everything is more fun with friends
Here are some tips for skiing with kids, particularly in Switzerland. It's Sportferien for Zurich kids, so perhaps you are already on the ski slopes this week. But it's on my mind, so I thought I'd get it on the blog for anyone doing some last minute planning.
- Little kids ski free. At most resorts, kids under 6 ski for free. You still have to get them a ski pass (usually a 5CHF refundable depot), so they can go through the turnstile. Most resorts require that the free child is always accompanied by a paying adult. Some resorts specify that the free child ride the T-bar between the legs of an adult (e.g. Atzmännig and Brunni-Alpthal). Some resorts let kids up to 8 ski free, like Saas Fee and Zermatt. Some resorts use birth year to determine if they ride for free, so even if your kid is already 6, they still might be free.
- Single ride and point cards. Some resorts let you pay per ride (about 2 francs) or buy a "points card" that come with a certain number of points and each lift charges a few points each time you use it. This can be helpful for young, beginning skiers that may not last more than an hour or two on the slopes. I've done this at Atzmännig and Flumserberg with my 4 year old. He only had enough energy to do 4 or 5 runs and I was pretty much exhausted by that time too. I was happy that we hadn't bought the day pass.
- For older kids, look for family cards. Some resort offer family ski passes, where you usually pay for the first kid and all other kids (aged 6-15) are free. I've seen this offer at Niederhorn and Stoos. Brunni Alpthal has a family card for the beginner lift, where the whole family pays the child price.
- Bring cash. I've been to a few ski hills that don't take debit or credit cards, usually the ones where you pay at the little wood shack next to the T-bar (e.g. Amden-Arvenbüel and Ibergeregg). Sometimes the restaurants, especially the ones in the middle of the slope, don't take cards. And worse, some of the towns are so small, they don't have ATMS. It's just better to be prepared with cash just in case.
- Ski half-day. Little kids often can't last the whole day skiing. I find that my kids feel more successful and happier if I don't push them to their physical and emotional limits. So we often ski half-day. A lot of resorts offer a variety of partial day passes, like 3 or 4 hour passes, afternoon passes that start at different times discounting further the later you show up, and even morning half-day passes, something I never saw in the US (maybe things have changed). My kids often have more energy in the morning, so this is a good option for us.
- The Swiss seem to be fair-weather skiers. On a cloudy day, especially if it's snowing, the slopes will be quite empty, even on the weekend. With little kids and beginning skiers, it's much easier to ski when the slopes are not crowded. With short or no lift lines, the kids don't lose momentum and waste energy like they would with a long wait. So I look forward to a forecast for cloudy weather. But on a sunny day, you better get there early or you might get shut out. It's happened to us before, where you had to park very far away and take a bus to the resort. One time, even the overflow parking was full and we had to just leave and go somewhere else.
- The Swiss tend to start late and leave early. I grew up getting to the ski resort at 8:30, so we could get a good parking place and be the first on the lift. But in Switzerland, you can usually arrive as late at 10am and still park in the main lot. But by 10:30, it's usually packed. Then around 2pm, people start leaving. I've been able to show up at 1:30 at Flumserberg and Brunni-Alpthal and get a good parking place.
- T-bars are not your friend. Most resorts in Switzerland have lots of or only T-bars (aka Schlepplifte or Skilifte), instead of chair lifts (aka Sesselbahnen). I've heard it's because it's cheaper and/or it's easier to move them. I hate T-bars for many reasons, but I've come to accept them as a necessary evil. Many T-bars are not attended by staff, so you have to grab the bar yourself and figure it out. I find this often difficult as an adult, but with small children it can be downright dangerous. My kids have been knocked over many times trying to get on and even knocked in the head by the bar (I know, how very un-Swiss of me). So plan on helping your kids get on the T-bar before getting on yourself. And prepare yourself to exit early if your kid falls off the T-bar mid-slope, which has happened to us a lot. I do not recommend riding next to a small child on a T-bar as the bar will be at your knee level instead of your bottom, which is extremely uncomfortable. It's better to let the child go first and you follow. Or for small children, have the child ride between your legs, which is less complicated than it sounds.
- Not all snow gardens are equal. Most resorts have ski schools, but not all of them have snow gardens. And not all snow gardens are wonderful magical places that will turn a screaming 3 year old into a downhill racer in 2 short hours. A snow garden is usually an enclosed ski school area with a magic carpet and very gradual short slope for absolute beginners, usually aged 3-6 years old. A snow garden is a good place for very young kids to start. The instructors focus on teaching them how to stand and walk with skis and do very basic maneuvers, like ski in a straight line for a few feet without falling over. After a week in the Flumserberg snow garden, my 4 year old was ready to try the slightly bigger slopes with a t-bar. I really like the Flumserberg snow garden, but I've seen other snow gardens that seem rather useless. Some are completely flat, so the kids can't actually ski down anything so they just spend their time walking around on skis (I'm looking at you Einsiedeln and Oberiberg). Others don't have a magic carpet, so kids have to walk back up the slope each time - very exhausting (I'm looking at you Ibergeregg). Others only have tow ropes, that difficult for anyone, let alone a frustrated 5 year old. Other beginning areas are sloped to one side, are too steep, or aren't enclosed so little beginners who can't stop have to be constantly rescued (I'm looking at you Sattel Hoch Stückli). So be picky. Flumserberg has the best snow garden I've seen so far.
