More skiers and snowboarders still choose to head to France than anywhere else. The reason is inescapable: the French Alps offer the best variety of resorts of any country in the world.
However, exorbitant prices – particularly in the big name resorts – continue to test the loyalty of even the most ardent Francophile skiers and snowboarders. Austria and Italy are much cheaper alternatives and there’s a noticeable drift away from the French Alps by the more budget-conscious.
Nevertheless, the main high season dates are fully subscribed. Indeed, if you are planning a half-term break with your family you need to book very well in advance. In 2015, February 14 to 21 is not only the main week for school breaks in England and Wales, but also in two-thirds of France. To add to the congestion on the slopes, the date coincides with holidays in Belgium, Denmark, and The Netherlands.
Christmas, New Year and Easter are also already getting booked up, although tour operators increasingly find it difficult to fill the low season dates in January and March.
Here's our pick of where to go…
Best for beginners: Courchevel
Courchevel, famous for its glitz and multi-million property prices, might at first glance seem an unusual choice for novices, but the resort has many facets. Situated at one end of the giant Trois Vallées ski area that includes Méribel and Val Thorens, its smartest and most expensive village is Courchevel 1850. In more affordable Moriond (also known as 1650), Village (1500), Le Praz and La Tania you will find much cheaper accommodations. Moriond is ideal for beginners, with gentle nursery slopes well away from the inter-resort traffic of the rest of the Trois Vallées. The beginner’s slopes around the Altiport area of 1850 are also extremely good, with mild gradients and easy lifts.
There’s a wide choice of ski and snowboard schools, but learning from a native English speaker is an advantage, and these schools are British run: BASS Courchevel, New Generation and Supreme Ski.
Parents needn't worry about inexperienced small children on chairlifts during classes – special ski school waistcoats equipped with magnets lock on to the chair and are released at the top.
Where to stay: Le Ski has 21 chalets in Moriond and neighbouring La Tania and 30 years experience in offering holidays here. Bellevue is a contemporary chalet apartment in the new Aspen Lodge complex with views across to 1850; it sleeps four in two bedrooms.
Alternatives: Alpe d'Huez, Morzine, and Val Cenis are great choices; all have dedicated nursery slopes out of the way of ski traffic.
Best for intermediates: Serre Chevalier
This is the collective name for a dozen villages along the road from the ancient garrison town of Briançon in the southern Alps, sharing a ski area with a respectable 250km of varied but mainly intermediate slopes served by 62 lifts.
Think of Serre Che as the laid-back, country cousin of A-list resorts further north, such as Val d'Isère or Courchevel – a bit smaller and a bit less hi-tech, but also friendlier, more relaxed and with bags more Gallic character. Pick of the main villages is Monêtier Les Bains, a picturesque spa resort that was popular in Victorian times – it’s quieter and altogether more charming than Villeneuve and Chantemerle. If you're stuck on the intermediate plateau, British ski school New Generation can help.
Where to stay: Chalethotel Charlotte is a former monastery that has been run for years by Ski Miquel. The company has now bought the property and it has undergone a complete makeover.
Alternatives: Les Arcs, La Plagne, Flaine, and Méribel are good choices; all have extensive blue and red runs that give you a feeling of having gone somewhere each day, rather than repeating the same slopes.
Best for advanced: Val d'Isère
The resort is spread along a high, remote valley and shares the giant Espace Killy ski area with neighbouring Tignes. Val d'Isère divides into a number of sectors, from the central hub at the base of the main Solaise and Bellevarde lifts to the quieter outposts of La Daille, Le Laisinant and Le Fornet.
As in any major holiday destination in the Alps, the vast majority of them of them are intermediates, so you don't have to be advanced to enjoy yourself here. But if you are, you will – particularly if you invest in expert guidance to make the most of the challenging terrain, both on and off piste. Few world-class resorts have such variety. Progression Ski is a British-run school with the full range of group and private ski and snowboard lessons. Instructors are experts and extremely friendly.
