Winter sports in Austria
This article is a travel topic
Austria offers a high density of ski resorts, most of them medium-sized. Most of Austria's ski resorts are not as spectacular and glamorous as the ones in Switzerland and France, but they are more cosy, less prone to mass tourism and a little cheaper. Due to the proximity most winter sport tourists in Austria come from southern Germany.
Winter sport tourism has become a billion euro industry in Austria and helped some towns to attain formidable wealth. Most Austrian ski resorts are former farming towns that have grown into many times their original size, but often retaining some of their charm in the old town core. A handful of ski resorts such as Obertauern were built completely from scratch in the 1960s and 1970s. Recent years have had unseasonably warm winters causing poor conditions for skiing at lower elevations. Many resorts have responded by investing heavily in artificial snow generation. Some resorts are now so well-equipped that they're capable of offering excellent skiing conditions on most pistes even if the natural snow cover is just 5cm, as long as cold weather prevails during the night. All of this comes at a price of course, both environmental and financial . Ski pass prices have risen sharply during the last decade.
When to go
The ski season lasts from early December to late March. A small number of ski resorts keep their lifts open all year on glaciers.
The best conditions for skiing are in mid-January, the coldest time of the year. Late February is a good time for sun-seekers.
The most crowded time is the period from December the 25th until January the 2nd. Advanced skiers may want to avoid this time as slopes can be too congested to be enjoyable. All of February is also rather crowded because of school and university vacations.
The least crowded times are early December, mid-January and late March.
How to go
Package holidays are normally more convenient and often cheaper if you plan on skiing for a week only. Airport transfers, flights and accommodation are usually included.
However, they have the disadvantage that they mostly run from Saturday to Saturday, they feature few resorts outside the mainstream, and there is a distinct lack of self-catering accommodation or rooms in private houses in most brochures. These types, however, make up the most popular forms of accommodation in the country.
The increase in low-cost carrier flights to Salzburg, Munich and Friedrichshafen has meant that an increasing number of visitors arrange their own transport and accommodation.
Choosing a ski resort
Price, Size and Location
As a general rule, the larger the ski resort and the higher the elevation above sea level, the higher the price. Ski passes will consume a large proportion of your budget. Beginners will nomally find that they are unable to use most pistes covered by a ski pass in a large resort such as Arlberg.
Large ski resorts have the tendency to treat the tourist like a milk cow while smaller ones make more effort and offer a more personal service.
If you're skiing in late February or March it might be a good idea to head for resorts located at higher elevations (above 2000 m), as milder temparutures can turn the snow heavy and slushy (danger of knee injury) below that.
Fast lifts (chairlifts and gondolas) mean more skiing than slow lifts (T bar lifts). You get what you pay for. Some resorts have a high proportion of black slopes and are less suitable for beginners.
Apres Ski is about getting together after an exhausting day of skiing and talking to people in the many bars and pubs. Nowadays, larger resorts also offer organized Apres Ski gettogethers.
Some ski resorts are geared to ski and snowboard alone and others toward a wider range of activities or family tourism. If you're more after relaxation than skiing and partying staying away from purely athletic ski resorts will offer you better value for money.
The majority of Austrian ski resorts are no more than a 1-2 hour drive away from a large airport. Many packages include the flight and transfer to the airport. If you're travelling independently, you'll need to take a taxi and/or train/bus. Some hotels will offer shuttle buses for their guests for a good price. Salzburg and Munich are good airports for resorts in Tyrol and Salzburg; Graz, Klagenfurt, Ljubljana and Venice for resorts in Carinthia, Styria and East Tyrol. Vienna airport is best avoided; it's a 4 hour drive away from the nearest medium-sized resort, and longer by public transport.
Some ski resorts are poorly served by rail services due to their remoteness. Arlberg, Bad Gastein, Kitzbuehel, St. Johann im Pongau and Zell am See are larger ski resorts served by frequent rail services, and are easily accessible by train from neighbouring countries. Most large ski resorts that don't have a rail station can be accessed by train followed by a 30-45 min bus transfer.
Most resorts are served by public transport, but services can be slow and sporadic, often the journey will involve several changes, and in small resorts there is often only one bus connection a day.
Austrian ski resorts are compact and pedestrian-geared so you're unlikely to need a car during your stay in a resort. Therefore, renting a car is not recommended; it normally works out cheaper to connect by taxi on departure/arrival. If you arrive in your own car, bear in mind that driving conditions can be challenging on routes to some higher resorts. It is a good idea to take snow chains and to have some experience in winter driving.
Unlike the rest of Austria, food in ski resorts can be disappointing. Most of the time, food on the pistes is overpriced, mass produced, inferior quality canteen fare. The service is also unfriendly at times, if not outright rude. Finding a satifactory food outlet can be difficult, especially in larger resorts, but not impossible. A minority of food outlets are still family run and offer home cooked food. It's worth scouting around for a good Gasthaus for a few hours before settling for a meal. Often the better outlets are located on less crowded pistes, or a few minutes' walk away from the piste. Rather than eating lunch on the pistes, it may be a better idea to book full board (unlike restaurants, hotel food is excellent in ski resorts) or to take a packed lunch.
Book accommodation as far in advance as you can. The number of beds in most resorts is limited, and the later you book the less likely you are to find good value. Be aware that accommodation in some cheap packages is not located in the main ski resort, rather in a nearby town from which you must connect by bus.
Many hotels in Austria are family run and offer personal service and surprisingly good facilities at reasonable prices, especially in smaller resorts. Going to the sauna after the pistes to warm up and relax tired muscles, as well as fine dining is considered as important as the skiing itself by many Austrians. You'll miss out on a great part of the Austrian ski experience if you book accommodation without sauna facilities.
Self-catering accommodation is also widely available, but bear in mind that the difference in total price between a half board hotel and a self catering appartment is not huge, and many skiers find they have little energy or desire to cook a meal and clean up themselves after a tiring day on the pistes.
Avalanches are an underestimated hazard and the number one killer of tourists in Austria. In short, don't venture off-piste unless you know exactly what you are doing.
There are numerous ski and snowboard rental shops in every larger resort. The choice is normally best made by convenience to the slopes or to accommodation.
When hiring equipment it's a good idea to turn up early, and since Austrians get out of bed early in general, that can mean before 8:30 am. Queuing for an hour to have your ski boots fitted can be very frustrating when you're eager to get to the pistes. It is almost always better to try to arrange ski hire, ski lessons and lift passes as soon as possible after arrival in the resort. Most of the offices will stay open until late afternoon on a Saturday (the main resort changeover day).
Austria's ski and snowboard instructor industry is centrally regulated by the government. Licensed ski instructors must take a series of comprehensive state exams to climb up the hierarchy of Skilehrer (conventional ski instructor, mostly part-time workers) , Landesskilehrer (regional ski instructor) and Staatlicher Skilehrer (national ski instructor). Courses can be taken privately or in groups (Ski school). Beginners normally book a ski school for their first week.
List of Ski Resorts
Austria's Best and Largest
Other popular resorts
Off the beaten track
Summer ski resorts