Travel To French Ski Resorts

Travel To French Ski Resorts

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Useful Maps

    French Alps Railways Map
  • French Alps Railways Map
    Haute Savoie Bus Network Map
  • Haute Savoie Bus Network Map
    French Alps Bus Network Map
  • French Alps Bus Network Map

Travel to French Ski Resorts

Skiing in French Alps is a dreamy bucket list item for many snow & non-snow inclined individuals, and so it should be. France has two extensive mountainous land borders – along the Alps with Switzerland and Italy in the west; the Pyrenees with Andorra and Spain to the south.

The French Alps stretch through four 'Departments' from Lac Leman near Geneva & the Portes du Soleil ski resort, south as far the city of Gap, where the peaks start to peter out. From north to south, the four departments include well known regional names - Haute Savoie, Savoie, Hautes Alpes & Isere. Each department has complex borders, so in many ways it is easier to characterise the mountainous regions by the two major valleys of the Tarentaise & Maurienne, then break the rest up into rational collections (hence our terminologies in the France website menu). The French Alps are a relatively compact part of France. In good traffic it is possible to drive from the lovely resort village of Châtel all the way south to Briancon at Serre Chevalier in only 4½hr (albeit with a few road tolls!). Portions of such a journey are possible by public transport, however the French Alps lacks the integration found elsewhere in Europe.

The other major French ski region, the Pyrenees, whilst quite distant from the Alps, is in & of itself incredibly compact as well. Utilising toll roads one can drive from the eastern ski resort of Bolquère Pyrénées 2000 near Font Romeu, to the far western resort of Cauterets in less than 4½hr. The same journey by public transport might take days!

Comparative to Austria & Switzerland, the train network in France doesn’t penetrate to many locations in the Alps or Pyrenees, requiring most journeys to the ski resorts to be by car, bus or …… plane. Yes, plane. The French have a quirky penchant for building incredible landing fields on short flattish sections in the alpine zone. Called Altiports, they allow those with the fiscal means or flying prowess to land right next to a ski run.

Flights to France

Getting to any ski resort in France is usually via the 2 major international airports at Lyon Saint Exupery (LYS) & Geneva (GVA) or secondary airports like Champèry (CMF) (operates only on weekends for limited flights from within Europe & the UK). With convenient TGV fast train links, Paris (CDG) is a possible point of origin to access major French ski areas. Some resorts in the Maurienne & southern Alps (or even Chamonix via the Aosta valley) can quite easily be reached from Italy through Milan Malpensa (MXP) airport (for international travellers) or Turin (TRN) (for anyone arriving from a European or UK origin).

For skiing in the Pyrenees, the large Toulouse (TLS) airport is the best point of access. Barcelona (BCN) airport in Spain can be utilised for French ski resorts in the eastern Pyrenees.

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Flying Directly to a French Ski Resort

As mentioned earlier, the French love a good Altiport, and it is still possible to fly directly into several major ski areas if you have the dollars to pay for it, or the plane & certification to do it yourself. There is an Altiport operating to varying degrees during winter in the French Alps resorts of Alpe d’Huez, Courchevel, Megève & Meribel. In the Pyrenees there is an altiport at the Peyragudes ski resort.

Train Travel in France

Despite lacking the world class alpine rail network of Switzerland or Austria, train travel is possible to numerous French ski resorts, but relies on further bus, taxi or private transfer connections to complete the journeys. Whilst there are no super-integrated ‘gare’ (train station in French) & ski lift combinations in France, there are two close possibilities. It is possible to ski Les Arcs by stepping off a train and onto a funicular lift at Bourg St Maurice, and one can step off the train at Vallorcine near Chamonix & stroll 100m to the gondola heading up to Balme. Beyond those two, several especially useful train lines provide access to major ski regions, providing a comfortable, reliable, safe & often cost-effective mode of ski travel. Getting around by train is also a great way to POW (Protect Our Winters).

