Planning Europe by the Season: The Ultimate Family Guide
When should you go to Europe? My cop-out answer is that traveling across seasons gives you the best of both worlds — the best weather, the most vibrant crowds, and the time to experience a more authentic world once everyone goes home. Planning Europe by the season to me means you get to explore the best of every season. Changing leaves are and crisp days are perfect for roasted chestnuts, and snowy mountains are outstanding backdrops to Europe’s fabulous Christmas markets. Spring in Paris…well, you know the song.
The downside? Packing. And the reality that not all of us can linger on vacations that last months and cross seasons.
If you have to make up your mind, keep reading. When you have to plan a vacation ahead, when should you go? The answer depends largely on where you want to go and what kinds of frustrations you’re willing to trade for time alone with the Mona Lisa, time outside for whiny kids, or space to yourself on a crowded train…
Sections of this guide:
Consider that air conditioning is much less common in Europe than the U.S. Packed crowds, no A/C, and busy streets can make traveling uncomfortable. Some hotels turn on the air according to a legal schedule, and others fudge it until tourists complain. Information on these laws is difficult to come by, but regulating energy use is a national endeavor, though we’ve found 5-star hotels are somehow more amenable to breaking the law for guest comfort than others.
Typically, in hotter parts of Italy, tourists complain of suffering without A/C in September, even early. Hoteliers turn on the A/C when they complain — sometimes. In May and October, A/C is hard to come by and may be warm for those not used to it or during a hot spell. Winters can be cold, with heat also throttled in chillier weeks.
Concerned about walking in the heat of the day or staying warm at night while enjoying the sites? Here are typical highs and lows across the seasons and across European climate zones.
Average January High/Low Temperatures in European Cities
Average April High/Low Temperatures in European Cities
Average July High/Low Temperatures in European Cities
Average September High/Low Temperatures in European Cities
A couple years ago there was a big hubbub that French students would no longer enjoy Wednesdays off, but they are still free Wednesday afternoons and Wednesday is still considered a mid-week break. Afternoons can still be more crowded than usual at museums, though the afternoon break is traditionally the time for students to sign up for extracurriculars. Other countries continue their Wednesday breaks, like German-speaking Switzerland, where Wednesday afternoons (if not the entire day) are still off school. Some make up for it with school Saturday mornings. Italian schools, from jr. high onward, end early, after lunchtime, so that students can go home to eat and then to private extracurriculars.
Even within a city, there are differences in when school starts and ends for the day, with younger kids typically lassoed into longer days and older students released for extracurriculars.
What this means for you is that it can be tough to gauge local school times. You will not always be aware of every national or local holiday in every region and country you visit. Your best bet is still to hit busy sites when they open, no matter the time of year or day of the week.
Crowd Control at Attractions & On the Road
The school schedule is only an issue on Wednesday afternoons, when crowds are more prevalent in normally deserted attractions that would have been delightful to visit on Tuesday.
Another issue is public transportation; there seem to be few laws regarding the safe number of public transportation patrons allowed on busses and subways when school lets out at lunchtime, and this can be incredibly uncomfortable. Further, students push against bus windows from the outside and can act typically obnoxious and make an otherwise deserted and comfortable trip painful. There is no good way to plan ahead to avoid school let-outs – lunchtime or afternoon let-outs can occur anytime of the school year during the lunch rush or anytime in the afternoon as schools allow students to return home for a long lunch, or dismiss classes from lunchtime onward.
As with any travel, the best rule of thumb is to arrive early and enjoy the opening hour of attractions that can become crowded.
What about in the summer when students are all out of school? European vacationers typically begin and end at the beginning and middle of the month, and avoiding roads and airports on the 1rst and 15th makes sense.
Families in Europe are bound by the same rules other families face when traveling and July and August find the most tourists everywhere.
Other cities are prime for exploration during the summer months – the French, for example, flee Paris in July and August, leaving it deserted. Just don’t think the same logic applies on the Riviera!
European fall can bring early snows to Alpine regions, where ski season starts mid-October and training through the fall means tourists. On the other hand, hikers and bikers will find gorgeous conditions at lower altitudes, whereas in spring, snow can linger.
Tourist destinations have short hours in the off-season, which may mean that a late-fall vacation day holds far less adventure than one in July. Earlier sunsets, daylight savings time (except for Iceland), and drizzly conditions may mean fall, winter, and spring are unpleasant.
