The last leg of our recent European adventure ended with the perfect ski holiday in Switzerland. The famed 4 Vallées ski resort is known for having some of the best ski terrain in the world, so basing ourselves in Nendaz seemed like the ideal place to enjoy snowboarding in the alps. It’s tough to consider any ski holiday in Switzerland a bargain, especially in comparison to nearby resorts in Austria or Italy.
Ski resorts in Switzerland can be busy, big, expensive, and intimidating. It’s easy to understand why some travelers opt for more digestible resorts in North America. However, you shouldn’t let it all put you off because when it comes to ski and snowboard Switzerland packs a serious punch for fun, neverending runs above the treeline.
While they may not be considered cheap the resorts deliver almost everything you could want from a ski holiday. After all who doesn’t picture fresh tracks, swiss cheese fondue, wine, sleds, and some alphorn. These tips are specific to our trip to Nendaz, but they can apply to any number of ski areas and resorts in Switzerland.
Tips for the Perfect Ski Holiday in Switzerland
Pick the right resort
Few resorts make as many “best of” lists as 4 Vallées. You’ve probably heard of the ski area by the association of the famous resort town of Verbier. The town draws a crowd and high prices while its neighbor Nendaz offers the same mountains at a lower cost. What separates the town from other resorts is that there is also a living community that 6,000 residents call home year round. The town of Nendaz lies close to the resorts of Siviez, Thyon, Veysonnaz, and Les Collons. All together 4 Vallées is the largest ski resort in Switzerland with a whopping 412km of ski runs!
The ski area is easily one of our favorites in the world. Almost all of the 412 km I mentioned is entirely groomed terrain which ensures a smooth ride. The 4 Vallées pistes are made up of 39% beginner, 44% intermediate, and 17% advanced. One of the most famous runs is from the ski areas highest peak, Mont Fort, and offers a massive 2,000m of vertical drop to tackle. Once you leave the pistes there are an ample amount of off-piste free ride zones and access to the backcountry. Those free ride opportunities draw in some of the world’s top ski and borders and many aspiring athletes.
Scattered across the ski domain are 93 ski lifts and dozens of on-mountain restaurants. It’s all a bit overwhelming, but it doesn’t come as a surprise that is praised as one of the best ski resorts in the world. We were happy to based in Nendaz as it provided a much more down to earth environment compared to the nearby town of Verbier. It has no massive restaurants, clubs, or hotels like neighboring Verbier. Alternatively, you’ll find it a bit more quiet, laid back, and charming. Don’t worry though – there is still a great apres scene, restaurants, and even an amazing spa.
Consider a Swiss Travel Pass
Throughout our entire ski trip to Switzerland, we used public transport (trains and buses). The Alpine country is well known for its efficient and widespread public transport network. We found it to be a waste of money to have a rental car sitting in a parking lot while we went boarding every day. To only emphasize this point many of the ski villages are car-free and public transport such as buses and trains are often included in your lift ticket.
We used a Swiss Pass to travel around Switzerland and it gave us unlimited first-class transport on all public transport in Switzerland. It alleviated a lot of stress when it came to planning our trip. The pass may not be for everyone as it runs concurrently so if you’re based in one village or town for your ski holiday it may be best to book a private transfer or buy individual train tickets.
Access to Nendaz is very easy with a regularly scheduled direct train from Geneva Airport to the nearby city of Sion. From the Sion train station, it’s one bus ride up to the town, about a three-hour journey in total from the airport. We ventured in from nearby Zermatt which also took us under three hours. Check out the Swiss Federal Railways site for help booking your train tickets and times (Google Maps public transport provides up to date travel information).
Score some sweet digs
It can be pretty difficult to find the perfect accommodation for a ski or snowboard trip in Switzerland. Those on a budget will have a near impossible time finding hostels in mountain villages. Even when you do find one it’s often €50 a dorm bed. From there you have a few options. Stay in one of Switzerland’s cities and commute to the mountain, find a guesthouse or hotel, or split self-catered accommodation with a group of friends or family.
We typically like to use self-catered accommodation and Airbnb to cook our own food and help save on costs. There are a range of self-catering apartments for rent in Swiss ski villages and it’s definitely the way to go if you are more than two.
However, being a couple we chose to go with a traditional guesthouse while on our Swiss ski vacation. Hotel Les Etagnes is literally right off the piste and next to the gondola in Nendaz. Ski in ski out doesn’t get much better than this in Nendaz, and we really enjoyed our comfortable stay here. You can book most hotels on a “half board” meaning the hotel provides breakfast and dinner, which saves a lot of headache at night. Also – make sure to hit up Hôtel Nendaz 4 Vallées & Spa for an amazing spa experience after skiing.
