The 21st century's skiers and snowboarders spend nearly as much time looking at the snow on their computers or smartphones as they do in the open air. Statistics show that the average snowgoer spends three hours on the slopes - a short while compared with the time spent online the week before the trip, consulting webcams and weather reports, finding nearby accommodation and checking out the sites of other ski resorts they would like to go to some day. Then there are smartphone apps that allow users to know how many kilometers they have covered on their skis or snowboards, and at what speeds.
It's a good thing that all this technology is around, because this winter, resorts are offering so many different types of discounts on their ski passes - for young adults, for families, for weekends, for multiple resorts, prepaid, paid online and so on - that it is advisable to do one's research well ahead of time.
And because saving money is what it's all about, the cheaper ways of enjoying a day out in the snow are making a strong comeback: snowshoes, cross-country skiing, sledding, snowmobiles and a long list of other options. The good news is that this is a good year for snow: the cold weather is here to stay, according to US and European weather forecasts, and the snowfall is expected to be above average.
Baqueira Beret: the best
Baqueira Beret is lucky enough to be located in the valley of Arán, making it the only Atlantic-facing resort in the Spanish Pyrenees and ensuring that it usually gets a good amount of snow. Added to this are carefully groomed slopes, fast and modern lifts, high quality services and an extensive network of inclines that make Baqueira Beret one of the best resorts in southern Europe. With a transport capacity of 57,983 people per hour - unmatched in Spain - unconditional fans have something new to celebrate this year: reforesting with pine and fir has continued at 1,800 meters altitude, and El Bosque cafeteria has been renovated. The layouts of some slopes have also been improved, notably the bottom sections of Manaud and Ticolet. The resort's website shows safari routes throughout the facilities, divided according to difficulty level, and it also offers smartphone applications with information about the weather, lifts in service and groomed slopes, as well as phone access to webcams and Radio Arán weather forecasts. Baqueira is also a good resort for children, since it has three kiddie parks and specialized classes from ages four and up that include skiing lessons, daycare and cafeteria services. Besides all that, the valley of Arán is rife with artistic heritage in each of its villages, and its splendid cuisine is influenced by nearby France.
Slopes: 120 kilometers. Altitude: 1,500-2,510 meters. One-day adult ski pass: 47 euros; One-day child ski pass: 31.50 euros. Information: www.baqueira.es and 973 63 90 00
Weekend, two nights at a two-star hotel in Viella, double room, breakfast included and two days of skiing, 129.90 euros per person during promotional season and 146.60 euros during the Christmas season.
Another option: four nights at a four-star hotel at the foot of the slope, breakfast included and three days of skiing for 320.80 euros per person between December 10 and 14, or 574.60 euros between December 26 and 30 or 396.40 euros between February 4 and 8. Baqueira reservations central: 902 415 415.
Cerler: the longest slope
It is worth coming to this Aragonese resort nestled high up in the mountains near Cerler and Benasque, just to ski down the Gallinero slope, with an altitude of 2,630 meters. Here is the longest run in Spain: over nine kilometers of uninterrupted descent down a series of either easy or difficult slopes, depending on one's choice, all the way down to El Molino. The drop is nearly 1,150 meters, something unseen outside the Alps. On Gallinero, experts will enjoy the numerous black slopes such as Cibollés, while average skiers will remember their descent of Canal Amplia for a long time after the experience is over. Cerler is the highest ski resort in Aragón and it affords superb views of the mountains, including the well-known Aneto peak. This season Remáscaro cafeteria is extending its opening hours and offering live music and DJ performances; the children's area has been improved with new activities as well.
Slopes: 79 kilometers. Altitude: 1,500-2,630 meters. One-day adult ski pass: 40.50 euros; young adults pass: 31.50 euros. Information: www.cerler.com and 974 55 10 12.
Five nights, Sunday through Friday, during low season at the three-star Hotel Ciria (www.hotelciria.com and 974 55 16 12) in Benasque, in a double room with half board and five days of skiing for 420 euros per person.
Another option: weekends at the four-star Hotel Aneto in Benasque, including breakfast and two days of skiing from 199 euros per person. Viajes Aragón Esquí: 902 49 22 22.
Formigal: no getting bored
This is the jewel in the crown of the Aramón Group, which also owns Cerler, Panticosa, Valdelinares and Javalambre. Formigal is also the largest of them all, with 137 kilometers of slopes and a very modern lift network. Located at the head of the Tena valley, in Huesca, this resort tries to keep clients entertained with multiple snow-based activities such as live music on the slopes, après-ski social events and family entertainment. This year, Formigal is opening a new section in the Portalet area reserved for snow tubes, snake gliss (group sledding) paintball, go-karts and snowmobiles. There is also a 400 square-meter skating rink.
Ski pass pricing offers an interesting set of discounts: 10 percent for online purchases, 20 percent for large families, 12 percent for youths and families with two children, and 10 percent for 10-day passes or upwards. There is also an option called Planazo, which entails a fixed fee of 27 euros and a 20 percent discount at any one of the group's resorts as long as the day passes are prepaid.
Slopes: 137 kilometers. Altitude: 1,501-2,251 meters. One-day adult ski pass: 42 euros; one-day young adult pass: 33.50 euros. Information: www.formigal.com and 974 49 00 00.
