Winter sports in Austria
Austria is well known for its ski resorts. Most of them are medium-sized, less spectacular and glamorous as the mega-resorts found in Switzerland and France, but they are more cosy, less prone to mass tourism and a little cheaper; particularly for beer.
While most ski tourists in Austria are from Germany, Austria is accessible from all parts of Europe.
- See also: Alps
Winter sport tourism has become a billion euro industry in Austria and helped some towns to attain formidable wealth. Most Austrian ski resorts are former farming towns that have grown into resorts many times their original size, but often they retain some of their original charm particularly in the old town core. A handful of ski resorts such as Obertauern were built completely from scratch in the 1960s and 1970s.
Many resorts have responded to warmer winters by investing heavily in artificial snow generation. Some resorts are now so well-equipped that they're capable of offering excellent skiing conditions on most pistes even if the natural snow cover is just 5cm, as long as cold weather prevails during the night. All of this comes at a price of course, both environmental and financial. Ski pass prices have risen sharply during the last decade. Austria is also home to many of the high alps glacier skiing resorts.
When to go
The ski season lasts from early December to late March. A small number of ski resorts keep their lifts open all year on glaciers located mainly near the Italian frontier.
The best conditions for skiing are in mid-January, the coldest time of the year. Late February is a good time for sun-seekers.
The most crowded time is the period from December 25 until January 2. Advanced skiers may want to avoid this time as slopes can be too congested to be enjoyable. All of February is also rather crowded because of school and university vacations.
The least crowded times are early December, mid-January and late March.
How to go
Package holidays are normally more convenient and often cheaper if you plan on skiing for a week only. Airport transfers, flights and accommodation are usually included.
However, they have the disadvantage that they mostly run from Saturday to Saturday, they feature few resorts outside the mainstream, and there is a distinct lack of self-catering accommodation or rooms in private houses in most brochures. These types, however, make up the most popular forms of accommodation in the country.
The increase in low-cost carrier flights to Salzburg, Munich and Friedrichshafen has meant that an increasing number of visitors arrange their own transport and accommodation.
Choosing a ski resort
Price, size and location
As a general rule, the larger the ski resort and the higher the elevation above sea level, the higher the price. Ski passes will consume a large proportion of your budget. Beginners will normally find that they are unable to use most pistes covered by a ski pass in a large resort such as Arlberg.
Large ski resorts have a tendency for mass tourism while smaller ones make more of an effort and offer a more personal service.
If you're skiing in late February or March it might be a good idea to head for resorts located at higher elevations (above 2000 m), as milder temparutures can turn the snow heavy and slushy (danger of knee injury) below that.
Fast lifts (chairlifts and gondolas) mean more skiing than slow lifts or the dreaded (T-bar lifts). You get what you pay for. Some resorts have a high proportion of black slopes and are less suitable for beginners. Backcountry type experiences can be found in many of the larger resorts in Vorarlberg and Tyrol, offering a high altitude powder bowl environment.
Apres-ski is about getting together after an exhausting day of skiing and talking to people in the many bars and pubs, moshing to Swedish rock group at 5pm and then not remembering having dinner. Nowadays, larger resorts also offer organized Apres Ski get togethers and pub crawls.
Please note that alcohol and skiing do not mix well, and that on higher altitudes alcohol may impair your reflexes more than on sea level.
Some ski resorts are geared to ski and snowboard alone and others toward a wider range of activities or family tourism. If you're more after relaxation than skiing and partying staying away from purely athletic ski resorts will offer you better value for money.
Unlike many countries, getting in to Austria for skiing shouldn't imply flying to the capital city first.
Consider the following alternatives to Vienna; when comparing alternatives, consider:
- cost and duration if driving by a rented car
- cost, duration, connection time and number of connections if riding by a train
- cost of plane
- final arrival time: whether it will allow you to prepare everything to start skiing just from the very next morning
Only with all these factors considered, choose your interinary.
It also reverses a typical sequence of travel planning when you first buy airplane tickets to a capital city, and then start choosing your final destination.
The majority of Austrian ski resorts are no more than a 1-2 hour drive away from a large airport.
Closest airports are:
- for resorts in Tyrol, Vorarlberg, Salzburg: Innsbruck, Salzburg, Zurich, or Munich;
- for resorts in Carinthia, Styria and East Tyrol: Graz, Klagenfurt, Ljubljana and Venice
Vienna airport is best avoided; it's a 4 hour drive away from the nearest medium-sized resort, and even longer by public transport due to its proximity to Slovakia and the eastern part of the country.
Many packages include the flight and transfer to the airport. If you're travelling independently, you'll need to take a taxi and/or train/bus. Some hotels will offer shuttle buses for their guests for a good price.
Some ski resorts are poorly served by rail services due to their remoteness. Arlberg, Bad Gastein, Kitzbuehel, St. Johann im Pongau and Zell am See are larger ski resorts served by frequent rail services, and are easily accessible by train from neighbouring countries. Most large ski resorts that don't have a rail station can be accessed by train followed by a 30-45 min bus transfer.
There is a train from Zurich airport to Arlberg which serves St Anton via Feldkirch.
