The Austrian Alps are now considered a better "bang for your buck" or euro, should we say, than many popular resorts of the French Alps. Everything from basic holiday costs to lift pass, ski school, eating out and partying usually costs less. Moreover, the standard of service is higher in Austria, the welcome is warmer, and lift systems are equal to its French counterparts. If you rejoice in difficult black runs, steep couloirs and other classic high Alpine terrain, France and Switzerland will always hold the edge. However, for the rest of us, this may well be the season to give overlooked Austria a try. Here's where to go and why...
Best for beginners: Alpbach
Complete beginners really don't need the complexity of a large resort, so a novice’s visit to this Tirolean chocolate-box with oodles of atmosphere – it regularly wins prizes as the prettiest village in Austria – should result in a lifetime of piste enthusiasm. While the ski area is now linked to that of Auffach in the neighboring Wildschönau Valley, Alpbach itself, only a 40-minute drive from Innsbruck airport, has remained remarkably unchanged down the years. The only difference is that intermediates who might otherwise have moved on to pastures new now have the incentive to return to explore the respectable 145km of slopes served by 47 lifts in the two valleys.
The single nursery slope in the village centre is ideal for practicing snow plough turns after lessons, but the main ski area is a five-minute bus, then a gondola, away. Of the two ski schools in the resort, Alpbach-Inner Alpbach (skischule-alpach.at) is the original learning establishment, while Alpbach Aktiv (alpbach-aktiv.com) also has a fine reputation.
Where to stay: Hotel Zur Post is an ancient three-star hostelry that has been at the core of village life for over a century. The bar is favored by the locals and has an unpretentious restaurant that serves traditional cuisine. Inghams (inghams.co.uk) Alternatives Niederau in the neighboring Wildschönau valley (wildschoenau.com) has similar small-village appeal along with Kühtai (kuehtai.info) near Innsbruck.
Best for intermediates: Saalbach
Saalbach and neighboring Hinterglemm are a 90-minute drive from Salzburg airport and share one of the most sophisticated lift systems in Austria. Saalbach is the larger of the two villages and has a charming centre with traditional cafés, bars, designer clothing boutiques and a clutch of smart four-star hotels. Hinterglemm is an altogether more peaceful proposition and better for families. The two villages are at the centre of a magical ring of 2,000m peaks. These form a natural circuit of pistes that can be navigated in either direction to give adventurous intermediates a sense they are actually going somewhere each day - 55 lifts give access to a respectable 200km of pistes. The area is also linked to the village of Leogang (saalfelden-leogang.com). Unlike a lot of circuits suited to intermediates, this one doesn't have to be completed in one go. So, if you get tired, you can simply descend to the valley floor and take the free ski bus home in time for the après.
Where to stay: Chalet-hotel Christina sleeps 26 and is a four-minute walk from the nearest lift. It’s also well positioned for nightlife. The Christina has been extensively renovated in recent years and now boasts the same Yorkshire-made beds as supplied to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kensington Palace.
Best for advanced: St Anton
The ability to handle the slopes like a god and the bar like the devil makes or breaks your stay in what can be regarded as one of the top resorts in Europe for serious skiers and riders. The core of the village is just one main street – pedestrianised during the day – lined with some fine, old hotels and inns, sport shops and cafés. St Anton used to be bisected by the main trans-European railway, which you had to cross in order to reach the ski area, but the line was moved to the valley side of town in 2001. The village is situated at 1,340m and the Valluga, the highest lift, is at 2,811m. In between lie an array of runs that vary from the moderately demanding to the just plain wicked – with waist high moguls to boot. This is not a place for the faint-hearted. A blue slope here might well be classified dark red in a lesser resort. But if you are the kind of person who feels confident on steepish intermediate runs and is game to go black, you are going to have an awful lot of fun here.
Snow cover is usually reliable and the main action takes place on the Valluga side of the village, on and above the slopes of the Gampen and Galzig sectors. The Rendl ski area on the other side of the valley is more benign (and sunnier). Less accomplished members in the group can always take the ski bus to the altogether more friendly slopes of Lech and Zürs included in the regional Arlberg lift pass – in all, the pass covers 276km of slopes and 85 lifts. But be sure to return in time for the evening action. St Anton is as serious about its nightlife as it is about its skiing. The off-piste offered by the ski area as a whole is one of the major attractions and an excursion to Zürs off the back of the Valluga is a must for any expert skier. Its hype is worse than its bite but what gets the adrenalin flowing is the fact that anyone carrying skis is only allowed up the final cable car to the 2,811m summit if accompanied by a guide. British-run Piste to Powder (pistetopowder.com) offers expert guiding and off-piste tuition.
