Travel: It needn't cost an arm and a leg

Budget airlines have made weekend ski breaks much more affordable. But are they worth the hassle?
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The trip didn't start well. Although Luton airport promotes itself with the slogan "Developing a world-class airport", getting there by public transport still makes you feel like a displaced person being airlifted out of a war zone. That's one of the drawbacks of low-cost flying; another is delays. It shouldn't come as a nasty surprise when, five minutes before you are due to board, the airport's public-address system announces that there is a 40-minute delay. But it does when you are heading off for a day's skiing, because every minute counts.

For British skiers, it's hard to escape the inflexibility of the package- tour operators' weekly cycle, with flights and accommodation locked into a routine of Saturday transfers, though this season, First Choice stepped a few hours out of line, with Friday-night charters. Weekend skiing packages have, until now, remained an expensive option.

But the advent of low-cost airlines flying into those destinations has changed that. Easyjet started a Luton-Geneva service last year, and is now increasing the frequency of its flights; last month it added a Luton- Zurich route. And Go has recently made the German resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen - highly regarded, but little used by British skiers - readily accessible, with its pounds 80 return flights to Munich.

Easyjet is currently running two return flights every day to Zurich, and three to Geneva. From 18 December, the frequency increases to three and four flights respectively; and from 2 January 1999 there will be a fifth daily flight to Geneva at weekends. Easyjet's tickets are sold in tranches, the price on each flight rising as the plane is filled; eg to Zurich, early bookers pay pounds 68 return, but the last seats cost pounds 208.

A quick in-and-out trip to the mountains requires careful planning. To test the potential of low-cost airlines for skiers, I chose to go to St Anton in Austria. Although its season did not start until today, its lifts are linked with the nearby resort of St Christoph, which opened for business last weekend. Equally important was accessibility. Frequent services make it an easy train ride from Zurich airport, though the journey takes about three hours. But from St Anton station it is only five minutes' walk to the main ski lifts.

The 6.50pm Easyjet flight from Luton, which left at 8pm, got me to Zurich at 10.40pm. I took a train into the city, and spent some of the night in the over-ambitiously-named Hotel Splendid (which cost only pounds 24).

As I waited for a train at 6am the following morning, the whole venture seemed rather unwise; but by 9am, at St Anton, it was a brilliant idea. The top of the resort, at Valluga, had more than two metres of snow, and St Anton itself was still covered by a 20cm fall. I dumped my few belongings at the Hotel Grieshof, in the centre of town, and headed off up the mountain for a day of great skiing. The Arlberg mountains were soon lit by a dazzling - and warm - sun.

I skied on my new snowblades, which had gone into the aeroplane's overhead luggage compartments and made the journey far easier than it would have been with skis and poles. But, remarkably, Easyjet carries ski equipment free of charge, unlike package-tour operators, most of whom demand pounds 13 for ski carriage. Easyjet's spokesman says, however: "We may have to review the policy if the planes get bulked out with ski equipment."

Even with low-cost flights, making your own way to the Alps is not cheap. When St Anton's season gets under way, a jaunt like mine will cost about pounds 175, plus food and drink - a lot for a day's skiing. But go midweek, and stretch the trip to, say, three nights, and the cost per kilometre of skiing drops to a reasonable level. Bookings on Easyjet are higher at the weekend, so the chance of getting the lowest-price tickets is greater at other times. And there's another argument for midweek trips: at most resorts, if you avoid weekends you also escape the crowds and ski-lift queues.

The trip ended well. Despite Sunday's later start, for a 7.55am train to Zurich, I arrived home early. But I was exhausted by the time I got to Luton, and there was still that grim trip back from the airport to be faced.

On the airport bus, an American cross-questioned me about snowblades. Great fun on-piste, I told him, but not in deep, soft snow. For my last run at St Anton, I descended off-piste from the Schindler Spitze. After going head over heels a couple of times I had to adopt a sort of penguin pose for the rest of the long descent, leaning backwards to angle the snowblades towards the sky.

The train fare from Zurich airport to St Anton costs about pounds 44, and a one-day ski pass for the Arlberg region pounds 22-pounds 24. Tell the train's ticket collector you are a skier, and get a 50 per cent discount on the one-day pass. Rooms at Hotel Grieshof cost pounds 19-pounds 32 a person a night for two sharing. For latest flight prices contact Easyjet on 0870 6000000