Cross the pond for the big four: France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy

Newsroom Travel Cross the pond for the big four: France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy

The chance to ski or ride in Europe is the ski vacation of a lifetime. But you may be asking, why head to the Alps when I have all the great ski resorts here at home? There’s really no reason to compare, say a day’s skiing in the Alps versus a day’s skiing in the Rockies. Both offer great ski experiences and can help you make extraordinary memories. But, the opportunity to fly to Europe to experience skiing and riding in a whole new way is what we’re going to tell you about. Let us help simplify the search by telling you all about “The Big Four,” Europe’s great ski destinations of France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.

You’ll likely find the perfect place among 1,100 ski resorts in the Alps for an epic Europe ski vacation. So many European alpine ski resorts are close “neighbors,” forming huge, interconnected ski fields—connected by trails, lifts, and shuttles—so your variety can be endless. If it’s a low-snow season you can rely on fun skiing on high altitude glaciers and at snow-sure resorts. And if that’s not enough, well après-ski was invented in Europe after all.

Now, let’s go skiing and riding in Europe:

France

Skiing in France usually means two things: Skiing at a very high altitude and skiing at huge, often cosmopolitan, ski resorts. Most of France’s ski resorts, like La Plagne for instance, were built from scratch in the 1950s and 1960s, in places where there’d been nothing but the Alps. As a result, many of the French ski resorts are located higher than any other European country (like Val Thorens at 2,300 meters/7,500 feet above sea level, or Tignes at 2,100 meters/6,900 feet). This means that excellent snow conditions are guaranteed for up to half the year.

Val Thorens, France

Val Thorens, France

Among the many enormous French ski areas, the Three Valleys and Portes du Soleil are the biggest. The Portes du Soleil spans 650 kilometers of slopes that are dispersed into 12 individual resorts in France and Switzerland. The Three Valleys is the world’s biggest interconnected ski resort, covering 600 kilometers of slopes. If you want to go off-piste, Tignes, Les Deux Alpes, and Val d’Isère are a good choice.

Most of the stations, among which Chamonix is by far the biggest and most cosmopolitan, offer restaurants, pubs, concerts, discotheques, spas, gyms, and shopping. However, there are some exceptions. Les Gets in Haute-Savoie is among the examples of smaller resorts that have retained their traditional charm, with alpine architecture, family-run guesthouses, and typical cuisine of the region manufactured by farmers living nearby.

Skiing in France usually means two things: skiing on a very high altitude and at huge ski resorts.

The French Tourist Board awards family-friendly resorts with the “Famille Plus” label. If you are looking for moderate prices for families, daycare, and entertainment programs for children, then you are well-advised to look for a “Famille Plus” resort, such as Châtel, Les Gets, Les Deux Alpes, or Val Thorens.

Ski lift prices throughout the four nations are similar. Be sure to check the resort websites for up-to-date pricing. The airports of Geneva, Lyon, Nice, and Milan provide international links to the French Alps, with buses and shuttle services running from each of these airports.

As the French Tourist Board says, “Whether you’re heading to centuries-old towns or a resort that combines the two, skiing is big beyond imagination and the French ‘joie de vivre’ is for real.”

Austria

Austria’s most popular skiing region is Tyrol, with 3,500 kilometers of slopes and its world-famous resorts such as Soelden, Ischgl, and St. Anton. The region of Salzburg is second in skiable terrain, with 1,700 kilometers of slopes. Saalbach-Hinterglemm and Obertauern are Salzburg’s most popular ski resorts. Finally, there’s Vorarlberg (with Lech-Zuers am Arlberg as its most popular resort) and Carinthia with 1,031 kilometers of ski slopes.

St. Anton am Arlberg

St. Anton am Arlberg

Most Austrian ski resorts feature state-of-the-art lifts, such as eight-person cable cars or heated chairlifts, with ski slopes that are usually in excellent condition. Austria’s off-piste skiing is famous, especially in high-altitude areas such as Arlberg, Silvretta-Montafon, Zell am See, and Grossglockner (Carinthia), Austria’s highest peak.

Lift companies are quite family-friendly, often granting free rides to children under the age of 6, and some even grant free rides to children under the age of 10. Austria tends to be a bit less expensive than France in terms of food and drink.

The concept of “après-ski” has it origins in Austria

The concept of “après-ski” has it origins in Austria, where parties can sometimes begin at lunchtime. You can have beer, champagne or Jagertee (tea with rum) in cozy huts close to the slopes, or in some cases on the slopes or in bars and discotheques in the villages. St. Anton, Ischgl, Soelden, and Saalbach-Hinterglemm are famous for their après-ski parties.

On the other hand, Austria is also home to alpine “Gemuetlichkeit” (geniality; friendliness) and delicious local cuisine. Most of the inns and huts are run by local families who are happy to serve you traditional dishes, such as dumplings, pasta with cheese, schnitzel, and a variety of sweet pastries. Fruit schnapps (Obstler) afterward is a must to try. Visit when the World Cup racing season is in town for an extra treat (think Kitzbuehel and the Hahnenkamm Downhill in January).

Fly into Munich, or, even better, Innsbruck, which is an ideal base for Tyrol. You can reach all the ski resorts from Innsbruck in anywhere between 15 minutes and a couple hours. The historic city is a blend of history, culture and entertainment. No need to rent a car thanks to free ski buses that’ll take you to the slopes and back.

Switzerland

Switzerland is proud of its traditions, old heritage, and unique nature opportunities. Uniting four different peoples and languages in one country, Switzerland is also among the most diverse alpine winter sports destinations. Most of the Swiss ski resorts are located in the regions of Valais, Graubuenden, Central Switzerland, Bernese Oberland, and Eastern Switzerland.

