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Why Ski Europe? Common Misconceptions & Facts.



Skiers who have never skied outside North America often harbor a surprising variety of misconceptions that may keep them from treating themselves to the rewarding experience of a winter vacation in the Alps.

We are going to identify some of these fallacies, and to set them straight by analyzing them and explaining the facts.

We need all the help you can give us in spreading the word about what things are really like!

Common Misconceptions

  1. I can't afford to go there!
  2. I am not a good enough skier!
  3. They don't mark or groom the slopes!
  4. Europeans don't speak English
  5. It takes too long to get there!
  6. What's the plumbing like?
  7. Aren't the Alps too cold?
  8. Those mountains are awfully big!
  9. It gets crowded over there!
  10. What about the food?
  11. Will there be snow?

1)  I can't afford to go there!

This is the most frequent one. In the proper perspective, it is easily dispelled. Geography has a bearing on it; those who live between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River will find a ski vacation in Europe somewhat easier on their pocketbooks than those who live between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific.

What are the cost factors?

Look at a ski vacation closely. A number of key elements determine the cost: transportation (usually air plus a ground transfer), accommodation, meals, lift ticket, local taxes and tips, and, for many skiers, equipment rental and ski instruction.

Learn the bottom line

All these together, plus some discretionary spending for drinks, a little souvenir shopping and some postcards, make up the bottom-line price.

The "lead" price can mislead

As most skiers buy their vacations in packaged form, the lead price of the package tends to influence perception: "Aspen from $425" clearly sounds like a better deal than "Kitzbühel from $900".

Unwrap the package

It takes careful unwrapping of the package to find that it isn't necessarily so: The American package just doesn't contain the same things the European package does. The two regions traditionally include different services and elements in their packaging.

What is included?

Both packages: There are some items both packages have in common. Both usually include air transportation and the room. Both usually exclude equipment rental, ski instruction and lunch (except perhaps during special sale periods). Here the similarity ends.

American packages: Only rarely do American packages provide what is considered pretty much standard in European packages: arrival and departure transfers between the airport and the resort; a welcome drink; breakfast each day; the daily dinner if chosen; a special farewell dinner; local taxes and gratuities.

European packages: The other way round, there is one feature of American ski packages that is not customarily part of European arrangements: the lift ticket.

Differences in packaging

Not that one package were better and the other one worse, they are just different. That difference can make the "lead" price a "mislead" price.

The bottom line: Europe costs the same (or less)

At the bottom line, with lift ticket, transfers, food, taxes and tips factored in, a skier who lives on the West Coast will find that a one-week ski vacation in Europe costs about the same as an equivalent ski trip to a resort in the Rockies.

For someone on or close to the East Coast, the European trip could be between $100 and $300 less than the Western resort.

Two-week trip most economical

If a skier has the time, a two-week European vacation is a top bargain. The air fare is the major up front expense of a European trip. Once the air fare is out of the way, the very low land costs make the second week seem like a two-for sale!

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2)  I am not a good enough skier to handle the Alps!

This notion may stem from some picture postcards views of forbidding cliffs rising abruptly above dreamy mountain villages. Or perhaps, from watching World Cup or Olympic TV coverage of racers hurling themselves down steep inclines at breakneck speeds.

It is, of course, a misconception, one which can be resolved by a close look at several facts.

One aspect is the terrain of Europe's ski mountains. True, for those who seek it, there are dizzying World Cup runs straight down the face of the mountain. But for each of these runs, there are five or six very gentle, undemanding, ego-building runs on that same mountain. These runs turn a bit here-and-there, move over to the side and then bend back, or follow the shoulder of the hill on much milder gradients.

Even top-name European resorts have plenty of easier terrain

Ski resorts appearing in the datelines of World Cup reports, such as Kitzbühel, St. Anton, Wengen, Zermatt and Val d'Isère, all range from at least 35% to as much as 60% of their total mountain area which is suitable for beginning and intermediate skiers. When you consider how many square miles of mountainside these famous places have in their networks of lifts and runs, you understand how much good skiing there really is for the less-experienced skier.

