Austria offers a high density of ski resorts, perhaps the second highest in Europe after Switzerland. However, most of them are medium-sized. Austria’s ski resorts are not as spectacular and glamorous as the mega-resorts in Switzerland and France, but they are more welcoming, less prone to mass tourism and a little cheaper (especially for beer). Because of the proximity and the common language, most winter sports tourists in Austria come from southern Germany.
Winter sports tourism has become a billion-dollar industry in Austria and has brought enormous prosperity to some towns. Most Austrian ski resorts are former farming towns that have become resorts many times their original size, but they often retain some of their original charm, especially in the old town centre. A handful of ski resorts like Obertauern were built completely from scratch in the 1960s and 1970s.
Many ski resorts have responded to the warmer winters by investing heavily in artificial snowmaking. Some resorts are now so well equipped that they can offer excellent skiing conditions on most slopes, even if the natural snow cover is only 5 cm, provided it is cold at night. Of course, all this comes at a price, both environmentally and financially. Ski pass prices have risen sharply in the last decade. Austria is also home to many glacier ski areas in the high Alps.
When to go
The ski season runs from the beginning of December to the end of March. A few ski resorts keep their lifts open all year round on the glaciers, which are mainly located near the Italian border.
The best conditions for skiing are in mid-January, the coldest time of the year. The end of February is a good time for sun worshippers.
The busiest period is from 25 December to 2 January. Advanced skiers should avoid this time as the trails can be too crowded to have fun. The entire month of February is also quite busy due to school and university holidays.
The least frequented times are early December, mid-January and late March.
Package holidays are usually more convenient and often cheaper if you only want to ski for a week. Airport transfers, flights and accommodation are usually included.
However, they have the disadvantage of operating mainly from Saturday to Saturday, having few resorts outside the mainstream and no independent accommodation or rooms in private houses in most brochures. However, these types of accommodation are the most popular types of accommodation in the country.
The increase in low-cost airlines to Salzburg, Munich and Friedrichshafen has led to more and more visitors organising their own transport and accommodation.
Choose a ski resort in Austria?
Price, size and location
Generally speaking, the bigger the ski resort and the higher the altitude above sea level, the higher the price. Ski passes eat up a large part of your budget. In a large ski area like the Arlberg, beginners usually cannot use most of the slopes covered by a ski pass.
The ski resorts in Carinthia and Styria tend to offer better value for money than those in Tyrol, Vorarlberg and Salzburg and are less crowded.
The big ski resorts tend towards mass tourism, while the smaller ones make more of an effort and offer a more personal service.
If you are skiing in late February or March, it may be advisable to visit resorts at higher altitudes (above 2000 m), as milder temperatures can make the snow below this altitude heavy and slushy (risk of knee injuries).
You can ride more with the fast lifts (chairlifts and gondolas) than with the slower lifts or the dreaded drag lifts. You get value for your money. Some ski areas have a high percentage of black runs and are less suitable for beginners. Backcountry experiences can be found at many of the larger ski resorts in Vorarlberg and Tyrol, which offer a high-altitude powder environment.
Apres-ski is all about getting together after a hard day’s skiing and chatting to people in the many bars and pubs, catching a Swedish rock band at 5pm and not thinking about dinner. Larger ski resorts nowadays also offer organised after-ski get-togethers and bar tours.
Please note that alcohol and skiing are not compatible and that alcohol can affect your reflexes more than when the sea level is higher.
Some resorts focus exclusively on skiing and snowboarding, others on a wider range of activities or family tourism. If you’re more into relaxation than skiing and partying, staying away from the purely sporty resorts offers better value for money.
How to get in
Unlike many other countries, you don’t have to fly to the capital to ski in Austria.
Look at the following alternatives in Vienna; take into consideration when comparing the alternatives :
- the cost and duration of the journey with a rental car
- the cost, duration, connection time and number of connections if you take the train
- Flight ticket
- the final arrival time: if it allows you to prepare everything to start skiing the next morning
Only when you have considered all these factors do you decide on your interdisciplinarity.
It also reverses the usual order of travel planning when you first buy air tickets to a capital city and then start choosing your final destination.
Most Austrian ski resorts are no more than one to two hours’ drive from a major airport.
The nearest airports are:
- for Tyrol, Vorarlberg, Salzburg: Innsbruck, Salzburg, Zurich or Munich ;
- for the seaside resorts of Carinthia, Styria and East Tyrol: Graz, Klagenfurt, Ljubljana and Venice
It is best to avoid Vienna airport, as the nearest medium-sized seaside resort is 4 hours away by car and even further by public transport, as it is close to Slovakia and the eastern part of the country.
Many packages include flight and airport transfer. If you are travelling independently, you will need to take a taxi and/or train/bus. Some hotels offer shuttles for their guests at a good price.
Some ski resorts are poorly connected to rail transport due to their remoteness. Arlberg, Bad Gastein, Kitzbühel, St. Johann im Pongau and Zell am See are large ski resorts with regular rail services and are also easily accessible by train from neighbouring countries. Most larger ski resorts that do not have a train station can be reached by train, followed by a 30-45 minute bus transfer.
There is a train from Zurich airport to the Arlberg, via Feldkirch to St. Anton.
