CRYSTAL is one of the top names on the travel agents' racks, but it came as something of a surprise to me to discover that it is now Britain's biggest chalet holiday company.

The growth rate of Crystal's chalet programme in the few years it has been operating has certainly been impressive. Its success has been partly due to challenging the received wisdom that staffing chalets is a highly specialised business, the secrets of which are handed down from generation to generation; and that Alpine chalets are hard to get hold of. 'We quite deliberately started our chalet operation on a small scale to see whether we were lacking some magic ingredient,' says the marketing director, Andy Perrin, 'but we soon convinced ourselves that we were not.'

As for availability of chalets, Crystal has partly solved this problem by choosing resorts where there is little or no competition - Canazei and Livigno in Italy, for example, Avoriaz and Risoul in France, Ellmau and Zell am See in Austria.

You might expect a mass-market operator such as Crystal to be cheaper than traditional chalet operators. My benchmark, as usual, is the splendid chart of chalet prices in the brochure of Bladon Lines - traditionally regarded as the leading chalet company, with more than 80 chalets spread over 18 resorts.

Bladon Lines offers many resorts at pounds 535 for a peak-season week. In this price-band Les Deux Alpes, Verbier and Zermatt appear most frequently. In Zermatt, Crystal's chalets are only a few pounds cheaper; in Verbier, they range from pounds 460 to pounds 490, but Bladon Lines has several at pounds 500 too; in Les Deux Alpes, Crystal's chalets are pounds 440 or pounds 450, a striking difference.

What do you get for these lower prices? You tell me. Although it is a question I ask widely, reliable feedback on Crystal chalets - that is, feedback from skiers with wide experience of the more established chalet operators - is a rare commodity. Most of their holidays sell to people who have bought mainstream hotel or self-catering holidays in the past. Reports would be most welcome.

Airtours, a new player in the skiing market, has also plunged straight into the chalet business, but by a back-door route: buying in the programme and expertise of an outfit called Cordon Rouge. Peak prices range, for example, from pounds 460 to pounds 500 in Courchevel 1650, where the company has several chalets. This is the home territory of Le Ski, which with 10 chalets is the biggest operator to Courchevel as a whole. Peak prices are pounds 480 to pounds 530.

The gradual upgrading of the chalet holiday towards hotel-style standards of accommodation continues as chalets with modern bath-to-bed ratios are built. Nowhere is this clearer than in the brochure of Meriski, the Meribel specialist that has radically repositioned itself in the past couple of years. Alongside its splendid but primitive old chalet Corbey (up in the woods across the valley from the village, with no road access), Meriski has a range of modern but traditional-style chalets with en-suite bathrooms, surely the future pattern for skiers who are able to afford it (the typical peak price is pounds 645).

Mark Warner, a long-established operator with chalets in all the main big- name chalet resorts (Val d'Isere, Meribel, Courchevel, Zermatt, Verbier, St Anton and Courmayeur) also has two new chalets in Meribel - so new, in fact, that its brochure contains artist's impressions instead of photographs - and both are entirely equipped with en suite bathrooms. Peak prices, pounds 650.

Some operators distinguish their 'better' chalets (which may mean more characterful rather than more comfortable) in some way. They may or may not come with more ambitious food or better wine. Some offer the option of superior meals or wine in other chalets, on payment of a premium.

In an interesting contrast, the up- market operator Ski Scott Dunn has responded to the concerns of the cleaner, healthier Nineties by offering simpler food as an alternative to the rich fare of its usual cordon-bleu meals. No, there isn't a price reduction - 'the ingredients may even cost more', says a spokesperson.

Despite the commonly held view that eating out is one of the affordable pleasures of an American ski holiday, the catered chalet continues to make inroads there. At least this simplifies the cost comparisons if you are trying to choose between the Rockies and the Alps - and Crystal's half-dozen chalets in Vail average pounds 740 a week. Allowing for the usual American extravagance with space and equipment, this seems a very tempting alternative to a week in Meribel at pounds 650.

American Independence has introduced chalets in Vail and Breckenridge, and at slightly lower peak prices - pounds 690 in Vail, pounds 700 in Breckenridge. Some mistake, surely: higher prices in Breckenridge than Vail? All is explained: you get a car as part of the deal, a very attractive formula in Summit County, where there are several resorts within driving range.