On the west coast of Scotland at the end of January, I never saw another guest at my lovely and inexpensive B&B. The proprietress chatted with my friend and me as she brought us huge, hearty breakfasts, and provided us with the biggest bag lunches I’d ever seen the morning we had to skip breakfast to take an early ferry. In Amsterdam, just after New Year’s, I had the Anne Frank House almost totally to myself and found that a glass-topped boat ride was the best way to ride out a snowy day. In Spain in March, the weather was so warm I left my coat and sweater behind and considered purchasing a pair of shorts.
Most travelers visit Europe in the summer high season, either because they’re seeking sunny weather or it’s the only time they can get away from the office. If you go to the Continent between Memorial Day and Labor Day, however, you’re also bound to find high prices, sold-out hotels and tours, enormous crowds, and long lines. It’s enough to try anyone’s patience, tourist and local alike.
But if you travel during the off season—which runs roughly from fall through mid-spring, depending on the country—you’ll find reduced rates, smaller crowds, and an authentic European experience. You may have to suffer through some cold weather or rainy days, and plan your schedule around attractions that may be closed for the winter. But that’s an easy trade-off for an affordable and memorable European vacation.
The benefits of traveling off peak
The first reason to travel to Europe in the off season is price. Because demand is lower, airlines and hotels slash rates to lure travelers. When Associate Editor Molly Feltner traveled to London and Belgium over Thanksgiving weekend, she waited until the last minute and still booked a nonstop Boston-to-London flight for $300 on Virgin Atlantic. And, she found a room in a pension in London for $50 a night, including breakfast. The same trip in the summer could easily have cost her two to three times as much.
A corollary to low prices is high availability. In the off season, you don’t have to plan so far in advance to find a seat on an airplane or a room in a hotel. When Managing Editor Josh Roberts booked his off-peak Ireland trip, he didn’t have to call days or weeks ahead of time to secure a room in the B&Bs in which he hoped to stay. Instead, he just arrived in town and drove to the B&B to request a room. He was never turned away. If you like to plan in advance, off-season travel allows you to book your first-choice accommodations more often than not. If you’re impulsive, travel at this time lets you plan your itinerary from one day to the next without leaving you worried you won’t find a place to stay.
Another major benefit of off-peak travel is the lack of crowds and long lines. You can walk right in to major attractions, rather than spending your vacation in slow-moving lines that creep around the sides of famous cathedrals and museums. And while Rome, Paris, and other major cities will never be ghost towns, you won’t have to fight your way past hoards of tourists to see the city. Smaller cities can be almost magical without tourists. Feltner had such an experience in Bruges, a well-preserved medieval city in Belgium. “When I was there, there were almost no tourists,” she says. “It was like stepping back in time, and it was so atmospheric. I got the full medieval storybook experience.”
You may also find that when the tourists disappear, the locals come out. Traveler Zoe Hawes of Alexandria, Virginia, says “in the off season, local folks are much more accommodating. In August, they’re fed up with tourists; they’re snippy and don’t want to help you. But in November, the doors are wide open.” When she traveled to Eastern Europe around Thanksgiving, she found locals would walk her from place to place, rather than just giving directions, and she’d get many more recommendations for places to eat and things to do than when she traveled in the summer.
Contributing Editor Christine Sarkis sums up why off-peak travel in Europe makes a difference to your vacation experience. “I want to feel like I’m connecting to places,” she says. “When I’m one in 10,000 people in a piazza, there’s nothing distinguishing my experience. I have to search harder for spontaneity.” But you won’t have to search hard for an authentic Europe experience if you travel in the off season.
A few downsides to off-peak travel
Of course, there’s a good reason why the off season is considered “off.” Winter weather in Europe can be cold, rainy, or snowy, so if your reason for vacationing is to find some sun and warmth, you probably won’t find it in the low season. Sarkis found this out the hard way when she got pelted by hail on an attempt at a country walk in wintry Wales and looked in vain for a warm beach in southern Spain in April. While not all European destinations get deluged with snow, beach destinations along the Mediterranean still experience cold weather when the days get shorter. Then again, you might get lucky and arrive during an unusually hot week.
The other downside to travel at this time is seasonal closures. Some lodgings, especially in smaller towns or remote areas, close during the low season, and attractions can have limited open hours. But, as long as you check this information in advance and plan accordingly, you can still have a very full schedule of activities. In fact, Feltner and others reported being able to accomplish more than they’d planned because getting around was so easy and there were no lines to hold them up.
Tips for seasonal Europe travel
As you decide when and where you want to plan your next European holiday, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Know when to go: SmarterTravel.com’s Travel Guides provide useful “when to go” information for all European countries. As you’re planning your trip, you can check the guides to find out what on- and off-season crowds, weather, and prices will be like. This information will allow you to pick the perfect travel dates for your preferences.
- Have realistic expectations: A guidebook and the Web can be invaluable tools in helping you plan a realistic itinerary based on the season in which you hope to travel. You should always check the average weather for your destination and know when attractions are going to be open. Guidebooks and travel websites can also give helpful tips about avoiding lines or which regions offer a full plate of activities in the low season. It’s also helpful to check for local festivals, which can turn a seemingly low-season weekend into a mini high season.
- Be flexible: You’ll get the most enjoyment out of your vacation if you can be flexible with your schedule. Sometimes you have to miss out on an activity because the weather isn’t right or the attraction is closed for the season. The more easygoing you can be about what you do each day, the more you’ll enjoy your trip. Plus, sometimes being forced to choose a lesser known destination or attraction can yield the best finds or most authentic moments of your entire trip.
- Travel just before the high-season changeover: If you want low-season rates and crowds but high-season weather, travel a week or two before the high season begins. Every European city will have a slightly different high season, but if you take a look at when hotels or tour packagers increase prices or when attractions lengthen their hours, you can easily deduce when the high season begins for your destination. Often, the last weeks of shoulder season in the late spring have delightful weather but fewer crowds and lower prices.
- Choose less popular places for high-season travel: Sometimes high season is the only time you have for a vacation. If you want to avoid the crowds and price gouges, head for smaller towns and out-of-the-way locales. You won’t get to see the big-name attractions, but you’ll have a unique vacation experience. You won’t spend your entire trip waiting in line, either.
Many travelers, including several members of the SmarterTravel.com editorial staff, vow only to visit Europe in the low season. They’re willing to trade perfect weather for an inexpensive, uncrowded, and authentic vacation. If you are, too, you’ll find that a low-season trip to Europe can be the highlight of all of your travels.