Planning a Family Skiing HolidayFamily skiing: what could be better? Introduce the kids to the sport you love when they’re still too young to know the meaning of fear and they’ll thank you forever.
Choosing the right ski resort
Look for ski resorts that have slopes which will appeal to young novices and a good range for improving beginners to move onto, along with appropriate accommodation.
Ski Resorts in Canada and USA are well used to dealing with families. The best of the family-friendlies may even tempt non-U.S. based families despite the long-haul flight. The lift queues are often non-existent, ski school groups are smaller, non-ski activities abound and overall service is efficient and friendly. The east coast’s more gentle ski hills – Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont – are particularly well suited to children learning to ski and Whistler, which caters for almost every skier profile including families, has one of the shortest transfer times – just two hours by car from Vancouver.
Within Europe the cheapest resorts are in the east, such as Borovets in Bulgaria, but there’s a greater range of tour operators and resorts to choose from in the traditional Western European ski resorts, which also have a wider range of facilities. In Italy, Alpe di Siusi in Val Gardena, offers a perfect mix of quiet on-slope hotels amid gentle beginner and intermediate slopes, backed by astonishing scenery. Also in Italy’s Sud-Tirol, the Hotel Bella Vista in Trafoi is a gem that caters to families, with a nursery slope just metres from the back door.
Samoëns in France is also renowned for being family friendly. For teenagers, a park will be essential – some resorts have several, though all that’s really needed is one with a booming sound system and hordes of like-minded jibbers. Scandinavia is a good bet, with a range of activities in resort and ideal accommodation – frequently in cosy low-rise apartments that look traditional from the outside and will remind you of IKEA on the inside. Lapland is a winner with young families and perfect at Christmas, but there’s no serious skiing.
Ski resorts for Families with babies and toddlers
Few children start skiing until three years old so the most important factor in choosing a resort is childcare. Plenty of ski resorts and tour operators offer daycare for babies and toddlers, allowing mums and dads to go skiing.
Most resorts have a ‘snow garden’ on or near the nursery slopes for kids of non-skiing age, allowing them to find their snow-feet in a safe environment. Les Gets in France has a long-established reputation as a family-friendly resort – Les Fripoules has childcare for babies aged 6 months and up.
Snowkidz also runs a crèche and a private nanny service resort – also available in Courchevel, Morzine, Méribel and Val d’Isère. Top end hotel operator Powder Byrne runs a créche for babies and toddlers aged 6 months to 3 years in five European resorts, including Lech-Zurs, Grindelwald and Zermatt.
Thinking outside of the box, Crystal has identified the nappy issue as a luggage problem and organizes supplies in-resort.
A number of privately run nanny services operate in The Three Valleys and the Portes du Soleil. Merinannies, in Meribel are well established. Also in the Three Valleey Kidsec has private nannies in Meribel and La Tania as well as a playgroup in Meribel Les Allues. Cheeky Monkeys and Jack Frosts, both in Morzine, offer something similar. In general, childcare from 6 months is the norm though inLake Louise the resort provides childcare for babies as young as 18 days old.
Ski resorts for families with children aged 4-12
The choice of resort, or at least the choice of ski school, is crucial. The minimum age for ski school differs from country to country.
In France, the ESF (which runs a children’s programme in most resorts, using the same levels) and most other ski schools, accept children from three years old. Schools with English instructors get round the problem of language barrier. The nursery slopes in French resorts Les Gets, Morzine, Méribel and Courchevel are designed particularly with children in mind. In Les Gets Ile des Enfants runs lessons for children from 3 years upwards. The Grand Massif is a good choice for this age group, particularly the resort of Flaine. In Switzerland, children are welcome from four years old. The starting age for snowboarding lessons is normally slightly older.
Austria has a dedicated range of ‘Kinder Hotels’ (child hotels) throughout the country. Strict criteria ensure your child’s enjoyment, but you can take it as read that every hotel listed will be a good adult experience too. Currently the kinder hotels website doesn’t have a good ski-hotel search but it’s a useful starting point all the same.
Child provision in Italy is less obviously packaged, perhaps because almost all Italians taking a ski holiday are doing so as a family. Quite frequently Grandma comes too, so childcare is taken care of, while speeding packs of eight year olds enthusiastically pursue charismatic ski instructors. As elsewhere in Italy, children are very welcome, even well after their bedtime; restaurants frequently resound to the patter of tiny feet, and more, while accommodation often has child beds and cots within double rooms and studios. Champoluc in the Monterosa region is very popular with families and Ski-2 has dedicated packages including tuition for youngsters.
