On safari in the snow

With cheap one-way flights on offer from the low-cost airlines, keen skiers can explore a different resort every day. Stephen Wood talks to a man who wants to change the way we book our winter holiday
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The Independent Travel

Oskar Hinteregger sidled up to me at this year's Daily Mail ski show. For a big man, he sidles well. And he has a good, confidential lean, too: it suggests that he could point you in the direction of a conspiracy, should you wish to join one. He informed me that he had something to say about skiing that would be to my advantage.

One has to be wary of such approaches. Not only does he have an axe to grind, he's paid to grind it: Hinteregger is the director for the UK and Ireland of the Austrian National Tourist Office. Sure enough, what he outlined to me is something particularly appropriate to Austria. But it is a strategy that could appeal to skiers heading elsewhere in Europe, too.

He said that viewing low-cost airlines as merely a cheap way of getting to the Alps is to ignore their other significant benefit: that they sell one-way tickets rather than returns. So skiers choosing to fly into one airport and back from another incur no penalty. The strategy that Hinteregger had in mind was a "ski safari". This would involve flying to one end of a mountain range, and back from the other. A whole sequence of ski areas could be explored by driving a rental car along the range for a week, or more, or less.

Where would the safari skiers stay? Therein lies the beauty of the Hinteregger strategy. Should a carload of skiers pitch up in a resort and ask for a couple of rooms for the night, they might well be disappointed. Hoteliers in ski areas are used to weekly bookings: they are not geared up for passing trade and one-nighters. But down in the valley that's precisely the sort of guest upon which the hotel business relies. And while ski-resort beds are heavily booked in winter, that is a quiet season for accommodation patronised mainly by commercial travellers.

What's the downside of the ski safari? Missing out on the après-ski. With ski-lifts closing at between 4pm and 5pm, it's no hardship to drive for an hour or so at the end of the day to a new destination; but your beers and bath are unavoidably delayed. Travelling with your own skis is essential, because renting and returning equipment at each resort would be so time-consuming. And getting on the first ski-lift would involve an early start. Otherwise, it's all upside.

Hinteregger had an ideal ski safari route mapped out. Not surprisingly, it was in Austria. But it's a good one, so I let him have his say.

Many of Austria's best-known resorts - and a lot of lesser-known ones - lie in the small, western leg of the country where the Vorarlberg and Tirol regions squeeze between Germany and Switzerland. An east-west route, now almost entirely made up of the A14 and A12 motorways, runs across it from Bregenz to Innsbruck and on along the Inn river valley towards Salzburg. It provides a backbone for the resorts in the mountains to the north and south.

At the western end of the route, the most convenient airport with low-cost connections is Friedrichshafen, about 25km into Germany from Bregenz: it has a daily Ryanair service from Stansted that arrives at 1.45pm. "My first stop would be at Feldkirch, about 30km from Bregenz," says Hinteregger. "There's an alliance called Small Historic Towns of Austria; and Feldkirch is one of them. It's a medieval place, with lots of atmosphere, and it has an excellent, traditional Austrian hotel in the Alpenrose. From there - or alternatively from nearby Bludenz - you could explore the Silvretta Nova ski area, in the Montafon region." For the following day, he suggests skiing in either St Anton or Lech and Zürs ("Skiing both areas in a day is impossible") before moving on for the night to Landeck, 55km from Feldkirch.

Landeck is a fairly prosaic place: Imst, another Small Historic Town, is the classier option a dozen kilometres further on. But Landeck is closer to both Ischgl, an excellent intermediates' area, and to the linked resorts of Serfaus, Fiss and Ladis. "They are totally unknown in the UK but they offer superb skiing, mostly above the tree line," Hinteregger says. Other options here are the Pitztal valley or Obergurgl, a favourite with British skiers but more than 50km up a mountain road from Imst. Sölden is on the same road, but nearer.

For anyone who wants to ski the areas around Innsbruck, notably the Stubai glacier, Hinteregger recommends as a base the town (small, historic) of Hall, which is 65km from Imst. "It's a medieval place dominated by its fortress, and full of character," he says, "plus it has the new Goldener Engl Hotel and the refurbished Park Hotel, with a newly built glass tower."

The next stop - for access to Mayrhofen - would be Rattenberg. Then the options multiply enormously. Immediately south-east of the motorway there are a dozen major resorts, from Alpbach to Zell am See. Hinteregger's choice would be to stay a night just off the A12 in Kufstein; ski Ellmau and pop in to Kitzbühel on the way to Saalfelden, for a second night; then access the Saalbach-Hinterglemm area the next morning via its back door, the linked resort of Leogang. Since Ryanair has an evening flight from Salzburg, where Hinteregger's itinerary ends, it is possible to ski for a day at Saalbach-Hinterglemm, drive to the airport, and be back in Stansted by 9.15pm.

Sounds good, doesn't it? But there's some small print, of course. The drawback of picking up a rental car in one country and dropping it off in another is that this will commonly incur an additional "one-way" fee: for a Germany-to-Austria rental Avis charges €153 (£107), Europcar €113.50 (£79). (You could dodge this by taking a quick cab ride or a slow train connection from Friedrichshafen across the border to Bregenz, and rent a car there.) A ski safari is inadvisable at peak times; and at all times it makes sense to research possible overnight stops, and to phone hotels ahead. Avoid flying at weekends, to save on air fares. When booking a hire car, specify winter tyres, chains and ski roof-rack; don't forget to buy an Austrian motorway-toll Vignette; and watch out for the stretch of motorway after the Arlberg Pass, where you'll need chains in bad weather.

The 'Enjoy Winter' brochure and guide to 'Small Historic Towns' are free from the Austrian National Tourist Office: 020-7629 0461; www.austria.info/uk