French Alps: Best ski resorts, when to go, and more

French Alps: Best ski resorts, when to go, and more

Most people when they visit France don’t think about skiing. They think about cheese and baguettes and the Eiffel Tower. But France has way more to offer than that, folks. For instance, you could be eating that cheese and baguette in the mountains.

cheese shop in the Alpes
Cheese shop in Les Arcs 1800 ski station

This has the added benefit of then letting you burn off some of that cheese with a fun-filled day of ski!

Skiing is a big deal in France, with most Parisians prioritizing it for their winter holiday.  Within four hours of Paris, by high-speed train, you can be in the French Alps.  It is the thing-to-do, for French families during the winter school break, les vacances scolaires d’hiver.

With this massive interest in skiing, there are many resorts, but large and small, who cater to a variety of clientele. So how do you choose? My criteria for narrowing down to the top ski resorts are:

  • Accessibility from Paris, London, and other major European cities.
  • Altitude of the resort, to reduce the risk of poor snow conditions.
  • Top ski facilities (ski lifts, snowmaking machines, etc.)
  • Proximity to ski schools for lessons for adults and children.
  • Full range of ski slopes: beginner greens, intermediate blues & reds, and expert blacks & off-pistes.
  • Proximity and walkability to après-ski (restaurants, bars, and nightlife).

So whether you live in Paris, or are just planning to visit France this winter, this guide will give an overview of skiing in France: the best time to go, the best ski resorts in the French Alps, and how best to get there. We’ll go over all the criteria for that perfect winter getaway.

French Alps covered in snow at sunset
Sunset in the Alps

Skiing in France

My husband and I 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, it’s a little bit like threading the needle. Okay, I’m exaggerating but it still takes a bit of planning.

I should say in general, skiing in France is excellent. It is a big business in France, and the French know how to cater to their clientele. Transport links like the TGV (high speed train) and bus system to take you up to the mountain are well-calibrated to get you on your holiday with ease.

Since skiing is part of the culture in France, in general, the resorts all tend to have excellent ski-lifts and well-maintained slopes. Easy access to ski lessons and equipment are everywhere, as well as plenty of after-ski activities.

But, and there is always a but, 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.)

But to find the best time to go, you also have to make sure that there is going to be enough snow on the ground. Some ski resorts have artificial snowmaking machines to extend the ski season. But this is not the case for many smaller ski resorts which are more familial and adapted to small children.

Val Thorens ski resort

When to go skiing in the French Alps

Ski season in France starts anywhere from the start of December to the end of April, more or less, depending on the snow conditions.

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. Read my article on it here.

So for the best times to go skiing, I will break it down into periods:

The Road to the French Alps
One of the tunnel to the French Alps

Comparing the Top French Ski resorts

There are many ski resorts in the French Alpes that are all quite close to each other.

The confusing part is when reserving a ski resort, the ski resorts themselves are broken down into individual villages. So if you are reserving your ski holiday at Booking.com for example, it is the name of the villages that come up, not always the resort.

I have narrowed down the ski resorts first, by how easy it is to get there. The two big trains stations, Moûtiers – Salins – Brides-les-Bains (talk about a name that is a mouthful!), and Bourg-Saint-Maurice have direct high-speed trains arriving from Paris, London, Brussels, and Amsterdam.

During winter, additional trains (Eurostar, Thalys, and TGV) arrive nearly every hour, carrying winter sports enthusiasts. These 2 train stations bring skiers to the foot of the Alpes in style and comfort.

The alternative is to fly into Lyon, Grenoble or Geneva airports and then drive down. There is also the airport at Chambéry, which is smaller.

NOTE OF WARNING: If you are considering flying in and 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. For this reason, I’m prioritizing my list for access by high-speed train.

I. Ski Resorts in Les Trois Valleés (from Moûtiers train station)

The Moûtiers train station brings you to the foot of Les Trois Vallées (the 3 valleys) by high-speed train. The 3 Vallées bills itself as the world’s largest ski area, with over 600 km (370 miles) that are easily skiable from one to the other.

This ski domaine consists of several ski resorts. You can buy a ski pass either for your own ski resort or for the full 3 Valleés, the price difference is usually around €50 more for the week. (Note: when I say easily skiable, I mean for a decent skier, not a débutant!)

1. Courchevel (1100 – 1850 m)

Courchevel is high-end luxury ski resort that is popular with celebrities and royalty. It has many Michelin starred restaurants, especially at Courchevel 1850. The resort is made up of 6 villages which all have direct access to the ski lifts. The numbers in the name denote their altitude:

  • Courchevel 1850 – Luxury resort, aimed at the high-end where the sky is the limit, in terms of prices. The highest concentration of 5-star hotels in France, outside of Paris. (There is even an Altiport on the resort so that the super-rich can fly in.)
  • Moriond 1650 – large resort, ideal for families who are not going to be visiting nightclubs. Better for beginners as the slopes are quieter and further away.
  • Courchevel Village 1550 – Plenty of shops and restaurants, ideal for families.
  • La Tania 1400 – car-free, and in the middle of the forest. It is midway between Courcheval and Meribel resort.
  • Le Praz 1300 – a traditional mountain village.
  • Saint Bon 1100 – the original hotel resort built in 1908.