Where to stay: Montjola is a four-star chalet-hotel located in a peaceful position, away from the hoots and howls of the après. It does not have direct access to the slopes, but the VIP operator runs an efficient shuttle service from 8am to 8pm. The walk down takes around four minutes and it's double that to climb up from the piste or nightlife.
Best for charm and romance: Kitzbühel
Watching the annual Hahnenkamm, the toughest of all downhill ski races, held in late January, takes your breath away. At one point, the course plunges away at an angle of 85°! The funny thing is, the Hahnenkamm isn't really what Kitzbühel is about; this former medieval mining town, set against the beautiful backdrop of the Wilder Kaiser mountains, is actually one of the softies of the Alpine world. Its slopes are, for the most part, flattering rather than frightening. Even the notorious Streif racecourse, the venue for the Hahnenkamm, becomes a Familienabfahrt – a family run – once the World Cup circus has left town. The local slopes are divided into two separate areas – the Kitzbüheler Horn and the much more extensive Hahnenkamm. And apart from its own 168km and 54 lifts in the local area, Kitzbühel links (by a short bus ride) to the 279km and 91 lifts of the Skiwelt area, which includes Westendorf and Söll. The distance you can travel in a day is limited only by the hours the lifts are open. Kitzbühel has its own lift pass separate from the Skiwelt pass, while a 10-resort Kitzbühel Alps AllstarCard covers both.
The medieval town with its heavily buttressed walls and delicate painted frescoes is one of the most beautiful in of Austria. It is also one of those rare resorts that genuinely appeal to non-skiers. Its pretty, pedestrianised streets are lined with luxury hotels, up market boutiques and cafes. There is also a wonderful choice of four-star and five-star hotels.
Where to stay: The four-star Schwarzer Adler is among the best of the resort's accommodation – an old Tirolean inn converted into a contemporary hotel complete with spa. From £1069, Inghams (inghams.co.uk).
Alternatives: Lech (lech-zuers.com) is Austria’s smartest ski destination, but it still retains much of the atmosphere of the farming village that it once was.
Seefeld (seefeld.com), set on a wooded plateau 25 minutes from Innsbruck, has limited alpine skiing. But cross-country skiing, curling, and sleigh rides are the popular alternatives for those who holiday in comfort in a range of sophisticated four and five-star hotels.
Best for partying: Ischgl
Ischgl is famed for its opening and closing parties that host some of the world’s most celebrated artists. Robbie Williams attracted a capacity crowd of 25,000 for a mountain top gig in May 2014 and James Blunt is tipped to kick off the coming season in December. The concerts started with Elton John in 1994 and have since featured an array of A-list celebrity singers, including Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Sting, Bon Jovi, Deep Purple, The Killers, Diana Ross, Mariah Carey and Kylie Minogue. Ischgl is an old farming village that has developed over the years into a sophisticated tourist centre, with a collection of smart hotels and cavernous bars. It's a paradoxical place; the accommodations are mostly up market and more expensive than in many resorts. The clientele tends to be at least 10 years older than the twenty-somethings who pack into the Mooserwirt on the slopes above St Anton. But that doesn't stop the Ischgl crowd from climbing on the tables and partying as if it were their last day on Earth.
If you like your après as much as the pistes, and think you might be too past it for St Anton, then put Ischgl on your hit-list. From 3.30pm, the atmosphere in the village and at the foot of the pistes is electric. It's also wonderfully good-natured. If all you've ever known is the surly swirl of the average British pub on a Friday night, you are in for a pleasant surprise. With 235km of pistes to explore – the area is linked to Samnaun in Switzerland – the slope suits all standards and the lift system is constantly being updated. A new mountain access gondola this winter will greatly improve uphill capacity.
Where to stay: Four-star Chalet Hotel Abendrot is close to the resort centre but tucked away from the noisy main drag.
Alternatives: St. Anton (stantonamarlberg.com) and Saalbach (saalbach.com)- at both the party begins in huts on the slopes long before the lifts close for the day.