How to go from sofa to slopes this Christmas and New Year
With the majority of ski resorts across the Alps currently closed, and most of England now told to avoid going on holiday under Tier 3 restrictions, you’d be forgiven for assuming the chances of skiing this Christmas and New Year are slim.
But as the saying goes, where there’s a will there’s a way, and with the quarantine for travellers returning to England from high-risk countries (currently all Alpine nations) now reduced to 10 days (or as little as five if you take a test), there’s still some hope that it might not be impossible to celebrate the festive season in the mountains.
That hope lies in Switzerland. It is the last remaining country where Britons can (feasible) travel to for a ski trip in the Alps. Unlike its neighbours Italy, France and Austria, Switzerland has allowed ski resorts to stay fully open and remain so over the festive period (for now). Granted, tougher restrictions have recently been implemented, but the Swiss have remained steadfast in their passion for skiing, and the economy, and are welcoming foreign visitors with open arms.
It may involve travelling against Government advice (though that doesn’t mean you’d be breaking the law), and you will need to self-isolate on your return home – but is an escape to the mountains worth it? Many would firmly agree, with research showing that the majority of skiers are willing to quarantine to get a ski holiday under their belts this year.
Those prepared to jump through the hoops could find empty slopes in Switzerland and the (very) white Christmas and happy New Year we’re all dreaming of. Here’s, tentatively speaking, everything you need to know about escaping to Switzerland before the chime of the New Year.
What are the rules on travelling to Switzerland?
Switzerland’s coronavirus case rate continues to be higher than the UK’s at 361 per 100,000 (versus 220 on home soil). Like all the other Alpine nations, the country is deemed unsafe by the UK Government and doesn’t have a travel corridor – therefore travellers must self isolate for 10 days on their return home. This can be reduced to as little as five days through the Test to Release scheme.
Your outbound journey is much simpler though. Switzerland has removed the 10-day quarantine for anyone arriving from the UK, so once you land you’re free to hit the slopes as quickly as is humanly possible.
When I get there what rules are in place in resorts?
While initially restrictions in ski resorts in Switzerland were pretty relaxed, measures have been significantly ramped up in recent weeks.
Capacity in trains, gondolas and cable cars is limited to two-thirds of their total allowance and strict social distancing measures are in place, as well as the compulsory wearing of masks on public transports, on lifts and in enclosed public spaces.
What’s more, from December 22 resorts will need local authority approval in order to remain open. Cantons are responsible for issuing operational permits to ski resorts based on current infection rates, ICU availability and testing/tracing capacity — with power resting with local governments to decide the thresholds. Destinations that don’t comply with the rules could have permits removed and be shut down – meaning holiday plans could be left in tatters at short notice. Book with caution.
In a further effort to open safely, resorts have adopted a country-wide Clean & Safe label, which showcases businesses that have committed to new measures to keep guests and employees safe, which include increased hygiene standards.
Are Britons welcome on the slopes in Switzerland?
In short, yes, as long as they act responsibly.
“Switzerland remains open to British guests without a need to quarantine upon arrival, and while we are currently not actively promoting travel to Switzerland to potential guests in the UK, we look forward to welcoming them back soon, hopefully in time to enjoy winter in the Swiss Alps,” said Myriam Ziesack, head of communications for the Switzerland Tourist Board in the UK.
It is also important to remember the implications a no-deal Brexit could have on travel after December 31. “UK nationals qualify as third country nationals from 1 January 2021,” explains Ziesack. “This means that based on the current status, UK nationals will no longer be able to travel to Switzerland for tourism purposes from January 1 2021. The Covid-19-related restrictions will remain in place as long as the UK is categorized as a high-risk country by Switzerland.”
Which resorts are open?
Here’s a snapshot of what some of the country’s biggest resorts are doing to combat the spread of coronavirus and remain open.
Zermatt, the picture-perfect car-free resort in the shadow of the Matterhorn mountain, has been open for skiing since the summer, on its high-altitude glacier. This has provided bosses with extensive experience in operating during the pandemic. All lifts, shops, hotels, apartments, leisure facilities (including museums and swimming pools) are open. Bars and nightclubs are closed but restaurants are not, with similar rules in place to those in the UK, plus a daily curfew of 10pm, which will be extended to 1:00am on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. For anybody who develops symptoms whilst in resort there are PCR tests available for CHF180 (£150) or rapid antigen tests from CHF90 (£75). Find out more about Covid rules in Zermatt here.
