Doing a Ski Season
Do you ever think about packing it all in and heading out to the Alps for a season? Maybe the weather at home is getting you down, or perhaps one week's skiing a year simply isn't enough! What if you’re just leaving school or uni and aren’t really sure what you want to do next?
For many people, doing a ski season has become the ultimate dream. Five months spent in a spectacular mountain resort, skiing waist deep powder every day, riotous parties every night, tottie galore…… Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it? And it is! However, there’s a bit more to the actual reality of doing a ski season than the glossy image will have you believe. For starters, most people need to get some sort of job when they’re here which will inevitably impinge on your powder skiing/ Mutzig drinking/ tottie grabbing time! Working in a ski resort can be very tough with long hours, demanding clients, notoriously bad pay and shared accommodation, on occasion with people with dubious personal hygiene standards. A paid holiday it is not!
However, with a bit of thought and forward planning, doing a season can be one of the best decisions you will ever make and it may open up a whole host of opportunities that you would otherwise never have considered. And it’s true - when you’re here all the time you can take your pick of the powder days, get to know the bar staff at all the best parties, and attain that strangely alluring goggle tan!
Where do I start?
A ski resort is a vibrant and varied environment to work in and depending on your skills; there are a multitude of jobs to consider. Inevitably, a large percentage of them are for British tour operators as chalet hosts, resort reps and hotel staff etc. Working for a tour operator generally means that you would spend the majority of your time with British guests and co-workers but certain positions require good language skills or catering qualifications and can lead onto managerial and long term career opportunities. Many of the larger tour operators also have an office based overseas and look to hire staff with accountancy, office administration and operational skills which can be a good option if you are looking to boost your career during your season.
If you already speak the language well then you could seek work with a locally run establishment such as a bar, restaurant or hotel. If improving your language skills is a priority for you, then working in one of the smaller, less well known resorts where English is less commonly spoken might prove more beneficial. Many resorts these days do not require you to have any knowledge of the local language at all to go about your daily business, however, you will certainly glean more from your season (and integrate yourself better with the locals!) if you at least try to learn!
Thanks to the internet (and sites such as ours!) it is now much easier to look for work before you actually get to resort. Websites such as Ski Jobs and Natives are dedicated to helping people find seasonal resort work and provide an excellent source of information and advice on how to go about it.
However, if you prefer to just get out there and look for work once you arrive, then the larger resorts will have more opportunities to explore. To maximise your chances, make sure you arrive in plenty time prior to the start of season (mid/end November) and come prepared with enough funds to tide you over until you secure work and get your first pay cheque. Having some knowledge of the local language will be a big advantage here and you should prepare several copies of your CV (and references) in advance so that you can hand them out in as many places as possible. Be prepared to get knocked back a few times, but if you’re outgoing and friendly (and obviously qualified for the job in question!) then you may just find yourself in the right place at the right time and land a great number! The main thing is not to give up; the more people you speak to, the more people know you’re available. Invariably with the nature of working in a ski resort, people can get injured (or homesick!) and have to go home at short notice, leaving an employer looking for an immediate replacement that could be you!
When to Apply?
If you’re serious about doing a season then you should get in early so that you can get the pick of the jobs. Most tour operators start recruiting as early as May/June for the following winter season and demand for positions is high. You can usually apply through the company’s website and will need to complete an application form either on-line or by post. Some companies will accept on spec CVs but you will generally need to fill out their own application form at some point so you may as well find out the correct procedure in the beginning.
Interviews are carried out throughout the summer months but jobs are offered out on a “first come, first served basis” so it is in your interest to try and see prospective employers as soon as possible. If you are successful and get offered the job you want, you may be asked to pay a commitment bond (approx. £100) to secure your offer. As it is quite normal for job seekers to “do the rounds” of tour operators, many companies adopt this policy as a safeguard that you will turn up at the start of season. However, the bond is usually fully refunded on the successful completion of the winter.
Don’t worry if you end up leaving it late to apply, many people for one reason or another, drop out as the season approaches and last minute vacancies are common.
If you decide to just head out to resort and take your chance once there, then ensure that you arrive in plenty time (mid/late November for winter and mid May for summer in the Alps). Be prepared to do lots of door knocking and have enough funds to tide you over until you secure work and get your first pay cheque. The more people you speak to, the more people know you’re available. Bar staff and tour operator staff are the ones to befriend, and check out any local notice boards and websites (like ours!) for positions vacant.
