Felicity Long
Felicity Long

For many of us "Switzerland" and "European skiing" are practically synonymous.

But is a ski vacation in the Swiss Alps as affordable as, say, a comparable experience in the U.S.?

Alex Herrmann, director of North America for Switzerland Tourism, makes the case that some of the destination's top resorts might be more affordable than you think.

For one thing, lift tickets in Switzerland are less expensive than in the U.S. According to a recent survey by Snow-Online, which tracks ski trends, the average lift ticket in Switzerland last season came in at about $58 a day, compared with a whopping $94 in the U.S.

"Also, as Swiss resorts are usually not owned by a corporation, they offer a large variety of options with regard to accommodation and gastronomy, on various price levels," Herrmann said, adding that the posted room rate at the hotel is what will appear on your bill. Service charges, taxes and resort fees as well as daily breakfast are usually included.

"The only addition [to the posted rate] is a small daily tax for the resort, usually just a few Swiss francs per person, per night."

Of course, transatlantic flights add to the bottom line, but if you live on the East Coast, travel to the Rockies or California can be about comparable, Herrmann said.

Admittedly, flight rates vary widely on a number of factors, but just as a rough comparison, I found roundtrip flights to Zurich from New York in December for as low as $341 vs. $328 from New York to Vail during the same period.

In addition, the Swiss Travel System of trains and buses offers a variety of deals for international visitors, and on Swiss International Air Lines, skis travel for free. U.S. airlines' treatment of skis vary by carrier, but first or second checked-bag rates typically apply.

The two Swiss resorts I'm most familiar with are St. Moritz and Davos, but according to Switzerland Tourism statistics, resorts in the Valais region in the south of Switzerland -- most notably Zermatt and Verbier -- along with Grindelwald, Wengen, Murren and Gstaad resorts in the Bernese Oberland are as or even more popular with travelers from the U.S.

For travelers looking for appealing, lesser-known resorts, Herrmann suggested Saas Fee, "a beautiful, car-free Alpine resort very close to Zermatt but much less popular with American travelers." He also touted Andermatt and Sedrun, not super well-known in North America but connected via gondola and terrain as of earlier this year and set to become central Switzerland's largest ski destination.

It's also important to note that the ski experiences in the U.S. vs. Switzerland are different in numerous ways. North American skiers who are accustomed to the precision-groomed "corduroy" runs that characterize many of our resorts will find wilder, more natural terrain in some Swiss areas; whether or not that's a good thing is up to the individual.

On the other hand, Swiss resorts are "not as high up as in the Rockies," Herrmann said. "It's usually not as cold, skiers don't have any issues with altitude sickness, and vertical drops of 4,000 feet [vs. Vail, for example, which tops out at about 8,000 feet] are the norm, which means long runs and less crowded lifts."

And of course, no discussion of Alpine skiing would be complete without talking about cuisine and apres ski, which Herrmann touts for their authenticity.

"The entire culture of enjoying life off and after the time on the slopes is more established, and skiers can stay in charming, organically grown Alpine towns and villages with centuries of history and traditions."

Overall, the U.S. is the second most important foreign market for Switzerland (after Germany), but about two-thirds of American visitors time their arrivals between April and September rather than during ski season. To widen the net for winter visitors, "Swiss resorts have diversified their offerings, including winter walking and hiking, tobogganing, snow shoeing and ice skating," he said, adding that hotel and public spas are also being developed and expanded as a response to requests from ski groups, where the percentage of guests who want to only ski  vs. also enjoy other snow activities  is on the decline.

Finally, are there reasons to visit Switzerland in winter even if nothing could induce you to strap on a pair of skis?
According to Herrmann, Swiss Christmas markets, which have traditionally not been as busy as those in neighboring countries, are increasingly a draw for Americans.

"As tour operators are including additional departures in the low season as well as river cruise companies expanding their schedules, more travelers who are not into any winter sports are coming to Switzerland," he said.

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