2 May 2019 from Danielle in

The Alps offer amazing skiing with panoramic views and après-ski to die for, but it's many people's dream to one day ski in Canada or the United States. Having skied in both continents, we can safely say there are definitely differences, but both Europe and North America have a lot to offer when it comes to skiing holidays! In this article we'll cover everything you need to know about the differences of skiing in North America vs. Europe. 

In-bounds powder

Venturing off-piste in the Alps is a good way to nullify your insurance, so skiers and snowboarders tend to stick to the pistes. In contrast, in North America, everything within the ski area is considered in-bounds. There’s no need for bringing avalanche equipment or being versed in avalanche safety, because the ski patrol ensures the entire ski area is avalanche-safe. This opens up possibilities for even intermediate skiers to try skiing through the trees or tackling ungroomed powder slopes. A word to the wise when skiing gladed runs – watch out for tree wells and be extra-cautious when venturing onto off-piste terrain that doesn’t look like it’s been skied recenty. Because in-bounds off-piste terrain is so accessible, it’s very rare for anybody to venture out-of-bounds and this is usually frowned upon. Even the best skiers should have plenty of in-bounds terrain to keep them busy, and if not, there’s always guided heli-skiing or cat-skiing. Remember runs can be green, blue, black or double-black. Blue runs are equivalent to European reds, and can have small bumps.

Fresh powder Sun Peaks
Powder skiing through the trees is accessible to everyone in North American ski resorts

Hardcore ski culture

Lift passes are expensive in North America and locals want to squeeze every inch of skiable time out of their lift pass. Lifts usually open around 8 or 8:30am and close as early as 3 or 3:30pm, depending on the season. Don’t worry, the time difference makes it easy to wake up early! Lunchtime in North America is pretty dead-on 12pm, so if you want to beat the crowds, eat at 11 or 1 and you’ll be on your way again in no time. While skiing is considered a posh sport in Europe, not least because most people have to travel quite far to get to the mountains, ski resorts in North America welcome all demographics. Everybody just wants to get their shred on, dude!

English-speaking ski instructors

North America is proud of its multicultural heritage but you’re still virtually guaranteed to get an English-speaking ski instructor, whether they’re a local or an Australian on a gap year. This means that you'll actually be able to understand your ski instructor, which is a huge bonus when they're trying to correct your technique!

Snow quality and climate

Snow quality in Europe vs. North America is an eternal fight. While the interior resorts in the Rockies are famous for getting more than 10 metres a year of light, dry champagne powder snow, the West Coast mountains such as Whistler can get sopped in for days on end. However, when there IS a big dump of powder, the European tendency to groom as many slopes as possible means that it’s easier to find powder stashes in North America.

View Sun Peaks ski resort Canada
Canadian ski resorts like Sun Peaks are situated at lower altitudes, which means more trees to ski through!

Cheap cheap cheap

The favourable exchange rate ensures accommodation, food and petrol are generally much cheaper in North America. Lift pass prices, however, are sky-high, and prices at mountain restaurants are hugely exorbitant, just like in Europe. No need for homesickness there! Alcoholic drinks can be expensive due to liquor taxes and the drinking ages are different:19 in British Columbia, 18 in Alberta and Québec, and 21 in the United States. Canada also recently legalised marijuana, so although many ski resorts are smoke-free areas (including tobacco), don’t be surprised if you smell a faint whiff from someone’s joint on the slopes! Something that might surprise Brits on arriving in North America is that tax isn’t included in the prices. This means that your bill will always be higher than you were expecting. Restaurant servers and bartenders in North America also expect tips on top of the bill, to the tune of 15-20%, calculated according to the bill before tax.

Queuing heaven

Lift lines in North America are a British dream come true. No stepping on skis, no jostling for position, no ending up three chairs behind the rest of your party: queues are organised with a series of mergers, which everybody calmly and politely obeys! As for the slopes in general, while bigger ski resorts can suffer from crowds much like the Alps, there are loads of smaller ski resorts with astonishingly good skiing and virtually no people.

Cypress Mountain sniffle station
Like many ski resorts in Canada, Cypress Mountain stocks the lift queue with tissues and bins

International cuisine

A quintessential part of a ski holiday in the Alps is the traditional mountain food – Tiroler Gröstl, wiener schnitzel, cheese fondue... Yum! On your ski holidays in North America, you might be surprised to find offerings like sushi or barbecued ribs. North American ski resorts pride themselves on their international culinary offerings! In addition to international specialties, be sure to try North American concoctions like Canadian beaver tails or s’mores roasted around a campfire. Beer is by far the most common beverage, and while big-name brands like Bud’s Light and Kokanee are undrinkable, the craft beer craze has crossed the pond and you should be able to get a decent pint at most resorts. Local wine is often surprisingly good, not only in California but also in BC.