Many tour operators offer a mix of childcare and ski instruction, ideal for children in this age bracket. Powder Bryne runs a series of clubs during the school holidays for children aged from 3 to 9 in nine European resorts including Grindelwald and Lech-Zurs. Some European hotels offer childcare to their guests. Stay at one of the Seiler hotels in Zermatt, and daycare is available to children aged 2-8 in the Hotel Nicoletta.
Ski resorts for families with teenagers
The most neglected market until recently. Operators and resort services are beginning to recognise that they should cater for teenagers separately and not just shove them into adult ski school.
Powder Bryne is leading the way, with its Snozone clubs for 10-14 year olds during the February half term in resorts such as Courchevel and St Christoph, near St Anton am Arlberg, in Austria. Their ‘Ultimate Zone’ at half term in Lech-Zurs and Zermatt is ideal for adrenaline junkies aged 13 and over wanting to learn tricks in the snowpark and halfpipe. Teenagers wanting to ski off-piste can join the Powder Byrne Mountain Zone course in Grindelwald during half term and Martin Bell runs an Easter Ski Camp in Zermatt for wannabe racers. The Oxygène ski school in Val d’Isère has a teenage ski program run by Snowline and VIP Ski.
North American resorts have looked after teenagers for longer. Fishski runs ski clinics just for teenage girls in Crested Butte. Aspen Snowmass and Vail both have an all-season instruction program for teens with lessons for beginners to freeski coaching camps.
Après-ski is a vital part of a teenager’s ski holiday. At the upper end of this age range, local licensing laws come into play. In European resorts, the drinking age limit is 18, though most bars adopt a relaxed approach to it, while the opposite is true in USA ski resorts where the age limit is 21, and strictly enforced. In Canadian resorts it is 19. Parents wanting to distract their teen from hitting the bottle should opt for a resort with lots of other activities. Smuggler’s Notch has two supervised evening teen centres with various activities from Xbox and DVDs to pool tables and table tennis, similar to Vail’s Hangout Centre.
Stay close to the nursery slopes and the ski lifts
The on-snow experience will be defined by the start of your day and remember that what’s easy for an adult can be murder for kids – especially a long schlep to the lifts. You need frequent and easy-to-use transport or minimal walking distance from accommodation to the relevant slopes; a walk in ski boots is tough for children, and for parents lugging extra kit. And remember that ski-in, ski-out will be nothing of the sort for a toddler unless it directly accesses a nursery slope. Accommodation is an important issue for all age groups.
If you go with a company that takes care of the kids from dawn until dusk, the adult skiing opportunities will be equally important, all of which points towards one of the bigger resorts even though your instincts might tell you to avoid the crowds. This should take care of extra activities, not just apres-ski and nightlife but impromptu diversions too – swimming pools, ice-skating, tobogganing, husky-sledding, snowmobiling, cinema, shopping. These are essential for days off, as younger kids won’t want to ski or board day in day out and a snowstorm or, worse, warm weather and rain, can sit for days if you’re unlucky. While you might just hit the bar, it’s obviously not an option with young children or teenagers in tow (way too expensive and frowned upon in some circles).
Club hotels are popular with families for their convenience, on-site facilities and childcare. Family specialist Mark Warner has club hotels in St Anton, Alpe d’Huez and Les Deux Alpes, while Club Med’s best known operations are in St. Moritz, Villars and La Plagne.
Compare the cost of lift passes and discounts for children
Switzerland has the best value children’s lift ticket pricing in the world overall, typically a third to a half of the adult price for children up to 14 and a half. In France lift passes are generally free for children under 5 and most resorts have a few free lifts for beginners, irrespective of age while lift passes in Italy are normally free for children under 7. In the USA and Canada there is normally a price band for teenagers, likewise at a handful of European resorts – Lech-Zurs in Austria; Grindelwald and Zermatt in Switzerland.
Book direct or choose a specialist family ski company
The ski industry has it worked out too: get ’em while they’re young and the customer base will grow exponentially. That’s good news for families as there are plenty of well-developed services, specialist operators and deals out there, whether it’s childcare you need, or ski lessons. But skiing holidays will never be cheap and the prospect of adding just one small child to the bottom line can be a deterrent, so you need to know how to get the best experience and value whatever stage your family is at.