These individual villages will be very accessible on skis, but if you are looking for things to do après-ski and nightlife, you will have to choose which ambiance you want. At night-time, going between the different villages will only be possible by car, not on foot.

From Airport to Courchevel – Approximate times with no traffic:

  • 2 hours from Chambéry airport
  • 2 hours 15 minutes from Lyon or Grenoble
  • 2 hours 30 minutes from Geneva

2. Val Thorens (2000 m)

The ski resort at the highest altitude in the 3 Vallées, situated above 2000 m. Val Thorens says it guarantees snow, with its artificial machines. It is a very large resort, with just one epicenter village, and has plenty of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.

It perhaps doesn’t have the small village charm of the Courcheval or Meribel, and is more of a mid-level resort (no Michelin star restaurants here). But the facilities are excellent. It tends to be our Go-To resort as it will likely always have decent snow conditions, and is easy to plan since everything is in one location.

From Airport to Val Thorens – Approximate times with no traffic:

  • 1 hour 40 minutes from Chambéry airport
  • 2 hours 30 minutes from Geneva, Lyon or Grenoble

3. Les Menuires (1850 m)

Les Menuires is on the way to Val Thorens at 1850m, as they sit on the same mountain, with Val Thorens being higher. It tends to be less busy and less pricy than the other three in the 3 Vallées, while still maintaining excellent connections to the other resorts, since the ski pistes and chairlifts all connect.

A very family-friendly resort for people with small children, since the slopes nearby are good for beginners. (Expert skiers need not worry, they can easily connect to rest of Les 3 Vallées on skis.)

From Airport to Les Menuires – Approximate times with no traffic:

  • 1 hour 30 minutes from Chambéry airport
  • 2 hours 15 minutes from Geneva, Lyon or Grenoble

4. Meribel (1400 – 1700 m)

A luxury resort right in the middle of Les 3 Vallées. If you are pretty decent on your skis, within 20 minutes you can be in Les Menuires, Val Thorens or Courchevel.

The problem with being so central, of course, is that it is in the middle. This means that there tends to be a traffic jam of skiers at the start and end of the day, as everyone is trying to get to the other parts of the 3 Vallées.

It has many small villages within it (which are skiable but not walkable from one to the other):

  • Mottaret 1,750 m – newer resort, built in the 1970s, mostly car-free.
  • Altiport 1700m – Quiet area with one hotel and restaurant. Also some apartment accommodation.
  • Méribel Center 1450-1700 m – the largest and liveliest part of the Meribel. Plenty of high-end shops, restaurants, bars and nightlife. This part of the resort is itself broken down into many neighborhoods.
    • La Chaudanne – near the main ski lift and the liveliest part of the village.
    • Le Plan du Moulin – short walk to La Chaudanne area.
    • La Renarde – a quiet chic neighborhood that is close to La Chaudanne area.
    • Les Chalets – At the foot for ski-lift Ardet, slightly further away from La Chaudanne, but still central.
    • Morel & Altitude 1600 – on the outskirts of Méribel Center. A 15-20 walk to La Chaudanne.
    • Le Belvédère 1600 m – a newer chic neighborhood that was built in 1990. Relatively far away from La Chaudanne (over 30-minute walk).
  • Méribel Village 1,400 m – a traditional hamlet-style village that is 2 km (1 mile) away from Méribel Center. Quiet atmosphere.
  • Les Allues 1,100 m – a Savoyarde style village connects to the other ski slopes by shuttle. There is one red ski run that connects to it, but they advise that this usually closes before the end of the season because of the low altitude of the village. (NOT SKI IN – SKI OUT)
  • Brides Les Bains 600 m – a spa town at the bottom of the mountain that connects to Méribel by gondola life. (NOT SKI IN – SKI OUT)

Note, the last two, Les Allues and Brides Les Bains, are not ski-in, ski-out. You will need to take a shuttle or gondola to access the higher slopes of the 3 Vallées. But they are part of Méribel, so I didn’t want to leave them out, since you would be confused if you saw those names later and accidentally booked there instead. A free shuttle runs in the winter between all the areas.

From Airport to Meribel – Approximate times with no traffic:

  • 1 hour 20 minutes from Chambéry airport
  • 2 hours 15 minutes from Geneva
  • 2 hours 30 minutes from Lyon or Grenoble

There are other ski resorts within the Les 3 Vallées that are accessible from Moûtiers, but these are the largest ones and most popular ones. (And the ones where you are most likely to find people speaking English if that is important to you!)

II. Ski resorts in Paradiski (from Bourg-Saint-Maurice train station):

Competing with the 3 Vallées is the other large ski domaine Paradiski which has Bourg-Saint-Maurice train station nearby for direct high-speed train access from across Paris, London, and Amsterdam. It is slightly smaller, at 425 km (265 miles) of skiable terrain, and also consists of several resorts. The largest ones is:

1. Les Arcs (1600 – 2100 m)

Usually in everyone’s list of the Top 5 Ski Resorts in France, Les Arcs is made up of 4 smaller sites. Each one is easily accessible one to the other on ski, but not on foot. A free shuttle runs between the sites.

