Ski chalets in the alps

What is a ski chalet holiday? The definitive guide to ski chalet holidays

Here you will find the definitive guide to ski chalet holidays. What they are, what they are not, the pro and cons of going on one and everything in between. You will learn everything you need to know to be able ot book a chalet for your next winter holiday.

In this article:

  1. Chalet origins and design
  2. History of chalet holidays
  3. Choosing a holiday
  4. Sharing a chalet
  5. Catered or Self Catered
  6. Budget or Luxury
  7. Location
  8. Facilities
  9. Staff
  10. Extra Services

Chalet Origins And Design

The chalet (pronounced "shall-eh") has its origins in the Alpes of europe. The word "chalet" comes from the region straddling the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland known as Arpitan where the Franco-Provençal dialect is spoken. In this area a chalet typically refers to the hut of herders or the seasonal mountain residence of farmers.

Long before the advent of the ski industry these wooden dwellings would remain vacant all winter as the farmers had taken their stock down to the adjoining lowlands and valleys - an ancient seasonal event known as "la transhumance". As the ski industry started to grow these vacant houses situated in prime mountain country became a sought after commodity. These original chalets would have been very utilitarian in nature. They were often quite difficult to access, being more like a mountain refuge than a house by the side of a road and so were sparsely decorated and furnished with limited services (hot water would have been considered a luxury).

Chalet or Mazot: You will sometimes see these two words used for each other. Historically a Mazot is a little windowless building that is used as a store for the main chalet. It is now common to see these charming (but tiny) buildings converted into delightful little holiday residences in their own right.

Construction

Traditionally chalets were constructed almost entirely of wood with some having a ground floor constructed of stone. Distinctive details of the chalet are the pitched roof, front facing gable and large overhanging eaves. Even with a heavily pitched roof snow could be retained which meant the chalet had to be constructed in a stout manner. This is why large wooden beams, joists and heavy pillars feature prominently in chalet design. The large overhanging eaves helped keep the snow, wind, rain and sun away from the walls and also allowed for storage. Due to the inclined nature of mountain land the ground floors are usually cut into the mountain side. Steeper inclines can lead to an interesting internal layout where every floor can be said to be a "ground floor" (this can be seen clearly in our own Chalet La Petite Pia). If you are interested in the details of chalet design, be sure to check out this article by Mountain Passions and this rather interesting old document.

Modern ski chalet design has not strayed far from its origins. The broad roofs, heavy timber construction, large eaves and compact practical design are all retained. Add in such things as a boot room, hot tubs, saunas, parking and expansive balconies, plus wifi of course, and you are pretty much there.

A picture pf the side of a chalet showing the design details.
In this photo you can clearly see a lot of the major chalet design features such as the large overhanging eaves, the lower floor built into the mountain made of stone and the balconies and upper floors made of wood.

Apartment - Chalet - Both?

There is a tendency to call most residences that reside within a chalet-like building a chalet. This means you could have multiple apartments located within a chalet building and each of them could be referred to individually as a "chalet". These apartments/chalets may occupy anything from half a floor to several floors of the building depending on the layout. They would typically have their own entrance but not always. This is also true historically as it was not uncommon for two different families to occupy two different halves of the same chalet building.

Beginning of the Chalet Ski Holiday

So how did we go from shepherd's summer hut to luxurious chalet with adjoining helipad and wifi? Well it seems to have started with a lady by the name of Erna Low. In 1932 she placed the following advertisement in The Morning Post: "Winter Sports – Austria, fortnight, £15 only, including rail and hotel, arranged by young Viennese Graduette for young people leaving Christmas". Of course back then there were no lifts so you had to hike up the mountain yourself but they stayed in chalets and they were there to ski so it really was the birth of the chalet ski holiday.

As the ski industry took off the demand for accommodation grew and grew. Some resorts took to "rack-em-and-stack-em" approach and built large high rise accommodation blocks to put the guests in. Other resorts, like Meribel, took a more metered approach and imposed strict rules on building design and town layout. This resulted in a valley that is much more pleasing to the eye. The eye pleasing nature is primarily due to the regulations sticking strongly to the original design aesthetics of the wooden chalets. In Meribel this is thanks in no small part to the resorts founder: Colonel Peter Lindsay.

As time passed the standards of the chalet holiday have improved. We have gone from "hot water - optional" to "WIFI - essential". In the next section we will take a look at exactly what makes up the modern ski chalet experience.