Most stations are accessible by public transport. The ski bus networks are usually very well organised and punctual and are almost always included in the ski passes.
Austrian ski resorts are compact and pedestrian-friendly. It is therefore unlikely that you will need a car during your stay at a resort. Some regions (such as Ski Amade in Salzburgerland) offer many different resorts spread over a large area, all on one ski pass. If you want to try different places to ski every day, it is therefore advisable to take a car. If you travel by your own car, remember that driving conditions can be difficult on the roads leading to some of the higher resorts, although the roads are often cleared, gritted and salted very regularly. However, it is advisable to carry snow chains and have some experience of winter driving. Instead of renting a car for a week, it is often cheaper to take a taxi to/from the train station.
The food on the ski slopes is usually Austrian specialities of the indigestible variety, but is often unaffordable. Some large restaurants offer a canteen-like service where the food is mass produced and the quality can be poor compared to the rest of Austria. A vegetarian may find it difficult to eat a varied diet during their stay, as even salads are often served with chicken.
In the towns themselves, the choice and quality of food is better than on the slopes. Hotel food is usually excellent, as hotels compete for guests with their cuisine, while restaurants on the slopes compete with their location. It may therefore be advisable to book half-board instead of eating on the slopes. Guesthouses may offer traditional cuisine, but it is always easy to find a kebab or Italian pizza/restaurant.
Book your accommodation as far in advance as possible. The number of beds is limited at most resorts and the later you book, the less likely you are to find value for money. Be aware that the accommodation for some of the cheaper packages is not in the main ski area, but in a nearby town from which you will need to catch a bus.
Many hotels in Austria are family-run and offer personal service and surprisingly good facilities at reasonable prices, especially in smaller towns. A visit to the sauna after the slopes to warm up and relax tired muscles, as well as a good meal, is considered by many Austrians to be just as important as the skiing itself. You will miss out on much of the Austrian skiing experience if you book accommodation without a sauna.
There are also many self-catering accommodation options, but remember that the price difference between half-board in a hotel and a self-catering flat is not very great, and many skiers find they have little energy or desire to prepare a meal and clean up after a hard day on the slopes.
As in all ski areas, the avalanche danger is an underestimated hazard. It is possible to ski off-piste and there are often hiking trails. Some ski areas offer a “free ride” area. This is a “safe” place to ski and ride off-piste. Remember that just because there are tracks in the snow on a particular slope does not mean it is safe and a good idea to ski there. Off-piste skiing is always a great activity, but it is strongly recommended that you ski off-piste with a guide unless you know exactly what you are doing, have suitable avalanche rescue equipment with you and know how to use it.
There are numerous ski and snowboard rentals in all larger ski resorts. The choice usually depends on the convenience of the slopes or the accommodation.
When renting equipment, it’s good to get up early, and since Austrians usually get up early, that can mean before 8:30. Standing in line for an hour to put on your ski boots can be very frustrating if you’re desperate to get on the slopes.
It is almost always best to try to arrange ski hire, ski lessons and ski passes as soon as possible after your arrival at the resort, i.e. in the afternoon of your arrival when it is unlikely that you will be skiing. Most offices are open until late Saturday afternoon (the main day of arrival and departure from the resort).
In Austria, the ski and snowboard teaching profession is regulated by the state. Licensed ski instructors must pass a series of comprehensive state examinations in order to move up the hierarchy from Ski Instructor (traditional ski instructor, usually part-time), State Ski Instructor (regional ski instructor) and State Ski Instructor (national ski instructor). Courses can be taken privately or in a group (ski school). Beginners usually book a ski school for their first week.
List of ski resorts
Austria’s best and largest
- Lech and Zürs am Arlberg – known for its royal clientele, an underrated ski resort in Vorarlberg
- St. Anton – the most famous ski resort in Tyrol and perhaps the most extreme in Austria
- Ischgl – a progressive holiday resort with a connection to Switzerland and the village of Samnaun
- Sölden (Ötztal) – popular with snowboarders and après-ski fans
Other popular channels
- Kitzbühel – famous for its nightlife and charm, attracting “beautiful people” from Austria and Germany. Every year it hosts the Hahnenkamm Race, arguably the most important ski race in the world.
- Flachau/Wagrain – comfortable, good for beginners and advanced skiers
- Obertauern – compact, very good snow conditions due to the location and altitude, but can be problematic in bad weather conditions
- Nassfeld – popular with Italian tourists
- Mayrhofen – a popular seaside resort, popular with foreign tourists. Has a glacier nearby.
- Zell am See – a picturesque lakeside town that attracts visitors for skiing and hiking and has a small snow/glacier field
- Bad Hofgastein – also known for its thermal baths.
- SkiWelt – The largest ski area with the villages of Scheffau, Söll, Ellmau, Brixen, Hopfgarten, Westendorf
Off the beaten track
- Heiligenblut – a spectacular landscape
- Turracherhöhe – small and idyllic
- Wildschonau – literally wilderness resort, includes Niederau, Oberau and Auffach
Summer ski areas
- Hintertux – a large area for a summer ski resort near Mayrhofen in the Zillertal Valley
- Kitzsteinhorn – the glacier above the village of Kaprun
- Mölltal Glacier