Most resorts are served by public transport. The skibus networks are normally very well organised and punctual and almost always included in the lift pass.
Austrian ski resorts are compact and pedestrian-geared so you're unlikely to need a car during your stay in a resort. Some areas (such as Ski Amade in Salzburgerland) offer many different towns spread about a large area all on one ski pass so if you wish to try different places to ski each day then a car is advisable. If you arrive in your own car, bear in mind that driving conditions can be challenging on routes to some higher resorts although roads are often cleared, gritted and salted very regularly. However, it is a good idea to take snow chains and to have some experience in winter driving. Instead of renting a car for a week, it is often cheaper to connect by taxi on departure or arrival.
Food on the ski slopes normally consists of Austrian specialities of the stodgy variety, but is often overpriced. Some larger restaurants have a canteen styled service where the food is mass produced and the quality can be mediocre when compared to the rest of Austria. It can be hard for a vegetarian to have a varied diet throughout their stay as even the salads are often served with chicken.
In the towns themselves, choice and quality of food is better than on the slopes. Hotel food is normally excellent, since hotels compete for guests with their cuisine, while slope restaurants compete with their location. Therefore it might be a good idea to book half-board instead of eating on the slopes. Guest houses can provide you with traditional cuisine but it is always easy to find a Kebab or Pizza/Italian restaurant.
Book accommodation as far in advance as you can. The number of beds in most resorts is limited, and the later you book the less likely you are to find good value. Be aware that accommodation in some cheap packages is not located in the main ski resort, rather in a nearby town from which you must connect by bus.
Many hotels in Austria are family run and offer personal service and surprisingly good facilities at reasonable prices, especially in smaller resorts. Going to the sauna after the pistes to warm up and relax tired muscles, as well as fine dining is considered as important as the skiing itself by many Austrians. You'll miss out on a great part of the Austrian ski experience if you book accommodation without sauna facilities.
Self-catering accommodation is also widely available, but bear in mind that the difference in total price between a half board hotel and a self catering apartment is not huge, and many skiers find they have little energy or desire to cook a meal and clean up themselves after a tiring day on the pistes.
As with all ski resorts, avalanches are an underestimated hazard.
Off-piste skiing is available and there are often Itinerary Runs. Some ski areas offer a 'Free Ride' area. This is a 'safe' area to ski and board off piste. Remember that just because there are tracks in the snow on a certain hillside does not mean it is safe and a good idea to ski there.
Skiing off-piste is always an excellent activity but it is strongly recommended that you do it with a guide, unless you know exactly what you are doing, carry appropriate avalanche rescue equipment and are proficient in its use.
There are numerous ski and snowboard rental shops in every larger resort. The choice is normally best made by convenience to the slopes or to accommodation.
When hiring equipment it's a good idea to turn up early, and since Austrians get out of bed early in general, that can mean before 8:30 am. Queuing for an hour to have your ski boots fitted can be very frustrating when you're eager to get to the pistes.
It is almost always better to try to arrange ski hire, ski lessons and lift passes as soon as possible after arrival in the resort, i.e. in the arrival afternoon when you most likely won't go skiing. Most of the offices will stay open until late afternoon on a Saturday (the main resort arrivals & departures day).
Austria's ski and snowboard instructor industry is centrally regulated by the government. Licensed ski instructors must take a series of comprehensive state exams to climb up the hierarchy of Skilehrer (conventional ski instructor, mostly part-time workers), Landesskilehrer (regional ski instructor) and Staatlicher Skilehrer (national ski instructor). Courses can be taken privately or in groups (ski school). Beginners normally book a ski school for their first week.
List of ski resorts
Austria's best and largest
- Lech and Zürs am Arlberg - famous for its royal clientele, an underrated ski area in Vorarlberg
- St. Anton - Tyrol's best-known resort and perhaps Austria's most extreme skiing
- Ischgl - a progressive resort with a link into Switzerland and the village of Samnaun
- Sölden (Ötztal) - popular with snowboarders and apres-ski enthusiasts
Other popular resorts
- Kitzbuehel - famous for its nightlife and charm, which attracts Austria and Germany's "beautiful people". Host to the annual Hahnenkammrennen, arguably the world's most important ski race.
- Flachau/Wagrain - cosy, good for beginners and intermediates
- Innsbruck - Tyrolean city that hosted two winter Olympics; 3 ski areas adjacent to city and several more close by.
- Obertauern - compact, very good snow cover due to location and altitude but can be problematic in bad weather
- Achensee — 3 ski resorts aimed at families around the Achen Lake: Maurach, Pertisau, and Achenkirch
- Nassfeld - popular with Italian tourists
- Mayrhofen /Finkenberg- a busy resort, popular with foreign tourists. Has a nearby glacier in Hintertux.
- Zell am See - a scenic location on a lake attracts visitors for skiing and walking and has a small snowfield/glacier
- Bad Hofgastein - famous for thermal baths too.
- SkiWelt -Largest ski area covering villages of Scheffau, Söll, Ellmau, Brixen, Hopfgarten, Westendorf
Off the beaten track
- Heiligenblut - spectacular scenery
- Turracherhoehe - small and idyllic
- Wildschonau -Literally wild place, includes Niederau, Oberau and Auffach