Where to stay
The Schweizerhof Zermatt is one of the resort’s longest-standing hotels. It’s close to the train station and Gornergrat lift and punches above its four-star rating. A week’s stay in a double room for two costs from CHF3,721 (£3,104) on a bed and breakfast basis, arriving December 19, with flexible cancellation terms available.
The slopes in Verbier, which sits in the centre of Switzerland’s largest ski area, began to open at the end of October and have since been blanketed with huge amounts of early-season snow. Conditions on the slopes are now pristine, but there is an increased risk of avalanches. While there are no public events happening, life in the resort is very much carrying on as normal – under the new safety measures introduced by the Government. The resort is keen to stress the need for skiers and snowboarders to stick to the rules in order for the resort to be able to stay open. It has hired ‘Covid angels’ to work to help ensure rules are followed, with support from the local police. Find out more about Covid rules in Verbier here.
Where to stay
British-run Ski Armadillo has a number of chalets in the resort and has expert knowledge of the area. Berbou sleeps six and is available on both a self-catered or chalet board basis. The chalet is three minutes’ walk from the Medran lift and close to the centre of town. Prices start from £8,160 self catered, or £9,600 catered, departing December 19.
Two hours from Zurich, Andermatt has also been open already for a number of weeks, thanks to recent investments in snow making. To help things run smoothly, now that there is reduced capacity in gondolas, the resort is operating a reservation system (one of the first in Europe) – visitors must purchase their lift passes online in advance and secure their spots on the Gemsstock gondola as well as on the Güstch-Express. Lift passes will not be able to be bought in the resort and there will be a limit of 8,000 people per day allowed in the ski areA. What’s more, opening times have been extended, with lifts now operating from 8am to allow for more people to get up the mountain and avoid crowding, and mountain restaurants have invested in 50 per cent more outdoor seating, indoors tables are limited to just four people.
“Clearly this is a difficult time for ski resorts across the world, but like many resorts in Switzerland, Andermatt will continue to welcome visitors over Christmas and New Year,” said Stefan Kern, chief communications officer at the resort.
“As always, the safety of our visitors and employees is our number one priority and this year is no exception… we ask that all visitors follow the guidance we’ve set out and act responsibly – by doing so we can make sure we are all able enjoy our favourite activity and keep skiing throughout the entire winter season,” he continued. Find out more about Covid rules in Andermatt here.
Where to stay
The five-star Chedi is a jewel in Andermatt’s luxury accommodation crown. For those in search of a superior end to 2020 a four-night stay in a deluxe room costs from CHF7,880 (£6,573), sleeping up to four people including breakfast, arriving December 30. For those looking to go the extra mile the hotel is offering a four-night package, complete with private jet travel and limousine transfers, from CHF18,740 for two people. As part of its partnership with the resort, guests of the Chedi automatically get their space on the mountain reserved each day.
Crans-Montana, in the Valais region, lies quietly under the radar of most British skiers and snowboarders, but this year it was one of the first resorts to offer skiing during the summer. Now that winter’s underway its ski area is fully open, with masks compulsory on ski lifts and indoors and a traffic light signage system to help guests understand the rules. The resort has confirmed that the police will be carrying out checks on establishments to ensure everyone is complying.
“Skiers from the UK are very welcome to visit Crans-Montana over Christmas and New Year, providing they can travel within the laws of the UK and they respect the extra measures that have been put in place here in the resort,” said Pierre-Henri Mainetti, sales manager at the resort. The Crans-Montana prepaid card is helping businesses go contactless – visitors can purchase a prepayment card, which they can load with money and use to pay for things such as lift passes, meals and activities during their stay, with a 20 per cent discount. Find out more about Covid rules in Crans-Montana here.
Where to stay
A break from the eye-wateringly expensive hotels that Switzerland is famed for, the family-run Hotel Elite in Crans-Montana is a budget-friendly three-star choice. A week’s stay over New Year costs £850 per person, including bed and breakfast and a six-day lift pass, departing December 26.
Skiing has been possible in the glitzy resort of St Moritz for almost two months now, since it opened some of its slopes for weekend skiing back in October. Restrictions vary across Switzerland’s Cantons – in the Graubünden region (home to the likes of St Moritz, Davos and Klosters) restaurants, including those on the mountain, are closed until December 22 at least, but takeaway and delivery services are available and hotel guests can dine at their accommodation’s restaurant. Shops are also closed but ski rental services are available on Sundays, as well as on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. St Moritz’s calendar of spectacular events is limited this winter, as public gatherings are banned, but skiing is open for business across its four sectors and 350km of slopes. Find out more about Covid rules in St Moritz here.
