The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
I saved thousands on my family ski trip
With careful pre-planning – including letting out your house – a peak-season holiday in the French Alps is surprisingly affordable, says Lucy Denyer
Three years ago, my husband and I booked, with gleeful anticipation, our first ski holiday as an entire family: two of us, three of them, Sweden, ski lessons, flights, the lot.
Then came Covid, lockdown and swift cancellation. The ensuing years saw too many other expenses: house renovations; school fees. Our dream of getting our three boys on the slopes faded fast; every season the flame of excitement at the thought of snowy mountains flickered then swiftly died when we realised that, given we are bound by school holidays, we would either have to remortgage or sell some body parts to get to them.
This year, however, we decided to have another go. Sure, ski holidays were looking pricier than ever due to Putin’s war. And yes, the headlines as we set off did not look great: the warmest temperatures on record and resorts closing all over the shop. But we did it. Not only did we make it to the slopes, but we also found some snow – and we had an almost-free ski holiday to boot. The secret? Letting out our house, plus a few other tips and tricks.
Admittedly, with less than a week to go before departure, things were not looking good. We had bunged our family home in south-west London on
Airbnb for the New Year week a couple of months earlier, and despite almost immediately getting a booking from a nice-sounding family of five, had done little more than vaguely think “let’s use the money to go skiing”. But then work, school and Christmas planning got in the way, and time was running out. Our guests were arriving two days after Christmas. We had to go somewhere, but where?
Several hours of frantic Googling had our hopes raised then dashed. A bargainous-looking holiday in Bosnia for £2,300 including flights and transfers turned out to be for only two. Self-catering flats in even the ugliest of Alpine resorts were at least £2,000 – and we had £2,600 (including our Airbnb windfall) to spend, max.
But then I chanced upon what looked like a Hi-de-Hi! holiday resort, circa 1970, which promised ski-in, skiout access and could accommodate five of us for less than £700. Too good to be true? Who cared. Out came the credit card. We booked the apartment, our Eurotunnel crossing, ski lessons for the kids and ski and boot hire. A week later, we set off, snow chains in the boot, ready to take on the mountains.
I hadn’t actually heard of Val Cenis before. But it turned out to be a hop, skip and jump from somewhere I had skied plenty of times: Val d’Isère. Just over the mountain, Val Cenis is part of the Savoie Mont Blanc region and the largest resort in the Haute Maurienne, sometimes known as the fourth valley. An hour-and-a-half from Chambery airport (or a 10-hour drive from Calais if, like us, you are on wheels), it offers 125km of piste, largely green, blue and red runs, with 27 lifts. It was perfect for our five-day jaunt, which was serving as a proper introduction to the slopes for our younger two children.
Our journey there was pretty smooth. We set off from London around midday on Tuesday, crossed the Channel that afternoon and stayed the night at an Ibis on the outskirts of Troyes, having decided there was no point exhausting ourselves by driving through the night. We arrived in Val Cenis by teatime on Wednesday, well in time to check into our apartment, collect our ski passes (just €151/£133 per person for five days of skiing) and head out for a crêpe for dinner.
We were staying in Lanslebourg, the largest of the three villages that make up Val Cenis (there is also Lanslevillard and the hamlet of Le Haut; all are connected by both ski lifts and a ski bus). Accommodation is practical: apartments and self-catering, mostly, although there are a couple of chi-chi hotels if you like a bit more glamour and a spa. Our apartment was part of CIS Ethic Etapes, a resort comprising rooms and small apartments: for €780 we had one of the latter, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, dining table and fridge (no cooking facilities) with breakfast included for five nights. The big bonus was that you could, indeed, pretty much ski into it, or take a very short walk to the main jumping off point to get up the mountain proper and meet the ski teachers.
There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to booking late: in our case, we had missed the boat on ski school, not only because we were arriving on an odd day, midway through the week, but also because we were there at a busy time. Instead we pre-booked private lessons: a daily two-hour slot for our youngest, aged six, who had never been on skis before, and a 90-minute daily lesson for our two older boys aged nine and 11, who had been on a couple of ski trips.
Our days soon picked up a rhythmic routine: breakfasted by 9am, we would pack a picnic, be on the slopes by 9.45ish, ski some gentle runs en famille or in two groups until about noon, have a quick sandwich, then leave the kids to the lessons while we dashed off for a couple of hours of proper skiing, or, if we were feeling lazy, a vin chaud on the slopes. Afternoons were divided between more skiing and some chillout time; we’d find somewhere local to eat at around 7pm and all be in bed by about 9pm. High-octane it was not: the closest we got to any sort of nightlife was joining the throngs in the square on New Year’s Eve after a torchlit procession down the mountain by the ESF instructors (and even then we were home before midnight).
But we loved it. While the news was full of melting snow in higher, glitzier resorts, Val Cenis stayed open; a combination of north-facing slopes and snow machines meant you could still get up the mountain. Our boys didn’t care that there was no pristine powder – they didn’t know any better (and the sunny days at least meant no complaints about freezing fingers or frostbitten toes). Our youngest learnt to ski, stop, turn and use a lift. The middle one was starting to do parallel turns and our eldest was introduced to the joys of the slalom course and jumps. We were in the mountains as a family, doing a sport we all love, together. And we had achieved all this without breaking the bank.
Of course there were costs we had forgotten about: French motorway tolls for one; having to go out for dinner every night; trips to the Sherpa to stock up on mini Mars bars to keep energy levels up. But we managed the whole thing for less than £3,000 (and once the Airbnb money had been taken into consideration, it worked out at a mere couple of hundred pounds). Not bad for a family of five.