The Traveller's Guide to Family Skiing

With a bit of planning, everyone can enjoy a holiday on the slopes, says David Orkin
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The Independent Travel

WHEN SHOULD CHILDREN START TO SKI?

There are no hard-and-fast rules - some ski schools accept two-year-olds, while some experts suggest waiting until a child is seven. But it's generally considered that four is a good age to start. Under-fours can get tired easily.

Whatever age you choose, it is important to try to make sure the experience is enjoyable. Indeed, go too early and you may put the child off for life. Consider whether the child is mature enough to be happy alone with relative strangers, physically competent to handle skis, and capable of handling his or her own clothing, including mittens, goggles and boots. Then there's the little matter of bladder control in the cold, and consequently the need to undo salopettes appropriately.

Some companies offer a fun-oriented skiing class for three- to four-year-olds which introduce the youngsters to wearing skis and boots while having plenty of fun and games in dedicated children's nursery areas. For younger children, a number of resorts offer fabulous kindergartens where outdoor play in the snow is all a part of the day.

On its skiing holidays, Esprit (01252 618300; www.esprit-holidays.co.uk) deals exclusively with families. There's a full range of childcare at each of the 17 European resorts it uses, and its chalets are family-only.

SHOULD WE TRY TO LEARN IN THE UK BEFORE WE GO?

Snow domes and dry slopes can be a useful way for you to get used to equipment and clothing. They can be a fun time out for the family but dry slopes give you little idea as to what snow feels like underfoot. What might be more useful before you go would be to become a member of the Ski Club of Great Britain (0845 458 0782; www.skiclub.co.uk); run by ski enthusiasts, it's the leading independent not-for-profit snowsports club.

WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR IN A FAMILY RESORT?

Proximity, plus wide and uncrowded ski slopes. The main destinations for British skiers are in the Alps; France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. But (as Siobhan Mulholland says on page 14) Scandinavia may be more suitable. Lapland is popular with families, particularly those with small children.

If cost is the main concern, and the principal reason for going to Eastern Europe is usually cost, it's hard to beat resorts such as Pamporovo in Bulgaria and Kranjska Gora in Slovenia, both offered by Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk).

Most resorts offer dedicated nursery areas but the best resorts to learn in are those with the easiest access from accommodation to the nursery slopes. The learning process becomes so much more enjoyable if beginners can reach nursery slopes with the minimum amount of fuss.

Children can find it difficult walking on slippery surfaces, particularly in ski boots, and you may not enjoy carrying their equipment as well as your own. If distances are longer, look for an operator offering a transfer service. Also useful is proximity to the ski school. It's important to choose a resort with a good ski school, with small class sizes and instructors who speak English well.

It's not the be all or end all, but relatively short and easy transfers between airport and resort will go down better than long and tiring trips. If you're not confident that skiing will hold all the family's interest for your entire holiday, it's worth checking that there's a range of other attractions at - or in reach of - your resort.

WHAT IS THE BEST ACCOMMODATION FOR FAMILIES?

First, decide whether you want to share a bedroom with your children, or whether you want them to sleep in a separate area. The other thing to consider - especially if you or your children are fussy eaters - is whether to go for a self-catering option.

The chalet or chalet hotel environment is ideal for families, more so if other guests are also families. The informality of these properties lends itself to a relaxing and social holiday. Descent International (020-7384 3854; www.descent .co.uk) specialize in luxurious chalets for families. Mark Warner (0870 770 4228; www.mark warner.co.uk) has excellent childcare programmes at 11 of its 14 chalets.

Hotels are good options if families are looking for convenience: many offer half board, often with child-friendly menus for breakfast and dinner plus facilities and services such as highchairs, cots, games rooms and swimming pools. For up-market tailor-made trips try Powder Byrne (020-8246 5300; www.powderbyrne.com).

For the most flexibility, space and privacy, self-catering apartments are probably best. Remember that if you go for a one-bedroom apartment (with a sofa-bed in the "living area" for your child), if you want to put them to bed early, you'll either have to adjourn to the bedroom, be very quiet, or put the child to sleep in the bedroom then transfer them when you're ready to hit the sack.

Crystal (0870 402 0293, www.crystal holidays.co.uk) has a dedicated family brochure, and other major operators such as Panorama (08707 595 595, www.panoramaholidays.co.uk) or Neilson (0870 33 33 356, www.neilson.co.uk) are good for family ski packages.

DO WE HAVE TO STAY WITH THE KIDS ALL DAY?

No. Many operators have childcare clubs which cater for your little ones, starting with infants of six months upwards. Ideally childcare should be at or convenient to your accommodation, or at least near the lifts so you can set off once you have dropped off the children. From company to company there will be slight differences in the hours and frequency (some will be six days a week from 8.30am until 6pm, others may be five days a week from 8am to 5.30pm). Typically they will try some skiing in the morning, have lunch, and then be entertained all afternoon with fun activities. These might include tobogganing, nature trails, picnics, snow art, or games. Older children could try ice skating, snowboarding, snow shoeing and other snow based activities. Some places offer high tea in the evening.

