Budget Family Ski Holiday: Bansko, Bulgaria

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Skiing is a fabulous family activity. There’s something amazing about a sport that the whole family can do together and that kids can easily keep up with adults (or overtake them thanks to lack of fear!).

The problem is one week in a ski resort in Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia or Europe can put a serious hole in your bank account.

Does anyone else find it ludicrous that lift passes for a family can actually cost more than a trip to Disneyland? I know I do. 

But here’s the good news: there are a lot of countries where you can still ski for a ‘reasonable’ price. Sure spending time in these resorts is not as cheap as chilling on the banks of the Mekong in Laos, but it’s not going to see you breaking into the kids college funds to cover your expenses.

Japan, Greece and South Korea are cheaper options, although not dirt cheap. China and India are two of the cheapest, although the facilities at their ski resorts also reflect this. The other problem is that getting to these resorts can take several days of travel and getting information on them outside of the country (or outside of the resort itself) can be difficult.

Eastern Europe is another great option. Romania, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria … just to name a few … all have ski resorts. The facilities and prices vary greatly but that just gives you the option of whether you want to do a super budget holiday or have the same facilities as a resort in Western Europe at half the price, or somewhere between the two. As opposed to resorts in China and India, it’s a lot easier to find information online about resorts in these countries.

Bansko, Bulgaria

After a lot of research and debate over budget vs facilities, we ended up choosing to go to Bansko – Bulgaria’s most developed, and therefore most expensive ski resort. Initially we planned to spend 10 days there. That was extended to 15, and even then we had to drag ourselves away.

Bansko, simply put is fabulous.

From what we’ve seen and heard, Bansko also looked like a great place to spend time in summer. Lots of hiking and lakes. For the kids the alpine woods looked like great places to play hide and seek in.

Getting there

Located at the foot of the Pirin Mountains 1000m above sea level, Bansko is 3 hours from Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, 2.5 hours from Plovdiv (Bulgaria) and Thessaloniki (Greece).

There are direct buses from the airports in Sofia and Plovdiv although expect to pay 19 euros per person, including children over 3. Alternatively there are buses from 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. Check the above link for details.

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.

For cheap flights, check out Wizz Air which flies into Sofia from a number of European capitals.

Accommodation

For shorter stays expect to pay 30-50 euros per night for a 1 bedroom apartment with a sofa bed that can sleep 4 people. 60-100 euros per night will snag you a three bedroom apartment 500m from the gondola.

Otherwise there are a huge range of hotels with spa facilities where you can rent a typical hotel room with breakfast for a reasonable rate. If you are planning to stay at one of the premier hotels, check to see if they allow you to use the ‘Season Pass’ queue for the gondola. Some of the hotels have an arrangement with the gondola staff that allows you to use a special express lane that bypasses the queue.

If you want to stay a month (or six) Bansko is incredibly cheap. A 2 bedroom apartment less than 500m to the gondola will cost less than 150 euros per month. 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 buy property in Spain, now we are thinking a Bansko chalet is a better investment. Half a year in Penang, half a year skiing!

Where we stayed:

  • 3 bedroom apartment sleeping 10 at The Monastery for 70 euros per night. Self contained with kitchen, although no washing facilities on-site or WIFI. We booked through Ski Bansko
  • 1 bedroom apartment with bunks in the living room at Kandahar apartments for 35 euros per night. We highly recommend this location – less than 100m to the gondola, the apartment was gorgeous and the manager very helpful. There’s also a great English pub downstairs, as well as Method ski school and a creche. They also have two bedroom apartments but I’m not sure of the rates.

Lift Passes

Lift passes is what makes Bansko more expensive than other resorts in the area.

Single day lift passes are 55 lev (28 euros) for adults and 38 lev (18 euros) for children. A pass to just use the gondola return is 20 lev (10 euros) for adults and 13 lev (7 euros) for children. Three day, 6 day and 9 day passes etc are available.

If you are used to lift pass prices in Europe or the USA this might sound cheap but it’s worth noting that other resorts in Bulgaria are at least half this price. For instance, at Vitosha mountain on the outskirts of Sofia a one day lift pass costs 22 lev. Of course the other resorts have a lot less runs and facilities than Bansko. And in the case of Vitosha the lifts weren’t even running this year thanks to a dispute between the company running the lifts and the government. 

Lifts and runs

Bansko has a gondola, 14 lifts and 18 runs. The mountain is really suited best to intermediate skiers and snowboarders – anyone who can handle challenging blue and red runs.