What should I expect?
For many people one of the hardest things to deal with is being away from friends and family for an extended length of time, especially if it is your first time away from home. Only you will know if you can bear to be apart from your family or that “special someone” for 5 months or more but you should give it some serious thought before committing to a season away. Explaining to your employer that you want to return home after a month because you’re homesick will generally not be very well received. Neither will requests to go home for your granny’s birthday or best friends wedding, so unless pre-arranged with a very understanding employer, expect to miss out. It is often the relationships with boy/girlfriends left back at home that are the hardest to sustain. We’ve all seen the documentaries on TV to know that there is a certain amount of hanky panky that goes on in resort, and whilst these programmes give a pretty bad impression of what seasonal life is really like – sometimes temptation is just too hard to resist!
If you’re planning on working during your season then expect to be doing a 50-60 hour week with only one day off. Hours are long and often unsociable and certain jobs can effectively require you to be on-call at all times which is exhausting. The nature of hospitality and tourism work can (and will) test your ability to be “nice” to people, that in many instances you wouldn’t normally mix with. It’s quite startling how thoughtless some guests can be and “grinning and bearing it” will become second nature to you at times.
Invariably, despite your long working hours, you will still try and cram as much skiing and partying into your spare time as humanly possible. Regardless of whether you are knackered or have the hangover from hell, you will still be expected to get on with the job at hand. Once you reach meltdown point through overindulgence and exhaustion, you will learn to strike a happier balance between work, play and fun. We can tell you now that you won’t be able to do all three forever, but you will only actually learn that for yourself!
Why do a ski season?
If this is all sounding a bit doom and gloom – why do it? Well, as many of us are here to testify, doing a season can be one of the best experiences you’ll ever have. If the scenery alone isn’t enough to make you pack your bags and head for the Alps, then maybe the prospect of flexible working hours allowing plenty time for skiing/boarding is. Spending 5 or 6 months in the mountains will do absolute wonders for your skiing and/or boarding ability and you’ll be getting paid for the pleasure too!
Now whilst a ski resort is not exactly a “cheap” option, living in Europe can be considerably less expensive than life in the UK. Many employers include a lift pass, equipment hire, accommodation, food and insurance etc as part of their package, meaning that although your wages may be much lower that they would be at home, so are your outgoings. You are also likely to forge new friendships with people from all corners of the globe and all walks of life; some of whom will remain friends for years to come or who may open unexpected doors for you in the future or when you return home. The close knit environment in a ski resort means that relationships are formed quickly and intensely and you’ll probably wonder how you came to know people so well after such a short time.
A season is not just for the stereotypical “lost soul” who doesn’t know what else to do with their life (although inevitably there are some around) and it doesn’t have to be a one off thing either. Ski resorts all over the world are full of well travelled, fun and contented people who love this more flexible lifestyle. Many have forged whole new careers from seasonal beginnings either back in the UK or by remaining in the Alps and making it their home. Useful transferable skills such as languages, the ability to cook and chef or child care qualifications are immensely sought after, not to mention the flexibility and team working skills you’ll develop during your season. Instead of being viewed as time wasted, your season could provide you with that little extra something that employers are looking for and land you your dream job!
The Package - what's included?
Many employers, and certainly all tour operators, offer an all-inclusive employment package to their staff. Although the salary guidelines given in the individual job descriptions may appear pretty meagre, you will generally find that the only outlay you have in resort is on new toys and gadgets and your “Beer and Fags Fund”! Everything else is usually provided for you and includes:
- Transport to and from resort - If you secure a position with a tour operator then they will normally take care of your outward and return travel arrangements for you. For the majority of staff, this invariably means a fairly arduous coach journey from Dover to resort; however, it does give you a great opportunity to meet and get to know some of your new colleagues before you arrive. Other companies (particularly some of the smaller ones) will fly staff out at the start of season. Return transport to the UK is also provided at the end of season, often using up empty return flight seats on charter planes.
- Salary - as mentioned above, salaries are notoriously low but they are sufficient to live on when you consider that everything else is provided by your employer.
