Do the white thing

Will you go skiing or snowboarding? In the Alps or the Rockies? Should you buy a package holiday or have your trip tailor-made? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

In these times of trouble, the travel industry is searching for silver linings. As yet, it hasn't found many, but winter sports dare to be more confident than rivals in the heat-seeking long-haul sector.

In these times of trouble, the travel industry is searching for silver linings. As yet, it hasn't found many, but winter sports dare to be more confident than rivals in the heat-seeking long-haul sector. You might think a North American specialist such as Ski Independence would be particularly vulnerable in the current climate, but its managing director, John Bennett, claims that in the crucial fortnight after 11 September, he had only one cancellation out of 3,000 early bookings. "It seems that people aren't afraid of flying to America," he says. But: "The economic fall-out has made them wary of booking. Some clients don't want to commit to a £1,000 holiday across the Atlantic when they can go to Europe for less."

This is welcome news for the Alps, and nowhere more so than in France, which has increased its stranglehold on the British market. It took 36.4 per cent of winter sports package holidaymakers last season, the first time it has beaten the magic one-in-three mark. When you include a presumed lion's share of an estimated 231,000 independent travellers, many of them motorists who can use empty autoroutes to reach the best resorts in the Tarentaise and the Chamonix valley in eight hours from Calais, the picture is rosy indeed.

For this, the French can thank the gods, who have provided them with the highest snow-sure mountains in Europe, and themselves, for putting them to such cunning commercial use. Their huge areas of linked runs, operating under such seductive umbrellas as L'Espace Killy and Les Trois Vallées, are the winter-sports equivalent of Hollywood: slick, accessible and designed to be all things to all users. Who cares if you can't remember one rolling motorway run from the next? Certainly not the typical 21st-century British skier who measures his success on the slopes by lifts taken and kilometres covered on one lift pass.

In the past decade, the seemingly unstoppable French have chipped away at their Alpine rivals. The combined 2000-2001 figure for Austria, historically Britain's favourite mass-market destination, and Italy, the long-term beneficiary of a weak currency, is 33 per cent, the first time they have jointly fallen behind the leader. Andorra and Switzerland rely on faithful followings at different ends of the aspirational scale. Andorra draws fun-loving budget travellers on a cheap booze and clubbing ticket, while Switzerland attracts those who prefer their pleasures with frills.

With only Switzerland standing outside looking in, the euro's introduction on 1 January will simplify calculations of the cost of Alpine skiing. What it will do to prices is anyone's guess – but it will make them easier to compare. Sterling conversions reveal that you now pay twice as much for a six-day lift pass in California as you do in a top resort in Austria or France. This is not a promising statistic for the US, already the victim of the most unfavourable exchange rate in the winter-sports spectrum. On the plus side, the premium non-stop flight to Denver has escaped the British Airways axe, leaving Colorado in its customary position as best in the west.

Accessibility and popular appeal go hand in hand, with the Vail Resorts quartet ­ Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone ­ poised geographically and emotionally to appeal to Brits on their first visit to the Rockies. Glitzy Aspen is either a short flight or a long drive away, but the other top American resorts, Jackson Hole in Wyoming, Sun Valley in Idaho and Snowbird/Alta in Utah, require internal connections that may lack appeal at the moment. Canada has better direct flights, with services to Calgary, for Banff/Lake Louise, and Vancouver, for Whistler, as well as the weekly non-stop charter to Calgary. As Canada is roughly 25 per cent cheaper overall, it can reasonably expect to scoop the diminished North American pool.

Book your holiday

First, choose your holiday. As a rule, the thinner the brochure, the more exclusive the product and the better the service, the ultimate being Descent International, which offers just two super-deluxe chalets in Méribel and Verbier. Dial its number and the main man answers the phone, but don't expect the holidays to come cheap. After all, the company prides itself on providing anything from heli-shopping trips to Geneva to on-site beauty treatments.

Alternatively, a specialist agency such as Ski Solutions or Momentum Ski will offer expert advice on options in your price bracket. A company such as Flexiski, a small component in the First Choice group, offers the double indemnity of its own brochure combined with the flexibility over flights and length of stay implied by its name.

