the driver not to go too fast". Meanwhile, chalet staff change bedlinen and give the accommodation its big weekly brush-up. They have to hurry, because the short transfer means that guests may start arriving at about 1pm.

So those staff who like to get in some skiing when the slopes are free of British package tourists were out of luck in Chamonix? Not just in Chamonix, apparently: "Crystal has an across-the-board policy," says Gleckman, "that skiing is not allowed on transfer day - it's a sackable offence."

Although the coaches can usually be relied upon, even with flight delays, to get into the resort by tea-time, self-drive guests sometimes stretch the chalet staff's day into the night. I remember from a visit to Crystal's annual cookery school a couple of years ago that the transfer-day supper menu featured a hotpot that could sit on the stove to be served any time from 7pm to midnight. But although the Chamonix one-way system is a bit of a nightmare, Gleckman says that "late arrivals among the self-drive guests are very rare".

The Chamonix operation seemed as smooth as an electronic clock. No, Gleckman had never lost a client on transfer day, although she did once gain a couple (they had decided at the last minute to take a scheduled flight rather than drive, and took two other people's seats on a coach transfer); and she had never had to locate a guest who had ended up in someone else's bed on Friday night. But apart from a time in February 1997, when a strike closed Dublin airport and guests got home 24 hours late from a Chamonix- Turin-Belfast-Dublin itinerary, Gleckman could remember no transfer-day disasters. So I had to look elsewhere for some rough to go with the smooth.

The overnight Eurostar service seemed a promising target: to the great irritation of tour operators, it arrives in Bourg St Maurice station at 6.45am on Saturday morning, and leaves for the return journey at 10pm.

Not only does this stretch transfer day (for the reps in Val d'Isere, for example, to about 17 hours), it also leaves tour operators with incoming passengers whose rooms are not available for maybe nine hours, and outgoers who are homeless for an even longer period, between check-out and departure.

But according to Andrew Russell of Inghams, his company has solved the problem by capitalising on the service's great advantage: that travellers can, exceptionally, ski on not one but two Saturdays in their "week". They are encouraged to change into skiwear on the train, then are taken out for breakfast while passes are arranged to get them on the first ski lift.

Inghams looks after their luggage, as it does while the clients are spending a last evening down in Bourg St Maurice or Moutiers before their train departs. Thanks to what Russell calls "a military-style operation", the reps can cope with the administration of this.

It's the foot-soldiers, though, who have the great disaster stories; and if you agree not to mention their names - War and Piste has made them cagey, too - they will talk. I heard transfer-day tales from reps about clients bailed after drug-busts, and another good one about a coach trapped all night in an avalanche, with all its passengers on board. But the best concerned a day of heavy snow, in January 1997, when Lyon airport ran out of de-icer. One flight, already running about 10 hours late, was diverted to Clermont Ferrand; when it arrived, immigration was closed, and the passengers had to wait on the plane for four hours - before facing another four hours on a coach to Lyon. Knock-on delays meant that the rep involved worked a 40-hour shift.

Transfer day is hell? It is for some.