Your Transfer Driver – The Unsung Hero of the Alps

Posted Sunday, 28th Feb 2016 by Tim Savage • Business Thinking

Your Transfer Driver is truly the unsung hero of the Alps and here’s why.

I get it – I really do as a Transfer Driver myself.

You’ve got up at 3am on a Saturday morning, woken up your children, dragged them kicking and screaming to your car or taxi, got to the airport, coped with all the chaos that air travel throws at you these days and you’ve landed at Geneva Airport. You’ve waited an age for your large ski bags to come through and finally got through to the arrivals hall, where it looks as though all the world has arrived at once. You struggle to the transfer desk, bark out your name to the person behind it and assume that you’ll be on your way shortly.

Well, it turns out that when you booked your transfer, you wouldn’t stump up to pay for a private transfer, which would have guaranteed that you’d be on your way straight away. You decided to pay for a shared transfer that was cheaper, or even an economy-shared transfer that was even cheaper still. I understand – skiing holidays are expensive and you thought that you’d save a bit by opting for the shared transfer option. The trouble is, you didn’t read the Ts and Cs (I mean who does right?) and you’ve now got to wait for up to an hour for the other people sharing your minibus to land and come through.

You go back to your partner who’s struggling not to publicly beat your two children, who are by this time hungry, tired and behaving in a manner that so endears them to all your fellow passengers. They’re really hoping that they’re not sharing your van by now!

Suddenly, you get the first bit of good news of the day. Your fellow transfer passengers have also arrived at the transfer desk and you’re introduced to your transfer driver by the company rep. They smile widely, say hello and introduce themselves. They even say hello to your two children who are now acting as though they should all be called Damian, and offer to help you with your bags to the minibus. They make polite conversation with you or your children answering all questions with a smile.

There are only two questions asked – How long will the transfer take and what is the snow like up there? It’s two months into the season and you’re the seventy fifth transfer they’ve done so far!

You don’t care though and we all get that. It’s all about you and our job is to get you safely up the mountain and to your accommodation so that you can start to enjoy your holiday. We get you to the minibus, and load up your luggage in the right order so that the multiple drop offs can be done smoothly without unpacking everything to get to the one bag at the bottom. We organise and sort out child seats, baby seats, arguments over who’s sitting where and who’s sitting in the front. We ensure that everyone is briefed on the wearing of seatbelts, what do you if they feel sick at any time and finally get into the driver’s seat. We smile again, remind everyone that you will stop if anyone feels sick and to use the sick bags provided in an emergency. If you’ve ever been in a minibus full of people where someone projectile vomits over two other passengers, you’ll understand every driver’s nightmare.

You set off and at this point there are a number of possible scenarios.

Scenario One – Everyone falls asleep after fifteen minutes and you wake up when you’re nearly there. In fact, you wake up to a blizzard that your driver is driving through, seemingly without any care in the world. You look out and see enough snow on the road to paralyse the UK for a week at least.   At this point you ask the transfer driver, who’s name you have forgotten so you call him “Driver”, whether you will get there ok? They respond positively and tell you that it’s just a light snow covering and that they won’t need snow chains at this point. You sit back, marvelling at how winter tyres cope with the snow, and peer out into the blizzard, thinking that this is great for the slopes.   Your transfer driver though is actually driving with gritted teeth, hoping that the vehicles in front don’t stop or they’ll probably have to pull over and put on the snow chains – a small matter of about ten minutes in the freezing cold, wet and dark whilst you sit inside with the heater on.

Miraculously, your transfer driver not only gets through the snow, but also knows where your accommodation is, (half way up a mountain on a small lane) and arrives with a smile. He unpacks your luggage, says thank you and you sometimes say thank you in return and turn gratefully to get inside where your chalet host is waiting to pander to your every need for the next week. Meanwhile, your driver gets back inside, consults the schedule again and announces the next stop.  He’s moved you and your precious family safely through driving conditions you would never attempt to your holiday destination.