For rail transport direct from the airport, Lyon St Exupery (LYS) has a TGV train station with excellent connections to the base of the Alps. Similarly, Geneva (GVA) airport has a train station which can be useful for journeys to resorts near St Gervais & Chamonix.

The most useful rail lines for skiers & snowboarders travelling in France include:

  • PARIS - LYON - TURIN - MILAN line – Surprisingly, this line gives access to a feast of great ski areas in the Haute Maurienne valley via Modane station. Modane is the gateway to the resorts of Aussois, Val Cenis & the Powderhounds gems of La Norma & Bonneval sur Arc. The TGV provides very quick journeys on this line, much to our approval when we travelled on it. In Italy, the stazione at Oulx is the gateway to the huge Via Lattea & French resorts including Montgenevre & Serre Chevalier. Bardonecchia station is the gateway to ………… Bardonecchia of course.
  • LYON to BOURG ST MAURICE – Train services from Lyon St Exupéry Airport to Bourg St Maurice (via Champèry) are some of the most useful in France. All the major Tarentaise ski resorts are close to Bourg St Maurice or stations along the way. Bus services connect the dots from the train stations
  • LYON to GRENOBLE – Regular TGV services head direct from Lyon St Exupéry Aéroport to Grenoble, from where one can link to ski resorts in the southern Alps, or join local train services back up toward Albertville & the Tarentaise (although we recommend services from Lyon to Champery in that case!).
  • GRENOBLE to GAP & BRIANCON – Not a journey one would often contemplate, but it makes a comfortable & reliable alternative to the bus when the weather is bad. Longer by a few hours than the bus ride to Serre Chevalier via La Grave, the train passes near several southern ski resorts including Risoul & Puy Saint Vincent on its way to Serre Chevalier’s Briancon.
  • GENEVA to ST GERVAIS – The train from Geneva airport to St Gervais-Le Fayet opens numerous connecting options. Not only does it connect almost directly into the ski lifts of Megeve, and to the Chamonix valley via the Mont Blanc Express (see below), but also to Les Portes du Soleil & Grand Massif via the gare at Cluses. Trains from London, Paris, Annecy & Lyon also converge on St Gervais-Le Fayet station.
  • MONT BLANC EXPRESS – Linking St Gervais-Le Fayet to Chamonix, Argentiere, Vallorcine & Martigny (in Switzerland), the Mont Blanc Express is poorly named, but a scenic & useful train line to get to Chamonix. It is expensive travelling from the Swiss side of the line & the speed is painfully slow, but a lovely journey, nonetheless. Trains from London, Paris, Annecy, Lyon & Geneva converge on St Gervais-Le Fayet station. Trains from Brig, Montreux & Geneva converge on Martigny.

Search & book train tickets in France & all of the Alps.

Bus Travel in the French Alps

Far & away the most useful bus company in the French Alps is called Belle Savoie Express. They are responsible for an excellent seasonal network of bus lines servicing most Alps ski resorts.To work out which bus line is best for you, see the Belle Savoie Express bus network map here. See the local bus timetables here.

In the Haute Savoie of the northern French Alps, the bus company called SAT Mont Blanc serves La Clusaz, Portes du Soleil, Megeve Grand Massif & Chamonix. It has a reasonable network for winter travel, with several bus lines linking train stations to ski resort villages. To work out which bus line is best for you, see the SAT Mont-Blanc Haute Savoie bus network map here. See the local Haute Savoie bus timetables here.

Private Transfers

The Powderhounds recommend taking the train & bus wherever possible when travelling in Europe but recognise that in a post COVID19 world many people will not be comfortable with such arrangements. We also know that whilst there are some useful train & bus combinations to the French Alps, public transport in France just isn’t the same as Austria & Switzerland. So, if you cannot abide public transport, are in a larger group of 3+ people or just have the cash to splash, the quickest & easiest way to French ski resorts from the airports can be via a private transfer.

Whilst generally an expensive proposition, a useful method to decrease the cost of a private transfer when travelling solo or as a couple is to take a train to a major nearby railway station (i.e. Grenoble, St Gervais, Bourg St Maurice, Modane, Moûtiers) & be met by the provider for transfer direct to your ski resort accommodation.