Don’t hesitate to get off the slopes
We’re always looking for unique things to do in our free time that doesn’t involve strapping on a board. The superb terrain in Switzerland makes it easy to forget about the fact you’re in a foreign country. However, it’s always nice to delve a bit deeper into the culture you are in.
Some great activities include sledding, fondue, sunrise skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, ice skating, cross-country skiing, and even paragliding. Our personal favorite in Nendaz was learning to play the alphorn. If you’ve ever seen a Ricola commercial, you may want to check out a lesson for yourself! Nendaz is world famous for the alphorn and holds a massive international festival every summer with over a 150 alphorn players.
Try these two things
There are a number of Swiss specialties, but no trip to Switzerland is complete without indulging in some world famous cheese fondue. Fondue is typically enjoyed in good company and spirits. The traditional pot is filled largely with melted cheese but can include other ingredients like garlic, brandy, white wine, or corn flour. Diners enjoy the fondue by dipping spears of bread into the dish, taking care to not lose their bread in the cheese.
Rosti is a potato fried potato dish made with grated potatoes. The result is a lot like hashbrowns, but with a solid crispy exterior and soft interior. They’re super tasty and can be mixed with cheese, bacon, onion, or apple…it’s not exactly diet friendly. Originally the dish was eaten for breakfast to accompany fried eggs, but now you can enjoy any time of day. Personally, I love to have one for lunch with a Glühwein
Enjoy the apres ski scene
Apres is an important part of ski culture to many and it’s more or less a right of passage in the mountain world. Nendaz has two bars that draw a crowd for the Apres-ski scene. At Les Etagnes you can literally ski right into from the base of the mountain or head to Lime It’s Up.
Get a guide
We’ve talked before about having a great ski holiday in nearby Austria and recommended picking up a guide there. It’s no different in Switzerland, especially when some of the ski areas span over multiple villages, valleys, and even countries. If you end up on the wrong side of the mountain in say…Zermatt then when the lifts close you’ll be spending the night in Italy, yes it happens.
Generally the larger the resort the more you will benefit from a guide/instructor. It doesn’t matter your ability level as even expert riders and professionals hire out a local guide who knows the mountain to show them the best places to head. If you want to make the most out of a big mountain and give little thought to where you are heading a guide is good for your first full day on the mountain. They give you a great lay of the land and put the mountain into perspective.
Our guide Yanne from the Swiss Ski School Nendaz gave us the perfect introduction to the 4 Vallées ski area. After all, we needed someone to coax us up to the top of Mont Fort and down the famous run from the top. We spent the entire day with our guide crisscrossing between villages with no fear of getting lost or on a route above our skill level.
Practice safety in the mountains
The mountains can be a dangerous place, and although it may not seem like it, skiing/snowboarding definitely comes with risks. Wherever we can we attempt to mitigate risks and make sure we are being safe.
- Have Proper Equipment: We believe everyone should wear a helmet. That means expert riders and especially beginners. Make sure your equipment is in good condition and technically sound. Here is our full ski and snowboard packing guide.
- Ski to Your Ability: There is a big difference between pushing yourself and getting in over your head. The latter puts yourself and even others at risk. You should also always be in control, too often do we see beginners straight lining down the mountain at crazy speeds. Remember, whoever is downhill has the right of way.
- Be Prepared: Always carry an extra layer in case temperatures drop and pack necessities like water and chapstick. If you’re going into the backcountry or anywhere out of bounds you should have all necessary avalanche equipment.
- Safety Code: Make sure to always ahead to the safety code.
- Always stay in control.
- People downhill have the right of way. Their ability level does not matter!
- Stop in a safe place for you and others.
- Whenever starting downhill or merging, look uphill and yield.
- Prevent runaway equipment.
- Observe signs and warnings, and keep off closed trails.
- Know how to use the lifts safely.
- If you don’t know how to use a chairlift or t-bar then ask the lift operators.
There are a lot of ways you can save money on your holiday. One of the first ways is with your accommodation as I mentioned earlier – it’s likely your largest expense after plane tickets.
- Pick the right spot: Nendaz offers access to the 4 Vallées Ski Area while coming in at a much lower price than it’s glitzy party hungry neighbor Verbier. If you’re looking for a low key spot with amazing ski than this is the spot for you.
- Lift Tickets: There are a couple of ways to save on lift tickets in Switzerland. Purchase in advance, six days+, as a group, or a family pass. Wherever you are walking up to the window day of will yield the highest lift ticket prices.
- Avoid Unnecessary Expenses: It’s easy to lose track of expenses when traveling. All of those cappuccinos, wines, and souvenirs can add up really quick. Especially in a country like Switzerland, where eating out isn’t exactly a poor man’s activity. It’s often the small experiences that can add up and break a budget.
