Travel Planning: Winter Travel

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


High season travel in Europe often revolves around the summer.  After all, children are on school vacation, the weather is more agreeable, and the increased amount of daylight is convenient.  But, it also means crowded attractions, increased prices and depending on where you are, extreme heat which can make anything other than lying on a beach, uncomfortable (ahem, Greece & Spain.)

Our ideal time to travel is usually the shoulder seasons - this means May & early June and again in late September & October.  The crowds are drastically reduced yet the weather is still nice and the travel costs are often lower than peak.  Unfortunately, it's impossible to fit in all our trips in such a limited amount of time, particularly when we like to spread them out over the calendar.  While it's attractive to seek out sunshine during the winter months, there is something to be said for embracing winter travel.

First of all, it is a lot cheaper in terms of flights and hotels (unless you're looking to fly over Christmas) and a lot of the times, you'll feel like you have the city to yourself.  It feels less touristy and a little more real.  You won't be wasting time lining up for attractions and you probably won't be fighting for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa from behind a mound of other tourists.

Last year, Joe and I visited Berlin, Prague and Oslo during the winter and very shortly, we'll be catching a flight to Switzerland.  In case you're also planning a snowy or cold destination this year, here are a few tips from a Canadian who knows winter well.

+This seems silly but even I, a seasoned Canadian, often underestimate winter temperatures - DRESS WARMLY.  I wear wool tights under my jeans and sport an extra pair of socks, a parka, scarf, mitts, and hat.  For those of used to below 0 temperatures, -5 might not sound too bad but spending hours outside in said weather can feel colder than first expected.
+Allow yourself a lot of breaks.  Pop into a café for a warm drink or stop in a cozy pub for a beer.  Your feet will thank you.
+Not all of Europe (even Northern Europe) has a snowy winter.  If you're looking for snow, do your research ahead of time.
+With that being said, winter can also mean rain.  Bring an umbrella and keep a list of indoor activities in your location in case the weather really isn't cooperating.
+Take careful note of attraction operating hours.  Many will drastically reduce their opening times during the low season or even close altogether.
+The further North you go, the less daylight you'll have.  Plan accordingly but don't abandon the streets just because it's dark.  The twinkling lights on a calm winter's night can be magical.
+Christmas Markets are a wonderful experience and something quintessentially European.  If you're traveling in December, definitely try to add one to your itinerary.  Popular stops include Strasbourg in the North of France, Prague, Vienna, Brussels and really, all of Germany.
+Be prepared for travel delays in case of snow storms.  Again, those of us who are well acquainted with winter are shocked when major airports (hello London & Paris) close after 2 cm of snow.  In fact, sometimes they close with the impending threat of snow before one flurry has even hit the pavement.
+Driving in a foreign country can be nerve-racking.  Driving in a foreign country with snowy roads can be terrifying.  If you aren't comfortable, don't risk it.  Stick to trains.
+Embrace the season - rent a pair of skates, try tobogganing, breath in that fresh, crisp air, sip mulled wine & hot chocolate, buy a soft cashmere sweater and sit by the fireplace.

Where are your favourite winter destinations?


(Also, I've been featured in the December issue of Bella Magazine.  You can check out my interview on pages 47 through 49.)

22 comments:

  1. Great tips! I'd also say have a coat with a hood... even if it isn't raining or snowing, having a hood can really help you stay warm!

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  2. We were planning a trip for February, trying to figure out where we could go that would be relatively warm when we decided to do as you said and "embrace the cold". We're headed to Austria for three days of skiing and then a couple days in Innsbruck! I love your tip about wearing wool tights under your jeans. I will most certainly be doing that!

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  3. Great ideas! I wish I could travel to Europe in the winter time but I only have time for it during the summer.

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  4. I live in Switzerland, let me know if you need any advice!

