An uplifting experience could be just the ticket

Value for money matters on a skiing holiday, but it can be tough to work out. Take your ski-lift pass - what does it buy you?

Getting the best value out of your inherently expensive ski holiday has always been a tricky business. Eastern Europe is popularly regarded as "cheap" but that's not the same thing as good value. If you spend £300 for a lousy week in a dubious hotel, where you have to queue for an ancient lift serving muddy brown patches of snow before an inedible evening meal, are you happier than if you spend £600 for a wonderful week in Canada where everything is near perfect?

Getting the best value out of your inherently expensive ski holiday has always been a tricky business. Eastern Europe is popularly regarded as "cheap" but that's not the same thing as good value. If you spend £300 for a lousy week in a dubious hotel, where you have to queue for an ancient lift serving muddy brown patches of snow before an inedible evening meal, are you happier than if you spend £600 for a wonderful week in Canada where everything is near perfect?

Even "expensive" resorts such as Aspen claim to be "cheap" if you go low season, pre-purchase your lift ticket and dine where the local workforce can afford to dine. Yet apparently cheap self-drive French destinations can turn out to be expensive once you're trapped in them like an on-mountain Watford-Gap services, forced to pay the high food prices, accept the questionable service and battle for piste space with the masses.

Whatever the realities of these many variables, ski resorts like (and indeed need) to emphasise that they offer "value for money". A few resorts have endeavoured to substantiate these claims in recent years. In the late 1990s France was arguing that the number of lifts and the scale of their ski areas meant that you got more lifts and runs on your six-day lift ticket in France than anywhere else in the world, hence, the logic goes, best value. This year it's the UK marketing office for Vail that has declared "The Colorado Ticket is the best value skiing in North America."

The Vail claim is based on advance purchase for a 10-day ticket, which is valued at the four resorts Vail now owns (Breckenridge, Vail, Keystone – the three best-sellers in the US last season – and Beaver Creek) plus nearby Arapahoe Basin. Together, these resorts offer skiing across more than 11,000 acres of terrain. This is indisputably the biggest area and the most lifts available on one pass in North America. If you purchase the aforesaid 10-day variant of the ticket, it automatically entitles you to four more days free – so in total you get 14 days for around £220, which Vail correctly points out represents some of the best value available "at a major resort" in the US and, despite the strength of the dollar, is "very competitively priced against most major European resorts".

The fact that the lift ticket is sold rather like cans of baked beans in your local supermarket – this week's special, buy 10, get four free – only confuses buyers trying to get a coherent total package price together when planning their trip. The price you'll pay if you walk up to the lift ticket-desk in the resort on New Year's Day and ask for a six-day ticket is fixed. It will be the highest rate on the tariff sheet.

The problem with ski-lift tickets, as with airline or rail fares and even mobile-phone bills, is that there are now so many variations on offer that it's difficult to know whether you're getting the best deal.

Following the logic of Vail and the French skiing nation however, it is possible, if tricky, to compute which lift tickets really do offer better value. It's tricky because there are very few internationally fixed standards in winter sports. The North Americans measure "ski terrain area", the French count runs, the Austrians measure run length. But one universal figure is that of what is called "uplift per hour" – just how many skiers can all the lifts on one lift ticket get up the slopes in an hour? The Colorado Ticket, for example, could move 136,000 up the slopes in 60 minutes. Your ticket in effect buys a slice of that capacity. The more capacity you get for your euro or dollar, the better the value.

I have calculated the benefits of 50 of the world's leading lift-pass schemes in that way. The winners were, of course, the lift passes that offered the most terrain on one ticket, yet some of the big ski areas with expensive lift tickets were losers. On the other hand, smaller areas with some of the best prices in Europe, such as those of Andorra or Eastern Europe, don't make it into the top 25 as they don't offer enough capacity.

Top of the value pops is the Salzburgerland Superski card from Austria. It is new this season, knocking Italy's famous Dolomiti Superski off the top spot for the first time in 20 years. The Salzburgerland card is the only ski pass to offer more than 4,000 uplift places per euro.

The French claims about "more lifts and runs on your six-day lift ticket in France than anywhere else in the world" hold some water. After all, it's probably physically impossible actually to use all the capacity that your Austrian or Italian Superski region pass buys you. The world's two biggest lift-linked ski areas – the Portes du Soleil on the French/Swiss border and the Trois Vallées in France – come in fourth and fifth respectively, with your euro buying you 1,450 and 1,350 uplift places respectively. In those cases the experienced skier is likely to make good use of that space on the lift.

Nine of the 20 best-value passes are French, though Austria is challenging hard with eight. The Austrians have been linking ski resorts and creating ever bigger ski pass systems in a bid to regain ground lost to the French over the past two decades – they hope that the new, easily comparable euro pricing will show their tickets are often cheaper than those in French resorts.

Europe's resorts are way ahead of Vail, with its miserable 350 uplift places per euro. None the less, Vail's Colorado Ticket is indisputably the best-priced North American pass, representing value half as good again as second-placed Banff. It also came in above Swiss resorts such as Zermatt, Davos and St Moritz. Switzerland has only one top 20 entry, just above Vail. The Alps Vaudoise Pass, including Leysin and British favourite Villars, represents the best value in the country that still stoically insists "We're not that expensive."

The Swiss would also make a strong case that there are many aspects of a ski holiday that go beyond price. Many skiers agree that the scenery of the Swiss Jungfrau region including Wengen, Grindelwald and Murren is beauty for which any price ratio is meaningless. There are many other considerations, only a few of which – like the amount of vertical height served by the uplift – are mathematically quantifiable. The ambience, atmosphere and après-ski in resort; the quality of childcare for families; and, in places such as Utah, venue for next year's Winter Olympics, some of the lightest, fluffiest snow in the world to slide upon. Some things are simply priceless.

Patrick Thorne runs the ski information website www.snow24.com

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