You don’t tip the transfer driver.

Scenario Two – About twenty minutes into the journey, one of your children suddenly throws up everywhere with no warning. About ten seconds later your other child vomits in sympathy. The transfer driver stops the van, gets everyone out, spends 15 minutes clearing up the mess whilst you deal with the children and apologises to the other passengers who really don’t want to get back in the van – no matter how much deodorant has been sprayed inside…

The journey continues in embarrassing silence and fortunately you are the first ones out. You get to your accommodation, hurry out of the minibus, mumble an apology (maybe) and get inside as quickly as possible.

You don’t tip the transfer driver.

Scenario Three

See Scenario Two, except delete vomit and insert urine as one of your darlings has wet themselves and the van seat.

You don’t tip the transfer driver.

I could go on – there are dozens of scenarios from stopping helpfully at a supermarket, stopping at a bakery to get a much needed snack, stopping for the loo, stopping to be sick outside the minibus (a small victory for the driver). The point I’m making here is that your driver whose name you have forgotten is actually your unsung hero of your holiday.

And yet, and yet, you don’t tip the transfer driver.

I don’t get that – I really don’t!

You tip the waiters at the restaurants you eat in during your holiday.

You’ll even tip the taxi driver if you used one to take you to and from your UK airport.

You’ll tip the chalet hosts.

You’ll tip your ski guide or ski instructor.

In fact, you’ll tip just about everyone you meet this week, except your amazing, helpful, knowledgeable, understanding, patient and friendly transfer driver.

Let’s just consider their day for a minute. Whilst you were getting up at 3am, they were too.  They got up, walked ten minutes to their minibus and spent 20 minutes clearing snow and ice from it – unpaid. They don’t start getting paid until they start moving. They picked up eight people from five different locations that morning in the dark, and drove them all to the airport. The research they did the night before to make sure they knew where all the first pick-ups were is unpaid. Having dropped off their passengers, they dash around to the arrivals car park, clean out the van, mark up their time sheets and walk to the arrivals hall. It’s been 4 hours since they got up and they might, just might have time for a quick coffee and a croissant.

Meanwhile, you’ve arrived at the airport, been taken to your accommodation by this lovely transfer driver, and you’ll not worry about transfers back to Geneva until the last day of the holiday.

Your transfer driver, meanwhile, will drop off the remaining passengers, find somewhere to have a wee, grab a sandwich if they’re lucky and head off to pick up their next group of departing passengers to make their second trip down to Geneva that day. By now, the weather has closed in and the traffic is awful.  The passengers who were previously whining about their early pick up time are now panicking that they’ll miss their flights. Don’t worry though, the transfer driver knows a heap of short cuts and will get them to the airport in good time.

There, they will go through the same routine – clean the van, install in or pull out baby seats, walk to the arrivals hall where they’re hoping they might get a break before they turn around with their next set of passengers to go back up the mountain. Just think – you could be the last set of passengers that day and your flight was delayed two hours, but the driver was there, still smiling and still ready to move you safely to your holiday accommodation.

By now, your transfer driver has been working for eleven hours and has been driving for seven of those. All legal, all recorded and all above board, but laws don’t take account of driving in winter conditions in the Alps, or cleaning up vomit and urine in between journeys, or sitting in airports waiting for delayed flights or knowing where all your accommodation is located. These guys and girls are truly the unsung heroes of your holiday in the Alps.

So next time you walk away without tipping your transfer driver – remember this:

Their take home pay over the whole of the five-month season is likely to be less than the total cost of your week’s holiday. They are paying extortionate prices for rubbish, shared accommodation because that’s all they can afford and they are regularly and rightly randomly alcohol tested so that you can be sure that your driver is safe and will look after the three generations of your family in their van.

They range in age from 23 to 60. All have at least two years driving experience of vans or lorries; many hold full D1 driving licences and CPC cards. They are qualified professional drivers, not just a bunch of bums driving minibuses – even if some of them might look a little scruffy. Bear with them, their accommodation doesn’t have a washing machine and they have to do all their washing on one of their days off at the local launderette (So much for skiing every day off eh!).

