Ski trips have it all — stunning views of mountain landscapes, the thrill of soaring down slopes, and often just as much fun waiting for you after you finish skiing for the day. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a newbie, traveling with friends or on a family trip, ski trips have a lot to offer. But should you choose North America or Europe?
The answer to that question will ultimately come down to your priorities and preferences, but the two locations have a few crucial differences. We’ll run through everything you need to know, from essential costs to aprés ski activities.
Comparing ski destinations: North America vs Europe
North America and Europe each have their own quirks, drawbacks, and strengths.
To help you make the right call about which location to choose, we’ll cover:
- Ski terrain
- Snow conditions
- Lifts and infrastructure
- Après ski activities
- Resort quality
Along with a few extra considerations.
Ski areas in Europe have more extensive terrain, huge vertical drops, and more lifts, which provide more dramatic scenery than North America. Many people claim European resorts are more picturesque (although beauty is of course subjective).
However, the US and Canada do offer a fantastic mountain experience, and many have more bumps than Europe. One plus of North America is that treelines often go to the top of each hill, which provides more visibility. They also go to more lengths to groom and maintain their ski areas, often carrying out 24-hour maintenance.
Europe tends to offer a more raw experience, with less maintenance of slopes — some prefer this approach, but that’s a personal preference and something that is unlikely to spoil your experience.
North American ski resorts tend to bring in around ten meters of snow per year, which is approximately double that of Europe.
Plus, Whistler, in Canada, is known for having some of the world’s lightest, driest, and best snow.
In terms of temperature, you can expect similar weather in both locations, with the climate mainly depending on where exactly you go and when you travel.
Lifts and infrastructure
In North America, most resorts have concierges to help with carrying skis, more benches and tissue dispensers, speed monitors, and better management of lift queues. Staff are often more friendly than on the other side of the pond.
However, the US has also attracted its fair share of bad press for a poor queuing experience, so neither location guarantees that you won’t have to wait.
Plus, some of the lifts in the US are also quite old and may not have a foot guard or a stopper — a worrying prospect for anyone traveling with a family. Lifts in Europe are a lot more modern, using automated gates over lefties. However, there’s less grooming and monitoring overall.
Another big difference is that off-piste skiing is only for the brave-hearted in Europe, with minimal safety measures in place. In contrast, North America has designated areas for off-piste skiing that are controlled by a patrol.
Learning to ski
If you want to learn to ski while you’re on vacation, Europe is your best bet. Since each resort has multiple schools, there’s often good value. There’s less choice in North America, which can make it pricier.
If price is no object for your travels, feel free to skip this section — but for most of us, a budget is necessary for planning vacations. Ski trips often rack up a bigger bill than other types of trips since they require specialist equipment and are a known playground for the wealthy.
Let’s go through how costs compare in crucial categories. However, North America and Europe aren’t a monolith — there can be significant differences between different locations within the continents. For instance, occasions like France and Switzerland are often far more expensive than Italy and Andorra.
Accommodation is generally the most expensive part of a ski vacation, and Europe wins if you’re looking for a bargain.
According to a recent HomeToGo report, the most affordable accommodation in North America is USD $115 per night at Mission Ridge Ski Area, Washington. There were a few other resorts in this price bracket. However, more popular ski resorts came in between $250 and $350 per night.
As for Europe, cheaper accommodation comes in at as little as USD $50 per night at more affordable resorts — but it can be double the price (or more) depending on where you stay.
When it comes to meals, costs can be variable, so it depends on the type of meal you’re going for. In Europe, you can find restaurants that offer meals at a wider range of prices – from affordable charming bistros to fancy Michelin Star restaurants. Costs can range from less than $5 for a meal at inexpensive locations, like in Poland, to $60 at more upscale restaurants in Switzerland or the French alps. In general, food prices tend to be lower in Europe.
In North America, a “cheap” burger can cost as much as $15, and a coffee $7, with a full meal costing considerably more. A fine dinner experience can easily reach $100, but you can find more affordable options. Happy hour drinks and snacks are also common in North American restaurants, so you can find good deals depending on the time of day.
Overall, access to slopes is cheaper in Europe.
