15 Things to Know Before Skiing in Europe
Written by Alexa Owen • Sep 15, 2016
Is this your year for a European ski vacation?
We say, go for it. Europe is not only the birth place of recreational skiing, the ski spa vacation, and the totally indulgent pastime of aprés ski: it's the continent that holds centuries of culturally rich history tucked in towering mountain villages of the Alps. Skiers of all abilities can cruise down kilometers-long slopes with stunning mountain views; non-skiers can delight in high end shopping on quaint cobblestone streets; party enthusiasts can dance all night to world-famous DJs in underground clubs. If you're gearing up for a European ski vacation, check out the list below for must-know information about the unique experience of skiing in the Alps. If you're not yet gearing up for a European ski vacation, keep reading for isnpiration. Here are 15 things to know before skiing in Europe:
1. Resorts are huge. European resorts are the largest in the world, meaning they boast the most terrain and vertical rise accessible by interconnected lifts. Most area span at a few (or several) separate ski resorts: for example, while Courchevel boasts its own villages and slopes, the resort is connected to neighboring Méribel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens. The resorts total nearly 600km of skiable terrain. In the Dolomites you’ll find a similarly massive playground in the Sella Ronda area: resorts Selva-Val Gardena, Arabba, Corvara and Canazei span 400km across northern Italy. It’s not uncommon to spend an afternoon cruising down a several kilometers long slope, stopping to enjoy the scenery and perhaps a schnapps on a warming hut deck. Enjoy: there’s no need to cover all the terrain in one trip.
2. Off-piste skiing isn’t the big thing. While Europe offers the most extensive off-piste and backcountry skiing in the world, you’d be surprised at how underrated it is for locals. On a powder day in the Rockies, powder hounds are lining up for first tracks before sunrise; On a powder day in France, Italy, or Spain, the masses won’t show up until late morning – and most will stick to the groomed terrain. If you pack your powder boards and plan to wander off the piste into that untracked powder, be sure to have a good sense of where you’re going – you may not see another skier for miles.
3. Lift tickets are affordable. There’s excellent value in the European ski vacation right now. Between the USD/Euro exchange rate and the comparatively low rates for lift tickets, lodging, and dining, skiing in Europe is a steal of a deal. While you can expect to pay upwards of $120 per day to load lifts at major North American resorts, those in Europe cap out between €49 (Chamonix) and €75 (St. Moritz) for a peak period adult day ticket. Multi-day packages offer bigger discounts. (And don’t forget – a lift ticket for one area often includes access to multiple surrounding resorts).
4. The trail ratings are different. Terrain difficulty is based on the following color system. Green runs are for beginners. Blue runs are for new intermediates; they are well-groomed with mellow slopes. Red marks the classic intermediate slope – runs are groomed and slopes have 25-40% gradient. Yellow marks signify off-piste terrain that is ungroomed and suitable for advanced skiers. Black marks indicate expert terrain; this can vary between different resorts.
5. Key terms are helpful. Skiing is chock full of its own slang, much of which you’ll just pick up over time. Some of the useful terms to know when embarking on a ski vacation in the Alps are:
Funicular – also known as cable car, this refers to a cable railway ascending a mountain. You’ll see them around resort villages.
Off-piste—terrain that is away from the groomed runs; it’s usually more challenging (and fantastic on a powder day).
Schussing – skiing straight down the trail without turning.
Milk Run – first run of the day.
Couloir – narrow, steep corridor of snow between two rock faces.
6. Après is an all-day affair. Ask anyone in Europe, and they’ll tell you that après ski was created in the Alps. It started as a (quite logical) affair of gathering with friends after a day on the slopes to warm up with a stiff drink and good conversation. Après has now transformed into an art of casual (or super swanky) slopeside ski breaks complete with fondue and fine wine. Sit on the decks of historic wooden warming huts or party outside with a couple thousand friends dancing to world-renowned DJs. Waiting until “after” skiing is optional.