Smaller areas cater for less-experienced skiers

What is more, some of the smaller European ski areas, whose names are not so frequently bandied about the sports pages, have an even larger percentages of their total terrain that is just right for skiers who are in the midst of the learning process or who just love easy cruising.

The European Ski Schools are tops

The European ski schools are another answer to that lack of confidence. Contrary to rumors (which are purposefully nurtured over drinks by European instructors), Europeans are not born with skis attached to their feet. Even they have to learn how to ski, mountain people very quickly and easily; city folks often with considerable difficulty and effort.

Europeans learn to ski in Europe

The European ski school is a well-organized system of uniform ski instruction with a superb level of professionalism that looks back on a long and proud tradition. There are not only local and Americans on the Alpine slopes, there are many more Germans, Dutch, Belgians, British, Danes, and Swedes. Pretty much all of these have acquired their proficiency in skiing, often excellent, in Europe from instructors of the European ski schools.

Europe is the best place to learn

The message? You certainly don't have to be a super skier to enjoy a vacation in the European Alps. Go as a non-skier with just an interest; go as a wobbly beginner; or go as an intermediate with a few tricks left to learn.

Europe has plenty of suitable terrain to give less-than-perfect skiers a super vacation and to keep them very satisfied. The Europeans have so much experience in making skiers out of just plain people, and better skiers out of those who have had some exposure to the sport, that they can certainly guide you, too, to new levels of skill and enjoyment.

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3)  They don't mark or groom their mountains!

This misconception is not easy to trace; anyone who has been to Europe knows better. Of course, this is a whopper! Most European skiing is on wide-open slopes above the timberline. There is no single "trail"; the entire mountainside is one.

Open slopes make skiing easier

Skiing on open slopes is much freer and more individual. Skiers who are just accustomed to operating within the confines of American woodland trails adjust to it quickly, and soon are spoiled by this new-found freedom. When you can hang your turns wherever you feel like it without any risk of crashing into a trailside tree, skiing moves into an entire different dimension. The necessity of a rigid natural boundary to guide you down the trail rapidly palls.

Good marking system for ski runs

Generally, there are mid-run markers on all European ski slopes. These markers, one-foot disks on poles, tell you a lot. The color of the disk lets you know the difficulty of the run: easy (blue), medium (red) or difficult (black). The large number is the run designation and can be found on all the orientation boards at the lift stations and the trail maps. The small number at the bottom of the disk pinpoints your location on the (it decreases the closer you get to the end of the run). These markers are spaced on the hill at intervals which permit you to see from one to the next in heavy snowfall.

Edge markers for safety

In addition, many areas use edge markers, at least in spots where straying from a run might be risky. These are large plastic globes on high poles. When you see their green side, you are safely inside the run; when you see both green and a bright orange red, you are at the edge; when you see only red you have left the safe area.

Traffic signs for hazardous spots

Danger spots, such as big rocks, drop-offs, avalanche chutes, lifts, snowcat operating areas, etc, are all marked with pictorial signs similar to European traffic signs and frequently also secured by rope barriers or safety nets.

Careful grooming with state-of-the-art equipment

European resorts certainly groom their runs, although they leave some of them in a natural state for the powder hounds. It is a common sight to see a conga line of six or eight big snowcats systematically packing down new snow, grading a run, or planing down the bumps. From lift closing time until, well into the night, a string of headlights shimmer, and the growl of the big machines can be heard, from high up the mountainsides.

Grooming during day is possible, but not preferred

During heavy snowfalls, you may even find two or three cats working a slope during the day, although resorts don't like to mix their grooming equipment with their skiers. At any time, you may find a single vehicle improving a high traffic spot, hauling supplies, or aiding in a rescue.

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4)  Europeans don't speak English!

It's true! Few Europeans speak English when conversing with each other! But if you can survive without being able to eavesdrop on the next table, you've got it made. When it comes to you, your wishes, and your needs, you will be surprised how many people speak English!

Most European understand and speak some English

Anyone who has gone through Europe's school system since 1945 (that's 50 years ago now, so it applies to people aged up to 60 plus) has had at least four years of English. Some people may be shy about speaking it, and some may have quite an accent, but they will understand you, and try to help.

