In mid-December, an on-the-spot survey of mountain restaurant prices commissioned by Where to Ski found that lunch in a major Swiss resort could cost almost twice as much as in a major Italian one, with France coming a close second and even Austria working out closer to Switzerland than to Italy.
The survey showed that a satisfying mountain lunch of pasta with wine or beer followed by a fruit tart typically cost pounds 14.50 in a Swiss resort such as Verbier, pounds 12.50 in a French resort such as Tignes, pounds 11.50 in an Austrian resort such as St Anton, but only pounds 7.50 in an Italian resort such as Courmayeur or Selva.
The detailed findings of the survey contain some messages of interest even to those with their holiday bookings already tied up. One is to beware the swanky restaurant in the otherwise reasonably priced area. The most expensive meal consumed by the researchers assiduously lunching their way around the Alps was not in Switzerland or France, but in Austria, in St Christoph, over the hill from St Anton, where they paid pounds 21 each for a two-course meal based on spare ribs and a baked potato. The other side of the coin is that it is usually possible to find restaurants charging "ordinary" prices (ie ordinary inflated ski-resort prices) even in resorts that are generally regarded as expensive.
A close look at individual prices shows that Switzerland owes its top- rank position mainly to the high cost of main-course dishes - even straightforward filling dishes such as spaghetti bolognese can be disproportionately expensive. Soups, snacks, tarts, sandwiches and drinks are not necessarily more expensive than elsewhere. And bear in mind that Swiss main courses can be big enough to be shared between two, if the budget is tight.
Not everything on the Italian price front is good news. At about 2,400 lire to the pound, the Italian exchange rate is much the same as it was in early 1994. But the pound is over 12 per cent down on the rate in spring 1995, which formed the basis of most package holiday pricing; if you've booked with an operator whose conditions permit surcharges, you can expect to pay them. Happily, most of the larger operators are committed to fixed prices regardless of exchange rate movements.