The best catered chalets Meribel has to offer
Meribel - You can see why it is the definitive ski chalet resort

The Chalet Holiday Experience

In order to appreciate the modern chalet holiday experience you must first look at the big decisions you will have to make in order to experience it. These decisions are:

For some these decisions do not need to be made as the answer is self evident but for others some or all of these questions need to be answered before they can proceed. Lets take a look in detail at each of these.

Exclusive Use Or Shared Use

One of the biggest decisions to be made about your chalet holiday is whether you wish to share your chalet with other people or whether you wish to have it all to yourself and your group. Booking an entire chalet for yourself when there is only two of you could be a bit expensive. If you are the sort of person who enjoying meeting new people and socialising then a room in a shared chalet may be just the ticket.

Exclusive Use

Booking a whole chalet for yourself and your group is typically done by people who know each other before the holiday. Because of this the make-up of the group can be controlled by the group. Be it a family or a group of friends or co-workers they typically have met and have a relationship to each other before they arrive in resort.

Booking the whole chalet means you can tailor certain things to your groups needs. The chalet and the services can be adjusted to your group's specific requirements. There can be more of an informal atmosphere in the chalet when everyone knows each other.

You can typically book exclusive use chalets as either catered or self catered. The major downside to exclusive bookings is the cost. Unless you have a group that can fill the chalet the cost per person can go up significantly. Our own Chalet La Petite Pia is a good example of an exclusive use chalet.

Shared Use

The major benefits of shared use (by the room) chalets is the cost and the built in social scene. Because you are only paying for the room the cost of the holiday is set per person no matter how many people book the chalet. Shared chalets are almost universally catered chalets with set meal times and a menu that is typically set by the chalet company.

A group of people who have never met before meet on the first day of the holiday so there is a slightly more formal atmosphere to the chalet especially at the beginning of the holiday when people ar getting to know each other. In some shared chalets it is possible to set an age limit for the week you are there such as "no children / adults only" but this varies from company to company. Our own Chalet La Chouette is a good example of a shared chalet.

Shared Chalet La Chouette
The entrance to Chalet La Chouette - a typical shared luxury chalet.

Catered Or Self Catered

This question typically only applies to exclusive use chalets as shared chalets are almost universally a catered affair.

Self Catered Chalets

The basic price refers to the accommodation and nothing else. There will usually be cooking facilities in the chalet so it will be possible to cook your own food. A lot of self-catered chalet companies offer a basic "breakfast hamper" as an add on. It is also possible to get food cooked in house by a third party catering company. This is common in more high end chalets.

A trend that has really taking off in recent years if food delivery for chalets. There are now several companies operating in the French Alps catering to this market.

Catered Chalets

Catered chalets refers to any chalet that you book which has catering included in the basic price. Catering here typically consists of breakfast, afternoon tea and dinner but not lunch. Drinks may be included, partially included (wine with dinner) or completely separate. The catering level varies from company to company with some offering cheap and cheerful staples while other offering a luxury catering package with the best of ingredients being hand prepared in the chalet for you.

Breakfast

Breakfasts in catered chalets typically consists of either a continental style with simple hot items included or it can be a full continental breakfast with a number of daily hot specialities included.

breakfast laid out in a catered chalet
Breakfast laid out in a catered chalet

Lunch

Lunch is not usually considered part of a catered chalet holiday and most chalets do not offer a set lunch meal or menu. The reason for this is that most guests eat lunch out on the mountain in the refuges and mountain restaurants. Some chalets will offer their guests a cold packed lunch on request.

Afternoon tea

A staple of most catered chalet offerings, afternoon tea is usually laid out for guests who are returning fromt eh slops art various time in the afternoon. It typically consists of hot and cold drinks, cakes and some light savoury snacks.

Canapés

Typically only served in the more luxurious chalet operations. These are served before dinner along with a suitable beverage such as a cocktail or sparkling wine.

Dinner

The primary meal of of the catered chalet offering. The evening dinner is usually served at a set time. It can consist of several courses and include drinks. In some of the more budget chalets this meal is functional but not much more. Traditional mountain food such as Tartiflette or Goulash are staples of the chalet evening meal. Some chalet companies pride themselves of the standard of the evening meal they serve and it is a cornerstone of their service. In these types of chalet the evening meal can be spread over several courses anc consist of Canapés, starters, main courses, amuse-bouche and desserts and with carefully selected wines and after dinner cheeses.

A main course ready to be eaten in a catered chalet
A typical main course dish ready to be eaten in a catered chalet

Dietary Requirements

Most dietary requirements can be catered for in a catered chalets. Some may require details of your requirements beforehand so they can get the required ingredients in the chalet before you arrive.

Coffee

Even in budget chalets it is now quite common to have a small capsule based coffee machine for guests to use. Luxury chalets will could have anything up to a full commercial espresso coffee machine setup with trained staff that know how to use it properly.

