Book late for the slopes. And pray for snow

The end of the season can often be the best time for a holiday with sunny weather, fewer crowds and some fantastic bargains, writes Tania Alexander

IF YOU haven't got round to booking a ski holiday yet, there's still plenty of time - and if you know when and where to go you can find some excellent deals.

Given the lateness of Easter this year (Easter Day falls on 12 April), the season has the potential to be a long one. Many of the higher resorts will stay open until the beginning of May and providing you avoid peak periods, such as the Easter week itself, skiing at the end of the season is much cheaper - up to 50 per cent of what you'd pay earlier on. If you are prepared to self-drive you can find end-of-season deals for under pounds 70 per person including ferry crossings and studio accommodation.

When booking late, the main gamble is the snow. Right now the situation is not ideal, but it's just as well to keep an eye on the snow reports. Last season many of the resorts had over a metre of fresh snow in April over Easter.

Skiing at the end of the season has other advantages apart from price. The ski days are admittedly slightly shorter (you're probably best to take a late lunch and stop skiing shortly after as the afternoon spring snow quickly turns to slush) but it is so immensely pleasurable to ski in spring snow with the sun on your face, and to be almost guaranteed to come back with a tan. Better still, the high season crowds will have gone and you'll have the pistes to yourself. This is also a great time to buy yourself a pair of skis or new boots as most of the shops are offering excellent deals to get rid of old stock.

Where to go

Some of the lower altitude Alpine resorts may well have to close before Easter - probably on 28 March. Look out for good deals in the weeks beginning 14 and 28 March before the school holidays begin and prices rocket. Beginner skiers can save a lot of money and have a great learn-to-ski week in Andorra in March where the resorts are duty free, the instructors invariably speak good English, and the prices of everything from lifts passes to tuition and apres-ski are cheaper.

If you're planning to ski in April, at the end of the season, the chances are you'll end up in France as this is where the main high altitude resorts are. Val d'Isere is always a good place for spring skiing and is staying open until 3 May this year. Nearby Tignes is open all year as it has glacier skiing. Val Thorens in the Trois Vallees is also a good late season choice and is open until 10 May. The ski season at Chamonix comes to an end on 1 May.

The current exchange rate means that France is also better value than it has been for the last few seasons so it's worth taking a last-minute opportunity to reap the benefits.

As most of them are not so high, Austrian resorts are likely to close earlier. If you like the Gemutlichkeit of skiing in Austria there will be a small selection of good resorts that are keeping their lifts open until the beginning of May, including St Anton and its neighbouring resorts such as unspoilt Stuben which is a great place to go for access to brilliant skiing combined with small sleepy village charm. Ischgl, Galtur, Hintertux, Zell-am-See, Kaprun, Obertauern and Obergurgl will also all be open until the beginning of May. Look out for special late season deals in Austrian resorts such as free lift passes thrown in with accommodation or free skiing for children (in Kitzbuhel at Easter). Further information from the Austrian National Tourist Office (0171 629 0461).

Many of the Italian resorts will have to close at the end of March/beginning of April. Late skiing should be available, however, in Livigno, Courmayeur, Cervinia and Bormio.

For a real end-of-season treat, good skiers and gourmets would appreciate Zermatt in Switzerland where you can ski and eat yourself into oblivion.

Choosing Accommodation

For value for money, go for a chalet holiday. Many of the mainstream operators offer excellent deals on chalets at the end of the season as they need the occupancy. If you book a week in a chalet for 19 or 26 April, you can expect to pay pounds 100-pounds 150 less than if you wanted to go on 5 or 12 April.

It's also a myth that self-catering is more economical as the chances are you'll be so exhausted after a day on the slopes that you'll go out for dinner rather than traipse around the supermarket and cook your own. Chalet holidays usually include a hearty breakfast, afternoon tea and three- course dinner (often with wine) - which doesn't leave you much room to pig out at lunch.

Find a good deal

To find the best deal it is worth ringing around a few companies and looking out for advertisements in newspapers and on teletext. By waiting to ski at the end of the season you may find that many of the more upmarket companies are now more affordable and offering terrific deals. The fact file above has a selection of packages currently available.

Skiing fact file

Ski Solutions

(0171 471 7700) Free "broker" service for skiers, finding out the best deal from a wide selection of tour operators.

Erna Low

(0171 584 2841) If four of you don't mind sharing a studio, you can ski from pounds 67.50 per person for a week's self-catering, 25 April, in Tignes, France, including ferry crossings. A similar deal to Val d'Isere, La Daille (500m from the centre of the resort) - pounds 88.50 per person (18 or 25 April) or pounds 107.50 per person in a studio in the centre of Val d'Isere.

Stena Line Holidays

(01233 647022) From pounds 205 for a family of four self-catering in Brides- les-Bains, France, including ferry crossings and discount vouchers for skiwear and equipment.

Motours

(01892 518555) From pounds 141 per person including ferry crossings, self-catering accommodation and Grand Serre Lift pass in Briancon, France (for departures on 14 or 21 March).

Neilson

(0990 994444) From pounds 169 for a week's self-catering (based on party of six) in Pas de La Casa, Andorra, including flights.

Ski Esprit

(01252 616789)Departing 8 March for one week, staying in a chalet in Morzine, France, pounds 954 for a family of four (two children under 10). Includes flights from Stansted, transfers, half-board accommodation, and one night's babysitting. Ski classes for children cost extra.

First Choice

(0990 557755) pounds 219 for a week's half board in Morzine, France - allocation of accommodation on arrival (departure 13 March).

Inghams

(0181 780 4444) If you're not fussy which resort you end up in, you can book one of their last minute Square Deals, which means you pay for a week and are only allocated accommodation upon arrival at the airport. Current deals include a week's self-catering in France for pounds 179, pounds 169 for a week's half-board in a two or three star half-board hotel in Andorra, or a week's room only in Canada for pounds 269. Prices include flights and are likely to go down the later you book.

Mark Warner

(0171 761 7000) Will be offering a selection of special deals, depending on the snow at the end of the season (3 May).

Meriski

(01451 844788) Potential reduction for chalet holidays in Meribel, France on 15 March departures.

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