7. You need to go sledging. Don’t mistake European sledging for American sledding: sledging in the Alps is not only a foundational pastime, but a downright extreme sport. Well-maintained sledging trails wind for miles around major resort areas like Interlaken and Le Trois Vallées, offering adventurous vacationers tracks to schluss down on wooden toboggans. Like all other outdoor activities in the Alps, sledging involves good food, strong drinks, and charming warming huts to refuel between runs. If you have your doubts about the descent, at least go for the fondue and mulled wine. For the longest sledging run in the world, head to Grindelwald’s 15 km Big Pintenfritz – it’s a ride.
8. The shopping is luxe. So many European ski villages, with their cobblestone streets and horse-drawn sleighs, set the postcard scene for the quaint alpine vacation. And in resort towns like St. Moritz and Courchevel, that charm is complemented by high-end boutiques selling top European brands. Browse through Hermes scarves and Chanel purses, or explore specialty goods crafted by local artisans. You’ll find everything from gourmet chocolates to handmade home décor in the Alps – be sure to check in with locals for intel on the best goods and shops in town.
9. You can ski between countries. Multi-day, backcountry hut trips are popular in the Alps, but there are also ways to ski between countries while staying on-piste (and even on one lift ticket). France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria share borders along the Alps. One of the easiest places to ski between countries is Chamonix, which shares pistes with Verbier, Switzerland and Courmayeur, Italy. The quality of the snow and slopes are essentially the same – but hey, how many people get to say they’ve skied multiple countries in a day? You won’t encounter border crossing stations, but always bring your passport in case you get stopped.
10. Snow is variable. Like the Rockies and Green Mountains, the Alps have seen some difficult snow seasons in the past few years. We hope for cold temperatures and generous weather systems, but because many of the resort base elevations are relatively low, the snow doesn’t always build up. When it does snow, expect the quality to be heavier and wetter than the cold smoke of Montana or the feather light powder of Utah. Take advantage of off-piste powder after a storm, and the perfectly groomed piste on bluebird days.
11. Ski schools cater to English speakers. Major European resorts always offer ski instruction in English, whether by native speakers (who work with the British-run ski schools) or with French, Spanish, Swiss, and Austrian instructors with plenty of experience teaching youngsters from the States. When you go, note that there are often two branches of ski schools: one reserved for teaching in the country’s native language, and a British or “international” school for teaching in English. European ski schools are excellent places for kids to meet international friends – and perhaps pick up a few different languages!
12. The ski-spa vacation was born here. As early as the 19th century, tourists ventured to the high alpine spaces of the Alps to decompress in natural thermal springs, drink the most pristine water on the planet, and enjoy the serenity of undeveloped landscapes. These days, five-star resorts have kicked things up a notch with full service luxury spas. Spa menus include everything from body wraps to hydro-facials to therapeutic massages using locally sourced minerals. Spas are considered an integral part of the European ski vacation: be sure to carve out time to indulge.
13. Chalets are luxurious (and full-service). Renting a mountainside mansion for a North American ski vacation has its luxury amenities, but renting a luxury chalet in the Alps takes the ski vacation to a new level. Imagine a finely crafted villa with slopeside views, in-house spa, media center, and gym, personal chef to prepare exquisite meals and an on-call driver to whisk you away to downtown shopping and nightlife. If you have the funds (or the friends to share the expense), indulge in the luxury ski chalet.
14. The parties last all night. Nightlife is a big part of culture in the Alps, and some say that the best nightclubs can be found in ski resort towns. How do Europeans manage to party until the wee hours and still have enough energy to hit the pistes the next day? Beats us – so you may as well go see for yourself. World-famous DJs spin from midnight until 4 am most nights of the week during peak season. Expect swanky underground clubs in St. Moritz, fluorescent raves in Chamonix, and sensual lounges in Cortina. Casbah in Verbier is one of our favorites for its Moroccan décor and late night dancing. For a rowdy night in the French Alps, don’t miss Dick’s Tea Bar in Val d’lsere.
15. It’s all about the good times. Americans, you can let the competitive edge go while ski vacationing in Europe. The ski culture in the Alps maintains its values of friends, family, and enjoying the present moment – whether it’s exploring off-piste couloirs or kicking back on a sunny deck for an entire afternoon with spicy Glühwein and heaping plates of Jägerschnitzel. If you’re goal is to lap the longest runs in Europe as many times as possible, so be it: but you might be better off relaxing into the laid-back social scene for the authentic Alps experience.