The European winter or low season generally runs from November through March, apart from a mini high season right around the Christmas and New Year holidays. You may be able to save hundreds on air fares, not to mention lower prices and more availability of accommodations during these months. Major sites of interest may have lower winter entrance fees as well, and even these small savings can add up if you enjoy visiting museums, galleries, and stately homes.
For me personally, the most important advantages of braving winter travel are the smaller crowds and shorter lines at popular tourist sites of interest. For example, the official website of Versailles Palace outside Paris shows a chart comparing low and high season attendance by day and time. Crowds are never categorized as “heavy” during the winter season months.
If a chart isn’t convincing enough, my November photograph of the famous Hall of Mirrors shows how easy it was to walk around and take a closer look anything we wanted. Not to mention that we had no wait at all to enter the palace – just a brief stop to pass through security. In contrast, check out travel guru Rick Steves’ video of the same room in July: a shoulder-to-shoulder mass of sweaty people.
Similarly, August wait times to enter the Vatican Museum in Rome are typically 2-3 hours. On a February trip, we waited about 20 minutes to purchase tickets, and then were able to walk right in. We were also able to linger in the Sistine Chapel, and listen to the entire audio guide for that large and detailed room – twice!
Cons of winter travel:
Hiking or cycling holidays are probably better enjoyed during other seasons. Winter days are short, which can make enjoying the outdoors less inviting even if temperatures are relatively warm.
Weather can be unpredictable even in more southerly parts of Europe. In February of 2012, a rare dusting of snow pretty much shut Rome down for a couple of days. The airport closed, as did sites such as the Coliseum. If you have a tight schedule with no flexibility, you might not want to take the chance on delays.
Sites of interest may have restricted winter hours, or even close completely. This can particularly be an issue for sites with an outdoor component – such as formal gardens. Check first if you don’t want to risk disappointment.
Even sites that are open may be partially closed for cleaning and repairs, or have loaned artworks or antiquities to touring exhibits for the off season.
While winter travel will let you avoid massive crowds of tourists, you will almost certainly encounter school groups on field trips. This is not necessarily a bad thing – we learned a lot from eavesdropping on teachers – but they can take over a room.
How to make it work for you:
You’ve got to take a bigger suitcase. No way around it, appropriate winter clothing is heavier and takes up more room than a fair-weather wardrobe. You will need to take good rain gear, including water-resistant footwear, if you want to stay dry and comfortable. A heavy winter coat, gloves, hat, and a scarf are also indicated. You’ll be glad to have them if the temperature takes a dive. Otherwise, it’s layers and more layers with mix and match options to suit a range of temperatures.
Plan your trip for city destinations with museums, galleries, and shopping – indoor activities that won’t be ruined by inclement weather. City subways and other transit will likely be running even when weather complicates travel by car, air, or even rail. Better yet, stay in a central location so you can get around on foot and enjoy the local atmosphere.
Stay in one or two places, rather than counting on a tight itinerary with multiple stops. Don’t leave yourself open to getting stuck somewhere with little to do.
So book those flights and winter rate hotels, pack your suitcase, and have a wonderful time!