You'll hear seasoned travelers extolling the virtues of September-May travel so often you probably know them by heart: fewer tourists, greater cultural options and mingling opportunities with the locals, more relaxed atmosphere, cheaper airfares and hotel rates, and the lack of that summer swelter. But there's a reason folks travel in high season in Europe: it seldom rains, there's maximum daylight, it's easy packing light, and there are abundant tourist resources. But off-season travel still aces out high-season travel in my book, because all those problems with off-season travel can be overcome with a few tricks seasoned travelers call upon to make their vacations meaningful and fun. Read on.
Places to Go - Choosing an Off-Season Destination
First, let's define some commonly agreed upon off-season and shoulder-season dates:
- High Season: (Peak Season): Summer, Mid June-August
- Shoulder Season: April through May, some say through mid-June September through October.
- Off Season: November through March
Seasoned travelers base their destinations on seasonal considerations. For example, I don't particularly fancy eating the traditional tourist favorites of Germany, Switzerland or Austria in summer; the food is too heavy for the heat. But give me a crisp fall day to walk the black forest or cruise the Rhine, then let me return to my hotel, take a hot bath, and go downstairs to a medieval wood-beamed room with roaring fire and I'll happily eat mounds of sausages and spaetzle while drinking lustily from a flask of homemade Riesling.
For Mediterranean countries, fall starts the rainy season. Over the ages, many cities have found ways to deal with the inconvenience of a daylight rain. The Italian city of Bologna features a huge network of arcaded streets. You can walk from one side of town to the other without getting wet. Medieval Europe featured houses with overhangs, it's one of the ways you can tell the older parts of a city. Old towns also offer seductive cafes. Pop in and nurse a coffee, soda, or warming snifter of brandy while waiting for the rain to taper off. Or use your railpass to take a scenic train ride.
Spring brings flowers, of course, lots of them. And the vegetables are fabulous in early spring around the Mediterranean. Find out more about Spring travel: The Joys of a Spring Vacation in Europe.
Specific Seasonal Suggestions
Hours of Sunlight - Off-Season's "Shorter" Days
Yep, the off-season in Europe is marked by fewer hours of sunlight. This doesn't bother me at all, because I find moonlight strolls more seductive than daylight ones. If you shudder at the thought of walking "downtown" in a city after dark, consider that European city centers are quite a bit safer than most American ones at these hours, because European culture favors convivial meetings in public places along with moderate alcohol consumption. Filling the streets with good, honest people is probably the best defense against street crime there ever was.
But how can you figure out how much daylight there'll be? Here's a handy site, The Sun and Moon Ephemerides. Pick your destination and the date, and the tool will return the hours of daylight to expect.
Climate - What's the Off-Season Like?
Here is a directory of historic climate for Europe's major cities.
Packing Tips for the Off-Season in Europe
Packing light is easy to accomplish when your daily wear is shorts and a shirt. Things get tricky when the weather cools. The key is layering. Everything in my suitcase goes with everything else. I wear a light undershirt, long sleeved shirt, sweater if it's going to be cold, light windbreaker/rain jacket for the rainy days.
I pack two fashionable sweaters of varying warmth instead of lugging around a coat. On the beautiful days I don't end up with a coat slung over my arm that's too big for my suitcase. When it rains I simply get out my rain jacket. I can also wear a sweater into a fancy restaurant and look pretty presentable. (Europeans tend to dress more formally, especially in the off-season. You might consider throwing a tie or scarf into your suitcase.)
But sweaters are big and bulky. True, but there's a fix. A sweater keeps you warm by trapping air between thin fibers, much like house insulation. Take the air out and sweaters compress to a fraction of their size. If you're stuck in the 50's, you have dad sit on your suitcase while you latch it. Today you can purchase clothes compressor bags. Eagle Creek makes some I use and recommend (review) ( check prices). You'll find that you can squeeze 40-50 percent of bulk out of a sweater with these bags. The downside is that sweaters don't work as efficiently in the wind, and you may need that rain jacket as a windbreak on blustery days.
The Bottom Line - What's good about Off-Season Travel in Europe
Europe takes advantage of the cultural activities that enjoy a winter season. Sure, in summer you can hear short chamber music in Vienna structured for a tourist's short attention span, but you'll have to wait until the real symphony and opera season to hear the best European orchestras playing serious music for hours on end.
And who cares if it's raining outside when you intend to spend your day at the Louvre? Bottom line: if you like meeting folks on their own turf, have a hankering for high culture, or just like to lounge around a roaring fire listening to a foreign language and dreaming of learning it--off-season travel is something you should try.