- Accommodation - most companies have a number of staff apartments or rooms within their properties that they use to accommodate their staff. The standard of staff accom can vary greatly from company to company and resort to resort, but thankfully living conditions have improved considerably in recent years and staff are no longer housed in basement rooms with little or no natural light. You should, however, expect to be sharing a room with one or two of your co-workers (couples will get their own room) and invariably be sleeping on bunk beds. Depending on your job you may be living in close proximity to your guests and will have to modify your behaviour and noise output accordingly! If you plan to sort out your own accommodation for the season, you should expect to pay in the region of £3500 (€5000) plus for a studio apartment
- Food and drinks - in addition to your accommodation, your food and (non-alcoholic) drinks will also be provided. In chalet work, this will involve you sitting down and eating at least one course of the meal you have prepared with your guests each evening. For other positions, staff usually eat all together at a set time in one of the larger properties.
- Equipment Hire - You will be provided with ski or snowboard hire for the season. If you have your own boots, it might be worth taking them if your luggage space allows.
- Lift pass - your whole reason for being here and generally viewed as the most valuable part of your employment package. Don’t lose it or lend it to your mates as it will cost you in the region of £500 (€750) to replace!
- Travel and Medical Insurance - absolutely vital if you are planning on spending any length of time doing winter sports. Ensure you are familiar with what your policy covers you for (off-piste? Heliskiing??) and that it gives you sufficient coverage for any large or valuable items that you are taking with you (eg. your own ski/board kit). That way you can take out some additional cover if necessary. It is also advisable to buy the local Carte Neige insurance once in resort as this is instantly recognised by the French rescue services and will cover your costs should you require assistance to get off the mountain. Cost €40 - €60 for 12 months (October to October). You are also required to carry the new EHIC card that has replaced the E111 form. See our FAQ section and featured article on Ski and Travel Insurance for more information.
Visas & Passports
Not everyone requires a work permit or "autorisation de travail" to work in France, so if you fall into one of the following categories, you’re OK:
- You are a citizen of a European Union member country
- You are a citizen of a European Economic Area (EEA) state
- You are a Swiss national
Foreign nationals from any country other than those listed above must be in possession of a valid work permit and a long stay visa in order to secure employment in France. Both of these documents can only be applied for PRIOR to arriving in the country.
To work with a tour operator, most companies require you to hold a valid EC passport and a UK National Insurance number. If you hold an EC ancestral visa then you will probably find it easier to gain employment with a UK based company than a local French employer.
Swiss Permits - working in Switzerland is a little different to France and non-Swiss nationals DO require a work permit in order to be legally employed. The official procedure is that you must first find a job and then your new employer will apply for your work permit on your behalf. Depending on your nationality, you may also require a visa to enter Switzerland in the first place. The latest regulations for working in Switzerland can be found here
Practicalities once you're here
So you've done it - you're in the Alps for the season. Now what??
Banks You will need a French bank account to be able to exist for any period of time there. I would suggest that you get your UK bank manager to contact their French branch to set this up. I got my Barclays manager to set up my account with the Barclays Branch in Paris and there are a lot of benefits to this. Firstly, all communications from Barclays Paris is in French on one side and English on the other. Secondly if you phone them up they all speak English. Thirdly they produce useful ‘how to…’ leaflets which address the differences between the French and English banking systems. This will help to explain the uses of TIPs and RIBs (a book of what look like cheques but are effectively authorization to set up a direct debit). You cannot and must not go overdrawn on your French Bank Account. The credit cards are actually debit cards associated with your account and your account will cost you between €15 and €35 per month depending on the amount you want to spend on your debit cards. Interestingly or should that be irritatingly, you are not allowed to change the PIN Code on your debit card. So what you get is what you’re stuck with.
Phones and Internet If you need a fixed line phone and broadband in your apartment then contact Powder Blue who offer broadband instalations throughout the Alps. Here you can organize a fixed line for about €15 a month and 8 Mbit Broadband for €25 a month. Note that you will pay these amounts every month, even when you’re not there so this is a 12 x €40 cost =€480/annum. It’s imperative to get French mobiles (or be faced with hefty bills on your UK phone!) and this is just a case of buying a couple of SIM cards at the SFR or Orange shops in the main supermarket in Moutiers, called Champion and installing them in your (unlocked) mobile. These are ‘Pay as you go’ SIMs and you can load them up with €€ via the website (the Orange one is extremely difficult to use) or with a ticket bought in one of your local tabac shops.
