Hit the Slopes by Train: Skiing with Eurail
The Netherlands wins the dubious distinction of being one of the worst places in Europe for Alpine skiing. More than a quarter of its land is below sea level, and its highest point – more of a hill than a peak – measures at just over 1000 meters. So when the Thalys ski train from Amsterdam Central to the French Alps kicked off in December 1996, Dutch ski enthusiasts were understandably excited.
Ski bunnies, rejoice: it keeps getting easier to and easier to hit the slopes by trains. With routes from many major cities, you can ditch the car and skip the crowded budget airlines that tend to charge high fees for bulky luggage, such as skis and snowboards. There’s no extra charge to carry skis on the train – even on the Eurostar, which normally charges for extra luggage – although you’ll want to have them adequately packed.
While many European ski resorts are technically reachable by train, the following areas are reachable by train without losing your sanity – or, hopefully, your skis.
Skiing the French Alps
Trains from London and Northern France
The Eurostar Ski Train travels directly from London to ski resorts in the French Alps. It unfortunately doesn’t offer discounted fares for Eurail Pass Holders. Fortunately, a loophole exists: both the regular Eurostar (London St. Pancras to Lille) and the TGV train (connecting Lille to the French Alps) do offer discounted Eurail Pass Holder fares. The TGV connects to the same destinations as the Eurostar Ski Train, including Moûtiers, Aime-la-Plagne and Bourg St. Maurice. Remember that TGV reservations fill up early, especially for limited pass holder fares: book your reservation in advance through the Eurail reservation service.
Trains from the Netherlands and Belgium
Every Saturday from mid-December to mid-April, the Thalys Snow Train runs from Europe’s lowlands (Brussels-Midi) to its high peaks (the French Alps). The same train departs every Saturday through the end of March from Amsterdam Central, Schiphol, Rotterdam, and Antwerp Central. Whether you depart from the Netherlands or Belgium, you can hop off the train in France at Chambéry, Albertville, Moûtiers Salins, Aime-la-Plagne, Landry, and Bourg Saint Maurice.
Hoping to go skiing a bit deeper into the mountains? With departures synced to the Snow Train’s arrival times, SnowBuzz ski shuttles depart for resorts further afield. You’ll be able to go to Val Thorens, Courchevel and Val d’Isère. Note that if you book your ticket in the Netherlands, the same service goes by a slightly different name: Ski-Thalys. Purchase your ticket at major stations that sell international train tickets. You can also buy it at the SNCB (Belgian) or NS (Dutch) international rail websites.
Here’s the bad news: Thalys offers Eurail Pass Holder discounts on nearly all of its routes — but not for Thalys Snow. Luckily, it’s easy to get around this rule with a bit of planning. Book a Thalys train to Paris at the discounted Eurail Pass Holder rate from the station in Belgium or the Netherlands. In Paris, you’ll arrive at Gare du Nord. Take the Metro to Gare de Lyon to catch the TGV day trains that head to Moutier, Albertville, and other ski destinations. Alternatively, bunk down on the night train. The Intercité de Nuit departs Paris Austerlitz late in the evening and pulls into lovely Bourg St. Maurice, gateway to Les Arcs ski resort, in the morning. Reserve the Thalys, TGV and the SNCF Intercités de Nuit in advance through the Eurail reservation service.
Skiing the Swiss Alps
Trains from London
While Eurostar’s handy service to the Swiss Alps doesn’t run directly from London to Geneva – it requires a change in Lille – it still beats standing in the security line at Gatwick. Buy a Eurail Pass Holder fare for the Eurostar from St. Pancras to Lille. From Lille, you’ll transfer to a TGV Lyria train that whisks you directly to Geneva. From Geneva, Swiss SBB trains connect to Swiss ski towns such as Villars and Brig. Since Geneva sits near the French border, it’s also an easy jumping point to the French Alps.
For this route, make sure you purchase a Eurail Pass that’s valid in both France and Switzerland. Lyria trains require an advance reservation (from 10-27 Euros, depending on class) made at the station, or through the Eurail reservation service.
Trains from the Netherlands and Germany
City Night Line trains from Amsterdam and Cologne allow you to leave these cities in the evening, bunk down in a couchette or a sleeper car, and arrive in Zurich at breakfast time. From here, Swiss SBB trains connect to Lucerne and Chur. These two towns combine history, culture, and nightlife with easy access to ski resorts. Or head to the winter sports-crazed village of Interlaken, home base for the famous Jungfrau ski region. All three of these towns connect by rail to smaller ski towns such as Gstaad and Zermatt. Some scenic trains, such as the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express, are adventures in their own right. They traverse high peaks that are impossible – or simply too time-consuming – to reach by car, especially after snowfall.
Itinerary idea: Throughout Switzerland, you’ll find excellent bus, tram, or cable car public transport options to ski resorts.
Zurich to St. Moritz, Switzerland
From Zurich Hauptbahnhof, hop on a SBB train to Chur. From here, you’ll transfer to the scenic Glacier Express train to St. Moritz, an old school celebrity ski haunt that tends to be a bit more laid-back early and late in the season. The centrally-located train station is within walking distance from many hotels, and the town has a good bus system.
Don’t want to blow your non-celebrity budget on lodging? Some hostels offer cozy double rooms in addition to standard (and sparkling) dorms. After dinner in the café, unwind on a leather couch in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine. The Swiss know how to do budget digs with a luxurious flair.
Skiing the Austrian Alps
With the Old Town just a 10-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof (the main train station), Innsbruck makes a hassle-free ski destination for those traveling by train. As the capital of the Tyrol region, this historic city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976. It remains practically synonymous with Alpine skiing. Don’t assume Innsbruck’s pleasures end there, however. As a historic and cultural attraction in its own right, it remains one of the best places in Europe for skiers and snowboarders looking for off-slope diversions – historic architecture, art house cinemas, authentic Tyrolean beer gardens, interesting museums – beyond the après-ski scene.
As of December 2014, Innsbruck just got easier to reach by train. The slick Austrian Railways’ Railjet now connects Prague to Vienna in just over 4 hours. From Vienna, Innsbruck is another 4 hours. Railjet trains, with their sleek leather interiors and full-service dining cars, also connect Innsbruck with Munich, Zurich, and Budapest (through Vienna).
While several famous ski areas such as St. Anton lie within an hour or two of Innsbruck, you’ll find locals skiing down slopes that begin just at the edge of town. From the Old Town, Tram 1 runs to the Nordpark Ski Area. While the 2,246 meter Patscherkofel Ski area once hosted Olympic races, it offers runs for all levels – and is also accessible by public transit. Take Bus J or Tram 6 to reach the mountain village of Igls, twice home to Olympic luge and bobsled competitions. From here, the Patscherkofel cable car connects to the slopes.