By Ben Moore, editor and co-founder of independent family ski website www.paralleltrails.co.uk
Going skiing in parallel with your children can be a hugely rewarding experience for the whole family. The benefits include time together away from the distractions of work and school, an active break in a beautiful mountain setting and a cultural experience to broaden the mind of young and old. But just how easy is it to go skiing as a family? And when can you start hitting the slopes en famille?
1. What age to start?
Every parent will know their child best. But as a guide it is probably not worth starting your child on skis until they are five years old. In my experience at this age they have stamina to cope with being on the mountain, can handle getting to and from resort and can adapt and settle in to the learning environment of ski school more easily because they have had at least one term at primary school.
2. When to go?
Assuming you play by the rules (on term-time holidays) then as a skiing family you are limited to four choices of when to go: Christmas week, New Year week, February half term and the Easter holidays. I always suggest to new family skiers to focus on the Easter holiday. It is true that March and April are at the end of the ski season, but if you choose a high altitude or snow-sure resort then you reduce the risk of poor on piste conditions. In fact we have skied for many years at Easter and often enjoyed the bonus of late season fresh snowfall.
Benefits of skiing at Easter
- Warmer temperatures so little ones don't get cold up the mountain
- You often get sun and blue skies
- Good deals – accommodation is cheaper and some resorts have discounted lift passes from the start of the Easter holidays
Of course there is nothing wrong with the other holiday periods, but...
- Christmas - can be magical, but as with this year, poor snow conditions can leave you with resorts only partially open and pistes that are hard packed and icy (no fun with children)
- New Year – cold temperatures and resort are often busier than at Christmas
- February half term – the single most expensive week of the ski season so prices go through the chalet roof! Yes, you can get the best snow conditions of season but pistes will be crowded and you and your children could spend a lot of time in lift queues.
3. Getting to the mountains
Flying may sound the obvious answer, particularly if you go for a package deal. Going on a plane is a great experience for young children, part of the adventure of going away. But not all young flyers take to travelling easily. Airport queues and ears popping can make the start of your holiday stressful. Be prepared with water, snacks and a surprise toy or magazine to distract and delight on board. And think carefully about where you land and how long the coach transfer is into resort. A two-hour flight, followed by a three-hour transfer can leave everyone's nerves a little frayed.
Alternatively go for the self-drive option. It can be cost-effective taking the peage to the Alps, especially for families who already have a lot of their own ski gear and don't fancy the additional airline baggage charges. It also gives you options when you arrive - if there's poor snow where you are, you can easily drive to a nearby resort with better conditions. If you are renting your own accommodation and self-catering, then driving is a great option as you can take some essentials with you to avoid the high mountain supermarket prices. Driving to the mountains can also be an integral part of the family experience. It is around eight hours to the Alps from Calais, so why not break the journey up with an overnight hotel stay - Novotel often have good deals on family rooms.
4. Catered chalet or self-catering?
Booking a package ski deal at a catered chalet takes the hassle out of the whole experience. But you can lose a degree of control. Meal times will be set and these might not fit perfectly with your child's routine at home. Fussy eaters may also suffer. But the operator can help line up rental and lift passes before you arrive, so your costs are simpler to manage.
Booking your own self-catering accommodation however gives you more freedom and flexibility. You are in charge and meal time and bed time routines can remain the same as at home. Yes you will end up cooking on your holiday, which for many people defeats the object of going away. We've been away with friends before - five families in one self-catering chalet - and it is easy to run a meal rota so you're not cooking every evening. You can also control on-mountain costs more when you self-cater. A rucksack full of baguettes is easy to carry around and children love having a piste picnic with mum and dad – which is another good reason to go at Easter.
5. Prepare before you go
It is worth the investment in a trip or two to one of the UK's indoor snow centres. Getting your children used to the equipment they will be using in the mountains in advance ensures less stress on the slopes. Getting ski boots on and clicking them into skis can prove a challenge for many young, first-time skiers. So why not practice it before you go. An indoor slope also gets them used to cold temperatures and the sensation of sliding on snow. And of course it allows them to fall over safely - a vital part of learning to ski.