And so to the small print and the things you really need to know. Plane, train, coach, car? Hotel, chalet, self-catering accommodation? Insurance, pre-booked lessons, lift passes and equipment? Once the decisions are made, can you face a phone call of the "press one of the following four options" variety, some of which use premium-rate lines? You might prefer to book online, a service pioneered in this market by Inghams two years ago, which it claims is very successful.

Learn to ski or snowboard

Learning the ropes has never been quicker or easier and now you can do it for free. Well, not exactly free, but for one week a year, lessons, equipment and lift passes are yours for the asking during Freshers Week. Introduced in 2001, this is a rare collaboration of tourist offices more accustomed to cutting each other's throats over market share. Some 600 Britons took advantage of the scheme, designed to fill beds during the January low season, more than enough for it to be repeated.

The key week is 12 to 19 January. Never-ever skiers or boarders are invited to book their learner's package when they buy their winter-sports holiday. The list of participating tour operators includes all the major players, with the exception of Inghams, plus two smaller ones, Swiss Travel Service and Erna Low. Between them, they offer Freshers Weeks in 27 resorts in France, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Slovenia and Andorra ­ and there is no shortage of top choices, among them: Chamonix, Lech, St Moritz and Whistler.

Look for the Freshers L-plate logo in the brochures or visit www.snowsports countries.com. If dates or venues don't suit, pre-bookable Learn to Ski packages, available throughout the season, represent a substantial saving over buying what you need when you arrive in the resort.

The ski circus

With the basics in place, the next step is to build the skills required to negotiate any marked run without embarrassment. The most encouraging way to do this is to pick a ski circus, then decide where to stay to make the most of it at your particular level. Italy claims the largest in Europe, 1,100km of pistes accessed by the Super Dolomiti pass, but the network is relatively diffuse and difficult to link up. The Sella Ronda forms its inner core, a very manageable 23km circuit, with excellent pit stops. Confident intermediates could stay in Arabba, on the grounds that it has the most interesting slopes on its doorstep, while advanced beginners would emerge onto more user-friendly runs in Corvara, Canazei or Selva.

The Trois Vallées, the self-styled "plus grand domain skiable du monde", fans out over huge stretches of high Tarentaise, with Méribel at its core, flanked on one side by Courchevel and the other by Val Thorens and Les Menuires. The characteristics are fairly simple: Méribel is convenient and middle-class British, ideal for non-French speakers; Courchevel represents French glamour, with top hotels, restaurants and clubs; Les Menuires is for bargain hunters looking for a cheap way in; while Val Thorens caters best for the more advanced end of the intermediate spectrum. The Trois Vallées also share a lift pass with St-Martin de Belleville, once an Alpine hamlet, now an atmospheric village base, and La Tania, an excellent choice for families.

The same options are available, on a reduced scale, in the other popular ski circuses. L'Espace Killy covers daredevil Val d'Isère and downmarket Tignes, while the Portes du Soleil straddle the Franco-Swiss border, with Avoriaz, Morzine and Châtel on the French side and Champéry and Morgins on the Swiss. The Quatres Vallées seek to go one better than the giant French prototype, but the long flat paths that link Verbier to Thyon 2000 and Veyssonaz are more endurance than pleasure.

Steep and deep

Over time, you will build up a portfolio of favourites. My current top five are Chamonix, St Anton, Jackson Hole, Whistler and St Moritz, a selection that may infuriate fans of rivals with comparable terrain and facilities. On a more adventurous note, small is beautiful. Alagna, one of three resorts on the Monte Rosa in Italy, is a lovely village with access to huge vertical, challenging terrain and reasonably priced heli-skiing, while La Grave, loosely attached to the downmarket French resort of Les Deux Alps, has magnificent snowfields that have never seen a piste machine. As always with powder skiing and boarding, the secret is to find the right guide, either privately or through a specialist school such as Top Ski in Val d'Isère, build up trust and leave the rest to him. His priority will be safety ­ his and yours ­ and if he's worth his fee, which will be high, he will find the best shots ­ and you will return, year after year.

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