We have started planning our winter holidays for this year, and as always this is a topic with an enormous amount of debate. The perfect ski holiday is a little bit like threading the needle. Okay, I’m exaggerating but it still takes a bit of planning to decide the best time to go skiing in the French Alps.
In general, skiing in France is excellent. It is big business with skiers coming to the Alps from all over Europe and the world. Because of this, the French know how to cater to their clientele. Since skiing is a big part of the culture in France, the French resorts all tend to have thrilling ski-slopes, excellent ski-lifts, and well-maintained facilities.
So all you have to decide really, is when to go!
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The ski season in France starts anywhere from the start of December to the end of April, more or less, depending on the snow conditions. And that is the key, the “snow conditions”.
The ski resorts that are at high altitudes like Val Thorens and Les Arcs not only have the benefit of a longer ski season, but also are big resorts with artificial snow machines to extend the season even more.
But this is not the case for many smaller ski resorts which are more familial and adapted to small children. Ski stations that are in the Southern Alps like Serre Chevalier also will have a slightly later start to the season than ones that are in the north.
Global warming is a factor even in the French Alps, and certain years have seen very little snow at the start of December or the end of April.
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And withing that ski season, there is one period to try to avoid if you can: the February School holidays. During the school holidays, the prices are higher for hotels. The slopes are more crowded, lines at the ski lift a bit longer, and dinner reservations harder to come by.
In our young (and child-free days) with our group of friends, we would strenuously avoid going skiing during the French school holidays. These days, our kids are still young enough to skip school a bit, which we appreciate.
French school holidays are generally from the 2nd week of February to the end of the 1st week of March. French schools are broken down into 3 zones, which are closed staggeringly so that the entire skiing population of France does not hit the ski slopes at the same time. But that does mean that you are dodging 3 sets of school holiday vacationers in that period.
So to find the best time to go, you not only want to avoid the crowds but also want to make sure that there is going to be enough snow on the ground. The best way I will recommend, is to break it down into periods so that you know what to expect:
|First two weeks of December||Ski slopes likely only open on the weekends. Usually, only locals who live in the area.|
|Week before Christmas holidays||It should be a good time to go, providing there is snow. Aim for resorts with a higher altitude, with artificial snow machines.|
|Christmas week||Christmas school holidays. Expect prices to be higher and more crowds.|
|First Week of the New Year||School holidays are still on, so expect lots of families and higher prices.|
|Rest of January||Should be great conditions and uncrowded resorts. Expect more of a younger crowd, who don’t have kids.|
|1st week of February||Should still be good conditions. Resorts will be in full preparation mode incoming flux of crowds during school holidays.|
|Rest of February to 1st week of March||Winter school break in France. Expect more crowds but a festive atmosphere.|
|Last three weeks of March||Expect good conditions, with the temperature starting to warm up.|
|April||Pick resorts that are at a higher altitude and which have artificial snowmaking machines to guarantee good skiing conditions.|
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So based on when you have decided to go, if you are flying in or driving down, you should take into account the travel time in the car.
During the busy February school holidays, traffic is bumper to bumper. At one point on the way home this past February, we sat in traffic for 3 hours and barely covered 50 km. During this busy period, you may wish to take the train instead. You can find a list of the best ski resorts with good train access here.
Happy skiing and à bientôt!
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