A coffee machine in a luxury chalet
A coffee machine in a luxury chalet

Drinks

Drinks service on chalet holidays tends to fall into three broad categories:

  1. No drinks included
  2. Wine with dinner only
  3. All drinks included

No drinks at all is rare but it does happen. In these cases it is usually acceptable to bring you own. Wine with dinner is very common and a lot of the more budget chalet operators have this model in place. All drinks included tends to be on the more luxurious end of the market but can be found in budget offerings. It can be as simple as a fridge full of wine and beer which is accessible to all guests right up to an in chalet bar which serves high end wines, beers, spirits and cocktails to the guest as required.

Budget or luxury?

Budget

At the budget end of chalet holidays you will probably be self catered with no staff. They tend be be in large older apartment-chalets with dated interior decoration. They are great if you are prepared to cook for yourself and all you are looking for a is a place to lay your head in the evening.

Luxury

The sky is the limit when it comes to luxury chalet holidays. Everything from helicopter transfers from the airport to Michelin Starred chefs and a professional masseuse on the full time staff is possible. For most of us though a luxury chalet holiday is usually a catered affair with the food made in the chalet for you. The chalet would be well appointed with all en-suite bedrooms and there would at be at least a hot tub available for guest use.

Location?

The location of the chalet can have a lot of effects on how your ski holiday will proceed so choosing one in the right location is key. Depending on the resort you are in there may be a lot of chalets in the town centre or none at all. Some older resorts (such as Meribel) are almost all chalets where as some newer purpose built resorts like Avoriaz are almost all high-rise buildings.There are a number of factors to consider when looking at the location of a chalet, lets take a look at them in detail:

Town Centre

Choosing a town centre chalet means you are right in the thick of the action. You will pay a premium for its location but there are bargains to be found too if you are prepared to look. The main advantage to being in the town centre is you will be close to the apres, bars and restaurants as well as the main lifts and ski schools. THis means minimal walking and bus taking. Socialising is easy as you don't need to worry about how you are going to get home in the freezing night. The main dis-advantage to being in the town centre is the potential for noisy crowds, bars and nightclubs which can be quite disruptive if you are "just here to ski".

Edge Of Town

The edge of town is a little bit of a sweet spot where a lot of great high quality chalets can to be found. The advantage of being on the edge of town is that you are still be close enough to the action for it to be easily accessible but still quiet enough to get a good nights sleep. This is especially true if there is a decent in-resort bus system (usually free with your lift pass). A lot of edge-of-town ski chalets are still quite close to a lift or piste which may make them ideal for more experienced skiers who don't have to be at the centre of town for ski school each morning.

The main disadvantage to edge-of-town ski chalets is that there is usually a bit of a walk to and from the social scene. This is especially true at night when the buses have stopped running though some resorts do have a "night bus".

Out Of Town

Ski chalets that are well out of town tend to fall into two distinct categories: Super luxury and super budget. On the luxury side you don't have to worry as the staff will take care of all your needs up to and including dropping you to and from the town center when you wish. If you are on the budget side then its best to try to get a chalet that is lose to one of the in-resort bus routes otherwise your options will become quite limited. The main advantage of being out of town is the peace and quite.Tucked up in your own private chalet out in the middle of no-where is a luxury in itself. The main disadvantage is that pretty much everything is a car or bus ride away.

Facilities and Features

Hot Tub / Jacuzzi

It could be said that there is no greater feeling in the world than sitting in a gloriously warm outdoor hot-tub while it snows heavily down on top of you. Hot tubs have been part of the chalet ski holiday since the very beginning and are the reason you should never go on a skiing holiday without your swimwear. They can be considered a standard item all luxury chalets.

An out door hot tub in a chalet
An out door hot tub in a chalet overlooking the Meribel Valley

Sauna

The sauna is another facility that is quite common in ski chalets. Though not as popular as hot tubs they do offer some excellent relaxation after a long day on the slopes. Swimwear may be optional depending on the proclivities of those in the chalet.

Steam Room / Hammam / Plunge Pool

Steam room tend to be found in the more luxurious chalets. Often coupled with a cold plunge pool they offer another great way of soothing those aching muscles after a day on the mountain.

Swimming Pool

Swimming pools are definitely in the realm of luxury chalets thought shared pools can be found in some chalet-apartment complexes. Most decent sized resorts tend to have a good quality public swimming pool which is usually open in the winter months.

Fires and stoves

The warmth of an open fire after a long day putting down miles on the mountain is a luxury we love. Most larger chalets will have an open fire or a stove which is usually lit in the evenings. They are less common in smaller apartment style chalets.