Search & book your private transfer here.

Driving in the French Alps

It should go without saying that the narrow mountain roads require patience whenever they are snow or ice covered. In some areas however, travel times can be needlessly exacerbated by French drivers that appear to have no idea about snow chains, let alone snow driving (or heaven forfend, snow tyres!). Recent experiences highlighted the extraordinary capacity for columns of vehicles to become grid locked by virtue of cars blocking entire roads to put on chains or trying to put on chains when it is clearly far too late. Of course, this is the exception to the rule & most drivers in France are exceptional skilled……… but expect the worst & hope for the best when driving to popular French ski areas on weekends during storms.

The roads to many Alps & Pyrenees ski resorts can become quite congested during busy periods. The worst travel times are usually on weekends on Friday evening, Saturday morning & evening & Sunday evening. Some of the most congested roads include:

  • Albertville to Bourg St Maurice & Beyond. From Albertville into the Tarentaise valley via Moutiers (to the 3 Vallees resorts) & Bourg St Maurice (to Sainte Foy, Tignes - Val d’Isere etc) can be hellish. Beyond Bourg St Maurice, the road narrows significantly past Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise toward busy Tignes & Val d’Isere.
  • Around Grenoble. In addition to being choked with traffic on weekends, roads near Grenoble can also be surprisingly busy during the morning & evening work commute on weekdays. Further along, the narrow Romanche River Valley (toward Alpe d’Huez, Les 2 Alpes, La Grave, Serre Chevalier etc), is particularly vulnerable to weekend traffic jams.
  • Roads into Chamonix. In any direction, be it from Switzerland, Italy (via the Mont Blanc Tunnel) or France via St Gervais, roads can be bedlam heading into Chamonix in poor weather, on powder mornings & weekends.
  • Roads to Ax les Thermes & into Andorra. If one looks up hell drive in the dictionary, the definition will be the journey to Ax les Thermes & then on to Pass de la Casa during a blizzard on a Saturday morning. Never have we been amongst such a poor winter driving cohort. Carnage & drama the entire way. A 1hr journey between Ax & Andorra took over 5hr – all due to scarily poor drivers on a negligibly cleared road. The French clearly do not want to encourage visitors into Andorra!

Car Rentals in France

Renting cars in France, just like Italy, particularly from the major airports is cheap & convenient. It provides the best mode of travel to many French Alps & most Pyrenees ski resort locations (other than a private transfer!) allows for freedom & flexibility on a road trip. However, there are several potential pitfalls, particularly in relation to the appropriateness of most rentals for winter driving. We usually recommend renting cars for winter driving from Austria or Switzerland, with Austria being the more affordable option. However, if heading to France that may not be an option. Anyone renting a car in France for winter driving SHOULD consider the following:

