Travel: Christmas goes crackers: A skiing trip over the festive season may not be a jolly experience. Chris Gill explains why

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The Independent Travel
It is Christmas planning time and the dismal weather has had us harking back to the last time we went skiing over the festive season, three years ago. The image of our Christmas lunch - oeufs frites and a litre of red plonk consumed beneath a brilliant blue sky, high above La Plagne - is still vivid.

But Christmas skiing this year means many things, not all of them appealing. This is all because both Christmas Day and New Year's Day fall on Saturday. On the one hand, the choice is amazing, with a variety of holidays ranging from four up to 17 nights. On the other, none may be quite what you want.

Most packages conventionally start and finish on Saturday. Whether it would be possible to operate holidays that involve spending Christmas Day fighting your way out to the Alps, I do not know. But I am not aware of any operators who are trying.

Most Saturday-based operators are shifting their early season departures to mid-week. So with Crystal and Inghams, you can go away for a week over the whole Christmas holiday, departing on Wednesday or Thursday, 22 or 23 December, and returning on 29 or 30 December. Satisfactory, with the single flaw that you have to take four days off work, in addition to the public holidays, to get your six days' skiing.

Inghams has a similar deal over New Year: one week, out and back on Thursday (taking five days off work, or four north of the border). Other operators are using the New Year slot to return to their regular Saturday departure pattern, which means they are selling 10-day holidays at high season prices - rather expensive, perhaps. The real drawback of the Thursday departures is the waiting to get away; once Christmas weekend is out of the way, what most of us want to do is go skiing, not hang around waiting for Thursday.

Enterprise offers 10-day holidays over Christmas, departing 22 or 23 December, returning 1 or 2 January. From then on, the regular weekend departures apply. Thomson has done much the same thing.

The ideal for many would be to travel out on Monday 27 and back on Monday 3. Can it be done? Rather than go through 150 brochures myself, I spoke to Lizzie Norton of Ski Solutions (071-602 9900), whose assistants undertook the chore some time ago.

Yes and No, came the answer. SkiBound, a group-holiday operator normally geared to Friday flights, was one possibility; it has switched to Monday flights for many destinations until early January. The other was the Val d'Isere chalet specialist YSE, which has switched from Sunday to Monday departures over Christmas/New Year. Both get back on track with shorter holidays in mid-January - four nights from SkiBound, six from YSE. But neither has much capacity left.

Most of YSE's main rivals in the chalet business (Bladon Lines, Ski West, Mark Warner, Lotus Supertravel) have stuck to their normal Sunday departures, and many will find this a bearable compromise. It may mean a long, harrowing day travelling with a hangover on Boxing Day, but it makes efficient use of the public holidays.

Early flights on Boxing Day will pose problems for those far from Gatwick who might normally travel to London on the Saturday evening and later, scheduled flights will be tempting.

Do not assume that it would be simpler just to ring up your favourite hotel direct, book your ideal dates and fix your own travel. For a start, many Alpine hotels (particularly upmarket ones, says Ms Norton) are ensuring they are not left with empty beds between the two holiday weekends by insisting on 10-, 12- or even 14-night bookings in Switzerland. And (perhaps as a result) accommodation is already in short supply in many resorts, with big- name hotels operating waiting lists.

Thank you to those who have written in about ski holiday costs; you will hear from me soon. We still need volunteers (skiing early, no later than the first week of January) to record prices of food and drink. All reporters will receive a free copy of Where to Ski, my new guide to be published in 1994. We need reporters for many major Austrian resorts, most Italian and Swiss ones and, in France, La Clusaz, Megeve, Tignes, Courchevel, Les Menuires, Montgenevre, Serre-Chevalier and Isola 2000. Write (no stamp) to: Chris Gill, Fox & Partners, Freepost, Norton St Philip, Bath BA3 6UB.

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