Resort staff generally speak English

People who work full time in tourism jobs study more English in schools and hotel colleges, or go abroad to perfect their languages.

Signs are pictorial or multi-language

Signs on the mountain are either pictorial (no language problem there) or multi-lingual. The standard avalanche sign, for example, warns in German, English, French, and Italian). Orientation boards generally use English and French in addition to the local German.

Resort brochures and trail maps have English versions

Area trail maps and safety information is usually contain several languages, one of them always English. Alternatively, they may available from the local tourist office, or lift ticket windows in a separate English version.

Ski instructors speak English and have worked in English environments

In their professional training, ski instructors must take two foreign languages; most choose English as one of them. Beyond that, many of the pros have worked in the USA, in Canada, in Australia, or in New Zealand, and speak easy idiomatic English. How little of a problem there is demonstrated by the frustration of people who have studied some German and try to practice it: "Boy, did I feel stupid. There I was, in that store, asking a question in my best German, and lady comes right back at me in fluent English."

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5)  It takes too long to get there!

This is certainly true for a weekend trip, and American geography has something to do with it. Particularly from the West Coast, the flight to Europe may be a little longer.

Distance greater, but flying time not always longer

If you come from the East and have to change planes once, or more, en route to the Rockies or the Sierras, air time is pretty much the same. Once at the arrival airport, transfer times to the resorts are certainly competitive.

Short ground transfers

A trip from the major European gateways, Munich or Zurich, to even the remote European ski resorts takes no longer than the ride from Denver to Aspen, to Snowmass, or to Crested Butte; or from Salt Lake City to Sun Valley, or to Jackson Hole. In most cases it will be a good deal shorter.

Total time door-to-door is much the same

If you are accustomed to long-haul driving to a ski area, the time may be much less. In the time it takes to drive from Philadelphia to Vermont or New Hampshire, and people routinely do that, they could have flown to Europe and be well on their way from the airport to the ski area.

It doesn't take that long to get there, and the new world of skiing in the Old World is well worth an extra hour or so!

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6)  What's the plumbing like?

This is a legitimate question on the important level of creature comfort, and the answer is, "Just fine!"

The roots of this uneasiness lie back in the personal history of some skiers. Many had their first exposure to Europe when they were in the service overseas or when they toured Europe as students.

Memories of basic youth accommodations

Both servicemen and students usually had to count their pennies and sought out the cheapest accommodations to be found, tiny pensions or room in private homes. Often there was just a washbasin in the room and a bathroom down the hall. The memory of this somehow survives, while the fact that this room cost only $2.00 or $3.00 per night, with breakfast, has faded!

Private bath standard in most packages

The average European vacationer who books a ski package, or makes individual accommodation arrangements, need not worry about plumbing -- it's always there! Most hotels in the categories used by tour operators have rooms with private bath. And the hot water stays hot all day.

Comfortable on-mountain facilities

As a matter of fact, in some respects there is more and better plumbing in European ski areas than in their American counterparts.

Commonplace in Europe, but infrequent in the USA: large service complexes at mid-mountain or at the peak (or even in both) which have hospital-clean restrooms done in designer tiles, along with restaurants, accessory shops, newsstands, equipment rental and repair, a ski school office, and a first-aid center. You don't have to cross your legs until you reach the graffiti-decorated restroom in the base lodge!

European resort hotels often have indoor pools and saunas

In the context of plumbing: in Europe, most of the four- or five-star hotels in ski country have their own indoor swimming pools, saunas or whirlpools. In many resort complexes in the USA, there is one central facility, which, naturally, tends to get crowded right after trailsweep.

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7)  Aren't the Alps too cold?

A clear and definite No! Actually, by the standards of most American skiers, skiers in the Alps are a bunch of sissies. Unlike their hardy American counterparts, Europeans wouldn't dream of hitting the mountain in sub-zero temperatures when a howling wind generates chill factors way down to the big minuses.