An open fire in a warm chalet
An open fire in a warm chalet

Massage and wellness room / Treatment room

More common than you think, the treatment room is a great addition to the modern chalet. Most resorts will have a mobile treatment service that can call to your chalet at a time of your choosing so it makes sense to have a room dedicated to this.

Snugs, lofts and living rooms

Communal spaces are a key part of chalet design. This is especially true in shared chalets where you have multiple groups of people sharing the same space. Chalets with secondary living spaces such as snugs, lofts, cinema/games rooms and second living rooms mean you can get some quiet time when you want or join the main group if you wish to socialise.

The loft snug room in La Petite Pia chalet in Meribel
The loft snug room in La Petite Pia chalet in Meribel

Balconies

Balconies and verandas have been a part of the chalet since they were first built. Though not all rooms will feature a balcony they are almost always part of the building. In some resorts there is even a law that required chalet designer's to incorporate balconies into their design.

Cinema room

The cinema room can be considered part of some mid range and most luxury chalets. It is often a dual use room with it's other roles being a games room / video games room or just another social room. Most chalets catering to the UK market will also have the UK TV channels hooked up. This brings us to...

A cinema room in a chalet
A cinema room in a chalet

Media Subscriptions

Most modern mid to high end chalets will come with a variety of in-house media subscriptions as standard. These typically include popular services such as Netflix, Spotify, Youtube and Itunes. There may also be media devices to watch/listen to these such as tablets, Amazon Alexa speakers, Google Chromecast and of course Bluetooth speakers.

Ensuite bedrooms

Most luxury chalets will have an "all-ensuite" layout while at the more budget level the chalet may only have shared bathroom facilities. Some chalets will have a mix of the two with some rooms being en-suite while other using a shared bathroom. Some rooms may also have what is called typically called a "private bathroom", this is usually a bathroom that is not accessed within the bedroom itself but that no-one else uses.

Luxury Toiletries

At the more luxury end of the market boutique toiletries tend to be standard.

Boot and ski room with heaters

Most modern chalets will have some form of ski storage room. This may be shared with other chalets in the building or just a private room for a single chalet. There is usually but not always some form of boot warmer/dryer installed to dry out your boots overnight and have them ready for the following day.

As an alternative to this most modern resorts now have ski and boot locker facilities at or close by the main lift stations in the centre of town. THis is great for when you want to head off to apres ski but don't want to haul you gear around until you get back to the chalet. Many ski rental shops also provide this service.

Parking

Covered off street or underground parking is a great addition to any chalet. This is because the last thing ones wants at the end of a holidays is to deal with a car covered in snow after sitting idle for a week. Most chalets provide parking in one for or another but it is best to check with your operator beforehand.

Children's equipment (cots, high chairs etc)

Some chalet operators will have a selection of children's equipment available for you in house while other will source it externally through an equipment rental service. Most places will have some form of cot available for you on request.

Separate Staff Accommodation?

From a guests perspective staff tend to live in one of two places: In the chalet or not in the the chalet. If the staff are not in the chalet then the chalet will feel a little more private in the evenings when the staff leave. There is also no danger of noisy staff parties or being woken up early in the morning by staff getting themselves ready for the day.

WIFI

Most every chalet comes with WIFI these days.

Cleaning

Chalet cleaning regimes tend to differ from company to company. Some chalet operators clean all the bedrooms nd the communal areas every single day while other only clean the communal areas every day and only do the bedrooms once a week. Most every operator will have a deep clean each week on "change-over day" when the previous weeks guests depart and next weeks guests arrive.

Driver service

Some chalet operators will provide a driver service free of charge to their guests. This is especially true in out-of-the-way mid-range chalets and most high end chalets. The driver is typically there to drop guests to and from the lifts or to and from the town centre for socialising.

An in house vehicle for guests to be driven around the resort
An in house vehicle for guests to be driven around the resort.

Ski in / Ski Out

This term get a abused a little as with enough snow on the ground most any chalet is "ski-in-ski-out" but usually this means that the chalet is right next to or very near a marked piste in the resort. This means you can ski out firs thing in the morning and ski back to the chalet in the evening.

Helipad

A place to park your helicopter. Because if one has a helicopter, one needs a place to park it. :-)

Staff

Chalet staff are usually only associated with catered chalets. They can come from all age groups and background though they are mostly younger people between the ages of 18 and 35. One thing they all have in common is desire to go skiing and boarding all winter. The common roles of chalet staff are:

Chalet staff laying the table for guests in a luxury chalet
Chalet staff laying the table for guests in a luxury chalet

Most chalet staff tend to have multiple roles depending on the time of day or week. In the morning they may be your host for breakfast where as later in the day they may be a cleaner cleaning the bedrooms or a driver picking up the guests from apres ski. A smaller budget chalet may have a single staff member filling all roles. SOem adjoining chalet apartments may have a single staff member split between the two properties.

