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Now might be the time.
There’s a habit among Colorado skiers to think that their mountain is the center of the universe. And while Vail may be the “best place on the planet” and Arapahoe Basin is where “the true hardcores hang out,” there’s another option to consider. And that’s the fact that as rad as these places are, they really don’t stack up to a place called Europe.
It’s true that going skiing in Europe can be daunting. In addition to the language barrier, there’s the cost. There’s also the time-distance continuum to address. It’s obviously faster and easier to fly into Salt Lake than Zurich or to drive to Loveland than end up in Geneva.
But with heavy snow late in coming to our hometown mountains, and Europe getting a serious dose of white, now might be time to look into a round-trip plane ticket to Europe. And once you’re there, you might end up pleasantly surprised: The cost of skiing is generally cheaper, particularly at the less well-known resorts, than in North America.
And your accommodations will feed you breakfast and dinner along with giving you a bed, making Europe an amazing value.
You’ve probably already read about Europe in your favorite ski or snowboard magazine. You’ve seen the pictures and you’ve watched the ski movies. But nothing, nothing, can prepare you for the actual experience. In European countries like Switzerland, France and Austria, they’ve put ski lifts at the end of almost every valley. You can jump on a lift in one valley, drop over to the other side into a different town, catch another lift or a bus or a train to another place, ski more stuff and then, hours later, end up where you first started.
It’s this access combined with a “ski where you want to at your own risk” philosophy that makes Europe the best place to go if you want to ride truly wild terrain. Everything is open and everything is accessible. And when you’re done with your day, you can sample historic villages where they’ve been skiing and getting crazy in the mountains for 500 years or longer.
Before you go, you’ll want to have a plan. Europe is chock full of ski areas, including mega-resorts like Verbier, which spans numerous peaks and valleys and which easily outclasses any mountain in North America when it comes to size, number of lifts and nightlife. And it’s worth experiencing one of these megaresorts (others include Austrian behemoth St. Anton and France’s Chamonix).
But you’ll spend more at these ski areas on everything from lift tickets to accommodations to après ski beers.
Because of this, it’s worth checking out Europe’s mid-sized ski areas. These offer incredible bang for the buck, with daily lift tickets in the $30-$40 range. Geared toward families, they also have plenty of self-catering accommodations, which means that you can save on meals, too, but you’ll lose nothing when it comes to the terrain or backcountry access.
Good choices in this category include one of the best values in European skiing, Italy’s Monterosa Ski complex; the Swiss ski areas of Lenzerheide and Disentis and the Southern Alps resort of Vars, France.
Finally, there are the little guys: one or two-lift resorts that are anchored by tiny villages. These mountains are usually good for those who don’t mind backcountry skiing, as in-bounds terrain can be limited. These resorts include Switzerland’s Champex Lac and Austria’s Krippenstein. Another one-lift wonder is France’s La Grave, where one main lift serves approximately 7,000 vertical feet of advanced and expert skiing.
So if you’re into powder and huge faces, couloirs and massive cliff drops, history and 500-year-old stone villages, you need to tweak your travel plans this season. Ajax and the Basin will still be here when you get back, but they won’t seem nearly as steep.
Europe ain’t cheap. But you can make it cheaper. Here’s how.
Watch your weight: With airlines charging extra for baggage, take one pair of skis. If you must take two, bring an unmounted pair so you can swap your bindings onto them. Or team up with a buddy to bring one extra pair, or an extra snowboard and bindings divided between you. Be sure to weigh your luggage prior to showing up at the airport.
Bags are usually limited to 50 pounds each. Check the restrictions and use a bathroom scale so you don’t get stuck paying extra.
Become a van dweller: While it’s easy and fast to get around via trains and buses, rent a sport wagon with two other friends and bring winter sleeping bags to sleep in the back to defray lodging costs.
Hostel, baby, hostel: Switzerland has some of the nicest youth hostels in the world. In many, four people can get a private room together so you can spread out your gear and not live in a dorm.
Think small(er): Many of Europe’s mid-sized resorts are much, much bigger than anything in North America. These will have cheaper accommodations, lift tickets and less people. But the terrain can be just as intense as the larger mountains.
Buy a package: Packages are usually considered a pretty weak solution when it comes to traveling, but recent deals such as a seven-day package at Switzerland’s Arosa include accommodations, skiing and breakfast for $960. (www.myswitzerland.com)
Pack a lunch: Speaking of free breakfasts, bring a supply of ziplock sandwich bags and stuff them full of sliced salami, cheese and bread from the breakfast buffet for an on-mountain picnic later.
Rent a condo: Get a place with a kitchen, fill it full of friends and cook your own meals.
Hike for a day: Many resorts sell single-ride lift tickets to the top of the mountain. Once you’re there, head off into the backcountry.
Get a Europass: Discounted train and bus passes are available to North American travelers prior to their departure. Buy them before you take off.
Pick a city: Places like Innsbruck are close to the skiing, yet aren’t resorts. Stay there for cheap and ski the local ski areas.