I travel quite a bit to to Austria for skiing and other reasons (12 trips or more since 1999). I just made my third trip of 2003 two weeks ago, and will be heading there again in January. Here are some of my impressions.
1. LIFT LINES. The big Austrian resorts have invested huge dollars to alleviate these problems. At St. Anton or Lech, it's hard to find a lift older than 1991, and most are high-speed, detachables with bubble canopies. That being said, you can still encounter lines. Getting on the Naserein gondola last year after a 3 meter dump on a Saturday was a competitive experience indeed. Three days later, I experienced no lines on the Schindler lift at 1 pm--very rare. Schindler, btw, is a lift the resort does not want to replace because it does not want to cram too many people on Schindler at once. The first part of the trail leading down from the lift is narrow, steep, and generally icey.
2. SMOKING. It's dying, but slowly. With every trip, I am noticing more non-smoking cars on trains, more non-smoking areas in restaurants, and non-smoking hotel rooms. The EU is waging war on smoking in Europe and its gradually having an impact.
3. PISTES. Unlike in the US, you are not going to find much challenge on most marked terrain--even at a place like St. Anton. I skied Kandahar last year for the first time and was not blown away. It was steep in sections but pretty wide and manageable for any advanced skier. St. Anton has some marked Extreme Trails that are challenging, but most of the truly challenging terrain is off-piste. In otherwords, don't look at the trail map trying to find challenge. You'll need to reserve a guide and go off trail for that, but if you do, you won't be dissappointed.
4. PRICES. Lift tickets are cheaper, and food is about the same price but better. Lodging is the big wildcard. US travel agencies try to steer US skiers to 3&4 star venues that can be very expensive. They don't tell you that you can and 6 buddies can rent an appartment in a nearbye town for 66 euros a night or stay in a modest two star for less than a hundred a night for two people. To find modest digs, you have to go directly to a resort's web site and book it yourself. You also have to be willing to sacrifice ammenities: pools, bars, restaurants, sauna, etc. However, you can get the most important ammenities at a low cost: a comfortable room and a private bathroom.
5. LOCAL TRANSPORTATION. A car is indeed a nice convenience at a big resort like the Arlberg, but it can add a lot of cost to your trip. Expect to pay up to $100 a day for a vehicle (that includes extras such as taxes, highway stickers, ski racks). On top of that, gas is over $5 a gallon (close to a euro a liter), and parking is generally not free. At STANTON, if you decide to drive from your hotel to Rendl for the day, expect to pay up to 25 euros for daily parking near the Rendl gondola. That being said, if you go for cheap accomodation in an outerlying village, the conveniences of a car may make the costs worthwhile.
I personally prefer going the route of public transport. Most resorts have decent local shuttle bus systems, and many are conveniently linked to airports via the train or coach services.
Going this route will save you cash and in at least one case, it allowed me to get to the slopes during a huge storm (roads were closed but the train rolled on). I truly enjoy train travel b/c it allows me to soak in views, sleep, or sip a cool beverage after or before a long flight. 2d class train travel in Europe is also remarkably cheap--especially if you buy your tickets locally.
6. FOOD. I have a love/hate relationship with Austrian food. I love getting into STANTON after a long flight and enjoying a big Weiss beer and a Weiner Schnitzel at Amalis followed by a Sachar Torte. However, after a couple of days, Austrian food gets kind of borring. It's very heavy and contains too much meat for my tastes. Fortunately, Austrians make fairly decent salads, pasta, soups, roasted potatoes, and pasteries, and that's what I tend to live on after about day three. At big resorts, you'll find some Italian and Asian restaurants to help you with the monotony: Charlie's Pizza at Lech comes to mind. Also, seafood entrees can be quite good in Austria despite it's inland location. The Italian and French resorts definitely offer better food.
7. OBNOXIOUS SKIERS. You get them in Europe and you get them in the United States. There's no difference.
8. FIRST TRACKS. There's no such concept in Europe. If you get up early, you'll be rewarded by untracked snow after a storm or fresh groomed corduroy--depends on what your preference is. Euros sleep late, and eat long lunches. That means there's good skiing early in the morning and during the lunch period.
9. SNOW. Unlike say Stowe VT, which gets lake effect snow almost daily during long stretches of the winter, European resorts tend to get there snow in a 2-4 big storms a year. Some resorts get their snow early in the season (Solden or St. Anton), but many do not get major storms until March (Wengen/Murren for example).
Between these storms are long dry spells. In the Western Alps, snow does not hold well below 1300 meters, so always look for a resort with lots of terrain above that mark. Be prepared to dowload on gondolas to get back to your village at night: top to bottom skiing is becoming the exception rather than the rule in the Alps. Even when conitions are excellent, downloading is a good option in Europe because lower trails tend to be steep and crowded. I'd rather save my energy for the better snow and borader expanses at higher altitudes.
European resorts rely on extensive grooming to keep pistes skiable during these dry spells, so be prepared to ski groomed hardpack. At St. Anton, most locals have two pairs of skis (Atomic GS-IIs for hardpack and ultra fats for powder days).
Snowmaking is not popular in Europe because of the high cost of energy and environmental concerns. Most resorts only use it to keep the runs that head back to the village covered--yet another reason not to ski these slopes.
Well, that's about all I can think about for now. Where to Ski and Snowboard Worldwide has a good chapter comparing the differences between North American and European resorts. My overall feeling is that you have to go where the snow is. Europe can be hell during a bad snow year and there have been quite a few of those as of late. Travel agencies want skiers to book European vacations months in advance. This is a huge, huge mistake, and a formula for profound dissapointment. Unless you have to travel to Europe for some other reason, always book last minute and go where the snow is--even if that means going to Utah rather than Austria. No travel agent will tell you this but airlines offer extremely reasonable last minute deals to Europe during the slow months of Jan-March, and you can almost always find some type of room (even at the big places) last minute using the resort's online booking system.
[ October 05, 2003, 05:00 AM: Message edited by: West Virginia Skier ]