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February 2012

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It’s no real secret that off season is usually the cheapest and quietest time to visit any destination. The trick to choosing the right off season destination is knowing just how OFF off season is and picking the right location.

The right accommodation can make or break you

When it comes to enjoying being somewhere in off season, accommodation really is the key.

Off season usually means it’s really hot, really cold or really wet. If it’s hot you want reliable electricity and good AC. Not a generator. Living rustically in a hut on the beach is wonderful, but not in off season. Take our word for it. Two years ago we spent three weeks on the west coast of Thailand just before the monsoon hit. We got some fantastic bargains when it came to accommodation, often 50% off. But it was sweltering.

The places we enjoyed and ended up staying longer? It wasn’t the places with pristine isolated beaches and amazing people. Because we found those and hated them. We stayed with an amazing family in Krabi with a beach all to ourselves and uninhabited islands to canoe around. But we ran away screaming after two days. Why? Because they only had a generator for a few hours a day, and even then it didn’t really work. It wasn’t their fault. They were a start-up guest house and doing it tough. But it was 38 degrees with enough humidity to make it feel like you are inside a sauna and no escape. Not inside, not out. We’ve never been that hot. We checked into a nicer place with good AC and ended up having one of the best week of our entire travels.

Nopphara Thara beach fun

The same goes for winter.

A lot of people choose Spain or Portugal for to spend winter in Europe, but the weather there still isn’t perfect. The big problem is a lot of the houses in these regions aren’t built for the cold because they only have a few weeks of it each year. That’s particularly true of apartments that are usually only rented out during summer. If you strike a cold day you are going to feel it.

Take Algarve in Portugal. It’s certainly stunning all year round. The winter temperatures are certainly nicer than most other places in Europe. But winter is also the wettest period and since Algarve faces the Atlantic, a wet windy day can be pretty miserable.

If your apartment isn’t built for it, you will be miserable. There’s nothing worse than an apartment where the heating or hot water doesn’t work.

Actually we found something worse in Crete this winter – an apartment where both the heating and hot water didn’t work. We were on a Greek island with completely deserted coastlines to explore and the crystal clear waters of the Aegean but every time we went back to our apartment we started counting down the minutes until we could get out of there.

West of Heraklion

Honestly, can you imagine being a short drive from place that looked like this and still being miserable? Cause we were. Accommodation can kill a destination.

 

There’s off-season and there’s almost off-season

The shoulder periods around off-season are actually the time you want to be there. A month before the monsoon hits in Asia most places start to drop their rates. Which is perfect. It’s quiet, it’s cheap and most days you’ll just get an afternoon storm, not all-day rain or the risk of getting flooded in.

Of course this doesn’t always apply.

Hoi An in Vietnam just before the monsoon hits is dusty, hot and miserable. The city’s power comes from hydro-electricty and there’s not enough water to meet energy needs so blackouts every second day are common. Your accommodation will most likely have a generator but a) see above and b) nothing else will. Shops, restaurants, coffee shops. No cold drinks, no ice cream for hot kids, no espresso coffee. These might sound like ridiculously petty things, but when it’s 40 degrees out and you’ve been sightseeing, not being able to give the kids a cold drink is a sure way to bring on tantrums (not to mention Mum not being able to have a decent coffee!) 

But generally speaking just at the edges of off-season is the best time to go.

 

Go there first before you commit

What sounds lovely on the Internet might be very different in person. “Quiet village” in low season may actually translate to “ghost town 20km to the nearest corner store”. Pictures and websites can be misleading. Promised of heating might turn out to be an AC that barely keeps your toes from getting frostbite. Or you can mislead yourself until you are there in person locked into a three month lease you’ve already paid for over the Internet realising you hate the place.

 

Look for summer resort towns that aren’t just summer resort towns

That may sound pretty silly, but if you are heading to a summer resort town in winter because you can get an apartment for a steal then you want to pick a town that has a large local population base. You don’t want a tiny summer resort village, unless you are renting a car. Because small resort towns shut down in low season so you’re going to be along way from everything.

