Are ski holidays off the playing cards till subsequent winter? All the pieces it’s good to learn about booking a post-lockdown ski vacation
Holidays will be banned in England from Wednesday, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a third national lockdown to last until February or March. Similar rules apply across Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
While dreadful news for the entire travel industry, the timing of the new lockdown is particularly devastating for ski holiday operators, agents and resorts. It comes at a time when the ski season would be approaching its busiest time, which peaks at February half term.
With Christmas and New Year ski holidays already lost to the pandemic, and potentially now half term, hopes rest on the end of the season and Easter. But there’s still a significant level of uncertainty around booking, with strict travel restrictions in place across the continent. That said, some operators, including the UK’s leader Crystal Ski Holidays, are keen to stress they “haven’t totally written off this season.”
Some are less optimistic and next winter is proving to be the main beacon of hope for the ski industry. Operators are seeing increased booking for 2021/22 as people look to secure their place on the slopes, with demand likely to skyrocket if Britons don’t get to ski at all this season.
“As agents we are putting all our efforts into the 2021/22 ski season, where demand is exceptionally high with lots of big groups making enquiries,” said Angus Kinloch, managing director of agent SkiLine.
As ever there’s an endless list of questions keen skiers and snowboarders have about making plans to return to the mountains. Here we look at the most frequently asked queries around the lockdown’s impact on ski holidays and whether it’ll actually be possible to make fresh tracks this season.
Are ski resorts open?
It’s complicated. Whether resorts are open varies between countries and is ever-changing. In France, resorts are open, but ski lifts are closed, meaning if you want to ski it involves ski touring or hiking. A decision on when lifts will reopen is expected by January 7. In Italy resorts and lifts have been closed since the end of October and the Government has recently pushed the planned reopening date back to January 18, under another national decree.
In Switzerland the major resorts are open, but lifts are operating at reduced capacity and some are limiting the number of people allowed on the mountain each day using online reservation systems. In Austria resorts were allowed to reopen on Christmas Eve, despite the country going into lockdown two days later, during which lifts and slopes have remained in operation but for locals only. Slopes in Scandinavia, Andorra, Spain and Bulgaria are open too, but also only for local residents, while in Slovakia the resorts that were open have now been shut again due to rising cases. Scotland’s resorts have also been forced to close under the new lockdown, just a matter of weeks after they opened. We did warn you it was complicated.
Can Britons travel to ski resorts?
Currently, it is not possible to travel to any of Europe’s major ski destinations due to restrictions on UK arrivals, while under lockdown rules, in any case, holidays are banned.
Currently, only four EU countries allow non-essential travellers in from the UK, as Governments tighten border restrictions due to the new variant of Covid-19. Of the remaining four that will permit UK arrivals – Greece, Slovenia, Estonia and Lithuania – all are imposing a requirement to quarantine on arrival. And yes, while technically it is possible to ski in all four of these countries, they are nowhere near to being major ski holiday destinations for Britons.
Of the major Alpine nations, France is only permitting essential travel from the UK, with any arrivals from Britain also required to present a negative Covid-19 test. Entry into Italy from the UK is only permitted for those with official residency or those with absolute necessity and currently anybody flying into Italy must provide their airline with a negative test before takeoff and then take another test on arrival – whatever the result of this testing process Britons are then required to quarantine for two weeks.
Travellers from the UK are not allowed to enter Switzerland currently, unless they are a legal resident, and anybody who does arrive from Britain must quarantine for 10 days. There has been a ban on flights from the UK to Austria since December 22, which remains in place until January 10. What’s more, arrivals from the UK are required to quarantine for 10 days, which can be reduced to five days with a negative test result.
Whether these restrictions will remain in place for the rest of the ski season and once the UK’s lockdown is lifted remains to be seen. It all depends on infection rates and the rollout of vaccines.
Will ski holidays in February go ahead?
With ski holidays in January already largely cancelled by all major operators the spotlight is on February departures.
The outlook is still largely uncertain, but hopes are dwindling as airlines are expected to begin cancelling flights due to depart next month. Boris Johnson has said the lockdown in England will last for the foreseeable future but he hopes restrictions could start to be eased around mid-February. Schools will not go back until after the February half-term holidays, at least.
This casts significant doubt on any hope of a family ski trip this half term, which is one of the most lucrative times for the ski industry.
“As a result of the latest national lockdown measures we’re cancelling all holidays departing on or before February 12,” confirmed a spokesperson from Crystal Ski Holidays. Regarding February half-term holidays, Crystal says: “We’ll monitor Government advice and contact customers as soon as possible if we can’t operate their holidays.”
Bookings for this key period are already significantly down year-on-year. Xavier Schouller, chairman at Peak Retreats confirms his operation is only currently 40 per cent booked for the half-term week, when in a usual year 90 per cent is typical.
“Many of our clients told us they are still hoping to get away skiing for February half term,” he said.
“We have a good number of clients booked for February half term who are holding on for now,” echoes Rupert Longsdon, CEO of The Oxford Ski Company, who is being pragmatic about the current climate. “The situation may improve by then, but with infection rates increasing in the UK and the Alps, suddenly February seems not that far away, especially for things to improve to allow people to travel and ski lifts to open,” he said.
Will I be able to go skiing at Easter or later in the season?
“We anticipate this could be one of our best performing years for springtime and Easter skiing, with a clear appetite amongst avid skiers to get back to the slopes,” said Estelle Giraudeau, managing director for the UK & Northern Europe at Club Med.
