How to go skiing on the cheap

From kipping in a Scottish bothy to finding a bed ‘down the valley’ in the Alps, there are plenty of ways and means to get out skiing when your budget is meagre

I gave up on the idea of a full-time ski career to chase the god of cash a long time ago, with no real regrets. I’ve had a great time coaching world champs and generally have had a fantastic run. Having a bit of money helps to indulge my pastime with cheeky trips to the Alps and filling the ski locker I had built into the side of my house with a fantasy collection that I could never use in a whole year. Fine for me, but what if you don’t have two ha’pennies to rub together? How do you ski on the cheap?

Many moons ago I used to drive to Scotland in a battered old Japanese car, which only had three gears working unless you held fourth in with a bungee cord, which required taking both hands off the wheel to attach it to the gear stick. Driving up from Milton Keynes, where I was working at the time, cost what I thought was a fortune in fuel, but it was nothing compared to the costs of an air ticket, getting to the airport, parking, then transfers or hire cars.

Take me to the north

Setting off at 5pm I’d get to Fort William around 2am and would sleep in the boot in the car park until the Nevis Range lifts opened. Since I did this, little has changed – except that the roads have got busier. So if you are based in MK or northwards, driving to Scotland when snow falls is viable.

We also used to travel up in my mate’s VW campervan, so we at least had beds. It was slower, mind, and when it snowed it came in through the raised roof when we slept, and the door fell off, but needs must. If you don’t want to totally slum it you can stay in a basic bothy (a small labourer’s hut) for about £20 a night if you don’t mind sharing and being out of town, then at least you don’t have to worry about waking up covered in snow.

A photo posted by Nevis Range (@nevisrange) on

Lift pass prices in Scotland are steeper than even mid-sized resorts in Europe: it costs £32 for a day pass at Nevis Range. But you’ll have saved so much on getting and staying there that this shouldn’t be an issue. If you take Milton Keynes as your starting point, share a car, sleep in it for the first night, stay in a bothy the second and ski for two days then it could cost you around £130 each, not including food.

London is further, but you can take the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston to Fort William (or indeed Aviemore) overnight on Friday, returning overnight Sunday. The cheapest way is in a regular seat, but if you pay more you can get a two-berth cabin. Going by train might cost you more per person as you’d also need to get a place in town because of your lack of ground transport. But b&b rooms in Fort William go for as little as £50 a night and at least the number 41 bus will take you to the ski area and allows skis and boards on board.

Corrie nation

What you’re actually going to Nevis Range for is the world-class freeride terrain of the back corries, because when they are in condition there is nothing to beat them. As a guide to the terrain, get a copy of Scottish Offpiste Skiing & Snowboarding: Nevis Range and Ben Nevis by Kenny Biggin. I guarantee your eyes will pop when you see the quality of what’s available and the range of difficulty. Mine did when I saw the rating given to some of the routes we skied in the early 90s just after the area opened.

Scotland can be unreliable, so if you can’t pop up there at a moment’s notice and need to plan in advance then continental Europe’s the answer for a weekend dash of reliable snow. Of course the key is booking early, and in most cases you’ll need a hire car to ensure you get there in reasonable time rather than using trains, buses and taxis.

If you’re not too picky about being too close to one of the stellar resorts then flying into places like Munich (still good for St Anton), Nice, Milan or Turin can be pretty cheap, even booking later (£130 or so return with one week’s notice). Booking early, early, early will also get you some not-too-expensive flights even into Geneva. But where to go and where to stay?

Savoie faire

It’s all about location – in other words, not staying in a resort. Many people on a ski trip want nightlife, but if you’re happy to have a few beers with your mates and concentrate on the skiing then most little villages outside the resort will do. If you want to ski the Savoie resorts of Tignes or Sainte Foy then hotels such as the Monal on the road up the valley offer great rooms and a good restaurant for around a quarter of the price of an equivalent in a big resort.

Want Chamonix's steeps on the cheap? Just stay down the road... | Chamonix Tourist Office / Christophe Henry
Want Chamonix’s steeps on the cheap? Just stay down the road… | Chamonix Tourist Office / Christophe Henry

Don’t mind a little drive to access the Chamonix area or St Gervais? Then the Auberge les Gorges de la Diosaz in Servoz is around £65 per night two sharing at a weekend with a cosy bar and fantastic food.

So yes, with a bit of thought and flexibility there are plenty of budget options for a dash out to the snow when a big dump is in the offing, whether in the UK or continental Europe. Be savvy, get planning, go skiing and it’s happy days.  FL