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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger reveals he has testicular cancer - and is losing his trademark long hair as a result

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's most starring part
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
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
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week