  • Arcs 2000 m – Not the prettiest buildings, but good skiing. Something for everyone with good beginner slopes as well as expert terrains.
  • Arcs 1950 m – the newest most luxurious part of the resort, facing Mont Blanc.
  • Arcs 1800 m – the liveliest part of Les Arcs with shops, restaurants, and bars. Not the easiest slopes for beginners, but intermediates and experts will have a blast.
  • Arcs 1600 m – aimed more at families, prettier lower village, with trees all around.

From Airport to Les Arcs – Approximate times with no traffic:

  • 1 hour 45 minutes from Chambéry airport
  • 2 hours from Geneva, Lyon or Grenoble

2. La Plagne (1800 – 2100 m)

La Plagne is another famous ski resort that belongs to the Paradiski domaine, but it requires changing trains at Moutiers or Bourg-Saint-Maurice train stations, so I am excluding it from our criteria.

It is really not that hard to get to if you have your heart set of La Plagne, but we’ve got to narrow things down somewhere! We suggest you ski over there from Les Arcs, instead of staying there.

In addition, it is made up of 11 villages across a large plain, so you have to consider location before booking.

From Airport to La Plagne – Approximate times with no traffic:

  • 1 hour 30 minutes from Chambéry airport
  • 2 hours 30 minutes from Geneva, Lyon or Grenoble

Similar to Les 3 Vallées you can either get a ski pass just for your resort (eg. Les Arcs), or for the full Paradiski area. The difference is usually around €50 for a week.

Paradiski is not as interconnected as Les 3 Vallées, so if you will likely only go to La Plagne once during your week-long holiday. The Vanoise Express cable car that connects Les Arcs to La Plagne is a bit of a commute, so it gets crowded at the end of the day. There are plenty of slopes in Les Arcs however, so don’t let that put you off!

III. Ski resorts in Espace Killy (from Bourg-Saint-Maurice train station):

The 3rd large ski domaine in France is Espace Killy, clocking in at over 300km (186 miles) of ski slopes. It is also near the high-speed train station of Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

1. Val d’Isère (1850 m)

A higher-end ski resort that is quite popular with British tourists. It is a large resort and recently got a €200 million upgrade. One of the prettier resorts, with plenty of restaurants, boutiques, and nightlife. It is home to the original Folie Douce, a bar/nightclub that is on the ski slopes, for partying skiers to stop in the afternoon for a bit of techno and a beer. (The other resorts now have chains of La Folie Douce as well, but the one at Val d’Isère was the first.

Basically, Val d’Isère is big and beautiful, and has excellent skiing.

From Airport to Val d’Isère – Approximate times with no traffic:

  • 2 hours from Chambéry airport
  • 2 hours 45 minutes from Geneva, Lyon or Grenoble

2. Tignes (1500 – 2100 m)

Tignes, the cousin of Val d’Isère, connects with it in the Espace Killy, and also offers excellent skiing. Val d’Isère has got the village charm (and the higher prices), while Tignes is more of a mid-level resort.

Tignes is the resort you pick, if you want to ski on the excellent Espace Killy, but Val d’Isère is out of budget. It is also the ski resort you pick if you want to ski on a glacier. From Tignes, you can take the funicular (cable car) to Grand Motte glacier, and ski at over 3000m. The glacier is even sometimes open in the summer (!), so if you have doubts about whether there is enough snow on the ground, Tignes is a good bet.

Tignes is made up of 5 villages which you can ski between, but after hours, it is not walkable from one to the other.

  • Tignes Val Claret (2150 m) – the liveliest part with restaurants and nighlife.
  • Tignes le Lac (2100 m) – Near Val Claret (but not walkable). Not the prettiest of villages, but has good ski-in and ski-out links. Good for families.
  • Tignes le Lavachet (2050 m) – quiet area, good for families with small children. Linked to the other ski lifts in Tignes by shuttle bus (No Ski In/Ski out)
  • Tignes Les Boisses (1800 m) – the new village which opened in December 2013, with limited shops and restaurants. Far from the rest of Tignes.
  • Tignes Les Brevieres (1550 m) – traditional chalets, but a bit isolated, and far from the rest of the Tignes.

From Airport to Tignes – Approximate times with no traffic:

  • 2 hours from Chambéry airport
  • 2 hours 30 minutes from Annecy
  • 3 hours from Lyon, Grenoble or Geneva

There is only one ski pass for both Val d’Isère and Tignes so you get access to the full Espace Killy ski domaine for one price.

So there you have it, have you narrowed down your favorite yet? It’s a tough choice! If it helps, all these resorts have fantastic facilities, and your choice will probably come down to what sort of atmosphere you are looking for aprés-ski and of course, the wallet.

Have fun on the slopes and à bientôt!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. This looks like such a fun trip! And you can’t beat those views as your going down the slopes. WOW breathtaking!

    1. Yes, it is definitely something to try! The fresh air and the view, just amazing!

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