Where to stay
At the foot of the slopes in Bad (one of the three resort bases), Club Med’s all-inclusive Saint-Moritz Roi Soleil residence is close to the famous lake and offers packages with everything included – as well as Covid-19 extras, such as testing, insurance and refund guarantees. A week’s stay costs from £2,393 per adult, with return flights from London and transfers, departing Sunday December 20 2020.
For more inspiration read our expert’s guide to the best ski resorts in Switzerland.
How do I get there?
A spot check by Telegraph Travel of current flight schedules for Christmas week (departing Saturday 19 December returning 26 December) shows the following.
For the most frequent flights and access to all Alpine nations Geneva is your best bet. There are direct return flights to Geneva from London Heathrow (£85) and London Gatwick (£98), as well as Birmingham (£114), with British Airways and EasyJet.
SWISS Airlines is still serving the major Swiss hub of Zurich. There are direct return flights from Heathrow (from £265) and Manchester (from £235).
For a week-long New Year break (departing Saturday 26 December returning January 2) similar routes apply, with Geneva having the busiest schedule and most reasonable prices (£79 return from London Gatwick, £79 from Manchester). Remember to factor in the cost of roughly £150 per person for a Covid-19 test on your return home in order to cut your quarantine to five days.
Train transfers are popular in Switzerland with many resorts benefitting from railway stations at their centre. Despite the pandemic all train schedules are running as normal, but capacity is reduced and face masks are mandatory – the Swiss Transfer Ticket covers return trips from all airports to destinations.
Or should I drive?
Driving to a ski resort gives you complete control over when you travel. Much of the Alps are easily reachable in a single day of driving. For example, it takes nine hours to drive to Zermatt from Calais passing through France, but cars must be left outside the resort in a designated garage in neighbouring Täsch, with the rest of the journeys completed by shuttle train or taxi. Be warned though the French have hinted towards strict border controls designed to prevent local people from travelling across to Switzerland to ski, so if driving, be prepared for questions.
Eurotunnel services start at £72 each way for a car with up to nine passengers and run daily, it's a totally contactless and socially distanced journey – the FlexiPlus upgrade allows travellers to catch any train if travel restrictions change and all tickets are currently fully refundable.
How do I book lift passes and equipment?
Covid-19 has forced ski resorts into a long-overdue digital revolution. Most are now advising skiers to book their lift passes online in advance, with reduced prices and flexible last-minute cancellation terms. This will help resorts keep track of the number of people on the slopes at one time and prevent queues from building up at kiosks and ticket offices in resorts. It’s then recommended that visitors use contactless, self-service machines in resorts to collect their passes or use mobile apps.
The same book-in-advance mantra goes for equipment hire. In most resorts, including those in Switzerland, it is now possible to order all the gear you need in advance online to avoid having to fill out complicated forms once you arrive, ultimately reducing the time you’re hanging around in store. The majority are also offering free cancellation up to the day before you arrive to give total peace of mind. Some of the bigger rental shops, such as Intersport, are using text alerts to give customers designated times for collection of their equipment, which is undergoing thorough cleaning and disinfection using fogging machines, between rentals.
How do I get insurance?
Travelling to Switzerland would mean you choose to travel against FCDO advice and it’s important to understand the implications this has on insurance. In short, regular policies will be void if you head to the slopes when the Government is advising against all non-essential travel.
However there are some companies that are providing cover to those keen to travel, but not all cover winter sports – always check the small print. Some that will cover you include winter-sport specialists MPI Brokers, which will provide travel insurance to countries on the FCDO 'essential travel only' list, but the policy will not settle any claims to do with Covid. Voyager Insurance and battleface will also provide winter sports insurance as well as cover for Covid-related claims in countries that have been taken off the travel corridor list.
How do I book a test on my return home?
British holidaymakers returning from destinations without a travel corridor can cut their quarantine period from 10 days to as little as five days if they take a Covid-19 test that returns a negative result.
From December 15 under the Test to Release scheme, travellers can choose to pay for a private test from the fifth day of their self-isolation – if they test negative their quarantine can come to an end. An approved list of test providers for the scheme was released on December 14 and includes just 11 names.
Be warned though, there are fears holidaymakers could have to wait up to 48 hours to get their results back due to delays at testing clinics. The Telegraph found that of the 11 companies on the approved list, just two currently offer the ability to purchase Covid-19 tests online and that providers are struggling to keep up with demand.