Travel Pioneer: Meet Erna Low, The Mother of The European Ski Trip
Long before après ski gatherings, chairlifts, and snow trains, it was a young Austrian woman who forged the first path to mass-market package ski holidays.
In 1933, Viennese student Erna Low went to England to study for a doctoral thesis on the Victorian poet Lord De Tabley.
Back in Austria, she had been a javelin champion and played handball. But while studying in London, Low traced the grandchildren of the poet De Tabley and befriended them. She even spent some time staying at their family home in Cheshire.
When Low wanted to take a trip back to Austria to see her family but couldn’t afford it, she had the bright idea of placing an advert in London's The Morning Post for would-be travelers to join her on the trip and defray her costs.
It looked a lot like this one, which the Erna Low company still has in its archive:
She'd charge £15 per person and serve as their guide, and the money she made enabled her to visit her family on the same trip.
For the £15, travelers got rail tickets, a hotel, and the leadership of Low herself, a Viennese native who knew the country like her own face—a pretty good deal for the early 1930s.
Back then, package holidays weren’t yet widely available. Thomas Cook's company had organised a few tours abroad from Britain by this point, but skiing trips were not on the menu.
Low, who loved to ski, was aware that this kind of trip didn’t exist for mass tourism, so she decided she would be the one to create it.
Erna Low turned her idea into a thriving travel business, and she conducted trips to Austria until the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
But it wasn’t easy. Specially designed ski clothes weren't sold in shops back then either, and ski lifts were still rare.
On Erna's early trips, Horses were loaded up to carry skis uphill. And there were no ski boots, either, only leather lace-up boots that had to be strapped to wooden skis. Still, that first trip to Austria, on which five men accompanied Low (plus a chaperone for respectability), was a great success.
During the Second World War, when recreational travel to Europe became impossible, Low turned her attention to offering house parties in the United Kingdom. She would rent large country homes and throw parties for paying guests.
When she returned to the slopes after the war, Low took that idea forward, too, and swapped country houses for mountain chalets. Although the communal style of chalet trips are synonymous with ski vacations today, they were unheard of before she popularized them.
Before Low’s influence, ski holidays had only been available to wealthy travelers.
Hotels were expensive, no matter how much Low tried to keep costs down. But chalet trips opened up the world of the ski holiday to people who could never afford it before, particularly for the European vacation market.
When the proliferation of charter flights increased costs, Low advised her clients to travel in their ski clothes to save on baggage expenses, a tip that budget skiers still use today.
Until the mid 1950s, Low would accompany each group that bought her vacations. But by then, she was organizing so many that she realized it was time to step back and take on a managerial role.
Erna Low passed away in 2002 at the age of 92, but her company lives on. Now headquartered outside Manchester, England, the company became part of the NUCO Group in 2019. It still serves a largely British market and organizes vacations for a range of budgets, from £23 a night at the low end to fully customized 5-star packages, land-only to air-inclusive.
In 2022, the company that bears her name arranged trips for over 14,000 people. How many of them knew the backstory of the enterprising woman who forged a new path in winter vacations nearly a century ago?