Snow train to the Alps

AMID a crowd of 10, 11 &ndash; no 12 &ndash; small heads, it was difficult to see which movie they were watching on our portable DVD player. To be fair, there wasn&rsquo;t a lot to keep kids amused at France&rsquo;s Chambery airport. And, yet again, we were delayed there for a few hours because of weather troubles. Chambery may have one of the quickest transfer times to fantastic skiing at The Three Valleys, but the annual family ski trip always seemed to start and finish with the lottery of getting up or down to that fogbound runway below the hills.<br /><br />There had to be a better way.<br /><br />So last season, with our favourite destination &ndash; Courchevel &ndash; in mind, we took the train. It sounds a simple enough decision to make, but for a family of four it was a revelation.<br /><br />In the six years we&rsquo;ve been making our annual pilgrimage to the slopes with children, my husband and I had got used to all the potential pitfalls.<br /><br /><strong>DAWN DASH</strong><br />After the dawn dash to the airport, we&rsquo;d held on tight to babes in arms while we were bussed from car park to terminal and terminal to plane. We&rsquo;d written off the unexpected charges for bags over-bulging with children&rsquo;s paraphernalia and coughed up for ski carriage. We&rsquo;d triple-checked we weren&rsquo;t missing one of the necessary six handbags and nappy bags at each step of the way and taken it in turns to hold the sick bag (and baby) as the coach trundled up to the resort. And, as I mentioned earlier, we&rsquo;d tried not to complain too much when the plane circled Chambery hopefully &ndash; then was diverted to Geneva.<br /><br />This holiday, we drove 40 minutes from our south-east home to Eurostar&rsquo;s Ashford terminal, parked the car, walked to the terminal and boarded a train for a seven-hour ride to Moutiers, one of the last stops on the Eurostar ski service to Bourg-St-Maurice. And it was all with the smug knowledge our travel was &ldquo;carbon neutral&rdquo;.<br /><br />With our skis and luggage safely stashed at the end of the carriage, we spread ourselves round our large &ldquo;Leisure Select&rdquo; table and all there was to do was sit back for the ride.<br /><br /><strong>ALPINE JOURNEY</strong><br />Anyone with young children will know that seven hours in a relatively confined space can seem a lifetime. But by the time we had gorged ourselves on a three-course meal, listened to music and read the free magazines on offer (while Jake, six, and Eloise, four, played endless rounds of &ldquo;I Spy&rdquo; and hangman and worked their way through their colouring-in books) we&nbsp; were on the last leg of our Alpine journey.&nbsp; With a minibus transfer of less than an hour to a Crystal chalet in Courchevel, even my sickness-prone daughter arrived without her usual shade of bilious green. Result!<br /><br />It was the ultimate fine-tuning of a yearly pilgrimage that has made us think hard about how to find the best mix of skiing, childcare and &ndash; now that the kids are older &ndash; ski school. While many parents still vow to return to skiing &ldquo;when the kids are older&rdquo; there is more choice than ever for families to book package deals that provide everything from babysitting services, to &ldquo;wrap-around&rdquo; childcare &ndash; organised so all you have to do is get your kids dressed and to the breakfast table, then pick them up after a day on the slopes.<br /><br /><strong>PRICEY</strong><br />Of course it&rsquo;s never cheap. There are no two ways about it &ndash; skiing isn&rsquo;t. For school holiday time, expect to pay just under &pound;3,000 for a week for a family of four in a self catering apartment (plus ski passes, childcare, children&rsquo;s ski school and lunches) and &pound;4,000 upwards for a skiing holiday with half-board. But with limited holiday time &ndash; confined even further once the children get to school &ndash; it&rsquo;s a brilliant way of having a holiday everyone can enjoy, without feeling aggrieved that you&rsquo;ve spent your entire time having to entertain your little darlings.<br /><br />And we&rsquo;re still hoping that, one day in a few years, the kids will be skiing (or snowboarding) with us, and &ndash; even better &ndash; paying for it themselves.<br /><br />&bull; Eurostar tickets cost from &pound;149 return (or&nbsp; &pound;229 return in Leisure Select class) to the French Alps. Trains leave from&nbsp; London or Ashford on either Friday&nbsp; nights or Saturday mornings. Book at Eurostar also offers&nbsp; fares from &pound;100 return from London to&nbsp; Switzerland &ndash;&nbsp; with a change of train in&nbsp; Paris.<br /><br />&bull; From January next year, when the EU liberalises rail lines, expect a wider range of train services to&nbsp; Europe. Air&nbsp; France has said it would use the lines&nbsp; Eurostar operates on to launch a high-speed service to&nbsp; London, while Deutsche Bahn is planning&nbsp; services from Cologne and Frankfurt to&nbsp; London.<br /><br /><strong>TOP TIPS FOR FAMILY SKI TRAVEL</strong><br />&bull; Don&rsquo;t skimp on children&rsquo;s ski gear. You won&rsquo;t hear the end of it if their hands are cold.<br /><br />&bull; Opt for family specialist operators and make sure you can book childcare as well as accommodation for the week you&rsquo;re going. Childcare spaces fill up fast.<br /><br />&bull; Do your research for deals. Many resorts are this year offering free lift passes for children up to 12. Also many operators offer discounts for your second or third child&rsquo;s accommodation.<br /><br />&bull; If you have pre-school children, opt for cheaper holidays well away from school holiday time. It&rsquo;s tempting, for price reasons, to risk a fight with your local authority and take the kids out of school for a week. But although it is cheaper, your children will likely be learning with a predominantly foreign class and may enjoy it less without English company.<br /><br />&bull; Look for family-friendly ski resorts with short transfer times from either airport or train. Believe me, a four-hour bus journey is not a good start to your holiday.<br /><br />&bull; Hire proper instruction. Unless you&rsquo;re a top-flight skier yourself, it&rsquo;s best to get your children taught by the experts. Chances are, if you&rsquo;re teaching them yourself, you will be passing on some bad habits &ndash; and getting annoyed you&rsquo;re not getting to the top of the mountain. On the other hand, try and spend some time skiing as a family. Every kid likes to gloat about their &ldquo;pizzas&rdquo;.<br /><br />&bull; Plan some alternative activities. Many resorts have heated pools and tour operators often arrange evenings out sledging. A portable DVD player (or a DS) is always a good back up.