I admit it: I've long been a sucker for the package ski holiday run by one of the massive tour operators. It's just easy. Everything - from flights and hotel to food and transfers - all wrapped-up into one price and taken care of by one company. What could go wrong?
Well, often not much. But having just come back from my first annual spree in the snow where I un-packaged myself and stayed at an independent chalet, I can see this was the wrong way of looking at it. Far from settling for packages just because they are easy, and accepting the (relatively long) list of irritations 'just because', I have discovered a whole new world; and I will never look back.
It was without doubt the most relaxing, pain-free and all-round enjoyable ski experience I have ever had. From the beginning I was dealing with the business owners - Mary and Jamie of Jack & Jill Holidays in Morzine, France - from the point of enquiry through to the trip itself. And this is precisely why everything was so easy. If I had a question or something I was unsure about, I got an answer from the person who actually runs the operation within a matter of hours, without any long waits on hold to call centres.
With bigger companies you simply do not get the same level of service that small independent hosts can provide. This is not necessarily a criticism of larger providers of package holidays per se, but more a statement of fact: with scale comes a different, and unavoidable, way of working.
And the most horrible part of the package holiday is eliminated by definition: transport. Previous experiences being treated like cattle were a distant memory, as you can choose to spend that little bit extra if you want all the mod cons that come with the better airlines. And, in actual fact, the choice between British Airways and easyJet, as was the toss-up in my case, was marginal - the former only £30 more expensive - and it really did make all the difference. The first stress-free getting to-and-from skiing I can remember.
But it was during our stay itself that the benefits of going direct really shone through. I have never stayed anywhere like Jack & Jill where it genuinely feels like a home-from-home, and this is undoubtedly down to the quality and passion of the hosts themselves. I have been on a number of similar holidays, but none where the hosts are also the owners of the actual business, and it is this that takes customer service and a desire to ensure the best possible experience to new levels. After all, when running a small business of just two chalets, as was the case here, return custom year-on-year must be absolutely crucial.
So what were the tangible differences and benefits when there? The best food; the cleanest and best-maintained chalet; the nicest atmosphere - hosts who actually want to get to know you, rather than just secure the biggest tip; and a number of smaller things - ski rental coming to you rather than having to head out and lug them back yourself, quicker transfers, and all-round service with a smile - that all added-up to a brilliant week.
Our parting question for Mary and Jamie is perhaps the strongest sign of all that you should consider going independent for your next trip: "when do you start taking bookings for next year?"
I have certainly never asked that question before, but will be back to Jack & Jill at the drop of a hat.