It’s a statement that doesn’t go unsupported. Surveys by the likes of the Mountain Trade Network and the Ski Club of Great Britain have found that the British skiers who intend to go on a ski holiday, if they can, this season hope to do so in March or later. Therefore ski companies will be hoping the national lockdown restrictions are lifted as planned, which will enable them to make the most of this pent-up demand. “Easter is where the focus is. We expect a last minute dash, if allowed,” said Longsdon.
With Easter falling early on April 4 this year, there is still every chance a spring ski holiday could happen, after restrictions are lifted. “Easter and beyond is our best chance of skiing this winter, so it’s understandable that many people want to book for April and cross their fingers,” said Richard Sinclair, managing director of travel agent SNO, who predicts if ski holidays can go ahead April dates will “be booked out very early.”
Most resorts in Europe close between mid- and late-April, with the most snow-sure staying open in May, depending on conditions – giving skiers still plenty of time to hit the slopes in the likes of Val Thorens, Tignes, Sölden, Cervinia and Zermatt.
Sjoerd van der Wal/Sjo
“We are still taking bookings for the Easter break and many of our resorts will be open as late as departure dates on April 18 2021, including our brand new resort of La Rosiere in the French Alps. Other resorts including Val Thorens will be open until the May 9 with the last departure date being May 2,” said Giraudeau from Club Med.
Joe Ponte, CEO of Hotelplan UK, which owns leading operators Inghams, Ski Total, Esprit Ski and Flexiski, is “hopeful” that there will be ski holidays towards the end of this winter season. “We know some people still desperately want to go. We’re still closely monitoring the situation, keeping our customers informed, and will do what we can to help them get back to the slopes when possible,” he said.
Should I book a late-season ski trip now?
“We are advising regular clients to hold fire for holidays this winter for now, at least until a decision about opening up of ski resorts is made. If they are open, operators like Club Med and Hotelplan are still planning to operate and I’m certain demand will be there,” said Kinloch from SkiLine.
Longsdon agrees that skiers should “just hold back a couple of weeks.” However he reminds potential holidaymakers that “all bookings come with flexible cancellations terms for Covid-19 related reasons. To book a chalet or hotel now does give the joy of something to look forward to, whilst at the same time the confidence in knowing you are able to pull out if required.”
Club Med is one such operator offering total flexibility to its clients. “We understand there may also be a hesitancy in people booking a holiday for fear of financially losing out, but we want to assure our customers that if we do have to cancel your holiday then they will receive a Refund Credit Note seven days prior to departure for the full amount paid or receive a full refund within 14 days,” said Giraudeau, who reveals that research has found that 69 per cent of Britons are planning on booking their ski holiday trip less than a month in advance this winter, and over a third less than two weeks before departing – a stark contrast to usual booking patterns.
Will ski holidays happen next winter and when should I book?
With so much uncertainty clouding the rest of this ski season, many are looking further ahead and already making plans for winter 2021/22.
“We have now given up any prospect of getting many skiers away this winter, despite a big pick up in demand for skiing in March and April,” said Kinloch, who confirms British-run Le Ski, which operates chalets in the French Alps, has chosen to cancel its entire programme for the rest of the season. Others are likely to follow suit.
The UK’s leading operator Crystal is slightly more upbeat about the remainder of this season, but again is planning for the future. “We’re operating in challenging times but we haven’t totally written off this season and if we can get people away safely we will. However, booking patterns are suggesting that customers are more confident booking next season with sales significantly up every day,” said a spokesperson.
This is echoed by Ponte from Hotelplan who confirms that “sales for the 2021/22 ski season are much stronger than normal,” with a particular focus on Inghams’ Lapland holidays, which “have been even more popular than usual, with sales well ahead of last year.”
The Oxford Ski Company has seen similar demand, with 70 per cent of new enquiries over last weekend being for ski holidays next winter.
Operators began to sell holidays for next year earlier than ever before and places have begun to fill up fast. Sinclair calls it “a perfect storm,” which combines operators running fewer properties, a high number of transferred bookings from this season to next and huge pent up demand from skiers who are determined to travel next winter. All of which leads to demand potentially outweighing supply in 2021/22, especially during peak dates.
“At SNO our next-winter bookings are already at a level we’ve not reached in previous years before April. If you want to ski next winter, especially at Christmas, New Year, February half term or Easter it’s wise to reserve your spot now,” said Sinclair.
Telegraph Travel consumer expert Nick Trend echoes this. “By booking now you will certainly get the best choice of peak season holidays and that is worth something when the best accommodation in the most popular destinations, and flights at peak times, will surely book up quickly, despite the current uncertainties,” he said.
What do I need to know before booking and is my money safe?
There are advantages to both booking a ski holiday now or waiting until the last minute.
If you’re still keen to travel this winter it might pay to wait to see what happens if/when lockdown and travel restrictions are lifted, so you can be confident that resorts will be open and you’ll be able to travel restriction free. That said, if you chose to book now, many trusted operators are offering free alterations and money-back Covid-19 guarantees. Your money and booking will be safe.
“Make sure that you book with a bonded tour operator so that your money is protected if the company goes out of business. And I would recommend going with an Abta or Aito member, the two organisations have a code of conduct and a dispute resolution service if things go wrong,” says Nick Trend.
The same applies for next winter – but there might be more incentive to book sooner rather than later.
Regarding the recent increase in demand for ski holidays next winter, a spokesperson from Crystal explains: “It is not just customers transferring their holidays, but new bookings coming as well. We know skiers are desperate to get back to the slopes and if customers have a specific holiday or destination in mind for next season they should definitely book early.”
Also remember the importance of insurance. Relatively few providers offer Covid-related cancellation cover; exceptions are AllClear and CoverforYou. Some of the very few companies that can arrange insurance if you travel against FCDO advice include Campbell Irvine and Battleface (who will also now cover you for winter sports).