St. Moritz, Switzerland

St. Moritz, Switzerland

Valais offers the highest peaks (47 of them higher than 4,000 meters, more than 13,000 feet) and the longest slopes (up to 17 kilometers, 10.5 miles, at Zermatt), while in the Bernese Oberland is where you’ll find the coziest huts and the largest network of hiking and snowshoeing trails.

The Lake Geneva area is famous for its nature reserves, but also for a number of great ski resorts, including Europe’s biggest ski resort, the Portes du Soleil. Switzerland has a little bit of everything for skiers. In the Jungfrau Region, you can find powder slopes up to 3,000 meters, while Lucerne is perfect for freeriding. While the Fribourg Region may not have the spectacular pistes as some of the others, it is perfect for a budget ski vacation in Europe.

A ski holiday would not be the same without enjoying cheese fondue in Switzerland

Among the 30 most popular ski resorts, St. Moritz is the most glamorous, sunniest, and biggest individual resort in Switzerland, but you’ll also be paying for it. Smaller and less cosmopolitan ski resorts include Andermatt and Bruson, where a family of four can go skiing for a whole day and have a hearty Swiss lunch in a cozy hut for much less than the more famous Switzerland ski resorts. The most family-friendly ski resorts bear the “Familien willkommen” (families welcome) label. And don’t forget to try the cheese. A Swiss ski holiday would not be the same without enjoying cheese fondue at least once. OK, twice.

The most convenient Swiss airports for skiers are Zurich, Bern, Geneva, and Basel. The railway system in Switzerland is one of the world’s best and most interconnected. International trains from twelve countries go to Switzerland on a daily basis.

Italy

Think Italy skiing and you may think of South Tyrol, located at the northernmost point of Italy, and which used to be a part of Austria. Today it’s known for comfortable ski resorts and cozy villages. Ski slopes are well groomed, with many of them wide and moderately steep, perfect for relaxed carving. South Tyrol also offers a hearty cuisine (the ham and the Vinschgau bread are renown) and some exquisite wines. Farm holidays close to the ski resorts are a wonderful and low-priced alternative to hotels. Generally speaking, Italy can be more reasonably priced than other Europe ski destinations.

Selva Val Gardena in the Dolomites, Italy

Selva Val Gardena, Dolomites

The Dolomites (located mainly in the South Tyrol, Trentino, and Veneto regions) are regarded as the world’s most beautiful mountain range by many, and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Dolomites reach all the way to northeastern Italy, to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region neighboring Slovenia. The region features charming, internationally lesser-known resorts such as Piancavollo and picturesque Valcellina, ideal for skiers who prefer originality rather than glamour.

The Dolomiti Superski resort alliance spans 12 resorts and 1,200 kilometers of slopes, making it the world’s biggest ski resort alliance. Many of the ski resorts in the Dolomiti Superski resort alliance are quite demanding, especially in Trentino. But this is the place if you plan to ski multiple resorts. Veneto is Italy’s most popular region amongst tourists, with Cortina d’Ampezzo as its number one ski resort.

Many regard the Dolomites as the world’s most beautiful mountain range 

Piedmont is Italy’s second-largest region, featuring 2000 kilometers of slopes for all levels. For those looking for more adventurous terrain, the Aosta Valley is the place for you. In the Aosta Valley, peaks reach higher than 4000 meters. You’ll find eight heliskiing bases and hundreds of guides.

Now, the deep little secrets:

The newest “in destination” for skiing in Europe is Slovenia. Slovenia is budget-friendly, offers plenty of skiing and features landscapes that look straight out of a fairy tale. Slovenia, located at the intersection of the Alps, Mediterranean, Pannonian Plain, and the Dynamic Alps, is likely the best-value skiing you’ll find anywhere.

The largest ski area in Slovenia is Mariborsko Pohorje where there are plenty of trails including one of the longest flood-lit slopes in Europe for night skiing, making it a great ski area for all ability levels.

Krvavec is close to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and offers a more challenging affair, while Ski Centre Vogel in Triglav National Park offers astounding views and will keep any adrenaline junkie happy. Slovenia’s oldest ski resort is Kranjska Gora, which opened in 1948. The ski resort is divided into five different sections around the municipality, and has a total of 12 miles of ski slopes and a snow fun park for snowboarders. Kranjska Gora frequently hosts World Cup ski races.

Andorra

Just in case you still want to try another option there’s Andorra in the Pyrenees. Grandvalira is the largest ski area in the Pyrenees, home to 130 miles of ski terrain for all levels. Vallnord is smaller but ideal for families with a nice variety of slopes.

A few tips for Alp-bound skiing Americans

Here’s some advice from SnowPak travel agency for those traveling from the USA to the Alps: Depending upon where you plan to ski in Switzerland, Austria, France, Italy or Germany, your gateway cities will likely be Geneva, Zurich, Munich, or Milan. Today, public transportation (trains and buses) are so efficient that you do not need to rent a car.

Many ski villages are car-free as well, so once you arrive, everyone uses ski lifts and buses. Additionally, car rentals in Europe are considerably more expensive than in the U.S., and driving directions and signage can sometimes be challenging.

Tip: if you do decide to rent a car for your ski trip, be sure to bring or rent a GPS and download appropriate European maps in advance as they will prove invaluable. Finally, bringing your own ski equipment isn’t necessary, except perhaps your boots, since  state-of-the-art rental shops abound in every ski village, and generally at good prices.

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