Resort Rep

The resort rep is a very important person during your ski holiday. Their title may change from company to company but they all fulfil the same role: To make sure you are being looked after properly and to fix any issues that may arise. They could be the owner of the company or a temporary worker who only started this season. The important thing is that they are there to help you with any requests you may have to ensure you have a smooth holiday with no hick-ups. In many operations you will meet the resort rep on arrival day, sometime during the week and at the end of the holiday. In other operations you will see them through out the holiday as they are part of the chalet team. Again this varies from company to company. ALmost universally you will have their phone number so you can call or message them with any issues.

Staff Tips

Chalet staff on the whole are not very well paid. For this reason it is important to leave a generous tip provided the service has been good. A tip of about €10 to €25 per guest is a good amount to leave for a two person chalet team in a mid range chalet. Full time professional hosts and chefs in more high end chalets may warrant a more generous tip.

Staff Night Off

Staff night off is a sacred well established tradition in chalet holidays and is beneficial for both guests and staff alike. For staff it gives them a day off to hit the slopes and socialise. For guests it gives them an opportunity to head into town to try the local restaurants. New working hours laws in France means that there is now typically two staff nights off in a week.

Chalet staff enjoying their day off
Chalet staff enjoying their day off

Extra Services

Most good quality chalet operators have a sort of "concierge service" available for their guests. This typically includes providing everything from guidance to actually booking a range of extra services for the guest in resort.One of the major benefits of this is the guest has a single point of contact for all items required. This is especially useful for group leaders who may have to gather details for multiple people.

Ski Pass

Most chalet operators can now have your ski pass waiting for you in your chalet when you arrive. This is especially convenient if you arrive early on the first day and wish to get on the slopes as quickly as possible. All of the ski pass details can be arranged prior to the holiday so that you have nothing to do but ski on arrival. In many cases it is actually cheaper to get your ski pass arranged and paid for before you get in resort than it is to buy it from the ticket office on arrival.

Ski Hire

There tends to be two broad types of ski hire available these days:

  1. Hire at a shop
  2. Delivered to your chalet

With both options it is possible to have everything pre-arranged by the chalet operator before you get in resort.

With hire shops everything will be ready and waiting for you. You just tell them your name and they will set you up with all the gear you requested. This is a great option if your chalet is in the center of town or close to the hire shop.

With the delivered ski hire option the hire company will turn up at your chalet at a specified time (you can usually dictate the time within reason) and fit you and your group for skis, boots and boards right there and then. This is great if your chalet is a little more out of the way and you don't want to head into town just to get your gear.

Ski Lessons

Ski lessons can be one of the most confusing aspects of ski holidays. There are so many options to choose form. Again a good chalet operator will have all this dialled in for you. They will be able to recommend and book a reputable ski school. They will also be able to advise you on what level you are and which lessons would best suit you. They will also know what special offers and deals are available to new skiers that might make it a little cheaper to book.

Airport Transfers

Another area that your chalet operator will be able to help you is the best way to get to the resort. Most chalet operators these days will have all the information you need to choose the best airport and airport transfer company to use when getting to the chalet. Some chalet operators will also be able to book your transfers for you.

They will also know the best public buses, trains and driving routes from various locations so if you are taking any of these options if a good idea to chat to them first.

Childcare

When booking child care its is great to have advice you can trust. Most good chalet operators will be able to provide you with excellent advice on which childcare providers to use in their resort. Most childcare providers insist that the parent of the child book their services directly. This is primarily to avoid confusion when going through an intermediary.

Restaurant Booking

Chalet operators and their staff are almost universally experts on the best places to eat (and drink!) in resort. They will know all the best spots and even what dishes to order. They will be able to book a table for you for your lunches on the mountain and also for staff night off. You can arrange this before you depart or in resort.

Spas, Treatments and Therapies

Your chalet operator will be able to organise spa sessions and treatments for you in resort. For this you will have to visit the local spa facility or if your chalet has a treatment room they will organise a treatment specialist to call to the chalet for you.

Non-ski Activities

There are far more activities in most resort than just skiing and snowboarding. From simple activities like hiking and walking to Paragliding, ice diving and sled dog driving there is something for everybody. You chalet operator will have details on whats on offer in the area and will be able to book what you want.

Last Updated: 01 October 2020