The après-ski is unique, and your chalet will probably have a hot tub

You haven’t had a proper Canadian ski holiday if you haven’t braved the tradition of jumping in the snow and then back into the hot tub! While it’s sometimes possible to find your typical ski-boots-on, dance-on-tables après-ski joint, skiing takes first place in North America. Resorts like Whistler offer a lively nightlife scene, but in resorts with little to no base area, après-ski is understandably tame and usually consists of a cosy evening by the fireside with friends and family.

Bonfire Sun Peaks après-ski
Après-ski at Sun Peaks takes the form of roasting marshmallows around a bonfire

Everything is bigger in North America

Get used to spacious accommodation with all the modern comforts. As opposed to fully catered alpine chalets, usually the spaciousness comes with a kitchen and the caveat that you’ll be responsible for preparing your own meals (or dining out). While the Alps are peppered with strings of ski resorts so close together that it’s not surprising they’ve all been merging recently, the ski resorts in North America are relatively few and far between. Ski area conglomerates like Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company offer lift passes that are valid at all their resorts, but keep in mind this might require a flight or a very long drive. If you do want to hit up groups of resorts, consider the famous Powder Highway or Tahoe Valley.

Mountain villages are laid out differently

Most ski resorts in North America were built from scratch, with the amenities added later. You won’t find any 600-year-old alpine villages here! While bigger resorts like Whistler and Sun Peaks have ski-in, ski-out options and pedestrianised village centres with all the frills, smaller ski resorts only have a limited base area and you will have to drive several miles away to get a true village scene. On the flip side, renting a car does make it easier to experience several resorts in one trip. In towns that are purpose-built for skiing, North American ski resorts have taken a variety of approaches. Some, like Sun Peaks or Kimberley, have modelled themselves after European villages. Some, like Whistler, have opted for a neutral alpine experience. And some, like Breckenridge, have retained an American Wild West feel.

Aerial view of Val Thorens
Unlike in France's 3 Vallées ski area which has village after high-altitude village, ski resorts in North America tend to be further apart

Driving to your ski resort

Resorts like Whistler and Big White have airport shuttles, but if you choose to hire a car, be aware that the motorways can be terrifying. The Sea-to-Sky Highway to Whistler has been improved in recent years but still offers plenty of opportunities for accidents, while the Coquihalla Highway that leads into BC’s interior is notorious for its whiteout snowstorms, with huge lorries whizzing past you at breakneck speeds. On the bright side, reaching the actual ski resorts is somewhat nicer than in Europe, with less hairpin bends and more guardrails and trees to take your mind off the precipice. Don’t be surprised if your hire car is a behemoth 4-wheel drive SUV – that’s the norm in North America. Keep in mind that resorts close to big cities (like Whistler to Vancouver) fill up on the weekends if the weather is good.

Practical info: Getting to your ski resort in North America

Direct flights to the ski resorts of North America are about 10 hours long, give or take. WestJet, British Airways and Air Canada have direct flights from the UK to the major hubs of Vancouver and Calgary. From there, you can choose to arrange a car hire or take an airport shuttle to your ski resort. As for the US, Denver and Salt Lake City are good hubs, but you might have trouble finding a direct flight from the UK. Don't forget to get an ETA before you enter Canada, or an ESTA before you enter the US, as well as winter sports travel insurance. Like in the Alps, lift passes are often cheaper if you pre-purchase them before leaving the UK. You can buy multi-day lift passes that are good for 4 out of 6 days, 5 out of 7 days, etc. which give you the flexibility to chase the good powder!

Popular ski resorts in Canada:
Sun Peaks Resort
Big White Village
Silver Star Mountain Resort

Popular ski resorts in the US:
Park City - Deer Valley
Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows

All set for your North American ski holiday? Don’t forget to say hi to the liftie, and be prepared to make new friends on the chairlift! The ebullient enthusiasm that characterises North Americans brings a welcome spin to ski holidays in Canada and the US. For a better idea of what it's like to ski in Canada, check out our Sun Peaks and Jasper trip reports!

Born and raised in the ski paradise of Vancouver, Canada, I learned to ski before I can remember, balancing precariously on my parents’ skis as they sailed down the hill. I started snowboarding in my teens and am now delighted to be exploring everything Europe’s ski scene has to offer!