We learnt that in Crete, Greece and Koh Lanta, Thailand. The smaller the town, the more likely everything except your accommodation will be shut down. No restaurants, no corner stores, limited buses. In Crete, the nearest store was a 20 minute walk away. That doesn’t sound too bad but when it’s wet, cold and you have two tired kids a 40 minute return walk for a loaf of bread is miserable. I like walking, I like the quiet but it really wasn’t fun.

Go for a larger town. Honestly. Or budget in the cost of renting transport.

 

 

DSC_3765

I never imagined I would be reviewing a ski resort as a possible option for a budget long term stop for families travelling indefinitely. But we recently spent two weeks in the ski resort of Bansko in Bulgaria and after enjoying it immensely we started asking the locals what it would cost to stay there for 3-6 months … and were really surprised at how cheap it was. Take out the cost of skiing and you could live in an apartment in Bansko for a similar price to Thailand! Even with the cost of a season ski pass, it’s still a pretty reasonable long term option.

So … where is Bansko 

Located at the foot of the Pirin Mountains 1000m above sea level, Bansko is 3 hours by car from Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, 2.5 hours from Plovdiv (Bulgaria) and Thessaloniki (Greece). On the map Bansko is almost directly south of Sofia not far from the Greek and Macedonian borders.

About Bansko

Bansko is your typical well developed ski resort town. The entire town is teeming with accommodation, spa hotels, restaurants, corner stores and ski rental shops. But there are also a lot of friendly locals and of course the further from the resort you get, not only does the accommodation get cheaper but you get to experience more local life.

In the old part of town, 20 minutes walk from the gondola you’ll find quiet streets filled with houses, local eateries, businesses and banks. If you are happy to rent a car there are a lot of lovely little villages just 10 minutes drive away. 

There is one large supermarket near the gondola, a very small shopping centre and ATMs are easy to find, although some seemed to have problems with UK cards. We had no issues with our Australian cards. ATMs only allow 400 lev (200 euro) withdrawals at a time so expect to be visiting the ATM every second day!

Located at the base of the mountain, most of the streets are flat and the major roads are regularly cleared of snow. We saw a number of people getting around with prams quite easily. It was a very easy ski resort town to get around with kids. You don’t need a car. Everything is walking distance. But winter car rentals are very cheap – less than 10 euros per day.

In summer it would be a lovely place to rent bicycles and explore. The photos that we’ve seen of the mountains, lakes and surrounding towns look amazing.

Getting there and around

For cheap flights to Bulgaria, check out Wizz Air which flies into Sofia from a number of European capitals. Otherwise, overland it’s almost impossible to pass through south-eastern Europe without passing through Sofia. It’s a nexus for most of the transport routes.

There are direct buses from Sofia and Plovdiv airports costing 19 euros per person, including children over 3. That’s the fastest but of course most expensive way to get there.

Alternatively there are buses from downtown Sofia for 16 lev (8 euros) for adults and 8 lev (4 euros) per child over 6. Buses run almost every hour, sometimes half hourly, although they alternate between leaving from the Central bus station and the Ovcha Kupel bus station. Both bus stations are a 10-15 lev taxi fare from the airport or 5 lev from the town centre. For more information on the buses (and trains) check out ATVgari for timetables in english.

Buses also run regularly from Plovdiv and Thessaloniki. We didn’t take one but you can check the above link for details and prices.

Buses in Bulgaria are usually modern and clean. You may strike the odd old small mini-bus but most are fantastic. Certainly better than the ones we encountered elsewhere in the Balkans. Toilets are not something you’ll usually find on-board but they generally stop a few times during your trip. We’ve generally found the drivers are happy to make the occasional emergency “my child really needs to go” pit stop on the side of the highway. 

 

Most buses will have their destination written on the front of the bus, but in Cyrillic. It certainly helps to know how to spell the name of your destination in Cyrillic.

