Every skier, at one point in his or her life, should have the privilege to ski the Alps. Although the iconic locations like Chamonix, St. Anton, and Verbier may garner much of the international attention, even the quainter European resorts offer lift infrastructure that would make any American landmark resort blush. But beyond the terrain and lifts, the resorts of France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy offer ski culture that’s not replicated anywhere else in the world. In many of these mountain towns skiing isn’t a part of life, it is life.
However, like a 21st birthday or a first encounter with the opposite sex, there’s a right and a wrong way to tackle this right of passage. There are times to splurge and times to be frugal; times to go out and times to reel it in; and times to bend the rules and times to fall in line. Lucky for you, we’ve put together some cliff notes to ensure you stomp, not tomahawk, through your first European adventure.
Buy a ticket to a major hub like Geneva or Munich, which will save you some coin and allow plenty of options for last minute itinerary changes depending on where snow’s the best. Most flights from the US arrive early in the morning, giving you plenty of time to catch a train or organize a shuttle. Resist the temptation to hit a half dozen towns during a ten-day trip. While immortalized in C-movies and graduation gifts, taking trains throughout Europe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: the novelty of public transportation with all of your ski gear will wear off quickly and significantly cut into ski time. At a maximum, plan on a couple of resorts for a ten-day trip, perhaps three for a two-week trip—don’t worry, the terrain wont get old.
Most international flights allow two 50-pound bags gratis. That doesn’t mean it’s some sort of Price-Is-Right inspired challenge to see how close to you can get to the limit without going over. Remember, you’ll be lugging all of this gear on trains, up narrow hotel staircases and through towns, so there’s something to be said for traveling light. And, as dorky as it is, carry your boots onto the plane—there’s no rental shop anywhere that has your custom-fit boots, incase your luggage is lost.
There’s an old joke that goes something like, “What’s somebody that speaks three languages called? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American (zing!)” There is some truth to this joke, and while most major European resorts have kindly catered to us mono-lingual Yanks by studying the Queen’s English, at least make an effort to speak the local language. Learn some key phrases (may I suggest “where’s the bathroom” and “I’m sorry”) and even though you may accidentally call your friend a “bowl” (Mein Freund ist eine Schüssel) instead of a “klutz” (Mein Freund ist ein Schussel) after he/she cuts off an Austrian ski instructor, at least you’re trying.
Meeting a cute backpacking Swede at a hostel is every (okay, many) traveler’s dream. I’m yet to meet anyone who’s had the scenario pan out for them, and I hang with a well-traveled bunch, many of them Swedes themselves. My point is, going the hostel route isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (there are exceptions of course) and there’s something to be said for the peace of mind that your gear is safe during the day and you’re not picking up some mutated versions of the H1N1 virus. Research your options, have back up plans, and don’t be afraid to leave if it’s not feeling right.
Yes, you came to ski, but let’s face it, skiing and partying fit together like a boot into a well-adjusted binding, and few skiers do it better than those in the Alps. In the US there’s a stigma that après is some sort of warm up for a main event to come. Not in the Europe: it’s full throttle right out of the gate. “Get ugly early, and get out” seems to be the unspoken motto. Don’t miss the après, but don’t let the après make you miss your morning.
There’s nothing in the US that compares to the mountains and lifts in Europe. While many US resorts have similar summit elevations as their European counterparts, none of them have the vertical relief. As such, take advantage of lifts that seemingly go everywhere, trams with top stations that are precariously perched on mountainsides and runs that go on for miles and last half of a day. Splurge for a guide your first or second day and get a lay of the land, it will pay off. Above all, get out of your comfort zone, whether that means simply riding the Augui di Mudi or rappelling into a couloir, there’s no better, or more beautiful, place to do it.
Above all, treat the trip like an adventure, not a ski vacation. If you go over with the sole intention of ticking off a hit list of resorts and runs, you’re likely setting yourself up for disappointment. As much as it is about the skiing, it’s more about experiencing something that will likely change your life forever. If you keep an open mind and roll with the punches, you’ll have stories for the rest of your life that begin, “Yeah dude, on my first trip to the Alps…”