Skiing: How to ensure your holiday doesn't go up in smoke

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The Independent Online
Self-catering chalets can be hazardous to your health, warns Jane Slade.

If you are booking a self-catering holiday in a French apartment this winter, pack a fire extinguisher in your boot bag. Pine-clad apartment four in the Chalet Val Pierre complex at Val d'Isere - advertised as a "charming and pretty chalet" in the 1997-98 Ski France brochure - proved to be a poor conversion of an old farm building, and a potential fire trap. Even Thumper would have complained about this particular warren, which boasted enough beds for 10 people, though we found it barely comfortable for half that number.

No one had thought of asking the tour operator whether it was possible to stand up in one of the upstairs bedrooms - or whether it had an outside window or a means of escape in case of fire. Silly, really, and, of course, our fault for not asking. Louis Fernandes, operations director of Ski France, made it clear it was up to clients to "contact us for clarification", and, if they were in the resort and had problems, "to contact us directly in the UK". Bit tricky to rig up a fire escape during a French national holiday, Louis.

Ski France is a family-owned tour operator that boasts: "We save you money by cutting out the middleman". Indeed. But larger tour operators use recognised letting agencies such as Pierre et Vacances and Maeva, which ensure that properties conform to local planning laws and fire regulations.

According to Mr Fernandes, privately owned dwellings such as those at Chalet Val Pierre do not have to provide fire escapes, extinguishers or smoke alarms because the building is not open to the general public. The fact that Chalet Val Pierre is available for rent to the general public through Ski France is irrelevant, even though one of the two bedrooms upstairs has no outside ventilation at all, and the other (for four people) has one tiny window the size of a rabbit's bottom. The only exit is via a wooden staircase to the sitting-room below.

Joanna Yellowlees-Bound, director of Erna Low, Britain's longest established tour operator and an apartment specialist in France, works only through established letting agencies. "Even if a property does conform to French fire and planning regulations, I am keen that standards are as high as in the UK," she says, "and I am particularly concerned about fire. Last year we took 3,000 university students to La Plagne. I assumed many of them smoked, so became paranoid about the fire risk ... If tour operators deal direct with owners, there is a greater risk that their conversions will not comply with local planning laws and fire regulations."

Holiday-makers should also ensure their tour operator is properly bonded, so that if the company goes under they will get their money back. The largest recognised "bonding" organisations are Abtot, Abta and Aito. The last, the Association of Independent Tour Operators, is the only one to insist its members comply with a quality charter. It also offers a disputes settlement procedure.

Ski France says, "We are a fully bonded operator, licensed by the CAA- Atol." But this is a bond supplied by the Civil Aviation Authority and applies only to holiday-makers who fly; it does not cover people travelling by ferry or Eurostar. Ski France does point out that it has a trust account managed by independent trustees as a further safeguard, but Aito, for example, does not accept trust accounts as an acceptable bond. "Trustee accounts are too difficult to police, and we do not accept members who have them. There have been situations where companies have gone bust and there has been nothing in the trust account," says Sue Ockwell, of Aito.

The message is clear. Be vigilant if you are booking an apartment for your ski holiday, especially if you are travelling with children and people who smoke. Check there are clearly marked fire exits, and that the upstairs windows are larger than the average rabbit.