Flying to the snow
There are lots of flights to the Alps and Pyrenees; and you can often avoid the crowds by opting for quieter, queue-free regional airports. But finding your way through the minefield of routes and extra charges is hard work – and the extras can double or triple the basic cost.
So-called budget airlines go to mainstream airports such as Geneva and Milan but also to smaller places, making it easier to get to many resorts in places such as Austria, the Dolomites, the Pyrenees, Slovenia and eastern Europe. You’ll find a wide choice of affordable transfers too. National carriers can be competitive, both on cost and destination, so don’t ignore them when planning a trip. But note that some winter routes stop operating before the season ends.
THE LEADING GROUP
EasyJet has a big range of flights, many to Geneva, from a broad choice of UK hubs. Other key destination airports include Zürich, Innsbruck, Munich and Salzburg. From Stansted, Ljubljana is handy for Slovenian resorts and eastern Austria.
Ryanair operates mainly from Stansted, with a few flights from other UK airports. Routes/frequency change regularly, but a wide choice is offered – including Lourdes (for the western and central Pyrenees) and Memmingen (western Germany and Austria). New for 2012/13 is a weekly flight from Birmingham to Milan Bergamo.
Jet2.com has flights to Geneva, Salzburg, Chambéry and Toulouse – mainly from northern England, but also from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast – available through its dedicated ski website. New for 2012/13 are Leeds Bradford and Manchester flights to Grenoble, up to twice a week, and the reintroduction of a weekly service from East Midlands to Geneva and Chambéry.
Flybe serves Geneva, Salzburg, Berne, Milan, Chambéry, Nice and, unusually, Stuttgart (handy for Germany and western Austria) – mainly from Southampton but also from Exeter and Birmingham. New for 2012/13 are flights from Newcastle to Bergen, Norway.
British Airways goes to lots of relevant airports, including Innsbruck, from a variety of UK ones. Swiss has lots of flights to Zürich and Geneva, some to Basel.
Monarch is launching new scheduled routes to Grenoble, Friedrichshafen and Munich, from Gatwick, Luton, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds Bradford, up to four times a week. In addition to these new routes, Monarch operates year-round flights to Milan, Venice and Verona for the southern Alps and Dolomites.
PRICING IT UP …
Charges and rules for baggage and for equipment carriage vary and change frequently, so it’s important to check the detail. We noted EasyJet charging different fees for the first bag, dependent on destination (£18-£34 return). Ryanair permits either a standard 15kg for a first bag, priced at from £30 return, or 20kg from £50; but skis/board carriage will set you back from £50 return. BA effectively charges for skis: one checked-in bag is free up to 23kg; additional bags on European flights cost from £68 return.
Swiss and Lufthansa still allow one set of skis and boots free in addition to a 23kg bag.
There are other extras that inflate the price too (see margin panel). And with some airlines you can now reserve seats or pre-book a meal on board – all for a fee, of course. Airport costs such as drop-off and trolley fees can also add to the overall spend.
We hear that one airline is experimenting on one non-ski route with charging for hand baggage unless it is small and will fit under the seat in front. Let’s hope this doesn’t catch on (but we fear it might).
FROM PLANE TO RESORT
Car rental can be cost-effective for a short break or with a group – but, again, watch for hidden extras.
Most Swiss and Austrian airports have good public transport links to lots of resorts. Special rail passes may be cheaper than return tickets. In Italy, buses run to the Dolomites from Verona and Innsbruck, and to the Aosta valley from Turin.
Reaching French resorts is slightly trickier, but private minibus transfers are plentiful. Tour operator Ski Amis offers a public shared minibus service from Geneva and Chambéry to the Three Valleys, La Plagne Montalbert and Peisey-Vallandry on Saturdays. Prices start at £65 per person return. Holiday Taxis (www.holidaytaxis.com) covers over 400 resorts from major airports and some stations. Transfer companies and their relevant links are listed in our directory.
Most budget airlines expect you to book online, and many charge less if you book such ‘extras’ as hold baggage and ski carriage online too. The web addresses of the airlines listed in our directory.
Charges on top of basic flight costs vary between airlines. In July 2012, we looked at three (Jet2, EasyJet and Flybe) for flights to Geneva for a week in February 2013. Basic return fares varied from £96 to £231. Extra charges included:
1 checked-in 20kg (22kg for Jet2) bag return: £14-£25
1 skis/snowboard/boots return: £50-£60
Check-in fee: £0-£12
Credit card payment fee: £5-£9
These can add over £100 to the original cost, and the priciest of our three flights worked out at £328.52.
Also, you might be offered priority check-in/boarding for, say, £21.50 and insurance for, say, £12 (which may not cover winter sports adequately – do check). Packing ski boots separately is considered a second bag and costs extra – though most airlines allow boots too if you pay extra for ski carriage.