The secret to finding an all-inclusive family ski holiday for less than £600

Henry Druce
Henry Druce discovers how family ski holidays don't need to break the bank - ([None] (Photographer) - [None]

“Is this your first time?” enquired the man next to me with a hint of evangelical fervour, as we queued at the hotel reception. “It’s Jon,” he said, quickly telling me he was an old hand at the type of budget family ski holiday we had both signed up for, having previously been on five similar trips.

As we waited to get room keys and tickets for ski and boot hire, dispensed and collected from the adjoining boot room, Jon added, “I haven’t seen you on one of these weeks before,” as explanation for how he’d sniffed out my newbie-ness. “You’re lucky to have got a place,” he said furtively, “they’re normally snapped up by repeat customers and many sell out within hours of going on sale.” A fact confirmed to me later when back in the UK by David Robertson, MD of Action Outdoors which markets the French holiday company UCPA to Brits.

David and Jon are specifically referring to the family holiday weeks UCPA runs during peak school holiday times  to premier French destinations where UCPA is based such as Les Deux Alpes, Chamonix and Serre Chevalier. It was a programme Action Outdoors introduced in 2014, thanks to Robertson convincing UCPA that it was a good way to expand its market.

The holidays are sold exclusively to Brits who make up 50 per cent of the clientele; Scandinavians the other half. In UCPA speak, the two nationalities have good “mixity” , meaning Scandis and Brits rub along especially well together, helped by a shared common language, even though it’s a secondary one for our Scandi friends. All ski school tuition during the weeks is in English.

The immediate appeal of the family weeks is simple. It’s the price. As all keen skiing families know, we are at the mercy of tour operators who normally charge at least double the price for their holidays in peak weeks - New Year, half term and Easter - compared to exactly the same holidays in low season.

UCPA is based in French resorts such as Les Deux Alpes, Chamonix and Serre Chevalier

UCPA flies in the face of this travel operator convention by offering holidays at very affordable prices, whatever the time of year. For example, our package to Les Deux Alpes in the first week of the Easter holidays cost £580pp covering full board (breakfast, lunch and dinner), ski hire, four half days’ of ski/snowboard lessons for intermediates and experts, four and a half days for beginners, and a lift pass which alone would have cost £275. The only significant element not covered is travel, plus you need to budget for minor incidentals such as coffee stops on the slopes and apres.

So how is UCPA able to offer such a cheap price? First off, it’s a not-for-profit company, set up by the French government in 1965 to promote the benefits of sport for young people aged seven to 39, by offering budget holidays to world-class destinations in both summer and winter.

The age restrictions has since stretched upwards to 45 years old for standard activity holidays, which is the vast bulk of what UCPA offers, and up to 55 for its off-piste and ski touring trips. On family weeks UCPA is even more flexible, with the upper age limit rising to 65 years old, and beyond in special cases, so grandparents can be included.

Secondly, UCPA has a legacy of well located properties built in the 1960s and 70s which it owns and therefore is not a slave to rising rents. The no-frills properties it refers to as sports hostels are most similar to smart youth hostels or budget hotels with compact rooms often with shared toilets and showers. In our four-person family room, my daughters Zoe (9) and Holly (8) slept in beds above the two singles my wife Vere and I were using, and we had to be ruthlessly tidy as there were only two cupboards and a few hooks to store our clothes.

Lifts in Les Deux Alpes Credit: GETTY

Vere and I found the thin mattresses and paper thin disposable sheets took a little getting used to but Holly and Zoe had no such qualms. They loved the accommodation from the start and we were all instantly impressed with our balcony and impressive mountain views.

Thirdly, the sheer buying power of a company selling over 100,000 winter holidays annually, mostly to the French, means it is able to negotiate substantial discounts on lift passes and ski and snowboard equipment it buys for guests to use. At first glance the skis in the cramped boot room at the UCPA centre in Les Deux Alpes looked well used, understandably as it was towards season’s end, but I soon perked up when offered a Dynaster pair with Ski Test blazoned across their top sheets – apparently a model being slope tested by UCPA staff for next season – and Vere and the kids were equally happy with their snazzy looking Rossignol Hero red and white models. Even more importantly, the hire boots both my kids needed gave a reassuringly snug fit.

UCPA is also able to keep the costs down by offering no-frills food, though it was reassuringly tasty and plentiful. At the buffet breakfast in the utilitarian dining room we steered clear of the sugary cereals and instead plumped for fresh fruit, yoghurts, bread and jam, washed down with copious amounts of coffee. We could have made sandwiches for lunch on the slopes but mostly returned to the centre to enjoy another buffet spread with a range of salads for starters, a choice of hot main courses such as chicken and fish, and ice cream, sorbets and cheese for dessert. Repeat for dinner. 

