Snow go!

Europe or the US? Early or late? DIY or package? Whatever you choose, the top priority is to have fun, writes our new ski correspondent, Hamish McRae

A skiing holiday should not be some sort of endurance test. It is supposed to be fun. That, I believe, is why I have been selected as this newspaper's ski correspondent. It is not because I am an especially good skier. Keen, yes. Adequate, yes. And I have skied in a lot of places and for a long time. But like most Brits who learnt as adults and have only managed a week or two's skiing a year, I won't ever be really good. On the other hand, nor are the majority of British skiers, so maybe what ought to be a disqualification for writing about skiing holidays is actually an asset. I want to have fun.

In planning any skiing holiday, fun should surely be the main criterion: how to get the biggest bang for your buck - or euro. The prime aim of these columns will be to help people have a good time.

For many people who ski every year the decision is easy. They always go to a favourite resort, stay in the usual place and do the runs they know and love. Less experienced skiers make their choices on which resorts look good in the brochure and what is the sticker price. But you can miss out - as we did for many years - by not skiing in North America. If you go to the Alps every year, you don't get to know the "consumer-is-king" US and Canadian approach to holidays. It is also a huge relief not to have the Italians pushing past you in lift queues. But while the US does powder like nowhere else, it does not do those endless Alpine runs: typically the vertical drop is half that of the Alps.

So it is best to have an open mind. There has always been a trade-off in every skiing holiday, quite aside from the North America/Alps one. High or low? Early or late? Established or new? Fashionable or unknown? Package or independent?

There used to be a traditional response to those questions. High gives better snow but nastier purpose-built villages. Early gives fewer people but less sun. Established means everything works but also bigger crowds. Fashionable means higher prices but more buzz. And package makes it simpler but less interesting.

But in the last few years the balance between these choices has been subtly changed by three things: weather, the combination of budget airlines and the internet, and the opening up of new areas around the world - or at least new to British skiers.

Weather first. There is not much doubt that weather patterns have changed in recent years. I have not seen all the scientific data, and the experts don't agree among themselves. But the rule-of-thumb used to be that North America had the most reliable snow; and while the Alps had good and not-so-good seasons, if you went high enough you would be all right.

Now, whatever view you take of the causes of climate change, it does seem clear that weather patterns have become much less predictable. North America is less reliable. While last season was great, the Rockies had had a couple of years of low snowfall before. Meanwhile, up in Canada, Whistler, the largest resort in North America, usually had excellent snow until last season, which was a disaster.

Here in Europe the main feature of the Alps seems to be that the big snowfalls come later. You used to be safe in early January but now that is no longer so. On the other hand, a late holiday around Easter seems to be a rather less risky proposition. There also seems to be a larger variance between the east and west Alps, though the data is unclear.

So what do you do? The response of the ski resorts has been to put a huge amount of investment into artificial snow. But that only works if the weather is cold enough; and while it is useful to have a snow-cannoned road back to the village, it rather undermines the purpose of the exercise, which is to enjoy the real thing.

I think the best answer is to be flexible both with time (if you can) and destination. If you book late, you may not get as good a deal on the hotel but you can always get in somewhere. For most of us it is better to have great snow and a less-than-wonderful place to stay, than a hotel with hot-and-cold-running-everything but to be obliged to ski on frozen porridge.

Paradoxically, the earlier in the season you plan to ski, the later you should leave the decision of where to go. If, for whatever reason, you have to ski early in the season, then it really is important to follow the snow. There is nothing more miserable than arriving to find no snow, half the lifts shut and then a huge snowfall to arrive on the day you are trying to leave.

Next, budget airlines and the internet. These have transformed the whole travel world, but the impact on ski-choice has been particularly strong. Because skiing needs a fair bit of organisation, the tour operators have long had a big advantage over the independent traveller. Now the costs are finely balanced. You can with luck find flights and rooms at the same price as the tour companies can buy them. But you save hassle with a package, and the operators have worked hard to customise their approach to attract the higher end of the market. I suspect in the end the package works out a bit cheaper but independence is now a real alternative. You just need to know roughly what you are doing and spend a bit of time on-screen. You also need to be aware that consumer protection conferred by booking a package is considerable, while for DIY holidays it is minimal.

Finally, the range of places. That has opened up enormously, partly because of the increase in independent travel. You can go to plenty of places that the tour operators have not bothered with. Some of the most interesting of these are the second-line North American resorts. The cheap US dollar (and even cheaper Canadian one) make the Rockies only slightly more expensive than the Alps - less so if you have some spare frequent-flyer points.

Then a few evenings on the internet will open up "new Europe". I have yet to explore the delights of skiing in Bulgaria or Slovakia, but I suspect that the Eastern European destinations not only offer very good value, they also bring back something of that less-sophisticated feel of what skiing was like in, say, Switzerland back in the 1960s. Maybe for a first visit to a "new" country it's better to use a trusted tour operator, but once you know what you are doing check out the budget airline sites too.

A further "new" idea - well, not new at all because it preceded downhill: cross-country skiing. Cross-country brings to most downhill skiers the image of elderly Germans trudging round the paths near the resort, but in reality it can be the purest and most adventurous version of the sport. There are the well-established centres in Norway and Sweden, and I recall doing some fairly unsuccessful attempts in Alaska one February some years back. But the real appeal, surely, is to escape the tyranny of the ski-lift and see the real wide yonder. One of my medium-term plans is to explore the idea of going into Yellowstone Park in the US and then skiing out to civilisation.

Looking ahead to this season, there may be other new influences. The price of jet fuel may tip the advantage away from long-haul destinations in North America towards Europe. On the other hand, an even weaker dollar might tip the other way. My feeling at this stage is that the only big decision worth pondering is: North America or Europe?

That might sound a bit of a no-brainer: who wants to sit in an aeroplane for nine hours when you can sit in one for an hour-and-a-half? But as someone who started skiing in the Alps but has spent the past four years skiing in North America, I think the arguments are quite closely balanced. I have used Air Miles tickets for a couple of years, which seems to make North America a bit cheaper than Europe for the comparable experience. On the other hand, if you are going for less than a week it really is rather a long way, particularly adding in the jet lag. I know someone who flew from London for a weekend skiing in Colorado last year, but you have to be tough to cope with that.

More about all that later. Meanwhile, focus on fun. I don't think it matters whether you go to a top resort or a cheap and cheerful one. It is good to have some challenging runs but it is also good to have some memorable meals afterwards. It is the beauty of the mountains, the exercise in the open air and, most of all, the laughter of friends.

Hamish McRae succeeds Stephen Wood as ski correspondent. We are delighted to say, though, that Stephen will continue to write skiing features on an occasional basis for 'The Independent Traveller' during the coming winter

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
Life and Style
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?