6. Kitting out your kids
You may be fanatical ski fans, but you have no idea if your son or daughter is going to take to skiing in the same way. So you might want to consider borrowing a jacket and ski pants from friends for the first trip. What is absolutely essential though is getting your little ones kitted out with good quality base layers or thermals, ski socks, gloves and a helmet. It is worth spending a bit of money on these items because you want your child to be warm and their head to be well protected when they're skiing. Plus being up a mountain with a child with cold or wet hands is no fun for anyone. Initially rent skis and boots – the quality in resort is really good these days – but if your children get really hooked it is worth the investment in a decent pair of ski boots
7. Which resort?
Initially avoid the mega, linked resorts as you'll never ski everything they have to offer with young children and you will end up paying for lift passes you will never need. France offers reasonable prices, especially at some of the smaller resorts, Austria is also good value for families, but you'll find Switzerland pricier. Find somewhere compact, with a resort centre that you can stroll around easily and one that has accommodation close to the slopes and lifts.
A good starting point would be one of these:
- Les Gets, France - compact resort centre, pretty tree-lined pistes, dedicated Indian Village children's zone, easy to drive to and close to Geneva airport.
- Flaine, France - not the prettiest but excellent range of accommodation close to the slopes, excellent snow coverage, also close to Geneva, good wide beginner slopes.
- Obergurgl, Austria – traditional-Tyrolean ski resort, easy slopes ideal for children, high altitude so snowsure through to late Easter holidays.
- Hemsedal, Norway – Children under the age of 6 ski for free when wearing a helmet, ideal for beginners and intermediates, not a daunting, vast ski area, everyone speaks English, ignore the myth that Norway is expensive (only the alcohol is).
8. Ski lessons
However good a skier you are (or you think you are) don't try and teach your children to ski. Trust the professionals and get them booked into ski school. The next question you'll ask yourself is local instructors or an English ski school? Once again you will know your child best, however bear this in mind - a family skiing holiday should be a cultural experience as much as it is a physical activity.
I am a big supporter of local ski schools for this reason. I have two boys and when they were eight and 10 years old they both completed their gold badges with the French ski school ESF. They had gone into morning ski school with ESF since the age of five and they and their skiing flourished. Being exposed to a teacher with a funny accent, as they put it, was a very positive learning experience. You will find that most of the instructors allocated to teach children speak good English now and if you are skiing during the British school holidays then you will also probably find a large percentage of the groups will be English children. That said, there are some exceptional English ski schools but I think it's a missed opportunity if you don't at least try the local instructors first.
The other benefit of ski school is that while your children are having fun with other children, you can indulge in a few hours adult skiing. Then when you are back together, encourage your children to show what they've been doing in their class - most children love showing off their new skills to mum and dad.
9. Be organised
The most important tip to remember with a family skiing holiday is be organised. Looking after the little details can make a massive difference to a successful family skiing holiday. So ensure you have a family winter sports insurance policy in place, take your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) with you (just in case you need state healthcare), pack a first aid kit (plasters are a must in case hire boots rub), devise a reward system so your children can earn Euros pocket money during the holiday (maybe they have to organise their helmet, gloves and goggles each night before bed), have a stash of mini chocolates so you can put a packet in the pocket of your children's ski jacket each morning as an emergency energy boost on the slopes, and take sun cream and lip salve with you.
10. Keep skiing afterwards!
So you've successfully negotiated your way through a week's family skiing holiday and everyone has come home with smiles on their faces and some great family memories. Now is the time to continue your children's skiing education. Track down your nearest dry ski slope – ours is at Bowles Outdoor Centre in East Sussex – and see what courses they run. Or find out if they have a ski racing club – this give children the discipline of training each week and the chance to compete in a summer series of slalom races. Skiing on a dry slope is much harder than on snow and improves technique really quickly, so if your children (and you perhaps) go on a regular basis their skiing level will jump significantly the next time you get on snow.