Late-season deals can be the perfect opportunity to get a last-minute skiing holiday at an affordable price

This week, the cost of a skiing holiday drops. Check through any of the major operators' brochures and you will find that, for today's departures to the Alps, most prices are as low as they have been since the dog days of early January. This is, of course, a familiar pattern: in April, holidaymakers' thoughts begin to turn to Mediterranean beaches, and the charter flights turn south towards Palma and Malaga instead of flying into Lyon, Geneva and Zurich.

In a normal season, prices would briefly rise around Easter-time. But this is not a normal season: Easter falls unusually late, on the weekend of 22/23 April, and half of the "big six" ski operators' brochures show no significant price peak in April simply because their Alpine programmes cease before Easter.

Among the others, increases for the holiday period are proportionally much smaller than usual. No wonder Andy Perrin, group managing director of Crystal International Travel, said on these pages in September that "there are some cracking late-season bargains available", and that "skiing in the high-altitude French resorts is out of this world at the end of April: you've got the best possible chance of beautiful sunny weather, the snow is still fantastic, and the mountains are empty".

His description echoes my own late-season skiing experience in St Anton, in Austria. For the last three seasons, I have been there in mid-April, and - apart from a single day marred by a blizzard - the skiing has always been excellent. On the resort's south-facing slopes, it is possible this month to ski in a T-shirt in the middle of the day; once, snow-shoeing up the slopes, I had to take off the T-shirt.

Traditionally, fears about a lack of snow have put British skiers off travelling to the Alps in April. But the ready availability of snow-reports on the Internet has reduced the uncertainty; and because of the low demand at the end of the season, it is usually safe to check that conditions are good before making a last-minute booking.

Obviously the choice of resort is important: in late April it only makes sense to head for high, snow-sure skis areas such as those at Val d'Isÿre/Tignes and the Trois Vallées in France, Saas-Fee and Zermatt in Switzerland (plus Cervinia, across the border from the latter in Italy), and St Anton and the other Arlberg resorts in Austria.

Late in the month, capacity will be limited: among the major operators, only Crystal, First Choice and Neilson still have departures to Val d'Isÿre/Tignes, for example, on 15 April (Crystal and First Choice also have a limited programme on 22 Apr).

But with easyJet flying regularly into Geneva and Zurich, there's no reason not to organise your own late-season skiing trip. Hotel prices throughout the Alps fall in April (except at Easter); and to St Anton, at least, the resort-transfer is no problem - a three-hour train journey from Zurich delivers you to within a few minutes' walk of the main lift-base. Travelling independently also avoids the discipline of the weekly package. Especially in Austria, where the small, family-owned hotels are more flexible than the big French apartment companies, it's easy to organise a trip of just a few days.

The late Easter was not the only trick that the calendar played on ski operators this season. Referring to the problems caused by the millennium, and by both Christmas and New Year's Day falling on Saturdays (the traditional transfer day), Andy Perrin said - in the first of this winter's skiing columns - that he thought all ski operators would be pleased when the season was over. It seems he was right. Those consulted for this, the final column, generally agreed with Ed Sims, sales and marketing director at Airtours, that "it has been a pretty tough season for the whole market".

Among the small operators, the mood is brighter: Nick Morgan of Le Ski is celebrating a 40 per cent increase in his chalet business this season. But all the major operators suffered badly at the millennium. As a result, Thomson expects to see a drop of about 12 per cent in the volume of its sales for the season. Crystal expects to do better than that, but admits that discounting will hit its bottom line. Inghams is cagey about numbers but claims that, having fewer beds contracted for the entire season than other operators, it was able to cut capacity rather than prices. Ed Sims' figures at Airtours look much better - he says sales will be up 10 per cent - but that's because the company is relatively new to the ski market, and in a growth period.

Just as Perrin predicted, a disastrous millennium was followed by a rush of business in January, when fears about the Y2K bug proved unfounded. "It was as if people wanted to be sure they had survived before booking a holiday - immediately after the New Year, bookings started to come in," said Andrew Peters, managing director of Thomson's ski programme. "They obviously weren't just waiting for discounts, because many were happy to pay the brochure price."

January's figures were nevertheless poor, because 10-day holidays at the millennium (most operators' response to the transfer-day and Y2K problems) effectively shortened the month; but February was good for everyone, several operators - Crystal and Thomson among them - putting on extra flights. And sales for March "rewarded the patient operator", as Ed Sims put it.

Now, of course, the operators are engaged in planning the 2000/2001 season, for the main brochures to be published next month; and they seem optimistic about it. Most are adding resorts to their programmes, particularly those suited to intermediate and advanced skiers. High on their agenda, apparently, is strengthening their identity as ski specialists - vague, but not obviously a bad thing.

And apart from patience, Ed Sims has learned something else from a tough season: that the money-rich, time-poor traveller certainly exists in the ski market. Airtours has run four day-trips to the Alps this winter, at a price of around £160, plus five weekends; and they have been very successful. "Short-breaks are definitely an area to be expanded next season", he says.