Milder weather due to lower elevations and longer distance from ocean

Temperatures in the Alps are relatively mild, as this little list shows (long-term maximum and minimum averages in °F):

Average temperatures in °F

Dec Jan Feb Mar
St. Anton (4.287 ft.) max 31 31 35 43
min 18 16 18 24
Innsbruck (1,909 ft.) max 36 34 40 51
min 24 20 24 32
Kitzbuhel (2,568 ft.) max 32 33 36 46
min 18 15 16 24
Badgastein (3,191 ft.) max 33 30 36 46
min 23 19 21 28

Daytime is generally in the 20's above zero

Remember, the figures above are extremes. A skier can count on daytime temperatures in the low to middle 20's above zero Fahrenheit even in January, the coldest month. Strong winds, furthermore, are not a persistent phenomenon but usually harbingers of a major snow storm, lasting half a day or a day.

Need some more convincing? Look at European ski fashions sleek, slim, without layer after layer of insulation. Designed for the weather in the Alps.

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8)  Those mountains are awfully big!

Yes, Europe's Alps certainly are big where it counts for skiers, but they're small enough for comfort. Here's why.

Vertical drop, not elevation, is the key to good skiing

What matters most to a skier is vertical drop, the difference in altitude between the highest lift-served point and the bottom of the ski run, in Europe usually the village. Big verticals mean long runs, people widely spread out over the mountain, uncrowded lifts, and overall a better ratio between time on the lift and time on the run. A few figures say it best:

Vertical Drop

Innsbruck 1,700 ft.
Ischgl 4,000 ft.
Kitzbuhel 4,000 ft.
Mayrhofen 4,400 ft.
Montafon 5,000 ft.
St. Anton 4,500 ft.
Solden 5,500 ft.
Alta 2,050 ft.
Aspen 3,000 ft.
Crested Butte 2,150 ft.
Heavenly 4,000 ft.
Park City 3,100 ft.
Snowbird 3,000 ft.
Vail 3,000 ft.
Winter Park 1,650 ft.
In the eastern USA, many ski areas are in the 1,500 foot vertical drop range. Places like Stratton, Stowe and Waterville Valley have about 2,000 feet. Sugarbush, Smugglers Notch, and Sugarloaf reach about 2,600 feet. The biggie in the bunch, Killington, is a hair over 3,000 feet.

Comfortable elevations in European Alps

In the other aspect, plain altitude, Europe's Alps are small enough to be comfortable. If you're a skier who pushes a desk at sea level all year long, when you get to a high altitude ski resort, it takes three and five days (most of your ski week!) for the body to adjust to the altitude. Until that adjustment is complete, insomnia, headaches, a high pulse rate, shortness of breath, excessive fatigue, and low tolerance to alcohol are common symptoms.

No long stressful adjustment to high altitude

In this context, the resort elevation, at which you live, eat, party, and sleep, is much more important than the mountain elevation at which you ski. Here are a few comfort examples:

Resort Elevation

Innsbruck 1,883 ft.
Ischgl 4,517 ft.
Kitzbuhel 2,503 ft.
Lech 4,746 ft.
St. Anton 4,277 ft.
Schruns 2,260 ft.
Solden 4,517 ft.
Zell am See 2,486 ft.
Zurs 5,655 ft.
Alta 8,550 ft.
Aspen 7,912 ft.
Copper Mtn. 9,600 ft.
Crested Butte 9,100 ft.
Heavenly 6,550 ft.
Park City 6,900 ft.
Steamboat 6,900 ft.
Vail 8,200 ft.
Winter Park 9,000 ft.

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9)  It gets crowded over there!

There can be some truth to this reservation, depending on timing.

It happens everywhere

No one can honestly say that any ski area in the world does not get crowded on a holiday weekend in the peak season around Christmas, in mid-February, or just before Easter. A forecast of superb weather can make it even more intense.

Many European ski areas are within a 2- or 3-hour drive from some good-sized cities, such as Vienna, or Munich, or Stuttgart, or Zurich, and Europeans love weekend skiing just as much as Americans do.

Ski week guest has first priority

The ski week guest still has a few advantages. Lift pricing is one of them: one way to keep weekend loads within reason is to make one- and two-day tickets relatively expensive, while giving the week-long guest a break on the six- and seven-day versions.

