Skiing and snowboarding holidays are not cheap. The best money-saving tip is probably not to go on one in the first place.
But while there’s no getting round the fact that a ski trip is one of the pricier holidays you can take, that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to get good value for money.
With its Ski Plus City pass Innsbruck seems set on offering that. Encompassing a ski pass valid at 13 resorts surrounding the Austrian alpine city, ski buses to get there, public transport, 22 attractions in the area, admission to three different swimming pools and more, it certainly packs more punch than your normal lift ticket.
A five-day pass is €258 (£228), with children half-price. That compares to €308 for five days in Austria’s famous Arlberg region, home to St Anton, where children pay 60 per cent of full price.
To test the Ski Plus City pass for a family trip, I spent four days in Innsbruck with my wife and 12 and 10-year-old daughters.
Ski and the city: Innsbruck is surrounded by 13 resorts with the closest Nordkette looking own over the city itself
The main attraction was snowboarding and skiing and the baker’s dozen of resorts near Innsbruck offer plenty of choice of slopes.
There’s options here for everyone: from beginners hitting the snow for the first time, to intermediates looking for long cruising blue runs and advanced skiers and snowboarders wanting challenging terrain, snowparks and off-piste.
But we also had a desire to explore the city of Innsbruck and experience what it had to offer.
Steeped in history, Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol region, is about much more than escaping to the slopes, it is also a compact city, with a rich heritage, delightful old town, array of shops, bars and restaurants and vibrant atmosphere.
Think of Innsbruck as the opportunity to get two holidays for the price of one – a city and mountain break at the same time.
For the budget conscious, being in a city also means most things, from the cost of accommodation, to shopping and eating out, are also substantially cheaper than in a ski resort.
That benefit makes Innsbruck a potential destination to stick on the list for couples where one partner is keener on skiing than the other, for those who want to do some snowsports but have days off, and families who’d like to dip their toes in. All without the massive expense of being in a ski resort.
The obvious question in snow fanatics’ minds though will be: ‘Can we handle being a bus ride away from setting edge to snow?’ As a family of committed skiers and snowboarders, our verdict was that you can – and while it might involve some sacrifices it also comes with some benefits.
Colourful past: Named after its bridge that crosses the River Inn, Innsbruck is surrounded by mountains, beyond which lie Germany to the north and Italy to the south
Among the sights to see in Innsbruck’s old town is the famous Golden Roof building
The first thing that hits you when you land at Innsbruck airport is the mountains – a promising start for anyone staying in a city to go skiing.
Get off the plane to walk across the runway and the steep, snow-covered peaks rise straight up in front of you, feeling far closer than you’d expect. This also means that the views throughout the city are stunning.
Innsbruck, named after its bridge over the river Inn that loops round the north of the city, sits on a flat plain in a valley between Germany to the north and Italy to the south.
Innsbruck is a small and very civilised airport and it’s just a cheap and easy 15-minute bus ride into the city centre. Having left Gatwick at 8.25am, we were at reception checking into our hotel, Motel One, by 11.45am Austrian time.
For Britons weary of the extortionate cost of getting to and from our domestic airports, cheap public transport to your ultimate destination always feels like a very warm welcome.
And public transport in Innsbruck is superbly comprehensive, with trains, a tram system, and buses to whisk you around.
While not wanting to turn this into a busman’s holiday review, those buses are worth a special mention, as Innsbruck’s are the key to unlocking what it has to offer. Regular, reliable and punctual buses run out to the surrounding area and mountains, the only catch being you’ll have to take your skis or snowboard onto the bus with you.
You can even go one better than the bus and jump on the Hungerburgbahn funicular, direct from Innsbruck city centre to the small Nordkette ski resort that looks down over the city. Time it right and you can achieve the much-coveted prize of leaving London after breakfast and being on the slopes here by lunchtime.
Alpine rides and city lights: Simon Lambert on the way up the mountain at Schlick 2000 with his ten-year-old daughter, Georgina (left). In the evening you can enjoy Innsbruck’s lit up streets and buildings (right)
The 13 resorts around Innsbruck range from cosy Muttereralm, to the high altitude and extensive Stubai Glacier, and the beauty of the Ski Plus City pass is that it lets you pick and choose where you want to go to.
