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Tips for snowing it alone
Wednesday, 03 December 2003
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Fixing your own ski trip can save you money, says Peter Hardy - but be aware of the pitfalls of flight pricing

Even the big tour operators acknowledge that DIY ski holidays are becoming a serious trend. Crystal and Thomson estimate that nearly 30 per cent of skiers now book flights and accommodation separately.

The internet helps of course, but it is the number of airlines offering bargain fares to and from a growing choice of airports that is doing most to encourage the independent skier. Find a good fare, and with plenty of hotels and apartments available on resort websites, you can make substantial savings on the total cost of your holiday.

There are risks, however. Conventional tour operators are required by law to protect their customers' money and ensure they are looked after. You will get your money back if the company goes out of business, and could be entitled to compensation if your holiday goes wrong. Travel independently and you are on your own.

You also need to be canny when booking flights. First, don't assume that the no-frills airlines have a monopoly on cheap flights - at peak times national carriers are often competitive. Secondly, the cheapest fares often sell out quickly. And thirdly, extras - especially for carrying skis - can make a big difference to what might seem a bargain fare. For example, I travelled recently with Flybe from Southampton to Geneva on a flight I booked on-line in mid-October. The basic one-way fare was 23.30, but had I booked three days before flying it would have been 63. Add to this 15.20 for airport tax (21.70 if booked at the last minute) and the one-way fare was 38.50 (or 84.70, last minute).

But the real sting lay in the charges for ski carriage. I had planned to travel with two pairs of skis. Flybe charges 15 per set or snowboard per flight, bringing the price up to 137 (or 229.40 booked last minute) return. I travelled without skis.

Contrast this with Swiss, which on the same date offered a tax-inclusive return flight Heathrow-Geneva, with no extra charge for skis, for 131.80, even for last-minute bookings.

To help you find the best bargains and avoid the extra charges, here is a run-down of what airlines serving the UK and the Alps can offer skiers. All fares quoted are returns, include taxes and are for on-line bookings. Note that one pair of skis and poles weighs up to 8kg, one pair of boots about 5kg. With ski and boot bags, total equipment weighs about 14kg.

Air France
(0845 359 1000, www.airfrance.co.uk) to Lyon and Toulouse from Heathrow.

Skis and snowboards: part of 23kg baggage allowance.

Lowest fare: Heathrow-Lyon 80.

Verdict: unfriendly to skiers. Mean allowance leaves little room for clothes.

bmibaby
(0870 264 2229, www. bmibaby.com) Geneva, Milan, and Toulouse from Cardiff, East Midlands, Manchester, and Teesside.

Skis and snowboards: free equipment allowance of 10kg on top of 20kg baggage allowance.

Lowest fare: Cardiff-Geneva 62.

Verdict: fair deal.

British Airways
(0870 8509850, www.ba.com) to Basle, Geneva, Lyon, Milan, Munich, Toulouse, Venice and Zurich from Gatwick, Heathrow and regional airports.

Skis and snowboards: part of 23kg baggage allowance.

Lowest fare: Gatwick-Geneva 76.50.

Verdict: stingy allowance.

Skis are rarely weighed at check-in, but don't count on it.

Duo
(0871 700 0700, www.duo. com) to Geneva, Lyon, Milan, Oslo, Stockholm and Zurich from Birmingham and Edinburgh.

Skis and snowboards: 10 per set each way.

Lowest fare: Birmingham to Geneva 98..

Verdict: untested newcomer.

EasyJet
(0870 600 0000, www.easyjet.com) to Geneva, Lyon, Milan, Munich, Toulouse, Venice and Zurich from Gatwick, Bristol, Edinburgh, East Midlands, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle, Manchester and Stansted.

Skis and snowboards: no charge up to 10kg.

Lowest fare: Gatwick-Geneva 41.

Verdict: best budget airline for skiers.

Flybe
(0871 7000535, www.flybe. com) to Chambery, Geneva, Milan, Salzburg and Toulouse from Birmingham, Southampton and Bristol.

Skis and snowboards: 15 each way per set.

Lowest fare: Southampton-Geneva 79.

Verdict: look at the final price before you pay.

Lauda Air
(0845 601 0948, www.laudaair.com) to Innsbruck from Gatwick.

Skis and snowboards: free of charge.

Lowest fare: 103.50.

Verdict: important new service from pedigree carrier.

Ryanair
(0871 2460000, www.ryanair.com) to Carcassone, Friedrichshafen, Klagenfurt, Perpignan, Salzburg and St Etienne (Lyon) from Stansted.

Skis and snowboards: 15 per set each way.

Lowest fare: Stansted to Salzburg 48.

Verdict: overpriced ski carriage and uncertain future for its French flights.

Swiss
(0845 601 0956, www. swiss.com) to Basle, Geneva, Zurich and Sion from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester.

Skis and snowboards: free.

Lowest fare: Heathrow-Geneva 77.

Verdict: the most ski friendly of all. The only national carrier to take on the budget airlines at their own game by cutting frills and consequently prices.

Transfers
It's all very well booking a cheap flight, but independent skiers also need to consider the cost of getting to the ski resort. Regular bus and taxi services run from both Geneva and Lyon to French resorts, but they are expensive. Alpski-bus (www.alpski-bus.com or Autocars Martin 0033 479 07 04 49) runs a regular service to Tarentaise resorts from Geneva Airport: Val d'Isere return 72, for example. Satobus (www.satobus-alps.com, 0033 437 255 255) runs a similar service from Lyon Airport (Val d'Isere return 59). Swiss resorts are best reached from Geneva by train. A Swiss Transfer rail ticket costs 55 return if bought in advance (00800 100 20030, www.myswitzerland.com).

Car hire
Lowest car rental rates are mainly found on-line.

It is important to establish that your car is fitted with snow tyres. Snowchains should be carried by law on mountain roads, and even in a vehicle with snow tyres (unless it is four-wheel drive) you will need them in extreme weather conditions. Ski rack rental costs about 15 a week.

Tips
Check the size of the chains against the size of the tyres before you leave the car park at the airport. Midnight in a blizzard is not the time to discover that they don't match. Carry a torch and an old pair of gloves.

Lowest prices for one week from Geneva Airport (Swiss side) including snow tyres and chains: Hertz (0870 599 6699, www.hertz.co.uk) 160, Holiday Autos (0870 530 0400, www.holidayautos.co.uk) 191, Avis (0870 590 0500, www.avis.co.uk) 177, Europcar (0113 242 2233, www.europcar.co.uk) 210.



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