So, if you’re like me, someone who grew up in a place with no snow and has not had much opportunity to go skiing, then you probably also have no clue about all the intricacies of going on a ski vacation.
I went on my very first ski vacation last March in the French mountains and personally I had no clue how to even start planning or choosing a place to go. Was it all the same? Could you just rent everything? How does it actually work??
So here I write down everything I learned about planning, going and actually doing a ski trip.
*Disclaimer: This is just stuff I observed and learned through someone else. Neither I, nor my friends, are in any way experts! If I say something wrong, please feel free to correct in comments!
*Double Disclaimer: These are tips for a ski vacation we planned in France. Most of it is quite general, especially regarding the clothes, but for location, could be something different.
The location and timing
So you’ve decided to go on your first ski trip… of course the first thing you have to choose is when and where you are going (I mean obviously it will be around winter time but when in winter).
Weather and mountain elevation
You have to first understand, when are you going? Is it in the middle of winter where snow is more likely to be guaranteed? Most ski resorts have live views and forecasts, and here you can check what’s the possibility of having good snow in the resort. The last thing you want to do is go to a ski resort with melting snow.
If you were like us, we went quite late in the season on the 2nd week of March, V advised us to choose a resort with higher elevation. It’s good to find resorts that can offer mountains with top of slopes at 2000m. The resort we went to was situated at 1600m and for that time, it was good enough as you can clearly see that anything lower than this would have had almost no snow. (We had a warm winter this year)
Most resorts have a webcam so you can see real time situation. Here is the one for the resort we went to and a screenshot of current situation when this was written (26 May).
Low vs Peak Season
Another point is about crowds. If you are more there to party (or the infamous apres ski), then perhaps going on winter break of schools is for you. If you prefer quieter times (which I think is better for learning to ski), it’s better to check when are the school vacations of the place you’re going to. For France, best to check French and Belgium school holidays and avoid them (or follow them, as you wish).
Level of the slopes
Next to check if you are a beginner, are the levels of the slopes or pistes available in the resort. If you’re a beginner, you don’t want to go to a resort with only blue pistes or higher. Look for ones with green pistes or beginner’s slopes. If it’s a mixed group, best to find a resort with beginner slopes and ones for more intermediate ones (blue and higher), or is connected to a bigger domain wherein advanced skiers can explore more.
I found this easy to understand website that explains the colors of the slopes and the differences.
So another point to check is about ski passes.
What are ski passes? Basically it’s your ticket to go and ride the ski lifts up to the top of a slope. Bigger and more popular resorts usually price the ski passes at a higher cost (probably as there are more slope options). Each resort also has different formulas for this and it really depends on how motivated you are as a beginner and the slopes available.
When we went, I spent 5 days out of 7 skiing. Normally the whole morning from 9 til lunch, and then 1 or 2 hours after lunch. As I was not sure about this, and as a beginner, I took stock everyday to see what kind of pass I would need per day. For the first 2 days I only took a pass for the small lifts for baby slopes (the tail end of a green slope), and for the last couple of days when I felt more confident with my abilities, I took a regular pass to some real green slopes.
If you are a first time skiier, I would also recommend doing it on a daily basis so you can gauge your abilities and not waste money on having a pass you do not need. If you take courses with a ski instructor, it’s also easiest just to ask them what they recommend.
Here is a bit more basic and regular. Most accommodations around ski resorts offer a similar kind of rates as in campings. Meaning? You go on one week long periods from Saturday to Saturday or Sunday to Sunday. These kinds of offers are cheaper if you go in groups. Normally they are also apartment types with an equipped kitchen.
We stayed at Les Balcons d’Aurea with 4 people and it was quite a good deal. Huge apartment, well equipped, not so clean when we arrived but ok nothing so major.
Do you need them? If you do not have someone in your group who will teach you how to ski, then YES I would recommend them.
If you are going to a French ski resort, there will most likely be an ESF (Ecole du Ski Francais) which is pretty much the normal place to go for classes. There’s always a choice between a group class or a private class. In Auris, the options they had for a group ski class was around 6 mornings for 2 to 2.5 hours (depending on the season). We didn’t want to be SO pressured to ski every day (and wake up so early everyday while ON VACATION), so my friend and I decided to get an instructor for a private course of 3 days, 1 hour each (1.5 hours in other seasons). Note that we were kind of confident to do this because we had a friend who was willing to help us and teach us after the ski instructor had left.
Was it helpful for us? Very. The nice thing about being only 2 people to one instructor is that he/she can really take time to help you individually. We also didn’t spend a lot of time waiting around for other people to finish going down the slopes. For the level that I wanted to achieve in that trip, 3 hours of instructed training was ok.
So it all kind of depends on what you want for your trip. I wanted to learn but also be relaxed and enjoy, versus pressuring myself to wake up early every single day and at the end maybe not enjoy it so much.
What to wear
So yes, the most important question of skiing in my book. What the heck do I wear (and use)?
(What you can rent)
- Skis and Ski Poles (the poles I never used as apparently it’s better to learn without them)
- Ski Boots
- Ski Helmet
*When you rent all these, the guys at the rental place know which ones to get you. You should make sure your ski boots are really fit to your foot. Loose boots will make it harder to control your skis!