You can pick out some of these resorts from the windows of the 13-storey Motel One. It’s right by the main Hauptbahnhof railway station and tracks, but the triple glazed windows meant you couldn’t hear any noise.
You also have spectacular background views from the floor to ceiling windows. Even from our pair of first floor rooms, you had a great view of Innsbruck’s famous ski jump and the peaks behind it.
A far better 360 degree vista is on offer from the lounge, with its relaxed seating, on Motel One’s 13th floor. Here a copious buffet breakfast is served in the mornings, while it doubles as a bar in the evenings.
Motel One bills itself as a budget design hotel – the chain has locations across Europe – and rooms are stylish and relatively spacious, with some nice designer touches, big comfy beds and decent quality bedding.
Prices start at £90 and a quick check online in late-January revealed a double room for two adults would cost £218 for two nights over the final weekend of February (£109 per night) with breakfast at £14 extra per person each day. Good luck matching that price for a February night in a ski resort.
The hotel was a five-to-ten-minute walk to the heart of the city and old town – and the advantage of being at the main station was that it’s right next to the terminal where all the buses to the resorts start from. Walk out the door, go to the correct bus stop, and off you go.
From the city to the mountains: You can explore Innsbruck’s old town in the morning…
and then be on the slopes by lunchtime at Axamer Lizum, a 30-minute bus ride from Innsbruck
The first of the resorts we paid a visit to was Axamer Lizum, just 19km and a 30-minute bus ride from Innsbruck, where the new fast Hoadlbahn gondola takes you from the 1,580m base station to the top of the resort at 2,340m in just six minutes.
Axamer Lizum has more than 40km of slopes – mainly a mix of blues and reds – and with just nine lifts, it feels small compared to the ever-expanding, interlinked European ski areas we’ve become used to, but there is more than enough there to enjoy a good day’s skiing or snowboarding.
An easy end-of-day bus ride from Axamer Lizum, got us back to the hotel at about 4.30pm. The children and my wife wanted to have some downtime in the rooms, so I headed out to sample what Innsbruck has to ease the muscles after a day on the slopes.
My pick was the Amraser Strasse public pool and sauna, housed in a glorious three-storey art deco galleried building, with dry saunas, a steam room, plunge pools, relaxation areas and its flagship rooftop sauna, with a panorama view of the Nordkette mountains.
One of the pleasures of an Austrian ski holiday is the wellness and sauna areas at some hotels, which are a major selling point for luring in guests but bump up the price you pay. In Innsbruck there’s no need to splash out on a luxury hotel to get that wellness area when you can visit a top-notch public sauna like Amraser Strasse for about €18.
The Amraser Strasse pool isn’t included in the Ski Plus City pass, but three impressive public swimming pools in outlying areas with slides and other fun things to keep the kids entertained are.
These would be ideal for a day off skiing, when you could explore the city and its sights and take advantage of some of the other attractions on the Ski Plus City pass. These range from the Alpine Zoo, to the landmark Golden Roof building, the Imperial Palace, or the intriguing sounding Anatomical Museum.
The pass also gets you into Swarovski Kristallwelten, another short bus ride away in Wattens, where the famous crystal firm’s headquarters host gardens, a museum / art gallery and much more.
Busman’s holiday: Reliable and included in the Ski Plus City pass, Innsbruck’s buses are the key to enjoying what it has to offer. Simon Lambert and his daughter Alicia, 12, head for the slopes
For those heading up the mountain there is, of course, a wealth of choice that means you can choose a resort to suit your mood or the conditions.
On a sunny, blue-sky day, high altitude Kuhtai with its wide, open pistes, starting at 2,020m, is a great choice, with a good selection of not-too-tricky red runs for intermediate to advanced skiers and a more challenging black run area for those keen to test themselves.
An even higher altitude option and the largest area on offer is the Stubai Glacier, about an hour away, while on another day you could pick a contrast to that by visiting Patscherkofel.
Dubbed Innsbruck’s local mountain, Patscherkofel is less than a 15-minute bus ride from the city centre and is a charming small resort with runs winding down through the forest, and a recent upgrade thanks to the arrival of a new ten-seat cable car.
Back in the high life: Kuhtai’s pistes start at 2,020m and stretch across both sides of the valley
An area that caught my eye but we didn’t visit was Serlesbahnen, in Mieders, which promotes itself as being great for ‘beginners, re-starters and leisurely skiers’. Its Kids Land area, where parents can get their children on skis, is conveniently located at the foot of the slopes and is free of charge for those with a lift ticket, but if you don’t have one admission costs just €5.
