Independent travellers are taking advantage of low-cost airlines to tailor-make their own skiing packages, says Stephen Wood

In the run-up to this ski season an unusual advertisement made regular appearances in the London Evening Standard. Elegantly designed with solid blocks of colour that recalled Twenties De Stijl graphics, it showed a skier in a fast, carving turn under a strap-line saying, somewhat ambivalently, "Kärnten (Carinthia)". It wasn't ideal that this region of southern Austria is so little-known they named it twice, first authentically, then Anglicized. Otherwise, so far so good. The advertisement, set across the bottom third of a page, caught my eye. I read it, and was struck by a couple of omissions.

In the run-up to this ski season an unusual advertisement made regular appearances in the London Evening Standard. Elegantly designed with solid blocks of colour that recalled Twenties De Stijl graphics, it showed a skier in a fast, carving turn under a strap-line saying, somewhat ambivalently, "Kärnten (Carinthia)". It wasn't ideal that this region of southern Austria is so little-known they named it twice, first authentically, then Anglicized. Otherwise, so far so good. The advertisement, set across the bottom third of a page, caught my eye. I read it, and was struck by a couple of omissions.

On offer was a "Carinthian Winter Package", a short skiing break very reasonably priced at from £190 per person (based on two sharing) for three nights half-board in a three-star hotel. But a hotel where? It didn't say. And although the package was otherwise generous, including a ski pass, equipment hire and airport transfers, it excluded one important item: an air ticket.

On closer reading, the advertisement proved quite specific: "Flights not included", it said, directing potential customers to the www.ryanair.com website for tickets on the low-cost airline's daily service from Stansted to Klagenfurt, the provincial capital. Why did the Carinthian Tourist Office not include air fares in its fixed-price packages? Because the flexible pricing structure of low-cost airlines makes predicting the cost of a ticket impossible. Although airlines have traditionally offered tour operators discounts and other benefits, the low-cost system does no such favours: on the few occasions when tour operators have been able to buy no-frills flights at fixed prices, theirs have not been the cheapest seats on the plane.

The failure to mention any ski resort in the advertisement is another matter. It is partly to do with flexibility: fitting short breaks into the rotation of week-long packages is difficult. But unlike in Austria's more familiar ski regions, to mention resorts in Carinthia would be to risk slowing the reader's pulse. The only one familiar to UK skiers is Bad Kleinkirchheim; the others are even less well-known here than the province in which they are set.

Hence the unusual advertising campaign. The cheap, Stansted-Klagenfurt service on Ryanair (booked last Saturday, a one-week return departing today would have cost £97.25) provided an opportunity to raise the profile of Carinthia; and the Carinthian Tourist Board chose to piggy-back its promotion on those flights. The advertisements were placed only in the London evening paper - rather than a national publication - because of its readers' relative proximity to Stansted.

Quite how much impact low-cost airlines have had on the UK ski market is hard to judge. An easyJet spokeswoman said that the company has no statistics because it does not ask customers about the purpose of their trip, but added - rather boldly - that "in winter most passengers on the routes to Geneva and Zurich have a pair of skis with them". According to the Ski Club of Great Britain the increase in skiers travelling independently (it estimates the number is up by 30,000 since the 2000/1 season) "can be largely attributed to the rise of the low-cost airlines and the increased use of the internet". The club reckons that this season may "test the strength of the budget airlines versus the ski package"; but the heavyweight tour operators seem unworried about that.

Still, it is obvious how important the airlines are to Klagenfurt, a city near the Slovenian border of about 90,000 people. The generally quiet airport café has learnt to anticipate the surge of business before the daily Ryanair departure; now it has other peaks to cope with, thanks to the launch of Hapag-Lloyd Express low-cost links with Cologne (daily), Hannover and Stuttgart (both three times per week), plus the soon-to-start daily Ryanair service to Rome.

What sort of skiing awaits those who fly into Klagenfurt? Not the big stuff available in the Tyrol, certainly. In mid-December I flew out to Carinthia - not on a Carinthian Winter Package - and travelled north to the Turracher Höhe, then south-west to Nassfeld, on the Italian border. The small Turracher Höhe ski area straddles the road to the 1,783m Turrach pass, with 11 pistes to the west of a small lake and another 16 to the east. A tunnel under the road provides a skiable link between the two sides; there is also a "water taxi" service across the frozen lake. The setting is attractive, the skiing intermediate; but for a local ski area it is reasonably high, stretching up to 2,205m - so even in what had been a bad early season for snow, the cover at Turracher Höhe was good.

The Turracher Höhe's ace is an excellent and very popular lakeside spa hotel, the Hochschober. It has the familiar qualities of an Austrian family hotel, but here they are turned up to 11, so to speak. The patriarch, Peter Leeb, is as witty as he is charming; the guest-friendly touches include a torch, umbrella and vacuum flask in every room; and among more than 40 other massages and treatments at the extensive spa is a one-hour, €50 hamam bath, which even I - usually unmoved by such things - found delightful. For a "He skis; She spas" couple, the Hochschober would take some beating, provided He doesn't ski too well. For more ambitious skiers, the Skiarena Nassfeld is a better bet. Set about 130km west of Klagenfurt on the Nassfeld Pass (with the Italian border a 10-minute stroll away), it is again an intermediate area - but a large one, with 101km of pistes and the longest gondola in the Alps, which ferries skiers 6km up from the valley in 17 minutes. The views are superb even from 1,919m, the highest point accessible in mid-December: great, rocky plugs stick out of the snow to the north-west, and a long line of white peaks march along the northern horizon; to the south are rows of dark mountain ridges stacking back towards Udine, clouds sandwiched between them. A good place for a short break? I think so, especially for gourmands who would appreciate the three-star cuisine and 800-bottle wine list of the Hotel Wulfenia's restaurant, at the main lift-base.

For Carinthian Winter Packages, contact 00 43 463 3000 or see www.carinthia-info.at. For more on the four-star Hotel Hochschober (00 43 4275 8213; doubles from €112.30 half-board) and Hotel Wulfenia (00 43 4285 8111: doubles from €101 half-board), see www.alpine-retreats.at. Further information from the Austrian National Tourist Office: 020 7629 0461; www.austria.info/uk

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