Plane skiing?

By Peter Hardy, Daily Mail

Last updated at 15:31 20 October 2003

Thousands of skiers and snowboarders will pay less than ever this winter for their flights to the snow as the traditional scheduled and so- called lowcost airlines slug it out.

As Britain's growing army of DIY holidaymakers take to the internet in earnest, both sides have taken their war to the ski slopes by slashing prices to gateway airports.

In the first pre-Christmas skirmish, easyjet (tel: 0871 7500 100) has thrown down the gauntlet of Gatwick-Geneva for ₤9 (plus tax).

Ryanair (0871 2460 000) responded with free flights, apart from tax, until December 17 from Stansted to Salzburg, Venice, Milan, Turin, St Etienne (near Lyon) and Friedrichshafen.

Swiss International (0845 6010956) has axed free food and drink for economy class passengers and lowered prices to Geneva and Zurich by as much as 40 per cent.

The onslaught has left tour operators reeling as customers begin to realise that charter flights are struggling to compete on price alone.

But the budget airlines can't always compete with charter flights. Anyone flying budget will have to make their own way from the airport - which can be surprisingly expensive and not always convenient.

Buses leave Geneva for the French ski resorts every hour or two, but the last one departs at 7pm.

The return bus fare from Geneva to Bourg-St-Maurice for Les Arcs is 82.50 euros (₤58). The return bus fare to Tignes is 87.50 euros (₤61).

The one-way taxi fare from Geneva to Bourg-St-Maurice with British-run is 270 euros (₤189) for four passengers, plus a surcharge of 27 euros (₤19) for evenings or weekends. The one-way taxi fare from to Tignes is 275 euros (₤192).

It's also difficult to find hotel rooms in the higher resorts in peak season for just a few nights: hoteliers want to lock people in for a week.

As in any war, the battle for the Alps will take its toll of civilian casualties. These will occur among passengers who fail to book at the optimum time, read the small print or appreciate the disadvantages of going it alone.

Once the snow falls and the season truly gets under way, budget skiers will quickly discover that bargain flights are confined to weekdays.

Swiss, BA (0870 850 9850) and Air France (0845 359 1000) can often match, or nearly match, their low-cost rivals at weekends, when prices rocket in accordance with demand.

Remember that low-cost airlines base their prices on demand, which means Christmas, halfterm and other high-season dates are the most expensive.

For example, on the Saturday before Christmas, a flight with easyjet from Gatwick to Geneva costs between ₤241 and ₤421 return, while Swiss offers Heathrow to Geneva for ₤307 to ₤424.

On Zurich flights, Swiss is only ₤30 more expensive.

Lizzie Norton, of travel agency Ski Solutions, says: 'There is no doubt the big names are taking on the newcomers at their own game, which must be beneficial for skiers.

'We have never seen prices this low. Some of the scheduled fares are lower than they were ten years ago.

'But don't be fooled by the net prices offered. You need to look at the final figure, which includes taxes, ski carriage and credit card charges.'

For my first ski trip of the season in mid-November, I can fly easyjet from Gatwick to Geneva return for ₤21 - cheaper than the ₤34 return rail fare from my home in Hampshire to Gatwick.

However, airport taxes push the final figure up to ₤41. Luckily, easyjet - unlike its low-cost rivals - does not charge extra for my skis.

Flybe (0871 567 6676) quotes the more convenient Southampton to Geneva for ₤49 return. But taxes bring that to ₤78.

Add ₤4 for paying by credit card (₤1 by debit card) and I have a bill for ₤82. It charges ₤15 per pair of skis - each way - and so the total is ₤112.

Swiss will take me from Heathrow for ₤87 return, including taxes and skis.

The moral of the story is that you need to shop with care. The lowest prices are found on-line, but patience is required.

All the airlines - including Duo (0871 700 0700) and Lauda Air (43 [0] 51789) - clearly tell you their destination airports, and several thoughtfully provide lists of resorts that are easily accessible from them.

But, inexplicably, most fail to spell out which regional departure airports offer flights to these destinations.

The only solution is a timeconsuming trawl through the booking procedures. Most are shy in revealing baggage allowances and charges for carrying skis and snowboards.

Swiss has led the way among the scheduled airlines by abandoning free airline meals and drinks in order to pare costs.

Richard Castle of Swiss says: 'Customers want the lowest possible fare rather than paying for a meal they don't necessarily want. So far the idea has gone down very well.'

But while skiers are the winners in the airlines' battle for the Alps, there will be no escape from the inevitable air traffic delays created by the increasing volume of flights.

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