Mountains to choose from

By Neil English, Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 12:01 06 October 2003

There's no stopping Britons skiing. Last year, for the first time, we took more than one million skiing holidays - despite residual fears over 9/11, the SARS scare and impending war in Iraq.

While other skiing nations, most notably America, had the jitters, the British die-hard holiday spirit and raw passion for the mountains was undiminished.

What helped, of course, was the increasing number of low-cost flights to ski destinations in Europe - and good snow conditions.

This winter looks just as promising, with tour operators already reporting high levels of early ski bookings.

The number of people organising made-to-measure skiing trips has grown by a whopping 21 per cent thanks to those cheap flights, which are also allowing skiers to make more than one annual trip to the mountains.

But beware - some deals are not as inexpensive as they first seem. Last season a friend of mine boasted how he had booked four flights for his family on the Internet at just £12 each.

On top of that he had to book a hotel independently and fork out for car hire or a cab to get to the resort. Not just that - once airport tax was added, the flights cost him £120! That said, the great debate in the ski industry is how far the independent travel sector will grow and how much of a threat it poses to package holidays.

Stuart Mcleod, managing director of the ski division of the Specialist Holiday Group,which comprises Crystal, Thomson and Simply Ski, is adamant there will always be a place for the package holiday so long as tour operators are flexible.

This is already happening, with some of the biggest companies now offering short breaks and ten-day skiing holidays.

Mr Mcleod says: 'Couple this with the fact most tour operators are bonded and thereby offer consumer protection to clients and their money - something the independent sector cannot offer -factor in the back-up of resort staff and the fact that tour operators, especially those long on experience, control large swathes of important accommodation in resorts which can be offered at competitive prices, and tour operators are still in a healthy position.'

Smaller, more specialist operatorsbonded under the Associationof Independent Tour Operators -AITO), have also responded quickly with innovations of their own.

Erna Low (0870 7506820) is an award-winning, household name in skiing and commands some of the best apartments in the French Alps. It packages wholesale holidays but if a customer rings, having already booked a low-cost flight, it will still try to accommodate them.

Megeve specialist Stanford Skiing (01223 477644) has a range of flexible holidays, including a midweek Monday to Thursday option avoiding higher weekend flight costs.

Skiers' appetite for decadence is also growing. Descent International (020 7384 3854) is known for its stratospheric levels of chalet accommodation which combine traditional elegance with five-star, hotel-style opulence and every creature comfort catered for.

Whether it's plasma cinema screens, outdoor heated swimming pools, hot tubs, massage, snooker tables, beauty therapists or gourmet chefs, Descent can provide it and have even doubled their portfolio of hand-picked chalets to cope with demand.

Another luxury operator, Flexi Ski(0870 9090754), has also expanded its range of sumptuous chalets offering piste-side locations, breathtaking views, extreme levels of comfort and service in resorts such as Courchevel 1850, Verbier and Chamonix.

Commercial manager Nicky Stephenson says: 'We're experiencing huge demand at the luxury end and our customers are constantly upgrading their holidays to better accommodation and don't mind spending the extra as long as we deliver value for money.'

If you really want to join the jet set, Jeffersons (0870 8508181) offer ultimate ski weekends to the ritziest of resorts.

For example, a two-night stay in a five-star hotel suite in St Moritz, having flown direct by private jet to the local airport just five minutes from the slopes, saving a three-hour transfer from Zurich, then being helicoptered straight to the top of the mountain while your luggage is checked in to maximise ski time, will cost a cool £2,437 per person!

Whatever your taste or budget for the coming snow season, the competition between the independent sector and the tour operators now means we, the skiing consumers, have never had such luxury of choice.

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