  • WINTER TYRES – Travel by road in the Alps or Pyrenees in winter is most safely undertaken in an All-Wheel-Drive (AWD) or 4-Wheel-Drive (4WD) vehicle fitted with winter tyres. Most cars rented in France will not come with winter tyres. In Switzerland & Austria, winter tires are mandatory, so all rental cars will come fitted with them. In France (& Italy, Spain et al) that is not the case. Informing the rental company, you intend driving into Switzerland & Austria (even if you don’t actually go there!) will ensure a rental car issued to you is fitted with winter tyres. Sneaky huh! But it will only work if renting from somewhere near the Alps. Don’t expect a rental company in Paris to be dishing out cars with winter treads!
  • WINTERISATION – Some, but not all rentals in France will not come equipped with a scraper or brush (for clearing snow/ice off the car) or winter windscreen washer fluid. You may have to purchase these basic items on the way to the hills.
  • FUEL – Many rental cars from France (& indeed, across Europe) are diesel engine vehicles. There have been instances of vehicles rented from non-Alps locations having diesel clogging issues in the low mountain temperatures. Immediately refuel your diesel car at a filling station near your first mountain destination. This will add sub-zero temperature tolerant diesel to your vehicle. Petrol prices in France are amongst the highest In Europe.
  • SNOW CHAINS - At the very least a car should be front wheel drive & come with snow chains – although we do not recommend such a set up as acceptable for driving extensively in the mountains. The breakage of cheap snow chains on long snow-covered mountain drives is seriously painful. Luckily, the autoroutes that get close to most ski areas all well-maintained in winter and rarely require chains, except late at night & pre-dawn.
  • INSURANCE – Be wary of car rental companies that add premium insurance to your rental agreement without your knowledge or agreement. Carefully read the rental agreement prior to taking the car to ensure you are paying only for what you want or have requested.
  • ROAD TOLLS – The single greatest let down about driving in France is the cost of travelling on the motorways, or ‘autoroutes’ as they are known locally. The autoroutes are generally denoted on signage by the word pèage (‘toll’ in English). The toll road costs are higher when compared to the rest of Europe, except for Italy. Cash, coins and credit cards are accepted, but the correct pay lane must be used. Look for the white overhead cash/card payment signs as you enter the toll zones. Note that some toll sections have both manned & unmanned booths. English can be selected as a language on the unmanned payment stations. Different autoroute sections are tolled in varying ways. Some are short sections with fixed tolls, others issue a ticket (biglietti) and the toll will be accrued depending on the distance travelled.
  • SPEEDING – Speed limits are becoming increasingly enforced by speed cameras. Speed radar cameras are becoming quite prevalent, particularly on the busy routes to ski areas in the Tarentaise & Maurienne, so speed limits need to be adhered to. The 130kph speed limit on the motorways is generous, so try not to emulate the speeding Audi drivers! Tunnels may have overhead speed cameras and generally lower speed limits. Some also have enforceable distances between cars for additional safety. Built up area speed limits are either 50 or 30kph depending on the width of the road! 50kph speed limits are electronically enforced with speed cameras in many towns.
  • CROSS-BORDER CONSIDERATIONS – Cars rented in France do not come with the motorway vignette required to travel on the main freeways of Switzerland and Austria. They can be purchased at the borders, or you can run the gauntlet. Whilst we have never been pulled up and checked for them whilst in either country, we have been stopped at a motorway border crossing between Italy and Switzerland and made to buy one by the frontier police.
  • CROSS-BORDER TUNNELS – There are 2 major cross-border road tunnels from France through the Alps, with both heading into Italy. They are the Frejus tunnel (near Modane in the Maurienne heading toward Turin ) & the Mont Blanc Tunnel (from Chamonix into the Aosta valley near Courmayeur). Both come with exorbitant tariffs. In January 2020, one way through the Frejus tunnel cost €47. It is possible to avoid some of the expensive tunnels by using alternative crossing points (see below).
  • BORDER CROSSINGS in the Alps with no tolls (or minor ones) from France are limited in winter but include the following. In the north, two lowland & one alpine option to enter Switzerland by road from the French Alps exist in winter. The lowland routes are either through Geneva or the southern shore of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), both vaguely toward Montreux. The alpine route is from Chamonix over the Col des Montets to Vallorcine & then across into Martigny. In the south, only two non-tolled options exist. From Briançon the Via Lattea straddles the pass between Montgenèvre & Claviere, providing the best alternative to the Frejus tunnel (Note that this alternative is certainly the long way round, traverse a high pass near La Grave before reaching Briancon & may not be worth saving the tunnel fee). Further down the range, the Colle della Maddalena crosses the southern Alps toward Cuneo in Italy.
  • ROAD CONDITIONS – Finally, as with much of Europe, regional roads in the mountains and villages can be narrow & bends extremely tight. Add in ice & snow & driving is often high adventure to the uninitiated. Consider oncoming buses & trucks on mountain roads and give them space. They cannot go backwards, you can (usually).

Search & book rental cars in Italy or the rest of Europe here.

Drive safe. Enjoy the journey.