Driving to the Alps

Read our ultimate guide to driving to alpine ski resorts, then pick a self-drive ski holiday.

Why should I drive to the Alps?

With thousands of drive-to-ski miles under our belt, the SNO team are experts at going skiing and snowboarding without flying.

Let us tell you why we love to travel to the mountains in our own cars, and then decide for yourself.

  • Add an extra two days to your trip, at no extra cost.
  • Take as much stuff as you like, with more room in your car and no lug it through airports.
  • Make big savings by (i) not paying for airport parking or taxi, (ii) avoiding ski carriage or excess baggage charges and (iii) buying your food before you drive up the mountain into that expensive ski resort.

Flights for peak dates book up early and its hard to find bargains skiing the school holidays. Driving there can make the holiday a lot cheaper:

  • Rather than buying a ticket for each member of the party, with most channel crossings, you’re just paying for the vehicle. If there’s an extra seat going spare and you have room in your accommodation, you can bring an extra friend along without the overall costs shooting up.
  • Taking your own car means you can fill it with as much stuff as you need without worrying about luggage fees and ski-carriage surcharges.
  • Doing a big supermarket shop before you set off works out a lot cheaper than buying ingredients on the mountain. It’s also possible to stop at a cheap hypermarket en-route; so you don’t have to splash the cash in resort.
  • At the end of the day, filling up the car’s no worse than a sardine-tin budget flight, and at least you’ve got the option of stopping whenever you fancy stretching the legs. Plus you’ll avoid the hassle of a busy airport and check-in; not to mention the wait for your luggage the other side.

It sound’s unlikely that driving could be quicker than flying but when you take all the waiting time and travelling to and from the airport into account, there’s not much in it. Journey time to the best self-drive resorts usually takes between 9 and 13 hours so it’s easily manageable in a single day.

There’s always the option to split the journey into two halves and make a stop en-route, whether it’s Disneyland or a cheap hotel by the motorway.

Having your wheels in resort can also open up opportunities. Hop around different towns for a change of scenery, park at the ski lifts to avoid the buses or nip out to the supermarket for cheaper food.

With no luggage limits to contend with, you can take however much you like. Bring whatever food you fancy - pack essentials like Marmite, decent tea and your favourite cereal rather than forking out on foreign brands that people might not like. Cooking and freezing things like bolognaise before you leave also makes a week of self-catering much less hassle. On the way home, pick up continental delicacies like champagne (most routes go through the region itself) to thank the dog-sitter... It’s hard not to leave France without a bundle of fabulous cheese but bear in mind you’ll have to put up with the aroma!

Best Rersorts for Self-Driving

Driving distances and times from Calais to the nearest alpine ski resorts.

Distance: 523 miles
Time: 7hrs 50min

Distance: 503 miles
Time: 8hrs 03min

Distance: 537 miles
Time: 8hrs 08min

Distance: 554 miles
Time: 8h 12

Distance: 546 miles
Time: 8hrs 14min

Distance: 542 miles
Time: 8hrs 17min

Distance: 548 miles
Time: 8hrs 25min

Distance: 528 miles
Time: 8hrs 28min

Distance: 565 miles
Time: 8hrs 32min

Distance: 550 miles
Time: 8h 41

Distance: 548 miles
Time: 8hrs 48min

Distance: 580 miles
Time: 8hrs 57min

Distance: 594 miles
Time: 8hrs 57min

Distance: 578 miles
Time: 8h 59

Distance: 599 miles
Time: 9hrs 13min

Distance: 606 miles
Time: 9hrs 19min

Distance: 606 miles
Time: 9hrs 23min

Distance: 619 miles
Time: 9hrs 37min

Distance: 620 miles
Time: 9hrs 41min

Distance: 678 miles
Time: 9hrs 58min

Not only do Europeans drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road but speed limits on continental motorways differ from the UK. They’re 120km/h in some of the countries you might drive through: Switzerland, Luxemburg and Belgium; but go up to 130km/h in others: France, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and parts of Germany.

