Heaven help you if you’re travelling to Europe this in the next two weeks. Airport lounges will be heaving with overheated families in ski jackets and snow boots, windmilling across the concourse with their skis. Battalions of British estate cars, groaning under roof boxes, will hit the French motorways.
Yes, February half term is just around the corner – the great British ski migration, the most hellish (and most expensive) time in the season to be on the slopes.
But if you have school-age children and don’t want to ski in the short, dark days of December or risk slush at Easter, February half term is your only chance for high-season family skiing.
Skiers heading to popular French resorts should be prepared to queue for lifts, queue for lunch and battle for space on the slopes. If you are bound for the snow at half term, here are some tips on minimising stress.
1. Book rental skis and boots – and lessons – in advance
Most tour operators will give you this option, or you can book direct with a hire outlet at your resort – Intersport, Skiset and Ski Republic are good bets. Many tour operators enable you to buy ski passes in advance; they then deliver them to your chalet or hotel.
2. Get to the lifts by 9am
If you can get to the lifts when they open (and in some resorts they open earlier than 9am), you’ll be up and away before the ski-school rush hour. The early start also means you can justify finishing earlier to avoid the mad dash home at the end of the day.
3. Head for slopes on the outer edges
Compared to the centre of a resort's ski area, the runs towards the edges tend to be much emptier. In the Trois Vallées, for instance, Courchevel 1650 and the far slopes of Val Thorens are rarely too crowded.
4. Make the most of expert knowledge
Ski instructors hate the crowds as much as anyone and are practised at finding quieter spots. Signing up for ski school, even if you’re past the beginner stage, can be a smart move.
Alternatively, hire a guide or private instructor for the first day or two to show you the more out-of-the-way runs. Some operators offer a ski-hosting service led by qualified instructors, which can be a useful way of finding quieter lifts and slopes. If you’re advanced enough (and the snow is good enough), book an off-piste course.
5. Stay on the slopes at lunchtime
Ski during the lunch rush hour of 12-2pm. Put a few snacks (snaffled from the breakfast buffet) in your rucksack, have a hot chocolate at elevenses and keep skiing until early afternoon to make the most of the quieter slopes, or have lunch before midday. If you opt to eat late, check what time your restaurant stops taking orders.
6. Set an ironclad routine
Children’s ski passes should be firmly attached to jackets and never removed. Gloves and goggles can be dried and put in the helmet ready for the morning. Tissues and change for ski-school snacks can be zipped into children’s pockets the night before. Even if you’re usually a free spirit, it’s worth becoming obsessive-compulsive about this.
7. Opt for convenience
When skiing with young children, opt for somewhere that’s ski-in, ski-out. Club Med has excellent options, with ski-school classes that meet at your hotel and après-ski activities for children. Other operators with crèches and supervised activities for children include Mark Warner, Esprit Ski, Ski Famille, Scott Dunn and Powder Byrne.
8. Think about your travel time
However, getting in and out of Geneva can be stressful, so consider a resort close to a quieter airport. Chambéry is brilliant for the Trois Vallées (though more prone to weather disruption than Geneva). Nice is close to the Southern Alps (for resorts such as Isola 2000), and in Austria, Alpbach, Ischgl and St Anton are all less than 75 minutes from Innsbruck.
9. What about skiing at Easter?
If you can't book a half-term skiing trip, or you don't fancy the prospect, there are great advantages to skiing in the Easter holidays. The days are longer and the sun is warmer – just right for taking long, lazy balcony lunches looking over snowy peaks.
If you have older children who are more adventurous skiers, it can be worth suffering a longer transfer for a more snow-sure resort at this time of year. For Easter skiing, Val Thorens, Tignes and Val d’Isère in France, Zermatt, Saas Fee and Verbier in Switzerland and St Anton, Obergurgl and Ischgl in Austria are safe bets.
To avoid Easter crowds, opt for a quieter satellite village linked to a large resort: Vaujany for Alpe d’Huez, for instance, or Peisey-Vallandry for the vast Paradiski area, including La Plagne and Les Arcs. Quiet little Orelle in the Maurienne Valley has a fast lift to Val Thorens.Here are some points to bear in mind when planning a family trip.