- Ski school is often loosely supervised. I've only had positive experiences at Swiss ski schools, but I've heard about and seen some strange things at Swiss ski schools (like a sick kid being left alone at the restaurant while the class continued for the afternoon). At Flumserberg, they don't ask for any contact information so no one knows that your child is with a particular class. So you should put your contact information in your child's jacket pocket and tell your child what to do if they get separated from their group (i.e. find a staff member and show them the contact card so they can call the parent's cell phone). If your kid is old enough to work a cell phone, it would be good to keep one in their pocket. When taking chair lifts, ski school kids are sent up individually with strangers. I know there's only one instructor so there's no other way, but it makes me nervous all the same. Even in the snow garden, there's only one instructor for a big group of 3-5 year olds and as you can imagine, there's a lot chaos and crying. I found myself helping a lot during the class, picking up kids that had fallen and couldn't get up, unclogging traffic jams at the end of the magic carpet, rescuing lost gloves, etc. I'm sure the class would have survived without me. Perhaps it's better to just walk away and hope for the best.
- Extra clothes. This seems to be the most important element for my kids to have a happy day. So many times we've had to quit early because of wet gloves, wet socks, wet pants (it can be hard to quickly get all those layers off a 5 year old), etc. So now I carry an extra set of gloves and socks in a backpack while we ski. I have extra underwear and thermals in the car for emergencies. I also carry hand and feet warmers just in case. Not every brand works well, but if you get good ones, they can really save the day. Some recommend against direct skin contact because of the high heat, so read the directions carefully.
- Snacks. When I was growing up, each of us kids wore a fanny pack filled with fun-sized candy bars which could be eaten on the ski lift. This helped ease the misery of super cold, blizzardy, white-out days. These days, I pack crackers, fruit, gum, candy, and water in my backpack and dole a little out while we wait in lift lines. On several occasions, I've been able to rescue my kids from mid-slope emotional breakdowns with a well-played gummi bear.
- Take breaks. This is difficult for me to do because I was raised to maximize my money and time. So we used to ski from 8:45 to 16:45, counting how many runs we could make in a day. We only took a short break to eat tuna fish sandwiches for lunch at our car. But I've slowly come around to the European ski mentality, which is more focused on enjoying the day than of maximizing value. So now we usually ski for about 90 mins, take a hot chocolate break in the restaurant, ski another couple hours, eat a leisurely lunch in the restaurant and warm up, then ski another couple hours and be done a little after 15:00. Perhaps this will change as my kids get older. But for now, this schedule keeps all of us happier and focuses on having a good time not getting the most for our money.
- Reserve a table for lunch, even at self-service cafes. On busy weekends, the restaurants can get super packed and since everyone likes to eat at the same time, it can be hard to get a table, especially when the weather isn't nice enough to sit outside. At Flumserberg, my friend always reserves a table for lunch and it takes so much stress out of the day, especially with tired, wet, cold, hungry kids. I don't know if it's possible at other resorts, but it's certainly worth a try.
- Rent equipment for the season. It costs the same as renting for the week, so you might as well get it for the whole season. The cost is determined by the ski length, so for little kids, you pay about 100-150CHF for skis, boots, and poles. Many places offer a small discount (like 10%) if you rent in October. So it pays to plan ahead. If you wait too long, the rental shops might run out of used equipment to rent and will charge you a "new equipment rental" surchange. Many shops will let you buy the equipment at the end of the season for another surcharge. But kids grow so quickly, it's probably not worth it. I've rented from skirental-zueri twice and been quite happy (and they speak english). Their rates are competitive and bit a cheaper than Migros SportXX.
- Buy secondhand equipment. If you're on a budget, you can save a lot by picking up used equipment at a Brockenhaus or ski shop. I bought skis for my kids for 10CHF at Salvation Army and I've used them for two seasons because ski length doesn't vary much as kids grow. I've bought used boots at a ski shop for the past three years, ranging in price from 35-55CHF. Kid's feet grow quick, so we usually need a new size every year, but I can pass the smaller boots down to my younger son, so it's good value. You can take used equipment to any ski shop and they can service the skis and fit the boots to the skis for a small charge (like 15-20CHF). It's best to do this in October/November as the equipment can go quickly. But I've also noticed that the shops sometimes have good inventory January after people dump old equipment that was replaced by Christmas presents.
OK, that's all I can think of for now. Please leave a comment if you have other tips.