Weekend, two nights breakfast included at a four-star hotel at the top of the resort, with spa and indoor pool, and two days of skiing from 169 euros. Aragón Esquí: 902 49 22 22.
Sierra Nevada: active and entertaining
Here is Spain's highest and Europe's southernmost ski resort, which also happens to be one of the best in the country. Its more than 100 kilometers of slopes are spread over eight different sectors. There is a specific area for snowboarding and freestyle, and the largest permanent half-pipe ramp in Spain. Children ages three to six also have their own dedicated learning area, and a leisure zone called Mirlo Blanco offers snow toboggans, bike slalom, archery, ski bikes and an exciting sled on rails that reaches speeds of 40 kilometers per hour.
The resort has also expanded the beginner area, improved access to the Borreguiles cablecar and speeded up the Al-Andalus cablecar. A phone application provides an interactive slope map, GPS skier locator and a distance and speed meter.
Slopes: 103.6 kilometers. Altitude: 2,100-3,300 meters. One-day adult day pass: 45 euros; one-day young adult day pass 32 euros. Information: www.sierranevada.es and 902 70 80 90.
During high season, two nights in a double room breakfast included at a three-star hotel and two days of skiing from 254 euros. Same conditions in low season from 174.90 euros. Another option: during high season, two nights in a one-bedroom apartment for four people and two days of skiing from 168.80 euros. Same conditions during the promotional season from 123.60 euros. Reservations: Sierra Nevada Club (953 24 91 11).
Grand Valira: the largest
It is the largest resort in southern Europe, with 210 kilometers of slopes extending from the municipality of Encamp, in Andorrra, to Pas de la Casa, on the border with France. This year Grand Valira is adding five extra kilometers off-piste. Around 60 percent of the resort is covered with snow cannons.
There are six sectors: Encamp, Canillo, El Tarter, Soldeu, Grau Roig and Pas de la Casa. Adventurous spirits can try the igloo hotel located at an altitude of 2,350 meters, and made entirely of ice (adults from 99 euros; children from 45 euros)
Slopes: 210 kilometers. Altitude: 1,710-2,640 meters. One-day adult ski pass 44 euros; one-day young adult pass 41 euros. Information: www.grandvalira.com and 00 376 89 18 18.
From December 22 to 26, a double room at the three-star Hotel Vall Ski, four nights with half board and four days of skiing for 278.40 euros per person. Viajes Akali: www.viajesakali.com and 914 48 41 58
A different kind of model in the capital's nearby mountains
"Don't mention this place in your story, or lots of people will start coming," says Paco, smiling broadly when he is asked about the cross-country ski resort of Navafría (Segovia), around 90 kilometers from Madrid. Paco is a mountain lover who has been doing cross-country skiing for the last 20 years in the valley of Lozoya and other mountains in the Guadarrama range. "Right now there are around nine cars in the parking lot, and it's a real luxury because there're no more than 10 people here," says David Iturralde, a co-owner of the company that runs Navafría and its 25 kilometers of trails. "This is not like the other ski resorts. Existing trails were used, and no construction was done. The only thing we do is keep the snow in good condition with machines that stamp it down and make it skiable," explains Iturralde, who remembers starting out in 2007 with just eight kilometers of trails. The lodge is a restored building from the 1950s which was in ruins when they found it. "We are a sustainable station that uses renewable resources."
Cross-country skiing is not a well-known winter sport in Spain, where downhill skiing is much more popular. But in the present economy, Spaniards would do well to learn more about it. "Everything is much cheaper, which means it's full of advantages, since the ski pass only costs nine euros," says Iturralde. The rest of the prices at the Navafría resort are also quite affordable, since a package comprising a three-hour course, the equipment rental and the ski pass costs 50 euros. Renting snow shoes and getting a crash course on how to walk in them cost 19 euros - very competitive rates compared to the downhill ski resorts in the same area.
And as Navafría's managers note, the area could not be better. "It's inside the Cumbres del Guadarrama National Park. It has nothing to do with Navacerrada [a ski resort popular with Madrid city dwellers]; you can see wolves, cinereous vultures, wild boar, roe deer..." says a regular client. The only drawback? There are no snow cannons here, so the skies decide when the station opens up and when it does not. "Last year we opened 43 days, but normally we open for an average of 80 days," says a manager.
One of the most salient activities here is the full-moon trails. "There is lots of natural light and you don't even need a front light to see where you're going. It's amazing. You can see tawny owls while you ski. There are groups of up to 100 people," says Iturralde.
In February, Navafría will be one of the host resorts for the Spanish cross-country skiing championship.
To help customers, the resort has set up a bus service from Buitrago de Lozoya so people don't have to drive to an altitude of 1,773 meters, where Navafría sits on the border between Madrid and Segovia. "We didn't want to build a parking lot, so the bus service runs every hour. That way you can forget about the car and about finding parking space," says Iturralde, who hoped Navafría would be open for the recent bank holiday weekend. A resort that is sure to open is Navacerrada, which will rev up its snow cannons in preparation for the masses of ski lovers who make the trip each weekend.