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Europe in the Winter Off-Season: Where and Why You Should Go

SmarterTravel

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Ah, the first-timers trip to Rome; early July and temperatures hovering in the high 80s. Each day spent jostling with crowds of fellow tourists at the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica make the city feel even hotter. After a few years of European summer vacations under our belt, we’ve learned the joys of traveling to Europe during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall), which come with shorter lines and milder temperatures—and on a recent visit, we discovered that winter (Europe’s off-season) might just be the best time of all.

Why Visit Europe in the Winter Off-Season?

At first, the thought of visiting Europe in winter might not sound so enticing: You’ll find chilly temperatures, fewer hours of daylight, and many attractions closed for the season. (You’ll also probably want to buy travel insurance in case you encounter snow- or ice-related airport delays.) But there are some major advantages to visiting Europe in winter that could make up for these drawbacks.

1. Smaller Crowds

The time of year you travel can mean the difference between standing in a two-hour line and having an incredible historical monument nearly to yourself. While many European cities are popular year-round, traveling during the winter will help you avoid the worst of the crowds, which can reach truly epic proportions in July and August.

2. Lower Fares (and Less Crowded Planes)

On a recent flight to Barcelona in December, one SmarterTravel editor found herself in a row of four seats alone with her travel partner. And while we can’t guarantee such good luck on every winter flight, the odds are better than they are during the summer high season.

The lower demand for winter flights to Europe means not only a chance of an undersold plane but also lower fares. According to Co-Founder and Chief Flight Expert Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights: “The difference between dead-of-winter fares and peak-summer fares isn’t a few bucks; it’s the difference between a hamburger and filet mignon. Whereas flights in January or February to Europe regularly drop as low as $250 roundtrip out of major U.S. airports, July and August flights are normally well over $1,000, especially if you didn’t book months in advance. I would expect summer fares to be priced at least 300 percent higher than the best winter fares, depending on routing and how far in advance you book.”

Airfare analyst Peter Thornton of SmarterTravel’s sister site, Airfarewatchdog, says: “Flights will be cheapest to destinations where there is competition from budget carriers like Norwegian and Level. Places like Madrid, Barcelona, London, Paris, and Amsterdam.” Thornton also advises that while percentage differences vary by route, flash sales during the winter off-season can be more than 50 percent cheaper than many routes in the summer. Other cities in Europe in winter that will have cheaper airfare include those that are major hub cities for airline alliances, like Frankfurt, Munich, Helsinki, Zurich, as well as the cities already mentioned.

3. Lower Hotel Rates

Flights aside, you’ll also save money on winter hotels in Europe—and likely have more choice. The most popular spots to stay (including both hotels and vacation rentals) tend to sell out early over the summer months, but in the winter you’ll have more options at better prices. Winter is also an ideal time to do a home exchange and save even more on accommodations (read more about that process, here).

4. Mild Weather

This one varies depending on where you go, of course; if you’re looking for temperate climates, you’ll want to avoid cities such as Oslo (where the average winter temperature is 33 degrees Fahrenheit) or Moscow (a brisk 25 degrees). But you might be surprised by how pleasant it is to take a winter wander through cities like Barcelona, Athens, or Lisbon, where average winter temperatures are in the high 50s. Pack a light jacket and enjoy not having to sweat through your entire European vacation. Read more about what to pack for Europe here.

Where to Go in Europe in Winter

Depending on what you’re looking to do in Europe in the off-season, you’ll want to decide on a general area of the continent. For those looking to see the northern lights or ski, Scandanavia or the Alps would be the place to go; for milder temperatures head to southern Europe or the United Kingdom. You can’t really go wrong, but here are standout destinations for Europe in the winter off-season.

Best Places to Visit in Europe in December

Visit Europe in December for Christmas markets, shopping, festivals, and holiday cheer. Here are our top two destination picks if you’re looking to visit Europe in December; a river cruise is a great way to see multiple destinations at once.

Germany

Come for the Christmas markets, stay for the mulled wine and schnitzel. Vacations By Rail offers a tour that visits three cities and their Christmas markets, with prices starting at $625.

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The United Kingdom

Nothing beats holiday shopping in London or head to the cozy Cotswolds if you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of a city.

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Best Places to Visit in Europe in January

Once the holiday crowds leave and cooler temperatures kick in, January is an ideal time to visit Europe cheaply and without the crowds. Visit Europe in January for epic skiing conditions and Nordic winter traditions.

Austria

From attending the opera in Vienna to waking up to a view of the Eastern Alps in Salzburg, Austria is equally as beautiful with a dusting of snow as it is in the summer.

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Sweden

Embrace the outdoors in the Swedish Lapland or explore historic Stockholm with a January trip to Sweden.

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Best Places to Visit in Europe in February

Visit Europe in February for a cozy romantic getaway or for one of the best chances to see the northern lights.

Iceland

You’ll have one of the best chances to see the northern lights in February with a trip to Iceland. Plus, it’s one of the more less expensive times to visit.

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Paris, France

Wander the streets of Montmartre or visit Versailles sans crowds with a trip to Paris in the off-season.

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What to Do in Europe in Winter

Every European destination has something that makes it stand out in winter, but here are two things you can only do in Europe in the off-season.

Northern Lights

Take advantage of those long winter nights by seeing one of the world’s most remarkable natural phenomena: the northern lights. You can check this off your bucket list in the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. One cool option: At Kakslauttanen, an Arctic resort in Finnish Lapland, you can sleep in a glass igloo and watch for the aurora borealis without even getting out of bed!

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More easily accessible spots for northern lights viewing include Iceland and Scotland. (Icelandair offers free stopovers in Reykjavik if you want to combine a trip to Iceland with a visit to the continent.) Wherever you go, choose a clear night and venture outside the main cities to seek dark skies in remote areas.

Christmas Markets and Holiday Cheer

We’re cheating a little bit with this one, as the weeks leading up to Christmas are technically still part of autumn. But you’ll feel the winter spirit as you sip warm spiced wine, munch on gingerbread, and browse handcrafted holiday ornaments at Christmas markets across the continent. The most traditional markets are located in Germany, Austria, and parts of Italy and France. (Here are a few of our favorite European Christmas markets.) And of course, you can’t beat the holiday shopping and spirit in England.

Aside from the markets, many cities are at their most charming in December, with white lights twinkling from every lamppost and enchanting holiday displays in every shop window.

You Tell Us: Have you ever visited Europe in winter? Share your experience in the comments.

What to Wear in Europe in Winter

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Editor’s note: Sarah Schlichter and Ashley Rossi contributed to this article. This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. 

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