Ruth BassSee other Advice articles filed in ‘On the road’ written by Ruth Bass
It’s not every day we motorcaravanners make retailers swoon. When buying new skis the other day, the shop owner, a passionate skier himself, practically fainted with envy on hearing our plans for the season. Like us, Phil had realised years ago the advantages of using a motorhome for ski trips. He got it – the freedom to change plans and follow the best weather and snow conditions and to experience more than one ski domain per trip.
So why choose aires rather than a winter campsite? After all, Caravaneiges, as they are known in French, are cosy affairs, offering electric hook-up, heated washblocks and drying rooms for wet kit — some even have a restaurant and leisure facilities. Touring in sub-zero conditions without all this requires quite a bit of preparation (read how to prepare your motorhome for ski holidays), so why would anyone use an aire, given that it may be little more than a designated car park?
Well, campsites that open in winter are generally at lower altitude, so are less convenient for the ski slopes and a reservation is essential in high season. While offering certainty this ties you down if the snow conditions turn out to be better elsewhere. It’s a great way to try out skiing from your ’van, though, and I recommend that newbies use a campsite to learn the ropes.
Campsites are also preferable for families – our teenagers enjoyed the privacy and space offered by the facilities. Now empty nesters, we find that aires give us the freedom that shop owner Phil craves, and the logistics of staying warm, cosy and independent are easy when you know how.
Where to find aires for motorhome ski holidays
France offers the largest choice of aires, with Italy, Germany, Spain and Andorra also providing for motorhomes in some resorts. Switzerland has a few aires and Austria is largely campsite only. We use several books to find places to stay in France – All the Aires France North and South, £24.99, revised for 2015, Vicarious Books; Camperstop Europe 2015 Motorhome & Campervan Stopovers, £24.50, Vicarious Books; and All the Aires Mountains, currently out of print. To see a selection of aires online, try www.campingcar-infos.com and www.camping-car-park.com.
For me and Geoff, France remains first choice for motorhome-friendly ski trips, because it is the shortest drive from the UK and we have been able to access virtually all the ski domains in the French Alps with our ’van.
Staying overnight in a ’van is regarded as parking in France and allowed in law. Many resorts tolerate overnighting at the lift station so long as you are self-sufficient and not abusing space or facilities. However, some resorts, such as Val d’Isère, ban motorhomes, and others regulate overnight parking by erecting prohibitive signs or height barriers. Many communities are now favouring barrier-operated, paying aires. For skiers, this means a nightly fee of around £10, but offers in return water and waste facilities to hand.
What to expect at a ski aire
Each aire has its own personality and many have wonderful views. We love to lower the blinds to the rose-tinted sun rising over sparkling-white peaks. Later, we enjoy a cuppa in our cosy lounge while watching the sun glowing golden as it sets. At some aires, the morning is heralded by the pip-pip of a car horn as a mobile boulangerie arrives and a queue of dressing-gowned Camping-Caristes forms in anticipation of fresh baguettes and croissants. Later, the same regulars set out their chairs and tables in the afternoon sun for an après-ski scene all of their own. They are usually friendly and inclusive, sharing jokes, drinks and anecdotes.
There are rituals to be observed, too: after a snow-fall everyone emerges wielding brushes and snow-shovels to clear solar panels and sweep a path. This is done speedily – where there’s powder on the aire, there’s powder on the slopes and an epic day’s skiing awaits! You just need to clear your own unit as a municipal snowplough will call. Services will include fresh water, waste water, toilet emptying and rubbish disposal, the service borne being frost-protected. Barrier-operated aires usually display an emergency contact number in case of malfunction and at others the Tourist Office should be able to signpost assistance or supply tokens for the service borne.
- Don’t hog the only electric hook-up without offering to share
- Respect the understood ‘happy hours’ for generators – typically early evening
- Park considerately to allow others to get a space at busy times
- Don’t empty toilet cassettes into public conveniences
- Keep service bornes clean and tidy after use
- Never use the fresh water tap to rinse a toilet cassette!