So, I was advised to not buy any equipment considering that a) we were going by train and it would be a pain to bring them b) I didn’t even know if I would like skiing. Which of course makes absolute sense.
So my friend and I booked a package with a ski shop ahead of time to rent all those above for one week. You should normally be able to find a ski rental shop in all ski resorts.
(What you can buy)
- Sunglasses or Ski Goggles – Sun glasses for hikes & terraces, otherwise goggles for actual skiing. Feeling the wind in your eyes is not the best sensation and will be a pain when it snows. The easy way is to take one for “all weather”. All weather goggles normally have detachable lenses that you can add when it’s sunny, and remove when it’s gray. Avoid only “bad weather” ones, as it’s really specific for that use, and it would hurt your eyes in sunny weather. I advise to buy this one because it’s in your face all the time and I mean really not something you want 1000 other people to have used before.
- Gloves (waterproof!) – Good gloves, frozen hands is your enemy ! Water proof, well fitted and made for skiing is essential. Under-gloves exist though it depends on how cold it could get (I did not feel a need for under gloves while skiing in March).
- Ski pants and Ski Jacket – The key here is waterproof and are fitted enough that when you fall, snow won’t be able to get inside your clothes. Honestly for a week’s trip, you only need one of each as you will have to wear something underneath. Most people opt to just borrow from other people as a new set can set you back around 100 euros (at the very very cheapest). I’ve had mine for some time as I’ve worn them in other mountain and extreme cold/snow conditions (so yes, they are not just for ski – unless you opt to buy the super decorated ones). I’ve also used my ski jacket a lot just for city use, when it snows and it’s quite cold out.
- Under layers – I’d recommend a long sleeved shirt that absorbs sweat (because it’s quite a workout actually, even more so when it’s sunny) and then a fleece sweater over if you’re feeling cold. To be honest at times I only wore a long sleeved thermal shirt and then my ski jacket and that was enough. For the lower layer, I always wore leggings under the ski pants. For this one, I would advise to have a new underlayer per day.
- Ski Socks – You HAVE to buy ski socks or else your legs will die from the ski boots. Ski socks are long and thick. Long enough to cover your shins and protect all parts of the foot and leg, and thick enough to cushion everything that is encased by the rock hard boots. Make sure to buy socks suited to your foot coz you really don’t want bunched up socks in your boots. Believe me, it will hurt.
- Neck Cover – not absolutely necessary but really nice to have when it’s cold and windy. Recommend the round hiking scarves and not normal scarves.
- Sun Protection – There is absolutely no cover in the mountains. PUT SUNBLOCK ON YOUR FACE. Nuff said.
All these things can be bought in Decathlon. There are probably a lot other places but Decathlon is the best and cheapest and where you can find everything basic that you need.
Again, as a beginner, we don’t really need fancy equipment , just the right ones 🙂
Your First Day
For me, this was the biggest mystery. Do you already wear your ski boots when you leave? When do you wear the skis? Can I bring a bag? Is there someplace to store my stuff?
So obviously some answers to these questions depend on the ski resort where you are, but in general here’s my advice and experience.
What to wear before leaving your accommodations
Everything. If you have your own ski boots and skis, you must take them from the storage (normally accommodations have locker rooms to store these) and walk in your ski boots and carry your skis to the slopes. Hats, goggles or sunglasses, already worn or in hand. Make sure to read the weather before going! A sunny day can make you quite warm while skiing.
What can you bring?
I would normally bring my cellphone and a credit card and store it inside one of the many pockets of my ski jacket. You can bring a backpack if you really want to to bring some water, but as a beginner, I would advise against it because it’s an added thing you don’t really want to have on you, especially when you fall and have to get up.
PICKING UP YOUR RENTAL SKIS
So in our case, our ski rental place was literally at the bottom of the start of the slopes so they keep all the equipment when we are done using them and we only go there in the mornings to wear our ski boots (we leave our shoes with them), pick up our skis at the back, and walk a couple of meters to the meeting point with the ski instructor.
Meeting your instructor
Before the first day, it would be helpful to already check with ESF if you need to buy a ski pass or not and to ask where to meet the instructor. We made the mistake of not asking beforehand so lost some time figuring all this out. Luckily, we didn’t need a skipass on the first day, just the cards, which ESF could sell us, as there was quite a line to buy a skipass.
Once you know where to meet the instructor, go there with all your gear and wait for his instructions!
Next following days
Once you’ve gotten the hang of all this, the rest of the days will come easy and be almost like a daily habit. I do recommend staying at least one week to be able to really learn something, but otherwise, anything is quite good!
Apres Ski and Other Things
Basically ski vacations are all about 2 things, skiing and apres ski. Apres ski being partying, or drinking… a lot.
Snow + incline. Do yourself a favor and act like a kid. Buy those 5 euro plastic butt sleds and slide down a mountain!
Considering you’re already in the mountains, could be a good idea to take a break from skiing and explore a bit and enjoy the views. Note that hiking in snow means bring footwear for this activity, so plan ahead!
There are a whole lot of events every week during ski season. Concerts, cinemas, yoga whatever. Check out what’s going on in the local tourist office.
So that’s it. Hope that helps!! One day COVID will be gone and we will all be able to plan ski trips again.
Until then, stay safe!