Drive to the Alps
By Chris Allan
Because the Channel gets in the way, because many of us habitually take package holidays by air, and because the British Isles are the centre of the low-cost airline business, we’re inclined to travel to the Alps by air. The French, the Germans and the Dutch, in contrast, mainly go by car. But for British skiers, too, driving to the Alps can have lots of advantages.
Even for those going on a pretty standard week in the Alps, many people find driving is less hassle than taking flights. For families (especially those going self-catering), it simplifies the job of moving half the contents of your house to the Alps. If there are four or five people in your party, the cost can be low. If you fancy something a bit more adventurous than a standard week in one resort, taking a car opens up the exciting possibility of visiting several resorts in one trip – maybe even making up your plans as you go, so that you go wherever the snow is looking best.
The experience of driving out can be a pleasant one. Crossing the Channel is slick and painless using the fast and frequent Eurotunnel Le Shuttle trains through the tunnel – see later in this article. And although cross-Channel ferries can’t compete with Le Shuttle in terms of crossing time, they are faster than they have ever been (as well as more comfortable).
The motorway networks in north-eastern France and on the approaches to the Alps have improved immensely over the years. You can now get to most resorts easily in a day from south-east England, in some cases using motorways virtually all the way.
Another plus point is that you can easily extend the standard six-day holiday. You can spend a full day on the slopes on the final Saturday (a blissfully quiet day on the slopes of most resorts) and then drive for a few hours before stopping for the night.
AS YOU LIKE IT
If you fancy visiting several resorts, you can do it in three ways: use one resort as a base and make day trips to others; use a valley town as a base, and make resort visits from there; or go on a tour, moving on every day or two. There are some notable regional lift passes that might form the basis of a trip, in Austria especially – cheaper and slicker than buying day passes each morning.
AROUND THE ALPS IN SEVEN DAYS
The most rewarding approach to exploring the Alps – although the least relaxing – is to go touring, enjoying the freedom of going where you want, when you want. Out of high season there’s no need to book accommodation in advance. And a touring holiday doesn’t mean you’ll be spending more time on the road than on the piste, provided you plan your route carefully. An hour’s drive after the lifts have shut is all it need take, normally. It does eat into your après-ski time, of course. The major thing that you have to watch out for with a touring holiday is the cost of accommodation. Checking into a resort hotel for a night or two doesn’t come cheap, and can seem a rip-off. But valley hotels can be very good value.
Austria offers lots of possibilities. In the west, you could take in the best skiing the country has to offer, by combining the Arlberg resorts with Ischgl, and maybe Sölden. Further east, it is easy to combine Hintertux and Mayrhofen with the SkiWelt resorts and Kitzbühel. And the Ski Amadé pass is a cheap way to combine the Gastein valley with Schladming, say.
In Italy you can stay in the beautiful old city of Aosta and visit a different resort (such as Courmayeur, Cervinia and the Monterosa resorts) each day. Elsewhere in Italy, touring makes more sense.
Switzerland also offers lots of possibilities. In the west, you could combine Verbier with Val d’Anniviers and Crans-Montana. Further east, you could start in Davos/Klosters and end up in Flims.
Winter tyres make a big difference to a car’s grip on ice and snow. These tyres are compulsory in Austria for the whole winter period. In other Alpine countries, we understand that they are not; but many ‘experts’ warn that if you go without them and have an incident you could be in trouble. You may still need chains in really deep snow. But winter tyres will keep you going in surprisingly difficult conditions if your car also has traction control, to stop the wheels spinning. This usually forms part of the electronic stability systems now fitted to many new cars (sometimes as an option).
Cars hired in Austria and Switzerland should always be equipped with winter tyres. Cars hired elsewhere may not be.
Easy does it with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle
We had a lot of skiing to cram into March last season, so for the first time for a while we drove out to the Alps, using the tunnel. We’d forgotten just how painless Le Shuttle is.
The terminal at Folkestone is very straightforward to reach. Junction 11A of the M20 takes you directly to the check-in gates. We left north London about 6am, and had checked in by 8.15am.
Check-in deadline is half an hour before departure. The check-in system recognizes your number plate and without human intervention prints your boarding pass. After a quick visit to the shops in the terminal to pick up the stuff you’ve forgotten, it’s into the marshalling yard until you’re called forward to drive on to the train.
If you’re near the front of the queue, once on the train you drive almost the whole length of it before parking – and that will mean a quick exit at the other end. Within minutes you’re gliding into the tunnel. If you might want a quick nap during the crossing, you’ll probably appreciate earplugs.
We were on the autoroute south of Calais 75 minutes after we arrived at Folkestone, and on course for a dinner date in Geneva at 7.30. Heavy rain and Friday night traffic in the city delayed us a bit, but we still made it to Megève in time for a drink in the hotel bar before bed.
The UK motoring organizations say that when driving in France you must now carry:
• a warning triangle
• a reflective jacket that you can put on in the event of a breakdown or an accident, kept in the main passenger compartment – not stowed in the boot
• an unused, in-date, French-certified breathalyser – the advice is to carry two, in practice, in case you want to use one.
If you have a satnav, it must not be capable of displaying French speed camera locations. They say software updates are available with this data removed. A set of spare light bulbs is recommended.
But there is also some good news. Well, sort of. You can now buy an electronic tag for your car so that you can use the Télépéage lanes at autoroute toll barriers, with your tolls being automatically debited to your bank account. Sadly, the charges are non-trivial, and a bit complex; we are expecting to pay a setup cost of ¤30 and an annual charge of about ¤20, plus a 2% ‘foreign exchange finance charge’ added to the tolls. The tag can be used in any car, so no problem if you decide to take the Cayenne instead of the Beemer. Go to www.saneftolling.co.uk