Lots of lifts and far-flung runs reduce crowding

The European answer to crowding is the sheer number of lifts in the typical ski area. Once the morning rush getting up out of the valley on the main feeders is over, skiers spread over the mountainsides, using different lifts to go in different directions, and lift lines are short even at the height of the season. (By the way, European crowds tend to be thickest from about 9:15 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. when a lot of people go uphill to join the 10:00 a.m. ski school classes. Keen American skiers often beat the crowds. The laid back ones do, too!)

Ski a whole region on one lift ticket

European lift tickets often cover a whole valley or region, giving a skier the chance to go to the back of a mountain, and to ski into a village that draws fewer weekend guests than the name resort on the front side of the mountain. During the week, there are very few problems, even the morning rush is lighter.

Some resorts cut off sale of day tickets

Some resorts in Europe have also put a ceiling on skier numbers. If that level is reached, no more day tickets are sold. This move protects the quality of the vacation experience for the ski week guests and promotes safety on the slopes.

Here is a comparison that gives you an idea of skier concentrations to be expected on the basis of the number of lifts (numbers are those of the 1993/94 season):

Number of ski lifts

Innsbruck 34 lifts
Ischgl 36 lifts
Kitzbuhel 64 lifts
Lech/Zurs/St. Anton 88 lifts
Montafon Valley 73 lifts
Saalbach 60 lifts
Gastein Valley 55 lifts
Alta 12 lifts
Aspen/Buttermilk/Snowmass 42 lifts
Copper Mtn. 20 lifts
Jackson Hole 9 lifts
Steamboat 20 lifts
Vail/Arrowhead/Beaver Creek 37 lifts

Impatient skiers and unruly lift lines make wait seem longer

European lift lines often look a lot worse than they really are because of the jostling. Guests of some nationalities don't like to wait, and they push.

Many European ski areas have not yet discovered the benefits of good lift corrals and mazes to load skiers in the most orderly fashion possible. The funnel is still the most common shape of waiting area, and it tends to induce a certain closeness to the next skier, one that may be quite nice on occasion, but also one you do not really care for most of the time. The wait is not that long, but memories of the unruly manner often linger.

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10)  What about the food?

This is an easy one to answer: just ask anyone who has ever been in Europe! There is nothing wildly exotic about European cooking, there are no unfamiliar ingredients, there are no outlandish styles of preparation.

Familiar ingredients prepared differently

What you get is good, solid food cooked from the same raw materials you use every day at home, maybe done up a bit, and spiced differently, but familiar. All Americans we have talked to said that the local cuisine needs no adjustments whatsoever, except maybe for a little willpower and some restraint, particularly in the sweets department, because all the goodies coming out of an European kitchen are subtly addictive.

Good food at reasonable prices

Many sources report that, despite serious workouts on the slopes, they gained weight during their European vacations; blame it on the good food offered at reasonable prices!

Local drinks are fine

This extends to the drinks. The water is safe to drink everywhere. But who wants water, with all the great European beer and wine and Schnapps available!

Imported liquor is expensive; use duty free shop

Beware of one thing: imported liquor. That Beefeater, Johnny Walker or Jack Daniels is disproportionately expensive due to high import duties and taxes. Bring your own bottle from the duty-free shop at the airport or switch to the European brands for the duration.

European coffee is a good deal stronger than the usual American variety, it is actually a specialty like espresso (and priced as such).

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11)  Will there be snow?

We wish we had a definite answer to that question. Most likely yes, but then a freak year may strike once in a while.

Freak years can occur anywhere

It happens in the Appalachians, it happens in the Sierras, it happens in the Rockies, and it happens in the Alps. There may be little snow, or no early snow, or thin late snow.

Information on snow conditions

Pray for snow and keep checking on conditions. The "Links" sub-page for each of our Ski Destinations will connect you to the latest snow reports direct from each resort. At the same location, you will also find current and forecast weather conditions, live videocams, and other useful information.

European snow

The snow on the ground is powdery, fluffy well into spring. Packed powder prevails on the groomed runs, deep powder off-piste. East coast skiers may want to detune their skis a bit before going (so they don't have to surreptitiously rub the edges on some rock or concrete in Europe). Overly sharp edges catch easily in the softer stuff of the Alps. Western skiers can count on just a touch more humidity in the air and in the snow than they would find under champagne conditions.

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