European Alps

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Many skiers are opting for France, Italy, and Switzerland this winter

The shrinking cost of European travel has made skiing in the Alps an increasingly appealing budget proposition. These days, for well under $1,000-sometimes for less than $700-you can get a round-trip flight and seven-night stay within a few ski lengths of Europe's best powder. You merely have to avoid peak weeks and settle for modest but comfortable three-star hotels. Why such a bargain? Europeans are hungry to get Americans back after a rough, post-September 11 winter last year. There's also a still-robust (but recently weaker) dollar, a surplus of seats on transatlantic routes in winter, and the bargain-basement price of European lift tickets (generally less than half what you'll pay in the Rockies). If you're coming from the Midwest or West, the money you'll save on lifts in Europe should make up for the extra transcontinental airfare-generally between $50 and $200-that you'll need to add to the air-and-land prices from East Coast gateways that we'll cite below. For wholly reasonable rates, you get to make your turns where skiing was invented and soak in some of the unique Alpine culture and history after the ski lifts shut down for the day.

For this article, we've surveyed the largest U.S.-based tour companies that specialize in skiing in the Alps to cull the best bargains at five of the top budget resorts in Italy, Switzerland, and France. Except where otherwise noted, the prices listed in this article are per person for round-trip air from northeastern cities (primarily New York, Newark, and Boston), and seven nights at a hotel (based on double occupancy) with continental breakfast, transfers, and European service charges and taxes. Airline taxes are generally not included. Note carefully that some of the prices apply only in January and the latter half of March. Packages are subject to availability, and prices go up in February and early March, when Europeans tend to flock to the mountains.

1. Cortina, Italy

Nicknamed "the Queen of the Dolomites," Cortina is a thousand-year-old village that looks far pricier than it is. Despite the chic shops peddling racy Italian fashions, Cortina is an ideal destination for families and bargain-hunting skiers. There's plenty of good terrain up among the soaring red-rock crags, with a vertical drop of up to 4,500 feet, but Cortina is generally not about gonzo skiing; nearly two thirds of its 87 miles of trails are geared for intermediates. There's also a bobsled track and a new cross-country ski center. Sharp-eyed James Bond fans will recognize the resort from scenes from For Your Eyes Only.

Adventures on Skis (800/628-9655, advonskis.com) offers a package in January that includes round-trip transatlantic airfare and seven nights at the three-star Hotel Olimpia for $670 ($730 in March); the boxy lodge isn't much to look at from the outside, but it's centrally located, a short walk from the lifts, and has a sauna and Jacuzzi. A six-day ski pass at Cortina costs $150.

2. Chamonix, France

What's startling about Europe is how Alpine resorts dwarf their American counterparts. France's eminent Chamonix, sprawling across the eastern foot of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, takes in a whopping 30,000 acres, with runs that descend more than 9,200 vertical feet-nearly a two-mile drop. (By comparison, Vail, one of America's larger ski areas, offers about 5,300 skiable acres with vertical drops of 3,400 feet.) Because of its massive size, Chamonix can be all things to all skiers, from beginners to daredevils who appreciate hair-raising, off-piste challenges on untouched powder. "The beauty of such large areas is that a lot of it never gets tracked up," says Robert Eaton, the U.S. director of marketing for Ski France International . Chamonix's immensity also makes it budget friendly. Value Holidays (800/558-6850, valhol.com) is dangling the lowest price here: $689 in January and late March for round-trip transatlantic air and a seven-night stay at Hotel Croix Blanche, which makes up for its smallish rooms by being centrally located-only a few minutes' walk from the Savoy lift. Two other travel companies offer similar packages at the Croix Blanche: Holidaze Ski Tours (800/526-2827, holidaze.com) for $750 (a price that does not include transfers), and Adventures on Skis for $814. SkiEurope (800/333-5533, ski-europe.com) offers a $798 rate for the bright, airy Hotel Pointe Isabelle, which is two stars but feels nicer; almost all of its 39 rooms have balconies. Central Holidays (800/935-5000, centralh.com), meanwhile, weighs in with a $969 rate for two three-star lodgings: Hotel Les Aiglons and Hotel Le Morgane; an extra $137 buys you dinner every night at both facilities. The latter hotel is particularly pleasant, featuring a large relaxation center with a pool, Turkish bath, and sauna.

A six-day ski pass is $156, though an additional $30 buys you a pass that accesses all of Mont Blanc's surrounding resorts.

3. Courmayeur, Italy

Pass through the recently reopened Mont Blanc Tunnel from Chamonix and you end up in Courmayeur, another compelling Alps getaway. It's mellower than Chamonix, and quainter: old stone edifices, cobbled alleys, and shops stuffed with dried porcini mushrooms and fantastically shaped bottles of grappa flavored with the likes of raspberries, orange peels, coffee beans, and juniper. It's in Italy, and yet the restaurants reflect the close proximity to their Swiss neighbors, serving items like fondue. (Try the ubiquitous crepe stands, which sell the fresh confections for around $1.50.) The skiing is pretty impressive, too: over 7,300 feet of vertical on largely intermediate and expert terrain, much of it set alongside spectacular Alpine glaciers and pinnacles. Europe's highest cable car-modestly called the "eighth wonder of the world"-is accessible about four miles outside of town and is well worth the journey; it soars for more than a mile above Geant Glacier on its way to Chamonix.

SkiEurope offers a seven-night $730 air-and-land package, January and late March, at the two-star Hotel Select, which has 17 austere rooms but is only a two-minute walk to the lifts; it's a good deal for people who are there for the slopes, not to lounge in a room. Central Holidays will pack you off to the three-star Hotel Croux for $934-a rate that includes a six-day ski-lift pass (which costs about $150 at the resort).

4. Interlaken, Switzerland

Nestled between Lakes Brienz and Thun, this resort has long been known as a prime summer getaway. But Interlaken (literally, "between the lakes") has gained cachet among skiers with its affordability-there are abundant rooms because of its warm-season draw-and expansive terrain. Indeed, what pushed Interlaken over the top was the creation of the Jungfrau Top-Ski Region lift pass in 1991. Suddenly, skiers could take a mountain railway that linked Interlaken to a variety of ski areas above Grindelwald, opening a network of 100-plus miles of trails, some up to nine miles long. The rail is included in the price of a $182 pass, which makes it feasible to ski at a different resort every day for a week.

For $775, SkiEurope will fly you over and put you up for seven nights in the three-star Hotel Chalet Swiss-an old-style chalet, as the name promises, centrally located and with views of three mountain ranges-and throws in a seven-day car rental instead of providing the transfers. Adventures on Skis offers the spacious three-star Hotel Chalet Oberland (where the heated indoor swimming pool is plum after a day on the slopes) for $830 throughout January and $864 from February 1-March 22. Value Holidays makes the same hotel the centerpiece of its $899 package. And Central Holidays charges $809 for the three-star Hotel Crystal, which features a roof terrace with arresting views of the surrounding landscape; it's not as central as the Oberland, but it's only a five-minute walk from the town center.

Once again, please note that some of the prices we've cited apply only in January and the latter half of March; prices go up in February and early March, when Europeans head to the powder.

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