Everything You Need to Know About Doing a Season on the French Alps

Whether you’re already working on a ski hill, looking for a last minute job, or dreaming of the future, the Alps are one of the most spectacular places on earth to settle down for a season.  Here’s my quick ‘how-to guide’, gained from my experience working at Alps d’Huez, France:

1.  Get yourself a work visa.

Unless you’re an EU citizen (or risking under-the-table pay), you’ll need a work visa to get hired on a resort.  1 year France working holiday visas are free for Canadian citizens between the ages of 18 and 36 and easy to obtain through the French Embassy while still in Canada (click here for more info).

I did things a bit differently.  When I started travelling, I wasn’t planning on doing a season – but backpacking is spontaneous; plans rarely unfold the way you want or expect them to.  Before I left Canada, I spent $350, countless hours filling out forms, a trip to the provincial capital to give my fingerprints, and waited 6 weeks to receive my 2 year Tier 5 UK work visa through the British Embassy (click here).
You can only get this visa once in  your life and you must be under 30 years of age.  I decided to get the UK visa because I speak English fluently and it would allow me to travel and work through Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England for two years.  There are plenty of companies that will try to squeeze money out of you by doing the paperwork for you, booking your first hostel in London, and promising to help you find work.  Personally, I don’t think they’re worth it.  Doing things yourself may take a bit more discipline, but you’ll save some money for travelling and have more freedom.  Hostels are easy to find online (click here for everything you need to know about booking a hostel).  Work was easy enough to find anyways (check gumtree.co.uk or jobsontap.co.uk).  Within two days of moving to Edinburgh, my new friends at the hostel found me a job with a recruitment agency.  When the cold weather of December rolled around, I got an inkling to leave the UK and snowboard the Alps.

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Lucky for me, my minimal experience speaking French got me a job with a UK-based company.  In order to legally work for the restaurant that employed me, I simply had to fill out a few forms informing the border agents that in order to do my job, I needed to work abroad.  Easy peasy, though the border agent still could have deported me for overstaying my limit in the Schengen Zone (click here for important info on the Schengen Zone).

2.  Find yourself a job!

Start googling ‘ski jobs France’ to see what’s available.  Don’t fret because it’s already December—employees will get hurt and need replacing throughout the season (trust me, I experienced this first hand).  I was recruited through ski-jobs.co.uk.  A few emails and one Skype interview later, my flights to France were booked (and paid for by the company).
Hotels and resorts in the French Alps will hire just about anyone—and you don’t have to speak French.  The work is hard, the hours are shitty, and the pay is horrible—but come on, you’re living on the French Alps.

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I chose Alps d’Huez because my bosses allowed me to come after Christmas.   I spent Christmas Day with my family in Copenhagen and started work December 26th.  Alps d’Huez is famous for being the uphill climb of Tour du France and housing the longest black diamond run in the world at 18km (and yes, I boarded it).  Huez is nicknamed l’ile du soleil (the island of sun) because it receives 300 days of sunshine a year.  However, when the sun’s out, it’s not snowing – causing the conditions to be icy and dangerous.  Coming from North America to ski in Europe, it’s important to remember that nothing can compare to the Rockies.
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I lived in the basement of the restaurant I served at, Rendez-Vous.  My restaurant served authentic French food inside an adorable wooden cabin complete with a log-burning fire.  We opened at 4pm for dinner and closed around midnight.  If I had lasted the entire season, my employers would have reimbursed me half the price of my season pass.  I had free accommodation and free dinner every night.  In my opinion, I had the best job on the hill with the most free-time to board.  I had four co-workers: two other servers and two cooks that were also the owners.  I loved my job.
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3.  Pack Lightly

If you can bring your board, boots, and bindings, GREAT!  Or, if you ski, bring your skis, boots, and poles.  The majority of hill bunnies are skiers in Europe – I was the odd one out, being a female snowboarder (unheard of!).  Pack up your equipment and bring it with you—the price to fly it over will be cheaper than buying new ones.  If you’re unable to bring your things (like I was), don’t worry; there will be second-hand equipment kicking around to use. I found a board and bindings in the basement left behind by last year’s workers, and I purchased a second-hand helmet for 10 euros and a pair of lightly-used boots for 30 euros.  Seasonaires bond as a family on the Alps—there will always be someone willing to help you find what you need.

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Usually, when backpacking, less is more.  In this case, it’s better to bring more than less.  Everything is expensive on the Alps.  Before you hike on up to the village bubble, buy mass products in the main city.  Ski gloves, toques, and warm sweaters are inexpensive in the UK and extremely unaffordable on the hill.  Be smart and save your money for the drinking nights.  (Which is every night.)
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Alps d’Huez was so warm and sunny; I was snowboarding in a t-shirt and trousers.  However, at the top of the mountain, the wind howled and chilled me to the bone.  Dress in layers and bring a backpack to store clothes, food, and a phone.  Don’t go out on the hill alone.
Ski resorts intertwine on the Alps. One afternoon, I got lost and decided to explore from the top of the mountain down.  I ended up in a different ski resort.  It took me hours to find my way back. Before you venture on your holiday, check you have the appropriate coverage. My parents’ insurance covered me until I was 21. I was 20 at the time of my snowboard accident, saving my family thousands of dollars.  Do this before you leave – you can’t purchase insurance once you’re travelling.

4.  Embrace the Bubble.

Ski resorts are sort of like a giant snow globe. Seasonaires live in a bubble, separated from the city and crowds of people.  Relationships are formed, drama spikes, and people get hurt.  My friends who lived and worked at the Beau Soleil lived beneath the hotel in close-knit dorms.  It was common practise to switch beds every night.  In such a tight environment, emotions rise and everything seems more intense.  Remind yourself that it’s only a few months.  Enjoy it, live it up, but don’t forget that the ‘real world’ with your friends, family, and hometown is still out there.

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One of the best parts of ski hills in France is the après-ski, or after skiing drinks.  I was usually released from work into the nightlife around midnight.  I would go with my Beau friends (who were already slightly tipsy off the staff-discounted Tsingtao at Rendez-Vous) to one of the various night clubs on the hill.  Clubs stay open until about 6am in Europe, making for a wild all-night party.  Throughout the week, uni groups from England came over and infected the hill, packing the clubs and making for an awesome party.  Weekends were quieter, with French families coming up to ski on their days off.
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Make the most of your season, push yourself, try something new, and—most importantly—don’t get hurt.  In my experience (two weeks at Grenoble hospital), the French nurses are not overly pleased with the English vacationers that are taking over their ski resorts and speaking English in their own country.  Though my surgery was flawless (luckily; there was a large risk of being paralyzed) I was treated like an animal in the weeks of recovery that followed (read my story here).

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I don’t mean to scare you off—despite the atrocities that occurred to me, I look back on my time at Alps d’Huez with fondness and longing.  I encourage anyone with the ability and passion to do a season on the Alps.  You never know where it might lead you!

Happy Travels!

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17 comments

  1. Hi Alison:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece.

    For the first time, also, I read the graphic details of your hospital stay in France. In spite of the horrific experience that it was, I’m sure it has made you stronger, and more fearless as you continue to pursue your craving for adventure.

    Life is short……live it to its fullest!!

    I also want to wish you, Mum and Mariah the very best for the season.

    Keep warrm…..and safe!

    Auntie Maggie, Uncle Ron and Erin

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