9 things I wish I knew before taking my children skiing
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Skiing is a fun way to be outdoors, get some exercise and enjoy the cold, short days of winter — making for a great family holiday with little kids as well as teenagers. If you’ve never been skiing with your children, or at all, it’s an expensive holiday where important planning and preparation is essential. I’ve made my share of mistakes, as have my friends, so I’ve canvassed the lot as well as specialist travel agents to bring you the best tips and tricks for planning a family ski holiday.
1.Getting everyone’s outfit right is essential
Nobody likes being cold or wet, so first up is to make sure you and your children have comfortable clothes for skiing. This includes at least two sets of thermal underwear, waterproof ski trousers, a jacket, fleece tops, gloves or mittens, ski socks (100% worth getting proper ones), neck warmers and goggles.
A key point is to make sure any outerwear, jackets, trousers and gloves are waterproof — basic woolly mittens won’t cut it. Try to borrow ski clothes from friends with bigger kids because in all likelihood, by the time you go skiing again, nothing will still fit. If you are buying items, pick accurate sizes, this is not the time to buy something baggy or over-sized in the hope it will last a few years, as it will impede your child’s comfort and performance. For good reasonably priced ski clothes and accessories try Decathlon, Sports Direct and Uniqlo (for thermals and fleece tops). You don’t need a hat for skiing, as all children and most adults wear helmets.
“Teach your children when your skis are on, your helmet is on”, said Kelli Marks, who writes for the blog workhard-skihard.com. “Skiing with a helmet is much safer. Parents should wear them as well to protect their heads and model good behaviour”.
2. Rent ski equipment instead of buying it
You can find high-quality rentals in every ski area, so there is no need to buy any ski equipment, saving you money and hassle. The most important thing is to pick a convenient place for ski rentals, even if it means paying a bit more. Keep in mind, particularly with small children, there is a lot of gear — helmets, skis, boots, and poles — and every morning and night you will need a comfortable and convenient place to put on and take off all the equipment and then store it overnight.
If you rent from a shop near the ski school, they usually include storage and this prevents you having to lug boots and skis, which can be very difficult with small children, especially at the end of the day when everyone is tired. Many hotels will offer ski rental and storage on property, which is great if the property is near the ski school or provides transportation. A good tip is to arrive in the afternoon the day before you plan to begin skiing so you can get all your rental equipment fitted and ready.
3. You must book ski school well in advance (especially during school breaks)
Do not wait until you are at the mountain or resort to enquire about ski school during peak times. For children aged three and up, ski school is the best way to learn the basics of skiing and to keep improving.
“Ski lessons are also great because even though they can be expensive, on crowded days, ski schools normally skip the lift line and get more runs in”, Marks said. “Also, try to do lessons for a few days in a row, even half days, as the consistency will help you improve faster”.
4. Look for ski schools with English speaking instructors
Teachers that are fluent in English is not a given in some parts of Europe, so it’s best to request up front. Having said this, when kids are a bit older it can be fine if the teacher only has a limited English vocabulary (ski terms), as they spend most of the day just following. My children have had fun meeting youngsters from other parts of Europe, and usually locals help the teacher by translating.
5. Pick ski lessons that best suit your family’s habits and schedule
Before you pick a ski school, think about your family’s habits and pick a schedule that suits — I’ve found that this can depend on the level of skiing as well as the country. There is not always a huge selection of start times, but it is something important to ask and think about. For example, in Italy, ski school tends to start around 10:00 a.m. and break at 1:00 p.m. for lunch, with an option to continue in the afternoon.
Whereas in Austria, France and Switzerland, ski school starts at 9:00 a.m. and collection is not until 3:30 p.m., with lunch included. Will your children be happy being away from you the whole day? In addition to asking about the hours, ask how many children there are per teacher.
Private instruction is an alternative, but very expensive and the children would miss the social aspect of being in a group setting. For very little ones, you may want to find a ski school that is combined with a creche so that you don’t need to cut your own ski day short.
Plan to add at least an hour before the start of ski school to get ready, get there and get the kit on. This means a 9:00 a.m. start equates to being up around 7:30 a.m. or earlier. Don’t forget to factor in time to eat breakfast.
6. Before you leave your children with a ski instructor, make sure they have your phone number on them
It may seem obvious, but make sure your children have your phone number and for little ones, make sure it is clearly marked on them in a wristband or sticker, in case of separation or any other emergency. Likewise, be sure to take the mobile of the ski instructor assigned to your child. One friend had an incident where her daughter was lagging behind and actually got separated from her ski school group — luckily she had a name and phone number on her for ski patrol to call.
7. Many lodging choices include food at ski resorts
Ski holidays are slightly different than other holidays in that there is a considerable range of accommodation that includes food. This is good if you plan to be out all day skiing, as you won’t have much energy or time to shop or prepare meals. Many ski areas, especially in Europe, have hotels and chalets that include breakfast and dinner in the price, and the meal plans are not optional. While the food is generally delicious, sometimes it means sitting down for a three- or four-course dinner every night.
If you do choose accommodation with food and you’re worried the children won’t want to sit for dinner, many places will try to accommodate with a quick pasta — but it’s good to ask and read online reviews of the food and service before booking.
8. Food on the ski mountains is pricey — bring snacks and water
A 500 ml bottle of water can easily cost 5 euro, which can add up if you’re a family of four. Depending on where you are skiing, you can usually find reasonably priced lunch food (soup, pizza, burgers), but drinks and snacks can add up to almost the cost of another meal. I now ski with a small backpack with water bottles, energy bars and chocolate. It’s also a good idea to put an energy bar or chocolate in your kid’s pocket before ski school.
9. Book your flights well ahead, especially if you plan to go over February half-term
Living in the U.K., we are spoiled for choice as EasyJet, Ryanair and British Airways all serve airports near ski areas throughout Europe, Scandinavia and North America. But no matter where you go, fares are typically jacked up for February half-term. First-time families looking to save on flights should try ski destinations where you can use Reward Flight Savers. However, I have only been able to use miles either when I plan very far ahead or use alternate airports, such as flying into Milan or Bologna and then driving three hours to get to the Dolomites, or flying into Stuttgart and driving to get to Austria. Generally, there is better flight and accommodation availability during the week before Christmas or the first week of the Easter break.
Skiing is a great winter holiday for families. When thinking about different resort options, the most important things to look for are:
- English-speaking ski schools and creche facilities;
- Large proportion of green and blue runs (these are the beginner and intermediate slopes) on the mountain;
- Ski areas well-served by gondolas and lifts that are easy to get on and off and also possible for non-skiers to use;
- Choice of lodging nearby or easily accessible to ski school and main lifts; and,
- Picturesque pedestrian villages with activities for nonskiers or a day off (ice skating, tobogganing, bowling, aquatic centers).
Generally speaking, Andorra, Austria, France, Italy, Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland have loads of options ideal for beginners on a variety of budgets, and these would obviously be closer than flying to North America. Look online and call around and get a feel for the ski schools, or try one of the ski specialist travel agents who can advise you and offer packages.The goal should be to find a place that balances the skiing you are looking for with the setting and accommodation you want.
Featured image by Imgorthand/Getty Images.