Lesson one: how to get started on the ski slopes

Never skied or snowboarded before? Organising your first trip can be intimidating. Tania Alexander gives a step-by-step guide to getting started

Choosing a resort

is probably the most time-consuming thing for any new skier. There are hundreds of resorts in Europe alone. One of the first things to consider is what sort of ambience do you want - a chocolate- box alpine village or a purpose built resort where you can ski straight out of your hotel onto the slopes? Don't get carried away by choosing a resort just because of its prestige. Many of the famous resorts such as Zermatt in Switzerland and St Anton may be a waste of time and money for the novice and even the early intermediate skier. There are plenty of smaller resorts with ample skiing for those still learning to ski - the ambience in them is usually friendlier and they are cheaper. Intermediates will want to practice their skills on lots of cruising runs - unless you are very fit and determined, however, you may not need to splash out on one of the giant ski circuits such as Les Trois Vallees or Portes du Soleil in France.

Further reading:

Where to Ski and Snowboard edited by Chris Gill and Dave Watts (pounds l4.99 Thomas Cook)

The Good Skiing Guide by Peter Hardy and Felice Eyston (pounds 15.99 Which?). Both give no-nonsense guides to choosing a resort.

When to go

December last season was a blissful time to ski, as there was plenty of snow and no-one on the slopes. Usually, however, this month can be dicey as snow can be thin on the ground. As the resorts will be getting decked out for Christmas, the atmosphere can be festive and, if you choose one of the bigger resorts or alpine towns, they can be a good place to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. Christmas packages are actually quite reasonable - New Year is the busy, expensive week. January is traditionally cheap (once all the kids have gone back to school) and the snow is often exceptionally good. January is also notorious for being a cold. February is a wonderful month to ski as you usually get the snow and the sun - prices, however, are high and the slopes crowded. Avoid the last three weeks in February next year as the French have school holidays then. March offers longer skiing days and usually stays uncrowded until Easter. April is a good month to get an early summer tan but the snow tends to get mushy in the afternoon.

How to get there

Car: Ski-drive holidays are economical (if there are four or more of you in one vehicle) and let you explore different resorts, see more of the country. By leaving the UK on the Friday and driving overnight you can also get an extra day on the slopes.

Train: New this season is a direct Eurostar service for UK skiers from Waterloo to Bourg-St-Maurice (an amazingly convenient 7-minute funicular ride to Les Arcs) or to Moutiers (with easy access to Les Trois Vallees). The downside is that this service is only available on Saturdays so you won't actually reach the resort until Saturday night. The Snow Train from Dover to the French Alps leaves on a Friday and doesn't return until the following Saturday night, which gives you two extra day's skiing.

Plane: Still usually the quickest way to reach most resorts. Saturday is usually mayhem at Geneva airport as this is the busiest day for charter flights. Many more package companies are using scheduled flights which means more civilised check in times rather than the awful 5am Gatwick check in for most chartered ski flights and alternative travel days such as Sunday.

Further information:

Ingbams: (0181 780 4444) have a huge ski programme with all different travel options.

Erna Low (0171 584 7820) offer a variety of travel options for their ski holidays in France including Eurostar and self-drive.

Motours (01892 51855) Ski-drive to French and Italian resorts.

Are you properly insured?

Don't skimp this one. Most ski companies sell policies but check the small print. If you're planning to ski off-piste, or are taking expensive camera equipment with you, it's worth booking with a specialist. Check what level of cover you have for ski equipment and whether you are also covered for hiring skis.

Further information:

Snowcard (01327 262805).

Douglas Cox Tyrie (0181 534 9595).

Are you fit?

It's certainly a waste of money if you're not fit enough to enjoy your holiday properly. A few weeks spent exercising before you go will give you more time on the slopes (and less of that third day, "I can't get out of bed" syndrome) and also reduce your chance of injury. The main area to strengthen is the legs so make sure you incorporate lots of squats and lunges into your routines. You also need strong stomach and back muscles for trunk support and strong arms for poling and hoisting yourself up again when you fall. Check out your local sports centre or gym - many of them now offer special ski fitness classes or speak to a fitness instructor for some further tips.

Further information:

"Ski legs" by Tessa Coker (pounds 2.50 including p & p. Send a cheque made out to Ski Club of Great Britain, 57-63 Church Rd, London SW19 5SB).

Pre-booking

Pre-booking lessons and passes is convenient and takes away some of the hassle of things to do when you first arrive. As the exchange rate was so favourable in July and August, if the price is calculated from this period you can expect to get a good deal. If you're travelling in a large group you probably would be better off trying to negotiate a deal yourself in the resort

If you like to know beforehand exactly what the whole holiday will cost it may be worth considering an all-inclusive holiday which includes lift passes, child care, tuition, equipment, food and accommodation.

Further information:

Neilson (0990 99 44 44) Pre-bookable lift passes and tuition also all inclusive ski holidays in Austria. A wide choice of self-catering, chalet or hotel accommodation.

Club Med: (0171 581 1161) All inclusive holidays. Mark Warner (0171 393 3168) Chalets of all sizes, good for families.

Simply Ski: (O181 742 2541) A comprehensive choice of chalets.

Erna Low: (0171 584 7820) self-catering in France.

Byrne: (0181 871 3300) A small well-run company offering a good standard of hotels in selected resorts.

Practice before you go

Skiing on a dry slope is a good way to prepare for your holiday and can potentially save time and money on tuition in the resort. The downside is that your chances of injury are actually higher on a dry slope as the surface is much less forgiving so do wear well-padded clothes and always ski with gloves (thumb injuries are particularly prevalent). If you want to experience the real thing before leaving the UK, go to the Snowdome at Tamworth, Staffordshire - Europe's first real snow indoor ski slope with a 150m x 30m slope open 364 days of the year.

Further information: For a list of dry slopes send a large SAE, to Ski Club of Britain, 57-63 Church Rd, London SWI9 5SB).

Snowdome: (0990 00 00 11)

How long should I go for?

A week is often not quite long enough to really improve your skiing (it takes about three days before you get back to the standard you were before on your previous ski holiday) and two weeks can be a bit too intensive for many people. Some operators will tailor-make holidays of any length - 9-10 days seems ideal for intermediates who are looking to improve. Weekend skiing is also surprisingly satisfying (albeit expensive). By using scheduled flights and resorts that are close to the airport means you can leave work at 5pm on a Friday and get a full day's skiing on Saturday and Sunday before flying back first thing on Monday morning for work.

Further information:

White Roc (O171 792 1188) - weekend and tailor-made ski holidays.

Powder Byrne (0181 871 3300) - flexible travel arrangements.

Buying your own stuff

It's not advisable buying any equipment until you've actually tried the sport. After one or two season's skiing it's certainly worth buying boots as it's so important that these fit really well and are comfortable. The next thing to purchase is a pair of skis but bear in mind that most tour operators charge pounds 20 ski carriage.

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