- Clear snow around your own motorhome regularly
- Don’t run your engine to charge your leisure batteries (read how to prepare your motorhome for ski holidays)
- Do spend some money locally to encourage continued provision of the facilities
- Ask the Tourist Office or Municipal Police where to stay overnight if unsure
- Chat with your neighbours — they’re normally great fun!
How to choose your ski aire
Naturally, your choice of aire will be based on where you fancy skiing but it pays to do your homework in advance. Location is important, as you won’t want to walk far in ski boots, although if the aire is not close to the lifts a resort ski bus usually stops nearby.
There is a trade-off between altitude and temperature – if the aire is very high, such as at Val Thorens, there may be more chance of good snow but also temperatures will be lower – so you will use more gas and have a higher chance of freezing up!
Establish how many spaces the aire offers and how long you can stay, also what facilities there are locally. This will influence how much food and gas you need to bring with you. And be sure to check what services are provided so that you can prepare accordingly – if there is not a guaranteed electric hook-up, for example, it is essential to equip your motorhome with additional power sources.
Our top 10 aires for skiing in France
The following aires offer fresh water and waste disposal and are within walking distance of ski lifts. Electricity points are available at some, often for an extra charge.
- Alpe d’Huez. Large, sunny aire with mountain views, at the centre of the Rousses ski area. Lifts, shops and restaurants 300 metres. Credit card, barrier entry system, WC.
- Les Gets. Easy UK access to this inexpensive aire on the edge of a pretty village in the vast Portes du Soleil domain, lift adjacent. Resort offers weekend ski deal.
- La Rosière. Stunning panoramic views from this aire, despite slightly scruffy appearance. Pleasant intermediate resort linked with La Thuile in Italy. Free, but tokens for services €10.
- Super Dévoluy. Small, purpose-built family ski resort in southern Alps. Pleasant snowshoe walks from the small, sunny aire. No charge, except €2 for services, free resort Wi-Fi.
- La Plagne. Sunny, piste-side aire operating credit card, barrier-entry system. Extensive Alpine skiing. Tourist Office, restaurants and good Spar nearby.
- Les Menuires. Best option in vast Three Valleys domain, if a bit shady. Piste is 200 yards. Credit card, barrier-entry system. Daytime tub lift to shops and sports centre.
- Monêtier. Dedicated motorhome parking in Serre Chevalier ski area. Small fee collected nightly. Free service borne. 300 metres to lifts or to village with thermal spa.
- Les Saisies. Large, sunny, crescent-shaped aire adjacent to excellent Nordic skiing and Alpine domain of Espace Diamant. Car park-style ticket machine.
- Valloire. Operated by Camping-Car Park, whose model includes services, Wi-Fi and battery recharging. A short walk to town with bakery. Alpine and Nordic skiing.
- Montgenèvre. This is motorhome skiing heaven at a vast aire close to the Italian border. Extensive Alpine and Nordic skiing, and there’s also a luge run. There is a new sports centre under construction. A credit card barrier-entry system operates.
Top tips for motorhome holidays in the French Alps
- Arrive before the weekend to aires within a short drive of cities
- Establish in advance what facilities are available
- Have a back-up plan in case the aire is full when you arrive
- Avoid the French school holidays, ie most of February, to be sure of a place
- Take a supply of €1 and €2 coins for service bornes and a credit card
- Stock up with basics, gas and fuel in the valley
- Top up perishables in the resort and give local businesses some custom
- Take a long hook-up lead and additional water containers
- Don’t leave home without a generator and snow chains
- Fit a Wi-Fi booster or 3G aerial and Mi-Fi as resorts usually have internet
- A nearby swimming pool is a bonus for aching muscles and a shower!
Ruth Bass and her husband, Geoff, own a Carthago A-class. They’ve toured across Europe in it, and enjoy trying new experiences along the way.