None are doing it because they love driving. All of them are doing it because they love skiing or boarding or love living in the Alps. They work hard – bloody hard and, when appropriate, they play hard too. So next time you get out of your minibus, take moment thank them for getting you to your accommodation safely. Thank them for their patience. Apologise if one of your darlings has made a mess and perhaps, just perhaps, think about tipping them so they can enjoy a drink on you later that week.

These guys and girls are amazing people – many with extraordinary life stories and tales of fun. Talk to them, remember their name and look them in the eye when you arrive and thank your lucky stars that these guys exist – because if they didn’t, you’d be paying four hundred euros to a Swiss taxi driver to take you up the mountain and they won’t stray off the main roads to get you to your accommodation if there is snow on the roads. It’s a drop off in the centre of town and then you’ll have to make your own way at midnight to your accommodation two kilometres away. I’m not even sure how you would do this.

Oh and one final thought – if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like waiting and gets antsy with people when you have to – even though it’s your own fault for not checking the terms of your shared transfer – next time you come skiing, book a private transfer for a little more money and spare us all your whining. There’s nothing worse than a well-off person whining when they’ve realised that in trying to save a few quid, they’re now going to have to share a van with someone they don’t even know… Don’t worry though, your driver will still smile and be helpful and the people you’re sharing with are probably really nice folks.

Oh and one final thanks too – to those few folks who do tip your transfer driver. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We really appreciate it!

Tim Savage

(Tim was a transfer driver in Morzine this season and this article represents a personal view and story!)


14 Responses to Your Transfer Driver – The Unsung Hero of the Alps

  1. AlpineDriver says:

    What an excellent article and so very true..

    This is my 22nd year as a transfer driver in the Alps and I loved it!

    When I started we earned a living wage, “and some” 😎, what we earn now is criminal.

    You, as guests, pay Bugger all for your flight when booked early enough. Don’t be “Cheap Skates” with your transfer!!!

    And bloody tip your driver!

    • Tim Savage says:

      Thanks for your kind comments! Transfer drivers and seasonnaires as a whole are very poorly paid. You cannot live on these wages – you survive the season to try and get as much skiing in as possible. The drive for ever cheaper holidays has a big effect on wages across the whole of the travel industry. But who cares? It’s my right to have a cheap holiday abroad isn’t it?

  2. Tenfootpowder says:

    From an ex Driver.

    Brilliant article I felt like one of those nodding dog things on dash boards reading that, very funny and very true.

    The number of times I wanted to laminate up an FAQ’s with and finally any questions not aswared above, please feel free to ask your driver who is called JOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNN !. Oh and a small pourboire should you feel so inclined wouldn’t be unappreaciated.

    You forgot to say the swiss taxi driver needs a mate to come with his taxi along to take your gear up the hill, so thats another 400 swiss. EACH WAY !

    And to all the parents of Rupert Farquart-Montagu-Numbknutes, if you child suffers from travel sickness as you so vehemently insisted that you made me aware, don’t give me the stink-eye when I suggest politely that maybe the spawn of your loins shouldn’t be on his f******king gameboy/ipad/thingy coming down from Avoriaz.

    After 8 years of driving without a single accident, missed flight or vomit inducing incident I have moved to less mobile and distictly more tipping climes.

    • Tim Savage says:

      I actually only had one minor vomit incident with a baby which was easy to clear up – still got no tip mind! My blog though contains many true incidents from my fellow drivers. I also told children and parents of children to not use IPads when travelling from Avoriaz and down to Taninge. One sure way to induce car sickness – keep looking down and reading something! Thanks for your kind comments!

  3. The Hamster says:

    What a great article. I can feel it was written by somebody who actually did it, and went through all the situations described.

