Is it possible to take his family skiing during February half-term without breaking the bank? IAIN MARTIN from The Ski Podcast set off for the French Pyrénées to find out
Queues, heavy traffic, an almighty dent in your bank balance? Why on earth does anyone go skiing at half-term? Probably because for many families with schoolchildren, this is one of the few times during the season it is possible to ski together because of term times etc. And this often also means prices are at a premium. I wanted to see if it was possible to have a family February half term ski trip on a budget, so I set myself a target of £2,000 for my family of four.
I was determined to prove to families holding back from ski holidays (and also to my wife) that you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy a week in the snow.
Did I say a week? Let’s start with my first tip – no one said you have to spend seven days in resort. By choosing to travel out on a Monday and back on a Friday to the less-fashionable ski hub of Toulouse, I immediately knocked hundreds of pounds off the cost of our trip.
This would still give us four full days to ski (instead of the usual six), but we could take advantage of cheaper fares to the gateway of the French Pyrénées.
I chose the historic spa town of Cauterets, just two hours from Toulouse airport, as our base. After picking up a hire car, we drove to this attractive resort which is full of character, having made its name in the Belle Epoque, when 19th century celebrities such as novelists Victor Hugo and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, strolled its narrow streets.
Our apartment wasn’t quite as romantic. An uninspiring block of concrete from the outside, but functional enough on the inside, and, importantly, just 10 minutes’ walk from the gondola. Even more importantly for my target budget, it was excellent value for money.
I’d trimmed down the cost of our ski hire from Intersport by using a discount code from their Facebook page, as well as signing up for their loyalty scheme to knock another 5% off.
This was perhaps the only time in our trip when it would have been useful to have arrived on the weekend, as it felt the best equipment had all been rented out already. While the adult skis and boots were okay, the kids’ gear was hardly ‘gold’ standard, but then neither is their skiing, so I kept quiet and hoped they wouldn’t notice.
And the skiing? Despite a poor winter Cauterets had snow and most slopes open, but bare patches were starting to develop on some of the steeper pistes. And while it was lovely to ski in blue skies and sunshine, by lunchtime the snow lower down was grainy and churny – even in mid-February. That said, there was enough in this small ski area of 35km to keep a family of four happy for a day.
When it came to lunch, we waited until 1.30pm when there were no queues at the bar and plenty of tables free to eat our picnic.
The day ended with a visit to the thermal spa ‘Bains du Rocher’. Although it did add to the cost of the trip, soothing your weary legs in naturally heated pools is a great way to finish off the day. I especially recommend the loungers in the outdoor pool – looking up at the stars in the vast night sky while your legs are softly massaged by bubbles is a real treat.
After two days in Cauterets we decided to mix it up with a visit to the Grand Tourmalet ski area – made up of Barèges and La Mongie – and just a 45-minute drive from Cauterets. With 100km of pistes, there’s a lot more on offer in Grand Tourmalet. Although the snow cover was also patchy, we found some excellent skiing on the north-facing slopes in the ‘4 Termes’ sector.
After lunch we took a break from skiing and took the cable car to the Pic du Midi. Again, it added slightly to the cost, but I wanted to show the family the amazing views from France’s highest observatory and also try out the vertigo-inducing ‘Ponton dans le Ciel’.
For our last day we decided to take a trek in the Pont d’Espagne national park instead of skiing. It’s about 10 minutes’ drive from Cauterets and to make it more than just a walk in the woods, we hired a local guide.
He helped us create our own trail through the forest, with mossy bark lit by early morning sunlight, before emerging alongside clear-blue icy streams.
Our destination was the peaceful Lac de Gaube, perfectly framing the Vignemale – the highest of the French Pyrenean summits at 3298m – on its frozen ice surface.
Even though it cost quite a lot to hire our guide, when we could have walked there for free, it was worth it to show the kids that the mountains are more than just lifts and pistes – and, even better, we still came in under budget.
Here is a breakdown of our costs:
Flights (inc 1 bag) 320
Car Hire 165
Lift Passes 291
Ski Hire 149
Bains du Rocher 44
Walking Guide 83
The Martin family visit was organised in conjunction with the Pyrenees, High Pyrenees Tourism, Cauterets, Grand Tourmalet and Pic du Midi.
They stayed at Les Chalets d’Estive in Cauterets. Save on your lift passes by booking online in advance at: n-py.com.
Acumpanyat.com organises guided walks and snowshoe outings in the Pont d’Espagne from €32pp.
Useful websites for more information: