I'm an avid outdoorsman who loves hiking, biking, snowboarding, and amateur science.
The Problem With Bansko, Bulgaria
In recent years, Bansko has seen a surge in popularity, and for good reason. If you want a low-cost alternative to skiing or snowboarding in the Alps, then Bulgaria is a great option. Bansko has now established itself as the top resort in Bulgaria. With a good variety of runs and some excellent on-piste facilities, Bansko really does have a lot to offer. However, the surge in popularity and increased visitors has put a real strain on the infrastructure on the slopes. The biggest issue is without a doubt the gondola.
When doing any research on Bansko you will quickly find lots of posts about the gondola queues. Sadly they are notorious in Bansko, and it's the major drawback of what otherwise would be an excellent little resort. We visited in late February of 2018, so I wanted to share some tips with you on how to beat the crowds and get up the mountain quickly.
Just how bad is the gondola queue? Well, when arriving at the gondola at 9 am we queued for an hour and a half. When arriving there at 10 am it was about the same. One morning we actually ended up queueing for almost two hours! It really is a big problem. So how do you beat the crowds?
Getting the Time Right
The gondola generally opens at 8:30 am during the winter ski season. So if you're an early riser, one of the best options is to get there nice and early and beat the crowds. People we talked to said if you get there around 8 am, the queue is not too bad. Obviously, you will have at least a 30-minute wait, but it shouldn't be too much longer than that. However, the queue does build up very fast and if you arrive at opening time, the queue is likely to be well over an hour during busy times of the year.
When we visited Bansko, we were staying in a small Boutique hotel around a mile from the gondola. The earliest shuttle was at 9 am, so this meant starting early was not an option. When arriving anytime between 9 am and 10:30 am we found a simply massive queue. Waiting for 90 minutes in -10 degree temperatures is no fun. So after three days of queueing, we decided on a different approach. We had a lazy morning and arrived at the gondola at 11:15 am. To our surprise the queue was tiny. It only took around 15 minutes to get on, and by the time we were up the mountain it wasn't that much later than on previous days.
Now I understand arriving on the slopes at midday is not some people's idea of a good day out on the hill. To be fair I felt a little cheated that if we didn't want to queue for hours this seemed like our only alternative. However, there are other ways.
The VIP Fast Lane
One of the most frustrating things as you move into the building and climb the steps for the gondola is the fast-track VIP lane on the left. People just wander up there and push past everyone onto the gondola. This makes the wait longer and is very frustrating to watch.
So how do you get yourself on this VIP list? Well, it's not easy, you have to book into one of the exclusive 5-star hotels in the resorts such as the Kempinski Grand Arena or the Hotel Premier. These hotels offer the VIP passes but they are pricey. There were rumours you could purchase the VIP passes separately without staying at the hotel but we didn't find any way of doing this. So unless you're feeling rather well off the VIP lane may not be an option.
Have You Been To Bansko?
Alternatives to the Gondola
Although the gondola is obviously the main way up the mountain, there are other ways of getting up there.
One way is the bus service. There is a small bus station opposite the Happy Ending Bar where the gondola is. You will notice queues forming here and if you keep an eye on the area little shuttle buses do turn up every now and again. I kept my eye on the queue and people still seemed to be waiting there for a while but it did seem that it was a quicker alternative than the gondola queue. Bansko have apparently been trying to put more buses on for 2019 but as this increases in popularity so do the queues for the buses.
Another way is private shuttles. While we were waiting in the queue there were men offering lifts up in their shuttle buses. They were charging 10BGN per person and were only willing to make the journey if they got a van full. One man wanted eight passengers to fill his van, but some people did leave the queue and take him up on it.
The only downside with either the buses or the shuttles is that it's an added expense when you've already paid for your gondola ticket. Given the prospect of a two-hour wait, though, 10BGN does not sound like a bad option.
At certain times of year it is possible to drive up to the middle station and park up there. However, during busy periods this is not practical as it's extremely busy and there is no parking available at the top. Plus you need a car which most people won't have the option of. It costs 12 Leva to park for the day if you are lucky enough to get up there in your own car and find a parking space.
A Few More Handy Tips
Pick the right lane.
When you arrive at the gondola station you will notice there are actually two queues. One to the left which snakes round to the left of the building and one to the right which goes out across the car park. It's very tricky to work out which is the quicker, but if the queues look roughly the same then always join the right queue on the car park. Once you're inside the building the right queue moves much faster up the stairs and through the ticket gates.
Don't let people jump the queue.
One thing that is true of most resorts and was very evident in Bansko is queue jumpers. The amount of people pushing in really is frustrating. I watched a few people do it further ahead and people wait for a gap to appear or someone to turn their back and then they are in there. So keep close to the group in front and don't let people push in.
Go at the right time of year.
The time of year you visit will also have a big impact on queue times. We visited at the end of February into March. This was after school holidays but it was still very busy. We were told during the local holidays the queue is even worse. So plan ahead when booking your trip and try to avoid peak times.
Overall Bansko is a very good value ski resort. We enjoyed our week snowboarding but it was slightly ruined by the monster gondola queues. When you actually get up to the top of the gondola the actual ski lift queues are not to bad, the longest wait we ever had was around ten minutes. Hopefully, some of these tips will give you some ideas on how to beat the gondola queues and get up the mountain as quickly and as easily as possible.
© 2018 Andrew Orrell