Don't just take a flier: Getting to your favourite European ski resort is too often an ordeal. Chris Gill suggests alternatives to lessen the pain

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The Independent Travel
One of the more unusual aspects of the British skiing scene is that however independent skiers may be, almost all take package holidays. In the process, we are subjected to treatment that makes most summer package deals seem the height of civilisation.

We are submitted to ordeal by queue at departure airports, and ordeal by cold/starvation/background music on the protracted transfer from gateway airport to resort. Is there no alternative?

Well, yes, there are ways of cutting the distress. And I suppose it must be conceded, first of all, that things are not as bad as they once were, because the load on airport facilities has been spread more evenly in recent years.

Many chalet operators now use Sunday flights. Although I am sure that pressure on Gatwick and Geneva airports has been reduced as a result, Sunday flights mainly benefit those who take them - not least because they miss the Saturday crowds on the access roads to the resorts, particularly the French mega-resorts.

Probably of more general value is the increased use of arrival airports other than Geneva (for Swiss and French resorts) and Munich (for Austrian ones).

Lyons airport was considerably developed in time for the Albertville Olympics (to avoid the indignity of French resorts relying on a Swiss airport), but still has the attraction of being a backwater. The transfer to the big, high French resorts is no shorter than from Geneva, but is slightly quicker, involving much less driving on minor roads. The airport of choice, however, has to be Chambery, which is half the distance from Moutiers as Lyons and is offered at a small supplementary charge by operators such as Crystal.

For the more northerly French resorts in and around the Chamonix valley there is never likely to be any alternative to Geneva airport. At least transfers to these resorts are short - even though the airport is on the 'wrong' side of the city of Geneva.

For the southerly French resorts of l'Alpe d'Huez, Les Deux Alpes and Serre Chevalier, Grenoble seems the obvious choice (the city is less than an hour's drive from the first of these). But the airport is a similar distance the 'wrong' side of the city; Chambery airport is almost as close to these resorts, and Lyons is only 30 miles (50km) of motorway driving farther. And Grenoble airport is an ill-equipped dump.

A lucky few skiers used to be able to get to French pistes in real style by taking weekend scheduled flights from Paris Orly to Courchevel. The flights (taking just over two hours) were timed to give weekending Parisians two full half-days on skis, not to suit holidaymaking Brits - but in any case they have apparently been dropped. Another fantasy bites the dust.

Access to Swiss resorts is almost choice-free, but relatively stress-free, too. Going to the southerly Valais resorts (Zermatt, Crans, Verbier) means using Geneva, but at least transfer buses don't have to negotiate Geneva city, and there is the civilised alternative of transferring by rail. Inghams offers this as an option on packages to some Swiss resorts, though at pounds 40 second-class and pounds 55 first-class it is not cheap.

Going to the more northerly resorts of the Bernese Oberland and the easterly resorts of Graubunden means using Zurich - the biggest, most sophisticated and least unpleasant alpine airport - with the occasional alternative of Basel. (Bern has an airport that is much more convenient for the Oberland, but at present no flights are available.) Again, rail transfers are possible.

Zurich offers one way to get to the resorts of western Austria, too - St Anton and Obergurgl, for example. The traditional alternative, still offered by some operators, and at one time the main airport for the whole Austrian skiing industry, is Munich. The problem with Munich is that it is in Germany, and many Germans go skiing in Austria at weekends. When the snow is good there are horrendous queues of traffic at the border.

Happily, Salzburg has taken over much of Munich's skiing trade in the last decade, conveniently serving the easterly resorts not only in Salzburgerland but also the Tirol. The really convenient way to western Austria, however, is via Innsbruck, which is now accessible to larger aircraft such as the Boeing 737 despite its location amid high mountains.

Access to Italian resorts is less painful now that technology is able to deal with the fog-prone climate of the northern plains. Innsbruck is, in principle, a cute way to get to the Dolomites, but tour operators seem to have settled on Verona, perhaps because of the tolls on the Brenner pass from Austria.

Cortina tends to be served by Venice airport, creating the one example I can think of where serious flight delays are to be welcomed: a fast launch can have you across the lagoon to the Piazza San Marco in minutes.

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