Hundreds more hidden speed cameras have been installed in France over the past few years and you’ll find the Gendarmes are particularly skilled at catching out speeding tourists. One of their favourite tricks is to wait at toll-booths, where they can check your timed auto-route tickets and work out whether you’ve broken the limit… Sat Navs and other gadgets that warn you about speed cameras are prohibited here too, so you’ll need to disable alerts and keep your eyes peeled for speed limit signs.

Most European countries (including the UK) consider people over the drink driving limit if they’ve a blood-alcohol content of 80mg or more; in France it’s 50mg – just over half.

Strictly speaking, French authorities expect you to be capable of monitoring your own alcohol level and having a self-breathalyser is supposed to be compulsory. There’s mixed opinion as to whether it’s worth buying one as they don’t tend to check much – but if you’d rather be safe than sorry, you can usually buy them for under a fiver or in a bundle with other mandatory items like a luminous safety jacket and orange warning triangle for £30 or so.

In Austria you’re required to have a warning triangle, safety jacket and snow chains in the vehicle throughout the winter. The warning triangle is the only piece of mandatory safety equipment required in Switzerland. Rules and regs are always changing, so while this was all true last time we checked, it’s worth looking up the latest before you set off.

There’s a fair bit of confusion surrounding toll gates abroad because they’re run by a bunch of different companies so signage varies and payment methods change over time. Cash, credit and debit cards are accepted by most toll stations, although you might have difficulty with some non-European cards (AMEX doesn’t work in some areas). It’s always a good idea to have a decent amount of cash (in the relevant currency) to hand too.

The total cost of tolls to drive to the Alps normally works out between £70 and £140 return but it varies a lot.

You need a special ‘vignette’ (disc), to drive on Swiss and Austrian motorways, which you can pick up from service stations. To beat the queues in France, see if it’s still possible to invest in a ‘Liber-t’ tag. This saves the worries about having the right cash/card on you and you can use a separate lane that dodges queues.

It’s possible to save some pennies and avoid toll-gate traffic by missing large sections of the motorway – this’ll end up adding a few hours to your trip but it’s a nice way to see the countryside if you’re not in a hurry.

As you’ll be covering hundreds of miles in a heavily loaded car, fuel is the other thing to bear in mind when you’re adding up the costs to drive to the Alps. Prices change all the time but you’ll find they’re mostly better on the continent than in the UK. That’s almost uniformly true of diesel, which is nearly 20p cheaper per litre in France than Britain.

In Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands the price of unleaded petrol tends to be higher on average than back home, but less in France and most other countries by about 5p a litre. Some petrol stations are unmanned, so make sure you have a bank card that will work abroad. Of course, motorway service stations are often slightly more expensive than the average so if you have time, try to fill up at a supermarket.

It’s worth thinking about European breakdown cover just in case you do end up in a spot of bother – fielding the costs yourself can be expensive (a tow to the UK comes to about £2,300!).

Most companies will give you annual cover from around £40 or short-trip cover, which starts at about £5.

There’s usually just one route into resort that everyone has to take in and out, whether they’ve driven from Calais or are coming from the airport. In the big resorts, transfer days can see the road fill up with coaches heading back and forth - local reps might be able to give you the coach departure times for an idea of when to avoid.

Motorway toll stations are another place where you might run into traffic but you shouldn’t have to wait more than half an hour – especially if you leave early and avoid peak times. The same can sometimes be true of the roads approaching Calais on the way home but ferries and tunnel shuttles are getting faster and more regular so you shouldn’t have to wait for long.

