Sometimes the best adventures come about by happenstance and pure luck. Sometimes adventure can come about by planning and preparation. Breaking the routines of daily living and responsibilities can be challenging. However there are those of us who need outdoor adventure, to be in open space, on top of a mountain living passionately and following our dreams. So while logistics can be challenging to navigate: transportation, passports, hotels, getting your gear there, especially if you are going to a foreign country. It is well worth the work and planning to disconnect from the daily grind. A few winters ago I was lucky enough to spend a month in Chamonix snowboarding. I was only able to stay there as long as I did by being careful with my money and by planning my trip long before I packed my bags and headed out the door. There are many variables to consider when you are travelling especially if you are on a budget, luckily for you, I know what they are.
I started planning my trip by looking at airfares, obsessively. Thankfully there are great airfare trackers and I signed up for the alerts. Every time my phone beeped, my heart skipped waiting for the email that would have the flight I could afford. I decided if I was prepared to travel to a larger or different airport to save money. If you are taking skiing, snowboarding or other technical gear check with the airlines before you depart to see how you need to have it wrapped and what their weight allowances/charges are. When booking an international flight, you can save considerable amounts of money by checking airfares from different regional airports. You will want to take into account the time it takes to drive, and additional expenses like gas & parking. If you have a limited amount of time for your adventure, it might be worth it to pay a little bit extra to have the convenience of leaving from the closest airport. I also chose to fly into Paris, but I could have just as easily flown in Geneva or Lyon Saint Exupery. But I couldn’t go all the way and not see Paris. U.S. Citizens can visit France without a visa for up to 90 days. You do need a valid current US Passport. Your airline should provide you with all the information that you need. You should also look at the U.S. Department of State web page for France, you can sign up for travel alerts and register for the Smart Traveller Program.
When to Go
I was able to pick the time I wanted to go so I was able to avoid peak times. Avoiding peak times helped me to save on airfare and on accommodations. Holiday weekends are different in Europe, the last part of my stay overlapped with the beginning of Spring Break. Spring break has starts at different times all across Europe, so depending on where you are it can be as long as a month. Now for some people hanging out with thousands of young people is great, and for some people it’s not so great. If the only time you can go is during a peak time, I wouldn’t let Spring Break or anything else stop me from going. The Chamonix Valley is huge and you will have the adventure of a lifetime there. I spent a lot of time on Chamonix.com. I found the Calendar of Events especially useful. I wanted to visit Chamonix when it wasn’t crazy busy, as there would be more options for places to stay and deals and discounts during off peak times.
How to Get Around
I highly recommend that you use public/mass transit as much as possible. You will save substantial amounts of money using public transportation. France is much different than the U.S., the busses and trains will take you all over the country. I used this web page to figure out how to get from the Airport to the City and this one to get my Euro rail ticket to Chamonix. You will save yourself money from renting a car and stress to trying to figure out directions and driving. I liked looking out the window and seeing the sights and also hearing people speak French. I flew into Paris CDG and took the night train to Chamonix. I arrived in Paris mid-morning and spent all day touring around. At the end of the day I ate dinner from a Street Vendor and headed to the train station. Once we were underway I pulled out my travel pillow and went to sleep. Riding the trains at night is the #1 way to save money when travelling through Europe. Unfortunately in winter and having one destination it only worked on the night I went to Chamonix and the night I came back. I’ve spent some time in the mountains, but NOTHING prepared me for Chamonix at sunrise. The sky was the deepest blue, and after rattling around in the dark train all night the sun reflecting off the snow was probably one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. And the Mountains, they are beyond incredible. I was almost too overwhelmed to take any pictures, almost.
Where to Stay
There are loads of places to stay in Chamonix: Condos, Houses, Hotels, Hostels and Bed and Breakfast type places. There really is something for every budget. I chose a place from Air BNB. What you want to think about when choosing a place is it convenient to town and to the bus/train station? If you chose a hotel do they have a shuttle? Is breakfast included? These are simple things but they will affect your budget substantially. I was lucky; the place I stayed gave me a Continental Style breakfast: pastries, juice, coffee and fruit, it was perfect. Also don’t be afraid to go stay at different places, for instance you could stay at a hostel during the week when there aren’t many people there and stay at a quieter place on weekends. It all depends on the type of experience you want to have.
What to Eat
There is no quicker way to spend money if you are playing in the mountains all day than to eat all your meals in restaurants. I like to eat, so I really put a lot of thought and planned this part of my trip. My first day in Chamonix I went to the supermarket. The place I stayed at, in addition to providing me with breakfast, also had a small kitchen for me to use. So I bought food to make lunches, snacks and dinners. I also took a water bottle and refilled it instead of buying bottled water and I took a thermos, so I could have something hot to drink during the day.
I budgeted money for dining out a few times, but the majority of my food came from the supermarket, just like I was at home. Chamonix also has an amazing Market Day where you can get all kinds of local & regional foods. There are also plenty of bakeries, cafes, crepe shops and places you can get great food at very reasonable prices.
They Speak French, I Don’t
I knew I was going to go to France, so I did my best to learn as much French as I could…which turned out to be not very much at all. I focused on greetings, directions, and food terms. I also took a dictionary with me and used it all the time. I found people everywhere I went to be helpful and nice. Many Europeans speak English. I found the dictionary to be very helpful when I was at the grocery store. As people from all over the world visit Chamonix there are signs in many languages. It is a great destination and everyone I met was happy to be having fun in the mountains.
I had the best time in Chamonix. I took a million selfies; me on the lift, me on the train, me on top of the mountains, and photos with the people I met and got to snowboard with. I took pictures of the sunrise, the sunset, and snaps of all the runs I did. I took panaromas of the Mountains from the every angle. I even have a picture of me with my favorite bus driver. I noticed that some of my pictures needed a bit of editing so I signed up for an online photography class from my-photo-school.com when I got back. Snowboarding all of the new mountains was an incredible adventure and probably a once in a lifetime experience. I’m glad that I could make it happen by a little bit of planning.
I planned enough of my trip to have some days where I had nothing planned and could be open to whatever adventures happened my way. I did buy my ski pass before I left, and you can see all the options to purchase tickets here, and you can choose the one that works the best for you. I was happy to have an unexpected day trip to the Italian Alps (I bought this trip for $30 from a German girl who couldn’t go, I met her on the bus). I spent a day cross-country ski touring with a group from Argentina that I met while eating lunch at a cafe. I had a day spent rock climbing at the amazing indoor climbing wall at the Rec Center with some American folks I met on the lift. I spent an afternoon at the Musee Alpin, learning about the history of the Valley. I spent time at the beginning of my trip at the visitors center, learning about activities and events that were going on, many of them free. I have incredible memories of my trip of snowboarding at all the different areas in the Valley, of all the people I met from all over the world and got to know while riding the bus, lifts and trams.