There are also daily trains between Sofia-Bansko-Plovdiv but they the journey between Bansko and either city takes over 5 hours. It’s scenic but long. Check out Theodora’s report of the train ride from Bansko to Plovdiv for more information.

The bus and train station in Bansko are at the edge of town. Taxi fares in Bansko are triple what you’ll pay elsewhere in Bulgaria. Expect to pay between 10-15 lev to get from the station to your hotel.

 

Accommodation

A monthly or longer rental in Bansko is incredibly cheap. A 2 bedroom furnished apartment less than 500m to the gondola will cost less than 150 euros per month. A 3 bedroom furnished apart costs between 200-250 euros per month, depending on the standards.  

If you are prepared to be over 1km away from the gondola you can get even cheaper rates.

We used to dream that we might rent a ski holiday villa in France or Canada but we’ve shelfed that idea. Who would pay $3000 a week (or more!) when you can pay $250. And I don’t even want to know how much a monthly apartment rental in Canada or France costs but I’m sure there are more zeros there than I’d like to see … I’ll stick with my figures for Bansko thanks.

Bansko red run

Finding Accommodation

Bansko has an overabundance of rentals. We were there in mid-January, even during holidays, and there were plenty of vacancies. Hotels tend to fill up on weekends, but apartments are plentiful. 

Our advice – book something for a few nights for when you first arrive and start looking around once you are there. We saw a number of letting agencies in town, but we also found plenty of apartments by just speaking with complex managers, foreigners working as instructors and locals. It should only take you a day or two to find the right place.

Ongoing Costs

Some apartment rentals include the cost of electricity and water in their rental prices. Some of course don’t. So just in case:

Electricity: 250 lev per month. If you run the heating all the time, leave the water heater constantly on or strike a horribly cold winter, electricity may be up to 500 lev per month.

Water: 10-20 lev per month.

Phone with data/internet: A basic phone plan costs 20-30 lev per month, and you can pay an additonal 5 lev per month to have unlimited internet.

 

 

Seaonal Skiing costs

Lift Passes

Lift passes is what makes Bansko more expensive than other resorts in the area if you are just there for a few days. And certainly, they’re going to be one of your biggest set up costs.

In 2011-2012, a season’s lift pass cost 980 lev (490 euros) for adults and 640 lev (320 euros) for children.

For current prices, check out the Bansko Ski website

Lifts and runs

Bansko has a gondola, 14 lifts and 18 runs. The mountain is pretty steep and really suited best to intermediate skiers and snowboarders – anyone who can handle challenging blue and red runs. But there are definitely some great sections for beginners and advanced. Check this site for a map.

You’ll see on the map that everything is graded either blue or red. The grading of the runs is a little different here to other resorts we’ve seen. A blue run at Bansko can either be a long green run with just a small section that’s really a blue, or a blue run with one slope that probably should be classified as a red. Red runs are either true reds or cleverly disguised blacks trying to trick you into giving them a go. Ask around and you’ll soon figure it out.

In comparison to a North American ski resort, the number of runs and variety of runs has a bit to be desired … but you are also paying a fraction of the cost. The amount of snow is fantastic, the runs that are there are great and there are some fabulous tree runs. There are also 160 snow making canons if the season isn’t great.

Bansko

Equipment hire

Daily equipment hire prices range from 10 – 40 lev for skis/poles/boots depending on the company and the quality of the gear. Prices drop the longer you rent them for of course, with most of the companies offering great deals for two week hires. For a season … shop around and you’ll get a bargain.

We had no problem finding equipment for our 4 year old. Most places had ski equipment for kids as young as two.

Of course buying your own gear in the long run is probably the cheapest option. Equipment in Sofia was very reasonably priced.

Most places did not offer the hire of ski clothes and gloves, particularly for kids. Buying ski clothes/gloves up the mountain is more expensive than in Sofia, as you would expect. We purchased ski pants, jackets and gloves for the kids in Sofia. Prices were quite reasonable – 60 euros per child for pants, jacket and gloves from InterSport, a chain company you’ll find throughout Europe. 