UCPA's bar is one of the best value in Les Deux Alpes

As for tuition, UCPA is the largest ski school in Europe and employs its staff on full time, temporary contracts for the winter including food and accommodation in many cases. This is a much more cost effective method of supplying lessons than paying instructors on an hourly rate and a further way the company keeps a cap on holiday prices for its guests.

On the first evening we chose which ski level suited us best - beginner (Holly), improver (Zoe), advanced (Vere) and expert (me) - and the UCPA head of winter activities divided us and all the other 202 guests into either two-and-a-half-hour morning or afternoon lessons for four days or four-and-a-half for beginners - Wednesday was a free day. 

Our kids have reached an age where they have become anti-lessons, as in the past they have been a bit hit and miss, especially when classes have non-English speaking kids. There was no issue this time as they quickly bonded with the other pupils in their respective groups.

It might also have helped that many of the good blue runs in Les Deux Alpes are, unusually,  at the top rather than the bottom of the resort’s skiing area including on its two glaciers, peaking at 3,600m. At such a lofty altitude there is guaranteed good snow cover and the week’s average temperature, a refreshing -5°C at the top of the ski area, meant piste conditions were excellent as far down as 2,000m. After about 11am the runs below 2,000m and back to the resort at 1,650m became a slush fest.

Ski lessons are included in the UCPA package

As for Vere and myself, going into different groups allowed us to ski at our own respective pace. My instructor was the effortlessly cool Victor, an ex-racer whose lessons included a number of drills to follow, such as turning while holding our poles upright in each hand to form a frame to help keep us focussed on skiing down the fall line. Much of the time though he was more guide than instructor, leading us at pace to the most challenging slopes on Les Deux Alpes’ 222km network of pistes.

Fun though it was, the most rewarding skiing experiences were when we explored the slopes in the morning as a family. Despite my urgings to catch the lift at 9am, we rarely made it to our closest uplift, the Diable chair, before 9.30am. Well it was a holiday after all. We loved being up high on the glaciers, drinking in the spectacular mountain views of the neighbouring Ecrin National Park, and then flying down the flattering Glacier 2 and 8 runs.

Our kids especially enjoyed the Toura sector at 2,600m where they could show off their jumping skills in the fun park. Over the course of the week I watched my youngest grow in confidence and pick up speed on red runs Fee 5 and 4, and witness my eldest happily tackle the steep, mogul strewn black Fee 6, with relative control.

After our morning’s skiing, we’d join the long, flowing Jandri blue run which starts from near the top of the ski area, all the way to the base. From here it was a 300m walk back to the UCPA centre and lunch, then time to relax briefly before our afternoon lessons.

We’d all meet up again once we’d finished skiing for the day. As parents we were never concerned about getting back for a fixed time as we knew our kids were being returned to the hotel by their instructors, knew how to get into our room and were with many of their new found friends. Friendships that extended beyond the slopes, as quickly became obvious at dinner times. Once we’d finished eating they were quick to find their buddies and play endless games of Pithead and even Poker.

Meanwhile Vere and I would sit with our new found pals, a happy mix of doctors, barristers, IT consultants, small business owners, mechanics and firemen but all with the same two things in common - a love of snowsports and like Jon, who I met on arrival, devotees of UCPA, having each been on up to 15 of the company’s holidays. 

New found fans of UCPA the Druce family and friends

We’d inevitably end up at the hostel’s bar where we’d enjoy what must be the best value for money drinks in Les Deux Alpes, with beers costing from €2.80, coffees €1.50, and enjoy whatever entertainment had been laid on that evening such as a quiz night, pancake making and live music. On the last evening, as we enjoyed watching the covers band made up of enthusiastic UCPA staff, I caught Jon’s eye in the crowd and he smiled. I think he knew that UCPA had gained another devotee.

Need to know

Action Outdoors has remaining spaces on its family week to Les Deux Alpes departing April 11, 2020, from £586pp including seven nights’ full-board accommodation, ski or snowboard lessons, rental equipment and lift pass. Action Outdoors offers return transfers from Grenoble airport from £55. The trainline.com offers return train travel from London to Grenoble from £158.71, via Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, and onward TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon. Transaltitude supplies coach transfers from Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes from €15 one way.   

Family holidays are also available to Serre Chevalier departing December 21 from £566pp, Les Contamines departing December 28 from £640, February 15 from £724 and April 4 from £576, and Chamonix departing April 11 from £566. Action Outdoors offers return coach travel to Les Contamines through Snow Express from £179 return and return transfers to Serre Chevalier from Turin and Grenoble from £80 return.