In Europe, a week of lift access often costs USD $300 or less per person. Even better, many resorts provide free access for young children. Even in more expensive locations like Switzerland, the cost is often just $100 for a day.
In contrast, it can cost as much as $250 per person for a single day in North America. Some resorts allow you to bring the cost down by paying to access multiple resorts over an extended period — such as the Vail Resorts Epic Pass, which allows access to 41 resorts worldwide for $1025. However, since most people can only afford to ski for a few days a year at one location, this isn’t always helpful.
If you plan on renting gear, you’ll need to account for this in your budget too. Many European ski resorts have an Interesport or SkiSet nearby that lets you rent gear at an affordable rate. Expect to pay around $100 per person for a week.
North America may be slightly pricier, with a typical rental package being closer to $200. However, you may be able to grab a better deal if you buy an all-in-one package that also includes slope access and accommodation.
Overall, the total cost of a seven-day ski trip for one person in North America tends to range from $2,500 to $3,000. Meanwhile, the same trip in Europe would likely come in closer to $2,000.
You’ll of course need to factor in transportation expenses that can change depending on where you’re coming from and your preferred mode of transportation to your final destination. Both in Europe, trains and shuttles to ski resorts are easily accessible. In the US, you can also find private shuttles connecting the main cities to the ski resorts.
Some of the most accessible resorts include:
- Vancouver to Whistler (Canada)
- Banff to Lake Louise (Canada)
- Montreal to Mont-Tremblant (Canada)
- Denver to Vail (US)
- Salt Lake City to Provo (US)
- Geneva to Val Thorens (Switzerland/France)
- Geneva to Val-D’Isere (Switzerland/France)
- Geneva to Chamonix (Switzerland/France)
Après ski activities
Ski trips are known just as much for their aprés-ski activities as the action you get on the slopes. The term includes a range of social entertainment during the afternoons and evenings, often with plenty of alcoholic beverages and music. But where will you get the best experience?
“Aprés ski” is a French phrase, so you can rest assured you’ll have a great time in Europe. You’ll find resorts with legendary bars, clubs, and concerts, plus more family-friendly activities such as ice skating.
But don’t rule out North America. The region has developed its own take on aprés-ski activities, and resorts often boast a greater variety of activities. You’ll find wild parties and craft breweries, but also fun novelties like ax throwing and dog sledding.
Overall, aprés ski activities in North America have more of a “party” vibe, whereas Europe is more of a relaxed, afternoon affair.
While North America is very friendly and likely wins on customer service, the resorts themselves leave something to be desired. They’re practical and functional, but that doesn’t always make for the magical vacation experience we want when skiing. There are exceptions, however — some of the ski resorts set in former mining towns build on their local history for a quirkier vibe.
In contrast, European resorts tend to have a lot of character and a more traditional charm. Although there are a few exceptions, especially French resorts built in the 70s, ski villages tend to be beautiful and filled with wooden cottages.
Europe also tends to have better food (although if you’re traveling with children, they may prefer the simpler meals offered in North America). Most restaurants and cafes serve delicious local cuisine, while the US and Canada focus on typical North American dishes like burgers and steaks.
Another factor to consider is the time of year you travel. North America generally has a shorter ski season than Europe, running from November to March in most places. The European ski season goes on slightly longer, from November to April, though that might change from one year to the next.
If you’re hoping to speak English the entire time on your trip without running into difficulties, North America is a safer bet. Local languages are more common in Europe, but you can generally expect staff to have a good grasp of English.
Although we’ve covered some of the most common costs already, you may need to account for the exchange rate too. If you book your trip six months or more in advance, the exchange rate could change drastically by the time you arrive, which affects the total cost of the trip.
Time to hit the slopes
Overall, North America is a good bet for skiers looking for a big-mountain experience that offers plenty of variety, along with better customer service. Meanwhile, Europe provides a more traditional experience with plenty of charm, and is generally more affordable.
Once you’ve decided where you’re heading, it’s time to get planning. Busbud helps you find the best way to get around in over 80 countries, so you can easily find your way to ski towns and resorts in both continents. Click to find your perfect trip.