Right now I'm half-way through the kind of skiing trip that I like best. Take a scheduled flight departing early afternoon; pick up a hire car at the airport; check into a modest little hotel in the nearest interesting ski resort in time for a drink before dinner; next day, after skiing, drive for an hour or two to another resort and check into another modest little hotel in time for a drink before dinner; and so on.

I'm not supposed to be doing it for fun, mind you. I'm doing it in the course of duty, researching resorts that you will hear about in these pages later this season and early in the next. But for a ski-resort junkie like me, the pleasure of skiing is overlaid by the excitement of exploring new resorts, new runs, new modest hotels.

It's not a cheap way to ski; depending on how careful you are, such trips range from expensive to ruinous. The biggest item in the budget is car hire, which can easily vary by a factor of two. And getting the best deal is grindingly tedious work, I can tell you.

The first problem is that no car hire company (well, none of the seven I have investigated) will simply quote you an all-in price for the use of a properly equipped car for a week.

Without exception, they like to distinguish between the main rental charge (payable in sterling in advance) and on-the-spot extras, which you usually have to pay for in the local currency. These extras almost always include the cost of a ski rack and snow chains (or snow tyres) that are an essential part of your equipment; but they may also include an airport surcharge, and an additional theft insurance premium that may be compulsory or optional. The ski rack, snow chains and the theft insurance may be priced by the trip or by the day, sometimes with a maximum ceiling; the airport surcharge, if there is one, will be a fixed charge in France, and a proportion of the main rental charge elsewhere (10 per cent in Italy, 7-8 per cent in Austria and Switzerland).

It is complicated enough to confuse the people in the car hire companies who distribute this information - I know, I've asked them. Calculating the total charge for each company for comparative purposes is a nightmare. But it gets worse: although hire companies all use the same classification of cars (groups A, B, C and so on), they give them different meanings.

All Italian companies mark their hire cars higher: any given group represents a smaller car there than in other countries. But Holiday Autos also offers smaller cars for a given group. Group B usually means a small family hatchback such as an Escort, Astra or Peugeot 306 - the smallest size I would recommend for two or three to share on a skiing trip. But it may mean a car as small as a Peugeot 106. Group C usually means a standard family saloon such as a Mondeo or Peugeot 405; but it may mean that family hatchback instead.

Eventually you (or, rather, I) can make it down to the bottom line. The table presented below shows what I think you'd pay the seven most prominent hire companies for an Escort-sized car.

The 'leisure' car hire companies work entirely through travel agents; the others also offer direct booking (numbers in Yellow Pages). When talking to the big-name companies (or talking about them to travel agents) make sure you steer the conversation towards special rates aimed at holiday-makers and away from the ordinary daily rates, which are aimed at ripping off - sorry, meeting the needs of - business travellers. Hertz has at least two holiday-maker tariffs; the prices below are based on its Holiday Saver deals, which have to be booked at least 14 days in advance.

The prices in the table include some absurd charges for the use of ski racks and snow chains. In France it is quite normal to be charged in excess of pounds 50 a week for these two items, which you could buy in the average French hypermarket for much the same amount.

If you're in the market for flights as well as car hire, don't overlook fly-drive deals: despite the greater complexity of the product, they are priced with blissful clarity. If I can buy car hire, ski rack, snow chains, full insurance and the use of an airport in a single transaction when packaged with a flight, why can't I buy the same thing without the flight?

For example, Air France Holidays, the package-holiday arm of the airline, offers fly-drive packages on Air France flights to a range of French airports (of which Lyon is the main one of use to skiers), and on British Airways flights to other airports, including Geneva.

The price depends on how many people are travelling together, and thus sharing the cost of the car. For two people, flying from Heathrow to Lyon and sharing a Group B car (typically a four-door Escort), a four-day weekend (travelling out first thing Friday, back late Monday) costs pounds 146 each; for a Group C car (such as a Peugoet 405), the rate rises to pounds 153. For a full week, Group B costs pounds 200 each, Group C pounds 223. These rates include a ski rack and snow chains, and all other extras. Considering that the car hire rates in my table range from pounds 260 to pounds 300, an all-in price for two people of pounds 400 looks excellent value.

Air France Holidays' fly-drive prices are higher for Geneva than for Lyon, and compare much less well with simple car hire prices. A long weekend with Group B costs pounds 222, a week pounds 276.

It also offers flights to Lyon from regional British airports via Paris, at standardised prices that are more attractive to Glaswegians than Bristolians.

----------------------------------------------------------------- WHAT THE CAR HIRE COMPANIES CHARGE ----------------------------------------------------------------- (All prices are pounds per week and must be booked at least 14 days in advance) Car hire firm Austria France Italy Switzerland Hertz 374 267 331 223 Avis 308 275 319 241 Budget 251 299 340 249 Europcar 363 264 418 344 Eurodollar 349 279 316 245 Holiday Autos 249 262 273 246 Suncars 286 290 299 221 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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