With thousands of drive-to-ski miles under our belts, we know a thing or three about going skiing and snowboarding by car. It might sound like a mission at first, but a road trip to the mountains has lots of benefits – especially if you travel with friends who are happy to take turns at the wheel and make the journey fun.
You can add an extra ski day or two to your trip by driving overnight, pack as much as you want without having to lug it around airports AND make big savings by (i) not paying for airport parking or taxis, (ii) avoiding ski carriage or excess baggage charges and (iii) buying your food before you drive up the mountain.
Driving distances and times from Calais to the nearest alpine ski resorts.
Flights for peak dates book up early and it’s hard to find ski bargains over the school holidays. Driving there can make the holiday a lot cheaper:
We know cars aren’t always the most eco form of travel – but your carbon footprint’s far less when you drive to the Alps compared to travelling by air. Especially so if you have a hybrid or electric vehicle – see our page on EV ski road trips for more information.
It sounds 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, a cheeky champagne break in Reims 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 to stock up on food.
With no luggage limits to contend with, you can take however much you like. For families, that might mean all the baby essentials, their favourite toys and spare clothes. If you’re self-catering in resort, you can 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!
At the end of the day, filling up the car with friends and family is no worse than a sardine-tin budget flight, and at least you’ve got the option of stopping whenever you fancy to stretch the legs. Plus you’ll avoid the rigmarole of a busy airport and check-in; not to mention the wait for your luggage the other side.
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.
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:
|Country||Self-Breathalyser Kit||Headlamp Adjustment||First Aid Kit||Reflective Jacket||Snow Chains||Vignette||Warning Triangle|
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…
To Pack for the Drive:
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.
Images ©pierpaoloromano.it 2013
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