Schools Go down to the school in September and ask to meet the headmaster (he’s the one in jeans and T-shirt and everyone calls him Serge!). In the ski resorts, the schools are used to having Seasonaires’ children from January to April due to the influx of seasonal workers like ski instructors. You’ll be given some forms to fill in. You’ll need to go to St Bon to the Mairie and prove that you live where you say you do (an electricity bill and phone bill is fine) show your passports and prove that your child has insurance (go to www.mae.fr and click on Assurance Scolaires and choose the €10 a term insurance). Fill out the form and your certificate is emailed to you within 10 seconds. Take it to the Mairie and while you’re at the Mairie, pay for school lunches for the Dec to Easter period at around €2 a day (a 3 course meal that would make Jamie Oliver excited.) When you arrive in December, go along to the school before the end of term and pick up your FREE season lift pass for your child. At your local ski shop, for example Olympic Sports in Le Praz, you will be able to hire a set of high quality skis boots and poles for around €60 for the season (!). The kids usually start school around the 7th Jan and the school day runs from 8.45 to around 4pm. However they usually get Wednesday afternoons off from about noon to ski with Mum and Dad plus Ski de Fond on Thursday afternoon. In addition they get every 5th week off to ski in small groups with an instructor. As you can imagine, after a couple of seasons of this, your 8 year old will be a better skier than you!
Shopping The major benefit of having a car is being able to shop at the major supermarkets in for example Moutiers (called Champion). This is 40% cheaper than the small Sherpas/Huit à Huit/Spar in the resorts. This is especially true of wine. Amazingly, you can buy excellent Appellation Controllée box wine in France. I’ll give you an example. In the Sherpa in Alpe d'Huez, a 75cl bottle of Côte du Rhone is €6.50. In the supermarket in Moutiers it’s €4.60 but in the same supermarket there’s a better Appellation Côte du Rhone Controllée at €8.50 for a 3 litre box. That’s 4 bottles at just over €2 a bottle! If any of the following are indispensable for you then bring them with you. HP sauce, tomato soup, Worcester sauce, marmite, chilli sauce, custard, salad cream, mustard, marmalade, oxo, bisto, tomato sauce, Branston pickle, baked beans. They’re all available but at 4 times the price! Medicines which you can buy in Sainsburys or Tesco in the UK are only available at Pharmacies in France and so being a monopoly, the prices are much more than you will be used to. As an example, the generic painkiller Ibuprofen, used by everyone for hangovers and general aches and pains is 900% more expensive in a French pharmacy than it is in your local UK chemist! So it’s worthwhile to kit yourself out with a medicine cabinet of all the pills and potions you think you might need while you’re away.
Eating A baguette or a few croissants picked up from the local baker is a good way to start the day. You can use the walk as a ‘nice way to wake up’ or they’ll drop off at your front door every morning at 6am and you pay the bill once a month. Lunch can be anything you want it to be. The remnants of the above baguette with some local cheese, carried in your backpack, is the most cost effective option and the choices after that are too many to catalogue here. One place I will single out though is the local Traiteur. In many villages and certainly in Alpe d'Huez-Le Praz, the Boucherie is also a Delicatessen or ‘Traiteur’ in French. What this means is that he does a range of cooked dishes each day plus a special plat du jour. So every day there is rabbit stew, gratin potatoes, tartiflette, lasagna, parmentier (like shepherds pie) etc. The plat du jour might be Choucroute, Boeuf Bourguignon, Lamb shank or Leg of duck all served with all the trimmings. Just order it ‘per person’ and heat it up at home for around €7.50 a head. Great food and great value with the minimum of hassle.
Clothes and Gear – What to buy and where If you do a 20 week season then that’s the equivalent of 10 years of 2-week holidays. Gloves will last a season – maybe. A €600 jacket will start to look a mess towards the end of the season. In the first week of April the sales start and you can easily get 40% off. Tour around the big shops in 1650 and 1850 and buy some new gloves and a Spyder/Killy jacket for €299 to put away in the wardrobe for next December. Skis are the same. They’re often the same as next year’s model but they just have a different paintjob. Don’t be proud – save €200 - €300 and put them in the cupboard for next year.
So now you own 2 properties If you do end up in the lucky position of owning a UK property and a French ski apartment/chalet – don’t spend all your time moving all your gear backwards and forwards. Have 2 sets of clothes and keep lists of what you left at ‘the other place’ and ‘what you need to remember to take with you’ next time.