    By far, my favorite type of customers, is when they ignore you the whole way, get antsy when they see traffic’s slow and comment on your choice of route/lanes, leave a complete mess in your van (so you have to spend your lunch time to clean it up), do not tip you (of course!) and do not even say goodbye! Who does this??? What sane person does not have the common sense to say goodbye?

    Meanwhile, what do you do, as a professional? Smile and wave!

    • Tim Savage says:

      I agree. Some people leave all their manners at home – if they ever had any in the first place! Thanks for commenting!

  4. Tricky says:

    I was a driver and manager of Swiss and French alpine transfer companies for three years (winter and summer).

    Great article, I agree with most of what you said. As an insider, I think the only problem with transfer drivers is the way they complain about not getting tips. Or they way they EXPECT tips. It would make me cringe to hear other drivers speak this way. It’s shameful.
    If they didn’t get a tip, it’s probably cause they didn’t deserve one. The way you paint the drivers in this article is rose-tinted, friend.

    I certainly didn’t smile at every single passenger that threw up. Far from it.

    My point is exemplified in this article that describes, almost poetically; the plight and struggles of the humble transfer driver, and then uses it as a way to impart feelings of entitlement to more tips. Sounds greedy to me. This effort you’ve gone to to write an article is to psychologically shake more tips out of passengers. That’s not what I call customer service. Just because you’re not speaking directly to them doesn’t mean you can forget etiquette.

    My point is, don’t expect the customer to give you extra money on top of what’s already a large expenditure because your job is stressful. Look elsewhere for your extra money, or suck it up.

    I was always delighted and surprised to get a tip, and when I felt the squeeze, I’d work my ass off to give the best service possible and maximise the chance of tips.

    Good point about all the unpaid hours though. It was always a struggle to stay on top of all the route-planning and accounting, and yeah, wages could definitely be a bit higher in France.

    You want a tip? Here…
    If you want to get paid well, work in Switzerland. You can make enough in one season to live the rest of the year in France without working.

    • Tim Savage says:

      Hi Ben, I agree. I never expected tips but when you go out of your way to help someone, sometimes even a simple thanks would be nice. I’m not a great fan of tips actually – if people were properly paid, we wouldn’t need to tip them all the time. Exceptional service though does, in my book, deserve a small thanks. I tip regularly when I get great service and I don’t mind doing so. I don’t like feeling forced to tip when the service has just been ok. Oh and i wouldn’t ever say that a transfer is a large expenditure! Compared to the rest of the holiday, a transfer is peanuts. How some companies stay in business with the prices they charge is beyond me. Oh no, I remember now – it’s the rubbish wages they pay!

    • John Jackson says:

      Hi Tricky
      Would like to know more about transfer work in Switzerland. I’m a 52 year old hgv driver and life long skier. Would like to do a few seasons before I get too old but am not prepared to work for peanuts.
      Would be interested in your experiences.

      • Tim Savage says:

        Hi John,

        You can’t talk to Tricky via this site but I am happy to pass on your email address to him if you’d like me to and a copy of your question? From my perspective, I can only talk about working in France. Let’s be honest though, transfer driving, wherever you work is never going to make you rich! It’s about location and opportunity really. Let me know if you want me to pass on your request to Tricky

  5. Richard says:

    Just registered for 2018/19 season as this is DEFINITELY my last year of teaching in the UK. Spain house bought for Summer Hiking in Sierra Nevada and Alps for Winter – 13 Months and counting !!!

  6. Rita Betteridge says:

    Blimey that was son us a transfer driver out of Bourg. I honestly didn’t realise that it was that bad. Like you he lives the alps and has sort if “emigrated” but us loving the life generally. The trips to Geneva can be tortuous and the “punters” just don’t know the half of it. Good luck to you, season soon over now. You have my utmost respect.
    A 72yr old mum.

    • Tim Savage says:

      Hi Rita, thanks for your comments. It’s bloody hard work, but you do meet some lovely people too and your fellow drivers are amazing! You see the best and the worst of human nature at 3am!

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