Where to stay: Aspen Lodge is a smart apartment block, centrally located on the main street, with suites of various sizes and a full concierge service. It's convenient for the slopes as well as shopping and nightlife.
Alternatives: Chamonix has some of the most demanding terrain in the Alps.
Best for charm and romance: St Martin-de-Belleville
French resorts major on convenience rather than charm, so attractive villages with large ski areas are notable by their absence. St Martin, the prettiest and quietest destination in the giant Trois Vallées ski area, is an exception.
An old cheese-making centre below better known Les Menuires in the Belleville Valley, St Martin has raised its traditionally sleepy profile in recent years. It offers a radically different experience from neighbouring Trois Vallées resorts and will bore the pants off party animals – but that's how its growing band of fans likes it.
A fast gondola and a chair take you up to the ridge above the Belleville and Les Allues valleys. From there you can head over to Méribel, Les Menuires and the rest of the Trois Vallées, or coast back down the local red and blue runs to St Martin.
In the village, modern architecture respects the old farmhouses and 17th-century church. La Bouitte in the adjoining hamlet of St Marcel has two Michelin stars.
Where to stay: Abode is an ancient Savoyard farmhouse that has been lovingly converted into a chalet for eight people.
Alternatives: Megève has horse drawn sleighs and an attractive resort centre; little-known in the Maurienne Valley is rural France at its simplest and most delightful.
Best for partying: Méribel
There's no denying that the thousands of international visitors who migrate to the geographical centre of the giant Trois Valleés ski area each winter know how to party in style – along with a few French.
A branch of the fast spreading French on-mountain après experience La Folie Douce, at the mid-station of the main Saulire gondola, gets loud at 3pm with a DJ and tabletop dancing. The clientele tend to migrate after 5pm to The Rond Point, aka The Ronny, just above the main village and the must-visit après venue. It has a 4pm-5pm happy hour, live bands and a fantastic, up-for-it atmosphere. On a good night, you could be crowd surfing by 6pm. Alternatively, Jack’s Bar has comedy and occasional live bands, Le Poste de Secours is one of the smartest bars in town and Barometer has a pleasant English pub atmosphere. Later on, La Taverne and Le Pub are good warm-up spots for the main clubbing action even later at Dick's Tea Bar or Le Loft.
Méribel's local slopes are extensive and mainly intermediate. They give easy access to the rest of the Trois Vallées ski area.
The resort also has an unrivalled selection of good-quality chalets, although wickedly high prices have led to a sharp fall in the overall number visitors in recent years.
Where to stay: There’s a huge choice of accommodation and operators here.
Alternatives: In the country that gave après ski its name there is remarkably little of it. Les Deux Alpes and Chamonix are livelier than most resorts and do their best to redress this with a more extensive range of bars and late-night entertainment.
Best for families: Les Gets
With its village nursery slopes, pedestrian-friendly centre and road train shuttle, this village in the giant 650km Portes du Soleil ski area makes an ideal base for families. There's a huge choice of good accommodation including child-friendly chalets with nannies, and Les Gets itself is a pleasing mixture of old Savoyard chalets and more modern wood-and-stone buildings constructed in keeping with their beautiful Alpine surroundings. The only drawback is its modest 1172m altitude, which means that snow cover is not necessarily reliable at village level throughout the season. However, there are more nursery slopes up the mountain at Chavannes, as well as the American Indian themed Grand Cry fun park. Kindergartens include Les Fripouilles, which caters for children from six months to four years.
Where to stay: A short walk away from the pistes, Chalet Les Chats Bleus sleeps 13 and has family suites with separate bedrooms and a shared bathroom.
Alternatives: La Tania in the Trois Vallées is car-free, although families with little ones need to be wary of skiers speeding down the main drag towards the gondola. Vaujany is an unspoiled village linking into the Alpe d'Huez ski area with no through traffic and a fine crèche.