Is there really an alternative to flying on holiday?

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I have recently returned from a week on the ski slopes of Andorra. If you have not been, without wanting to sound like an advert for the Andorran Tourist Office, it is a great choice – good quality skiing, in nice surroundings, and excellent value for money.


However, we decided to drive there. Whilst quite a lot of skiers drive to the Alps, we didn’t see any other UK registered cars in Andorra, or on the roads leading up the mountain, so I suspect that we were relatively unusual driving all that distance – 983 miles from my home in Manchester. This made me start to think about the importance of aviation to the ski sector, and whether there are credible alternatives to aviation.


In the past few years, the clamour to discourage air travel on environmental grounds seems to have quietened somewhat, although I suspect that this is only a temporary lull, rather than an acceptance by the environmental campaigners that flying on holiday is reasonable and appropriate.


Many ski airports come with a high hassle factor – they are mostly too small, and get heavily used on only one, or possibly two days per week, meaning that the facilities are under enormous pressure on those days. If something goes wrong, like snow falling, the wheels fall off the infrastructure incredibly quickly, and the travel experience can become seriously unpleasant. However, the vast majority of skiers, at least from the UK, still regard flying as the most effective way to get on holiday. We don’t really have enough skiing in the UK- the Cairngorms might keep a half way decent skier occupied for a day, or possibly two, provided that the weather is reasonable, and as a result, the Alps or Pyrenees will still act as a magnet for those people who enjoy skiing.


Eurostar, to their credit, have operated ski train services for a number of years, so you can travel at the weekend directly from St Pancras to Bourg St Maurice or Moutiers, bringing the large Alpine ski resorts within a single train journey of skiers travelling from London. The journey is around 8 hours, and you are taken to the foot of the mountain for all of the Three Valleys, as well as La Plagne, Les Arcs, Tignes and Val D’Isere, which gives you a pretty wide choice of skiing. If you are concerned about your environmental footprint, this is a good way to travel, but it isn’t exactly ideal for those of us travelling from the north, trying to lug ski equipment between London terminals. The cost per person is also relatively similar to flying, and again, if you add on the cost of getting to London, all of sudden, the Eurostar option looks less attractive.


However, the train option doesn’t work particularly well if you want to get to Andorra. You can find trains that get you within about 30 miles of the resort, but you end up on local services in Southern France which are relatively infrequent, and not necessarily geared up to suit the skier.


So, the choice comes down to simple flight or drive decision. The downside of driving is very simple. It’s effectively a 1000 mile journey each way, of which around 300 miles is in the UK. If it were all on French motorways, it would probably be a no brainer, as they are generally reasonably clear, and actually quite a pleasant driving experience. The same cannot be said of the M6, M40 and M25! However, on the positive side, low fuel costs combined with a weak Euro make a big difference to the overall cost. My car seems to go forever without refuelling, and I could get from Manchester to Andorra on 2 tanks of fuel. Even allowing for the difference between fuel costs between the UK, France and Andorra, this meant that my round trip fuel cost was less than €300 or about £225. Adding on motorway tolls, car parking for the week in Andorra, the cost of the tunnel crossing, and even the cost of an overnight stay in each direction, our total travel cost for around €900 for 3 people, or slightly under £700.


One of hidden costs for an independent traveller is the cost of the transfer from the destination airport to the ski resort. Package holidays have a major advantage here, in that the transfer is included. Transfers “up the mountain” tend to be substantial – looking at transfer prices from Toulouse to Andorra, it can easily cost as much as €600 for a group of 3 to make the transfer.


All of which leads to a conclusion that on pricing grounds alone, driving to a ski destination has something to recommend it. You also have the advantage that once your luggage is loaded, you are in control, and can travel at your own pace, without being dependent on others. However, I suspect that for many people, the prospect of a 1000 mile drive would fill them with dread, offsetting those advantages.


This brings me back to my opening point – what about the environmental impacts? Airlines are increasingly recognising and reporting on their environmental footprints, and so it is relatively easily to work out an environmental comparison between driving and flying. I have always had a bit of an intellectual dilemma about the calculations for flying, as typically, the footprint is calculated in grams per revenue passenger kilometre, and in practice, the plane would still fly whether or not one individual decided to travel. However, as that is the only tool available, it’s the best one to use. The big 2 charter airlines have similar fuel usage – which is to be expected, their flights are similarly loaded, operating similar routes with similar aircraft types; and they are the most environmentally efficient airlines overall, with both producing around 70g CO2 per revenue passenger kilometre. Ironically, this is considerably better than most cars. I drive an environmentally efficient car, and can still only achieve 110 g/km, which deteriorates when a roof box and skis are added. Aircraft also have an advantage in that they can fly in something resembling straight lines – subject to airspace constraints. So in practice, the difference between the environmental footprint of flying and driving is not actually that great.


All of which leads to some not very clear conclusions. It’s undoubtedly a long way to drive on a skiing holiday. You can save some money by doing so, but it’s mentally and physically demanding. Bearing in mind that driving effectively involves 2 days travelling in each direction, you have to have the time and inclination to want to do that. The difference in environmental footprint is relatively small, and probably not enough to create a distinction. The only big winner from an environmental perspective is the train option, and that only really works if you happen to be based in London or the south east, and want to ski in one of the big Alpine resorts.


For most travellers therefore, on what is admittedly a very basic test, flying on a skiing holiday is likely to be the best way to travel, and that is not likely to change any time soon.