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  5. wonderful, thanks for the tips... especially the one about how to dress for the cold. tomorrow i'm headed to a st. nicholas eve event at the christmas market here and will be in below zero temps for several hours. there will be mulled wine, though :)
    also- really loved your feature in bella! i did have a completely random question though after i read it (if you wouldn't mind): since the cost of living in gabon and norway varies so greatly, did his company adjust his salary to accommodate this? just wondered if financially there was a great transition or if it went pretty smoothly for you both.

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    1. Thanks Cynthia.

      Surprisingly enough, the cost of living is really quite similar between Gabon and Norway (at least for expats.) However, Joe's company does have a cost of living differential - they basically use a third party company who evaluates the COL in every country (as well as risk and hardship) and a 'bonus' of sorts is given. His salary is the same no matter where he is but the upgrades vary depending on the country's ranking.

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  6. Røros is my favourite. Cold, lot of snow and you travel a hundred years back in time.

    http://www.kortreist.no/forside/article16808.ece/BINARY/w980-adaptive/r%C3%B8ros2,+svein+eggen.JPG

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  7. These are great tips for winter! One thing that I would add is that minus temperatures in Europe often feel a lot colder than the same temperature would feel in the midst of the American continent. When I lived in Alberta, the average temperature during the winter was - 20 °C and I never felt down-to-the-bone chilled. In Germany I barely ever want to leave the house when the temperature in 0 °C! The cold in Western Europe is definitely a different kind of cold.

    I'm actually heading to Tromsø and Northern Norway soon, embracing the Norwegian darkness and coldness, though there's a part of me that wouldn't mind heading somewhere far, far away without rain and actual sunshine! ;)

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  8. I love the tips. I just got back from Ireland and even though it wasn't snowing, it sure was cold for us Angelenos!

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  9. Awesome! I studied abroad in Austria in the winter, and it was BEAUTIFUL. I loved it, and the snow scenery in the mountains is breathtaking. I miss it. :)

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  10. Great interview Jay!! Loved the photos too.

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  11. Congrats on the magazine feature!

    We've travelled to Valencia, Paris, Rome, Sicily, Venice, Vienna, Zurich, Geneva, and Chamonix in the winter. I have to say Valencia was quite nice in the winter as it was one of those destinations that had less crowds and felt more 'real'. For sheer prettiness, Chamonix and Zurich take the cake.

    Also, Venice was more freezing than I ever could have anticipated! I wish I had worn woolies under my jeans there.

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  12. This post makes me want to book travel to a wintery destination right away! I'd already been thinking I'd try for a winter trip next time we cross the Atlantic (too many crowds in summer) and this makes me even more excited about the prospect.

    I always love your blog.

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  13. Dear Jay,

    Just to let you know Strasbourg is in the north of France, not the south. Yet it has a really lovely christmas market indeed. Hope you'll love Switzerland! Cheers;

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    1. Whoops! We were talking about it in my French class and I could have sworn we said South but you're right. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  14. These are fabulous tips, Jay! Thanks for sharing them with us.

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  15. Love this post! I often get shocked at the coldness that I feel while travelling in the winter. Like when I came to visit in March and only brought one pair of jeans (idiot!). While I was living in Singapore I adored finding a cold climate during travel, it was like a breath of home away from home. Bundling up, finding those coffee shops and fresh, chilly air was heavenly.

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  16. Oh what I wouldn't do to be on vacation right now?
    We like travelling in end of September / early October.. and late April/early may though I am not a fan of travelling to a cold place in the winter.. autumn weather I can do.. and snow if skiing is on the agenda.. a few December's ago we escaped to the Caribbean..

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  17. great list, Jay! we made venice in and rome in november and while most people have stories about the crowds and heat, we didn't experience any of it...okay, so there were still tons of people, but its italy! I aaaaalways underestimate the cold. always. this year we're migrating South because we're in desperate need of a break from this wretched cold!

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  18. Planning is over-rated! My travel idea is to pack and go. It's exhilarating.

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  19. Totally agree on travelling slightly outside of high season - I think anyone is mad to escape Stockholm in July anyway, I'd much rather head for the hills (or beaches!) in November or March. Excellent tips - many of which I use in my day to day life ;-) Thanks!

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