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.

For beginners there is a great nursery area with two magic carpets and two short lifts that lead to 100-500m short easy runs. The ‘ski road’, otherwise called Run 1, is an 8km green run with a 2km section that’s a bit more challenging – steeper and narrower than you’d probably expect on a green run. But it’s not too bad – beginners should be able to handle it after three days of lessons and the steep sections are broken up by regular flat spots that you can stop and prepare yourself for the next part.

There’s also a fantastic section at the middle gondola station for beginners who can handle green runs – but you need to go down the ski road to get there or take a lift in reverse from the middle gondola station as the only way to ski there from the middle station involves going down a black run.

There are also several blue runs that, while a bit challenging, are wide and don’t remain steep for long. I’m not a ‘thrill seeker’ by any imagination and managed them quite well after three days on skis. Both our 6 year old and 4 year old went down them, although the 4 year old only went with an instructor.

For advanced skiers and snowboarders the choice and variety is a bit limited. But there are some fantastic red and black runs, and being an alpine forest there’s a lot of tree run possibilities. A lot!

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.

Equipment hire

Equipment hire prices range greatly. It’s not a bad idea to arrive early and have a look around. For adults, daily hire of ski/boots/poles costs between 20 – 30 lev. Prices for children’s equipment is between 10-20 lev per day. Prices drop the longer you rent them for of course, often to half the initial price.

A helmet will cost you 40 levs for a weeks hire.

Expect to pay a bit more if you’d like to rent better equipment more suited to advanced skiers/snowboarders.

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

Who we rented through:

  • InterSport: Prices are a little higher than Ski Mania, but the staff were nice and they had some good lesson/equipment packages. They offered good rates for longer hire periods and their kids ski boots were possibly better than Ski Mania.
  • Ski Magic: Bansko Ski Magic had the best prices we saw on the mountain. 10 lev per day for children, 20 lev for adults. They also had fantastic systems in place for gear storage – drying racks, everything labelled, staff dedicated to just manage this section. Once you had your gear hired, going in each morning to pick up your gear was fast and painless. Other places we checked out put your gear back on the same shelf as all the other gear and it took a lot longer to find all the stuff each morning.
  • Ulen is another option – we didn’t rent through them but their prices are good and they are located right at the gondola. They run a kindergarten up the mountain and have a lot of kids equipment so if you have very young children and can’t find equipment to fit them elsewhere try Ulen.

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. 

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).

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.

About Bansko town

Bansko is your typical well developed ski resort town. Tonnes of accommodation, spa hotels, restaurants, corner stores and ski rental shops. There is one large supermarket, a very small shopping centre, lots of ATMs (although some seemed to have problems with UK cards. We had no issues with our Australian ones). Not all establishments accept credit card for payment. ATMs only allow 400 lev (200 euro) withdrawals at a time so expect to be visiting the ATM every second day!

Overall the town was lovely. Located at the base of the mountain, most of the streets are flat and 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.

Of course the negative of being at the base of the mountain is that everyone is using the one gondola system to reach the slopes. On weekends and around 10am most mornings queues were long. During the week, early in the morning and later in the afternoon it wasn’t too bad. Between the queue and the gondola taking 20mins to reach the top, allow at least an hour to get up the mountain each day.

Eating out

Considering iBansko 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.

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.

Overall Daily Budget

We averaged 180 euros per day when we were buying lift passes for the whole family, or 140 euros per day if we only wanted gondola passes. This inclded everything – accommodation, food, passes and gear hire.

We ate breakfast at home, took our own snacks from home up the mountain, bought drinks and a light meal like a slice of pizza while skiing and then ate an early dinner when we got down off the mountain. Cooking dinner at home and taking your own food up the mountain would save you a lot of money, but we weren’t ever organised enough to have food at home to cook dinner and buying food up the mountain gave the kids the chance to be inside out of the cold for a little while.

It’s best to pay in the local currency but most restaurants, hotels and ski hire stores will accept euros at a decent exchange rate.

Spending a week at Bansko isn’t going to be the cheapest holiday you ever take. Relaxing on the islands in Asia or cheap Menorca holidays are certainly going to be friendlier on your wallet. But in comparison to the ski holiday alternatives we think Bansko is worth it – it’s more expensive than other resorts in the area but the facilities are better and it’s still a lot cheaper than anywhere in Western Europe, Australia, NZ, Canada or the USA. A LOT CHEAPER! We’ll definitely be heading back there one winter soon.

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. 

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