WILL THE STAFF BE RELIABLE?

The major tour operators use experienced child care staff: children aged four months to three years are generally cared for in nurseries run by qualified Nursery Nurses (they will be NNEB, BTEC, NVQ, Nursery Teacher, qualified nurse or equivalent), all of whom are native - or at least, fluent - English speakers. Older children are supervised by qualified children's representatives (NNEB trained or equivalent). During the ski lessons they are in the care of dedicated experienced ski school instructors.

ANY CHANCE OF CHILDLESS APRES-SKI?

Many operators offer one or two evenings free babysitting, or one or two evenings of supervised children's entertainment (say from 7pm-9.30pm) as part of the holiday. Some accommodation offers "room listening" on a complimentary basis. If you want even more time without your children then baby sitting can be organized in resort (though obviously at extra cost).

WHAT IF HE OR SHE DOESN'T TAKE TO SKIING?

All ski resorts offer a range of other snow-based fun - snowmobiles, toboggan runs, ice-skating - and most have other leisure activities such as tenpin bowling, paragliding, swimming pools, squash courts, jacuzzis, saunas and steam rooms. Choose your resort carefully and you might even be able to go ice-fishing, husky-dog sledding or on a reindeer safari.

WILL WE NEED LOTS OF GEAR?

First, don't spend a fortune on ski clothing - there's no point in buying the latest top-range gear, designer or otherwise, especially for fast-growing kids who may only get a week's wear out of it. In terms of other stuff, you may not need to take the kitchen sink with you. Check what is provided at your chosen property - for example, those used by Esprit provide toys, sterilizers, changing mats, cots, high chairs, microwaves, baby food and more, so you need only take yourselves and your clothing. Many operators can also arrange such things as stair-gates and buggies.

Rent skis, poles and boots at the resort. Because children grow so fast there is no point going to the expense of buying skis and boots each year. Safety helmets have been proven to reduce the possibility of head injuries and can also be rented: they are compulsory for children in some countries (for example, Italy and Norway).

Special bags can make it easier carrying boots, skis and poles between the hotel to the slopes - this is another area where you'll see the importance of a well-located resort.

WHAT ABOUT NORTH AMERICA?

If you're prepared to put up with long-haul flights, the US and Canada are excellent choices. Resorts have a magnificent variety of ski terrain, a good record of snow conditions and a great choice of après ski and non-ski activities. They have also have been catering to families for years. Canada continues to be popular, with Tremblant (in Quebec) and Whistler (two hours' drive from Vancouver) amongst the best choices for families.

The pound continues to be strong against both US and Canadian dollars, North American ski areas tend to have shorter lift queues, smaller groups in the ski schools, less crowded pistes, more modern (and therefore quicker and more comfortable) lifts and friendly service. The shorter flights and fewer hours' time difference make resorts in the east, such as Stowe in the US or Tremblant in Canada, more manageable for young children than journeys to the west.

Some of the operators mentioned above also do packages to resorts in the US and Canada (particularly Colorado in the former, Quebec and British Columbia in the latter). However, if you are going transatlantic, it makes sense to combine skiing with perhaps a few days in New York or a visit to Disneyland. Trailfinders (0845 050 5900; www.trailfinders.com) has a large ski department and are a good bet for tailor-made transatlantic skiing holidays using scheduled flights.

WHEN SHOULD WE GO?

An avalanche of factors affect the cost of your holiday, and - if not included up front - things such as ski lift passes and gear hire can heap it higher. However, many operators offer free child places - or at least, generous child reductions - and other deals.

If your children are not yet in school, seize the opportunity to go outside school holidays while you still can. Departures during school holidays (Christmas, New Year, half term, Easter) are almost always busier and more expensive. By avoiding these periods you'll find quieter resorts and slopes, and often also benefit from cheaper hotel rates and lift-pass prices.

If you are planning on skiing either right at the start or end of the season, it probably makes sense to choose a high altitude resort for better and more consistent snow conditions. There can be great snow but it can be very cold in January, so make sure you're kitted out with the correct gear. Late-February and March are often the preferred months to ski, especially if you are learning, as the weather tends to be a little warmer and the snow slightly softer.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST

Look out for operators offering free child places. While going early in the season often means better discounts, staying longer can mean better value too. For example, throughout the ski season Trailfinders offers those booking two weeks at the Best Western Lodge at Jackson Hole in Wyoming a "stay 14 nights, pay for 10" deal. However, the basic price of your holiday - often just flights and accommodation - needs to be looked at in conjunction with the extras that you'll need to fork out for, such as food, ski gear rental, lift passes, child care and lessons. You should be able to get fairly accurate figures for these for each resort from the operators.

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