What's the attraction?
Last winter was the third successive ski season to saw fewer Brits heading to the slopes. Now tour operators are hoping that 2011-12 will be the bounce-back season. Conditions are more favourable, they say, than last season when Christmas and New Year's Day fell on Saturday changeover days, there was a clash between French and English half-term weeks and Easter fell on its next-to-latest possible day in April – by which time almost all the snow had melted.
Websites are full of apparently cheap deals, giving the impression that affordable ski holidays are readily available. However, that initial price is usually only a fraction of the true cost. Add in lift passes, equipment rental, ski school, child care and meals and you'll soon be deciding between that new kitchen and your ski holiday.
It doesn't have to be that way. Ski in a smaller resort in the "big six" of Austria, Italy, France, Switzerland, Canada and the US or pick one of the dozens of other countries in Europe that have ski areas.
Travel low season and, if you can, overland, to save more.
If you travel between now and Christmas (or after Easter) you'll pay less for almost everything. Snow-sure resorts such as Austria's Obergurgl (00 43 57 200 100; obergurgl.com) and Val Thorens in France (00 33 4 79 00 08 08; valthorens.com) open on 17 and 19 November respectively. Until 27 November, Obergurgl's opening offers include adult ski passes at "senior" rates (€225 for seven days) and one-fifth off equipment hire.
Val Thorens offers a guarantee that it will have better conditions than any other resort and that you'll have doorstep skiing from opening day to May. The terms and conditions are not favourable to most Brits – compensation is in the form of extra days of skiing, for example. But it shows that the resort trusts its snow cover.
However bad the economic woes of Europe, the premier league of Alpine ski resorts such as St Moritz or Courchevel still command high prices. By booking at a smaller resort, you can enjoy a more intimate ski holiday experience at a substantially lower cost. Plus if it's near a big-name resort, you still have the option of accessing it too.
Becky Horton, of the Tirol Tourist Board, recommends Kappl, situated 15 minutes away on the free shuttle bus service from better-known Ischgl. Half-board hotel packages start at €1,370 for a family-of-four (two adults and two under-sevens) in a family room which includes local ski pass and supervision at the Sunny Mountain ski kindergarten. Book through the local tourist office (00 43 50 990 700; kappl.com).
"Don't look at the cheap lead-in price used by some operators to entice you as this is usually a self-catered studio based on four in one room. The best value is often found in 'inclusive' catered packages," says Craig Burton, MD of leading travel agency Ski Solutions (020-7471 7700; skisolutions.com). Crystal Ski's (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) Ski Plus packages, costing from £395 to resorts such as St Anton and Tignes, include flights, transfers, accommodation, ski or snowboard rentals or carriage of your gear on the plane, and lift pass. Book by 30 November.
Several companies offer coach holidays to the Alps which – if it's an overnight journey – give more time on the slopes and cost less than flying. Two leading tour operators are Ski Weekends (08444 060600; skiweekends.co.uk) and SnowCoach (01727 866177; snowcoach.co.uk).
For example, Ski Weekends offers a four-night budget break by coach departing from four pick-up points in the South-east on 8 December. The trip also includes accommodation with breakfast at the two-star Hotel Verseau in Brides-les-Bains for £219 per person. Brides-les-Bains (brideski.com/en) is linked by gondola to Méribel (meribel.net) and the world's biggest linked ski area, The Three Valleys (les3vallees.com), with 600km of piste.
Skiing in the UK shouldn't be overlooked (depending on what sort of winter lies ahead). Scotland's five ski areas (ski-scotland.com) – Nevis Range, Glencoe, Glenshee, Cairngorm and the Lecht – have had good snowfall in recent years and have invested in new lifts and alternate attractions such as a high ropes course at Nevis Range.
Fill your car with food and equipment and drive to the slopes without fear of motorway tolls. A six-day lift pass costs £120 at Nevis Range; a four-day pass at Cairngorm is £105.
The week's break from school between new year and Easter is traditionally the peak period of the winter sports season, when prices head skywards. Pierre & Vacances (0870 0267 145; pv-holidays.com), which operates apartments in resorts across France, reports that prices for half-term are down as the result of an unusual calendar year: half-term from 11-19 February is still "term-time" in France. England and Denmark are the only European countries on holiday. "The British will have the Pierre & Vacances portfolio to themselves and be able to enjoy off-peak prices and less crowded pistes," says spokesman Cathy Rankin.
The price of an apartment sleeping up to four at Pierre & Vacances Les Terrasses d'Azur in Isola 2000 (0870 0267 145; isola2000.com) in the French Alps costs £674, which is one-third cheaper than February 2011 and works out at £24 per person per night.
Although we live in an ever more mobile world, the ski industry is still largely stuck in the 1960s model of week-long ski holidays with Saturday change-overs for their clients.
Michael Bennett, the boss of tour operator Ski Independence (0131 243 8097; ski-i.com), has sought to change this trend with a new dedicated ski accommodation website called powderbeds.com. It offers accommodation prices sourced in a similar way to search engines used by airlines, ensuring that the best available price is shown for each property in the resort.
For example, a four-night B&B stay at the three-star hotel Les Ancolies in the classy French resort of Courchevel, arriving on Sunday 18 December, costs £305 per person. Travel to the resort is not included.
Christmas Day 2011 falls on a Sunday, not quite the problem it was last winter when it fell on Saturday, the traditional changeover day, but still not ideal. Inghams (020 8780 6680; inghams.co.uk) has decided to offer a Friday (23 December) changeover for its Christmas holidays instead. "We've ensured that Inghams guests won't be the ones arriving at their hotel halfway through the big festive meal. Don't forget Europe generally celebrates on the 24th for Christmas, not the 25th, so we've moved almost all of our December flights to the Friday, to ensure our guests enjoy their first day's skiing before the two big evening celebrations," says a spokesperson.
For the best holiday prices, families whose children break up from school on 16 December will find they can pay much less if they travel 17 to 24 December, than over the following Christmas week.
Who said that?
"I don't want a cheap lift ticket. I just want an expensive lift ticket that costs less." – Warren Miller, ski film director
"The sport of skiing consists of wearing $3,000 worth of clothes and equipment and driving 200 miles in the snow in order to stand around at a bar and get drunk." – P J O'Rourke, 'Modern Manners', 1984
"The only sport where you spend an arm and a leg to break an arm and a leg" – proverb