- Pack that lunch: On mountain food in Switzerland is insanely expensive. We may or may not have paid 10 CHF for a small basket of fries before. That being said the food in the Alps is some of the best we’ve had while on a ski trip. However, for those on a budget pick up the ingredients to make some sandwiches for lunch on the mountain. Peanut butter and jelly, protein bars and shakes, and apples are always a good go-to food option.
- Pick the Right Time: Peak season will always see higher prices. Even lift tickets can fluctuate in price, but the biggest difference in price will be regarding accommodation. If the snow looks good you can always book later in the season with good assurance there will still be snow while getting a lower rate on accommodation.
Rent or bring your own
There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to bringing your own gear or renting ski and snowboard equipment. If you have your own equipment and are flying from overseas I would recommend to at least bring your boots as a carry-on. Nothing will fit like your own boots and quality ones are designed to form fit around your feet. It’s best not to leave it up to the airline to potentially lose your boots as they will be harder to rent.
If you’re flying to the destination it most likely makes sense to rent your gear. Flying with equipment can be a pain in the ass. You don’t need to assume rental gear will be the worst stuff ever as many rental shops have top quality gear and you can also demo the latest pro setups. As with many things in life you get what you pay for, pro gear is costly and the rundown gear is cheap.
That being said we do travel with our own gear, but we also put in 25 days on the slopes around Italy, Austria, and Switzerland. A lot depends on the length of your trip and how many days you’ll actually ride or ski. If you’re looking for a great snowboard bag we’ve been using the Dakine Low Roller Bag. If you’re a skier this bag is great for traveling. Also, as a tip, if you’re using a rental car you don’t need an SUV to get gear around just a standard vehicle with an open seat. We stick our gear upright in the back seat with the tips under the front seat to avoid paying extra for a larger car.
Packing for your Swiss Ski Trip
If you’re looking for some tips to pack for your ski holiday check out our ski/snowboard packing list. As a general rule, it’s best to travel as light as possible. I travel with a carry on backpack, leaving my hands free since we travel with our own snowboards. The carry on luggage also helps save money on baggage costs as ski/snowboard gear usually counts as a checked bag and not “sporting equipment”. If you are traveling with your own gear we suggest picking up a lightweight bag with wheels like the Dakine Low Roller.
If you’re heading to big cities in Europe, Decathlon is a great option for finding outdoor gear at a reasonable price. We’ve been shopping here for years, and it’s safe to say it’s our favorite store in Europe.
Quick Switzerland Travel Tips
- ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ in Swiss German:”Hallo” and “Danke” French: “Bonjour” and “Merci”Italian: “Buongiorno” (formal) “Ciao” (informal) and “Grazie”
- Currency: Swiss Franc
- Visa: Schengen Visa, 90 days in the European Union out of 180. Many nationalities are granted this on arrival for free. Check with your embassy to see if that is you.
- What to Pack: Depends highly on the season and what you are doing. Mountain and hiking clothes are always a good idea in the summer, while you will definitely need your cold-weather gear in the winter. Don’t forget the ski gear if you plan on going skiing in the majestic Swiss Alps!
- You’ll need a special adaptor for travel in Switzerland as they use the Type J outlet. This universal travel adaptor is the one I have and it worked well!
How to Travel Around Switzerland
Train travel doesn’t get any easier than in Switzerland. The country has an incredibly efficient rail network that can get you pretty much anywhere – even in the mountain towns. This is the only way we have ever traveled to Switzerland and it’s very enjoyable. Eurail passes work well in Switzerland, as you can purchase a Swiss Rail Pass for extensive travel. Without these passes, you’ll want to book all your train travel in advance or you could pay a premium on the train. Make sure to be on time – punctuality is key in Switzerland!
Where the train can’t go – the bus can. Bus travel is also easy in Switzerland and your Swiss Travel Pass will work on them as well!
If you want freedom and flexibility you’ll need to get you’re own rental car in Switzerland. Some car rental comparison sites are:
My favorites to look at are:
Food in Switzerland
Have we mentioned that Switzerland is expensive? The easiest way to save money on food is by shopping at grocery stores and cooking your own meals. Co-Op and Migros are the main grocery stores, but be forewarned prices even at the grocery store are more than you’re probably used to seeing. I can’t even count on my hand the amount of time PB&J served as my lunch and dinner in Switzerland while I was on a budget.
Will be hard to find in Switzerland. Your average no-frills lunchtime meal from a cafe will run you at least 15 CHF. If you’re in mountain huts while skiing, expect to spend 10 CHF on french fries (we paid 1 CHF more for each ketchup packet).
Fondue and Rosti are two of the main dishes you will find in Switzerland. Expect to pay about 25+ CHF per person for a nice meal out.
For as expensive as Switzerland is, I honestly expected alcohol to cost more money. I was surprised that a glass of local red wine could be had for 5 CHF and a pint of beer ran about 6 CHF.