Preparing for a self-drive ski holiday

Driving essentials

On top of obvious stuff like your driving licence, you’ll need the motoring kits that road traffic officials are expecting. See the table below for the driving essentials for different countries:

Open the Printable version
of this Self Drive Checklist

What you need for your journey

Mandatory Items
Country Self-Breathalyser Kit Headlamp Adjustment First Aid Kit Reflective Jacket Snow Chains Vignette Warning Triangle
Austria N Y Y Y Y Y Y
France Y Y R Y R N Y
Italy N Y R Y R N Y
Switzerland N Y R R R Y Y
Y:Compulsory
N:Not-Necessary
R:Recommended
  • Before setting off, get the car serviced – no-one wants to break down halfway up a mountain road. The battery and the fan belt are the most likely to be damaged by the cold but it’s also worth filling your antifreeze to the maximum recommendation and making sure your windscreen wiper solution is strong enough.
  • Aim to point your car downhill when you park in the resort; this way, if the battery drains, it’ll be easier to push-start.
  • Pull the windscreen wipers off the glass to prevent them from frosting together.
  • If you leave your car untouched for a week and return to find it’s turned into an ice-sculpture, a windscreen scraper can be invaluable, the same goes for a can of de-icer for thawing frozen locks. Some people swear by a box of matches too, but we can’t recommend you try this at home, or in resort.
  • On ice or snow it’s worth starting the car in as high a gear as possible.
  • Fit snow-tires or snow chains. There are various rules about their necessity in different countries, altitudes and times of year but if you have any hiccups in a mountain area without chains or winter tires, you’re likely to be liable.

You can pick up snow chains in service stations (UK and France), shops (like Halfords) and online. The cheapest are around £30 but if you’re planning on using them in really icy conditions, it’s worth getting a high quality set (they go up to around £450). You’re paying for the level of traction and how easy they are to put on – which is why prices vary so. If you want a good set but don’t want to pay through the nose for something you’ll hardly use; you can rent decent ones for £40-ish from UK-based retailers – a quick google search should bring up some good options.

The benefit of getting chains in advance is that you can be sure to get the right size; French service stations don’t have a great range so it’s a risk expecting to be able to pick the right ones up en-route. On top of that it’s really useful to have a few goes at fitting and removing them before you head off – so you’re not frantically stretching them on at the front of a column of irate drivers in a late night blizzard (we learned the hard way).

Snow socks cost about £60 in the UK but you can pick them up for much cheaper on the continent. They’re pretty effective if the conditions aren’t too bad but aren’t legally recognised as snow grip equipment – so they might not save you from a particularly pedantic representative of the French constabulary…

Sno man’s top tips for taking children on a long car trip

To Pack for the Drive:

  • Baby wipes (a godsend for spillages, sticky hands...)
  • Blankets and pillows: not only will they encourage the kids to snooze; they’ll also come in useful on those lazy evenings in resort and no one likes a stiff neck when skiing.
  • Bribes: the dentist will forgive the odd pack of Haribo in aid of keeping the little’uns happy. Let the kids pick a magazine or activity book next time you're at the supermarket...
  • Screens: download apps and films before you leave home (just don’t forget to turn off data roaming while you’re in the tunnel).
  • Something to listen to: whether you’re into Lionel Ritchie or the Harry Potter box sets, pack a bit of variety. Let each member of the family pick their own album to keep everyone happy (you might want to hide Susan Boyle’s greatest hits…)
  • Water: the bottles with the sports caps tend to cause the least spillage. Bear in mind when the next scheduled loo break is so you don’t have to make any sudden stop-offs.

Keeping Spirits Up:

Once you’ve got to ‘I-Spy, with my little eye, something beginning with M… Mountain!’ you know you’re nearly there...

‘I went to the mountains and I packed’ then say an item; the next player has to repeat the phrase, your item and add another. Young kids might enjoy something similar but with each item beginning with a different letter of the alphabet.

Just a Minute’s great for older kids (and adults) – give someone a topic; they’ll have to describe it for a minute, trying not to hesitate, deviate or repeat themselves.

‘Who Am I?’ - pick a celebrity, fictional character or someone you know and the other players try to work out your identity using yes/no questions.

Car Bingo - Pick a car model / colour each, the winner is the one who see’s the first/most, make it as simple or complicated as you like.

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In addition to the comprehensive protection provided by SNO ltd, all of the ski holiday companies we work with are also protected by at least one of the following travel organisations:

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