Instruction and group lessons

The cheapest option we saw was through ULEN. They run group lessons for children for as little as 30 lev (15 euros) for two hours or 50 lev (25 euros) for 4 hours. Classes can be large and are only for children over 7, although they were willing to let Noah at 6.5 years join the class. From what we saw I probably wouldn’t recommend these classes for beginners. They are really best for kids that can get on and off a lift without much help and can manage a green run.

I had lessons through Pirin 2000 ski school. The instructors were all fabulous and all seemed to be locals that had lived at Bansko their whole life so they really knew the mountain. The cost was 55 lev for a two hour group lesson or 85 lev for four hours. I had 6 hours of lessons and an instructor to myself each time even though I paid group prices. 

The children had lessons through Method Snow School. Their prices were a lot more expensive but we spent a lot of time checking out different schools in Bansko and the instructors at Method seemed to not only be the best, but also great with kids and native English speakers. If Method’s prices are a bit too expensive for you, the instructors at Pirin also seemed to be excellent with young children. 

Tip: if you are looking for lessons for your kids, hang out by the nursery slopes watching the classes until you see someone who would suit your children. Otherwise head to Harry’s Bar under Kandahar Apartments where many of the instructors spend time after work and ask around to find someone who is great with kids. 

Childcare and Kindergarten

Many of the large hotels and apartment complexes offer childminding facilities. Blue Kangaroo looked excellent – their staff spoke a wide range of languages, including English and Russian. The facility is more suited to younger children though – over 5 year olds would probably be quite bored. But for babies and toddlers it was great.

We used Ulen’s Ski Kindergaren at the top gondola station up the mountain. The prices were the cheapest and being up the mountain it was easy to check in on the kids or take them out for lessons to play with us. For 60 lev per day (150 lev for three days) the price included lunch, gondola passes (you bring them up the mountain and back down though), and supervised skiing/snow play time on the nursery slope (equipment included, no need to hire). I’m sure if you were there for longer you could get a better rate.

Personally we liked the option of having them in the Ski Kindergarten up the mountain better than having them all the way down the mountain – it meant we could put them in the kindergarten for a few hours while we skied then take them out with us on the mountain in the afternoon. We could say hi as we skied past and stop to play for ten minutes before skiing off again. A great mix of ‘us’ time and ‘family’ time. 

Food

Eating out

Considering Bansko is a ski resort town, eating out was quite reasonable. You pay 20% more for a meal than you would elsewhere in Bulgaria but it’s a ski resort!

For a family of four, expect to pay between 25-35 euros for a nice meal with a couple of drinks. 

Up the mountain food and drinks are obviously more expensive. A coke or coffee will cost 2 euros. A giant slice of pizza or hot dog – 3 euros.

Grocery Shopping

Supermarket prices varied greatly. It’s definitely worth shopping around. Many of the mini markets were ridiculously over priced with items costing three times what they would in Sofia. But the main supermarket and several of the mini-markets were quite reasonable – 10-20% more expensive for items than you would pay in Sofia.

For a family, expect to pay 200 lev per week for groceries.

And there you have it … a ‘budget’ ski season

OK so spending a season at Bansko isn’t going to be the cheapest part of your long term travels. But if you’ve always dreamed of spending three months skiing as a family … this is probably one of your best options! And it’s like comparing Costa Rica holidays to a holiday in Asia – it’s certainly not as cheap as sitting on the beach in Thailand, but it’s a fraction of the cost of ski season at a US ski resort.

So who’s joining us next year?

 

 

NOTE: All of the Bansko accommodation, hire companies and schools that we have mentioned in this article are our own opinion. We weren’t provided with any discounts or incentives to review them. We were also in Bansko for a holiday and just started researching moving there. So we don’t have all the answers like what are the schools like (I know there are several public schools though), what about visas and the cost of buying applicances.