Planning a Winter Holiday in the Alps: To Drive or Not to Drive?

Posted 09-11-2017

If you are booking an all inclusive holiday deal with flights and transfers included then you may not have even considered the driving question. However, if, as more and more people are doing, you are booking a land only winter holiday and are organizing your own flights and travel arrangements, the journey to your holiday destination can become a complicated logistical challenge!

The French Alps is well served with snowtrains, public airport shuttle services and a plethora of private transfer companies. However, these do not always tie in with your flight times, or go to your particular destinations and only a few offer door to door service, which is important in the winter with heavy bags to carry. They can be long journeys with many stop offs and can also be surprisingly expensive.

After a little bit of research, you may well be asking the ‘what if we hire a car instead?’ question. The freedom and flexibility a car will give you is a significant advantage. Not only can you travel in your own time and take advantage of unsociable hour flight deals, you have the flexibility to explore when you are at your destination.  A hire car between a family or small group can also work out good value for money.

However, what about driving in the snowy Alps in winter? The media stories of traffic chaos in the Alps from last season will undoubtedly be flashing alarm bells!

 There are several factors to consider here to weigh up whether or not the advantages of a hire car outweigh the risks!

 First it is important to understand what conditions create winter traffic problems.  In a nutshell, these can be summed up to one or a combination of the following issues:

  • Unusually high numbers of cars on roads used to much lighter traffic.
  • Heavy snow falling whilst you are driving and settling on the roads in between snowplough sweeps.
  • Icy conditions
  • Poorly equipped cars driving in wintery conditions.

The horror stories of 2014 happened on the busiest changeover day of the season (the Saturday between Christmas and New Year) when it snowed heavily non-stop after a dry week of no snow in the Alps. As such, many drivers had not thought to equip their cars with snow tyres or get snow chains and found themselves skidding up the hills and unable to even steer their car off to the side of the road, blocking all traffic behind them. Grid lock ensued!

The reality is that this is really extremely rare! It doesn’t actually snow as often as you might imagine in the Alps. The meters of snow in resort are an accumulation of snowfalls that start in November. Snow falls several times throughout the season with mainly clear and sunny weather in between. Those pictures of beautiful clear blue skies and white sparkling pistes are a reality! There is probably something like a 5% chance it will actually be snowing heavily on the day you need to drive. I have been living in the Alps for 12 years now and have only once been caught in bad snow traffic, which doubled my journey time and involved me rescuing a couple with no snow chains! I have much worse memories of a normal day on the M6! 

All the roads in the Alps, especially those going up to ski resorts and villages are extremely well managed with snowploughs passing very frequently during and after any snowfall. It is nothing like the UK!

If you do end up driving on a snowy road and your car is properly equipped for the winter then you shouldn’t encounter any problems, barring other drivers' mistakes of course! Read our tips on how to drive in snow for more detailed advice.

So here are the key questions you should ask yourself to help make your final decision.

 Main journey to your destination:

  • Is it possible to get a public shuttle transfer from your arrival airport or train station to resort? The decision may well be made for you!
  • Do the times work with your arrival times? How much waiting will you have?
  • Check the shuttle / transfer route and duration. Is it unreasonably long or acceptable? How does it compare to a car journey?
  • How much will a shuttle or transfer cost compared to a hire car?
  • When are you travelling? Is there likely to be heavy traffic on the road? Saturdays are the main change over day in the Alps and the busy Saturdays will be for the Christmas and New Year holidays and from the 10 February to the 10 March.
  • How green do you want your travel to be? Group travel in a shuttle or transfer is probably more environmentally friendly than taking a car unless your car is an electric or hybrid car.

Once in your destination:

  • How much is accessible on foot or by public transport from your accommodation base? Bear in mind any walking in ski boots is hard work!
  • How frequent are local shuttles and transport services and how much are they? You don't want to find yourself waiting for an hour for a shuttle back to your accommodation in the cold at night.
  • If you choose a car, what are the parking options at your destination? A covered car park is an advantage in winter.
  • How much flexibility do you want or need once you are at your destination? Are you ski in ski out from your accommodation every day or are you planning on doing other activities away from the pistes?
  • Do you want the flexibility of exploring outside of resort?

If you decide you do want to drive to the Alps from the UK or hire a car, make sure your car is properly equipped for the winter.

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