Places like Schlick remind you of the joy of smaller resorts: finding bits you like and lapping runs
Stay on the bus that goes past Serlesbahnen and you continue to the amusingly-named Schlick 2000.
Schlick was our favourite of the resorts that we visited. We loved the long cruising blue run down from the top cable car station to the mid station, which traverses across the mountain before opening up into a fun, wide piste, with banks, side hits, gullies and tree runs to entertain you on the side.
The past couple of decades have brainwashed skiers and snowboarders into thinking bigger is better, but places like Schlick remind you of the joy of smaller resorts: lapping runs, finding bits you like and doing them again and again. It’s all about perfecting turns, discovering fun spots, and enjoying the life of glide.
To that extent, I’d love to return to Innsbruck in great snow conditions and explore some of the other small resorts that look like they could be a lot of fun, such as Bergeralm.
Schlick 2000 is another resort half an hour from Innsbruck and combines cruisey runs, with open freeride terrain, and was a family favourite thanks to fun gullies, tree runs and side hits
But if you focus just on skiing, you won’t get the best out of an Innsbruck trip. The city warrants time spent exploring. The attractive newer city centre gives way to the winding streets of the old town, with charming pastel painted buildings, that open out on to numerous squares.
All in all, Innsbruck has a great atmosphere and that’s added to by a broad selection of places to eat that will fill you up for perhaps half the cost of the bill for dinner out in a ski resort.
Our highlights included ribs at Flo Jos, with its quirky interior featuring a Heath Robinson-style ceiling contraption, and a fantastic wiener schnitzel at Weisses Rossl, in the heart of the old town, where I joined my youngest daughter who was keeping up her schnitzel streak for the holiday.
Another hit was my eldest daughter and wife’s favourite meals of the holiday, pork escalopes with butter rice, in the atmospheric Stiftskeller restaurant and beer hall. Here the queue for a table stretched out the door – luckily we had a reservation.
My special mention goes to the lammhaxe with langos, at the Adlers hotel rooftop Weitsicht restaurant, a lamb shank served with a battered deep fried flatbread (the langos) with shallots and sour cream. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? But the waitress said to shred the lamb off the bone and spread it on the langos – and it was pure magic.
Rich heritage: Even without setting foot in a pair of skis, Innsbruck has more than enough sites, attractions and activities to fill your time on a trip
If all that hearty fare sounds like the kind of thing that you might need to work off, there are plenty of ways other than skiing to do it in and around Innsbruck. Take your pick from city walks, toboganning, or an extensive network of winter walking trails to take advantage of, ranging from short strolls in the surrounding countryside and foothills, to winter hikes up to alpine huts.
It seems you could easily do a week in Innsbruck and only scratch the surface of what it has to offer in terms of activities, let-alone get some skiing in.
It’s the perfect compromise where there is a lop-sided appetite for skiing. In Innsbruck, you could ski a bit, explore the city, and have some days off the mountain
But it really does work well for the latter too.
With more than a decade of winter sports family holidays with our children under our belts, experience has taught me that there’s a lot to be said for the convenience of stepping out of your accommodation and onto the piste.
The less hassle involved, the less chance of arguments, so I did wonder how doing daily journeys to the slope would play out. I wouldn’t say we were a well-oiled machine – there was at least one dash for a bus – but surprisingly, disagreements were minimal.
There’s also a pleasure to be taken in travelling to a resort for a day on the mountain: the anticipation as you watch the scenery unfold and wind your way there and the decompression it offers on the way back, as you sit on the bus and chat about your day.
Sure, you might not be getting first lifts – although catch an early bus out of Innsbruck and you could have a decent crack at it – but in all honesty we don’t do that anyway. And we enjoyed the experience of soaking up a city too, the variety of the resorts to choose from and the journeys to them.
This kind of approach also provides the perfect compromise where there is a lop-sided appetite for skiing. In Innsbruck, you could ski a bit, chill a bit, explore the city, and have some days off the mountain doing other things, without feeling the pressure to max out slope time as you’ve paid through the nose to be in a resort.
With a soft spot for the city and more of those 13 resorts to tick off my list, I’ll be back – as a famous Austrian once said.
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