English-language tours may thin in the off-season, particularly in smaller towns. Big cities are bustling year round, and sites are accessible. But enjoying all they have to offer may not be realistic. For instance, great deals on the Riviera in the winter may come with the compromise that their beaches and pools are closed.
However, shortened hours are a downside of traveling off-season. Here are some sample hour changes for big museums:
Uffizi Gallery (Florence): 8:15 a.m.-6:50 p.m., with summer Tuesdays (May 15-Sept. 27) closings at 10:00 p.m.
First Sundays free – as with all state museums in Italy
Vatican museums – FREE the last Sunday of the month, 10:00-2:00
March 8 – International Women’s Day – free admission for women at national museums
Peak season night openings – Notta Bianca – free evenings during peak season.
Louvre (Paris): Pyramid entrance 9:00-7:30 Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and 9:00-10:00 Wednesday and Friday (CLOSED Tuesday)
First Sundays are FREE but only during the OFF season (October – March)
Louvre is open most French national holidays 9:00-6:00 with the exception of May Day, All Saints Day, and Christmas Day.
Anne Frank House (Amsterdam): April-October 9:00a.m. -10:00p.m.; November – March 9:00-7:00 (9:00p.m. on Saturdays)
British Museum (London): 10:00-5:30p.m. and 8:30 Fridays (except Good Friday)
Guggenheim, Bilbao: 10:00a.m.-8:00p.m. (Closed most Mondays)
Acropolis Museum (Athens): April 1 – October 31 M 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m., TWH 8:00 a.m. -7:30 p.m., F 8:00 a.m. -10:00 p.m., S/S 8:00 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
Winter: 9:00 a.m. -5:00 p.m. M-Thursday, 9:00 a.m. -10:00 p.m. Friday, S/S 9:00 a.m. -8:00 p.m.
Closed on New Years, Easter Sunday, May Day, Christmas & Boxing Days
Pompeii Excavation Site (Near Naples and Amalfi): April 1 – October 31 8:30-7:30 (last entrance at 6:00)
Winter 8:30 – 5:00 (last entrance at 3:30p.m.)
As you can see, not all attractions reduce hours in the winter. Some may not reduce their hours by enough for you to care. Others do. As the sun sets earlier and people retire to their homes, tourists are left with emptier streets and their own reduced schedule. This may be great — it can also cut your sightseeing short.
Airfares vary greatly based on when you book and where you go. Flexibility serves you well, here. If you can get to a long-haul airport with fewer fees, you can generally save compared to traditional carriers. I use Skyscanner almost exclusively, as it tends to give me the best prices, even compared to direct airline website bookings.
Here are the prices the app offers when I attempt to fly from JFK–> London or LAX –> Paris (I’m looking them up in August, and through the forthcoming year, so August and September prices may be inflated). Keep in mind, these prices don’t include taxes, fees, transportation to those airports, or the hassle of traveling through 5 stopovers at 3:00 a.m. Not all flights will be acceptable to all travelers, especially with small kiddos.
However, you can see when flights double — and plan accordingly!
Airfares from JFK to London
Airfares from LAX to Paris
Summer peak season is more expensive, and even sites can raise prices for tourists right alongside their airline counterparts.
Visitors touring with train passes can find summers frustrating – pass holders can be bumped by ticketed customers in the peak season, while even very crowded trains in the shoulder and winter seasons are more accommodating to pass holders. This can mean disrupted travel plans, lost bookings, and general chaos. Getting bumped may mean waiting an hour for the next train but it can also cost hundreds of dollars, particularly where hotel bookings cannot be changed and new accommodations must be made on the fly. Don’t have data? You’re probably in for an even tougher time finding a way to be flexible when your plans have to change.
Attempting to wrangle kids may make even one full train a disaster.
Reservations may be needed in advance, and this is an added expense as well as planning consideration. Need flexibility? Consider traveling off-season. Buying tickets ahead of time and know when you’re traveling? Having a reserved seat should make summer travel much easier.
The summer season is not always crowded. If you must travel in the summer months, be aware that the earlier and later in the peak season you travel, the fewer crowds you may meet.
Another point to consider is the popularity of your destination. Well-traveled tourist hubs are crowded even in the shoulder and off-season; during summer, they can be unbearable. But other fabulous spots off the beaten track can be delightful, even in summertime. Read the places section for more information – but study destinations that are heavily marketed and seek out unknown gems instead.
Undeveloped, Under-promoted Treasures
For example, one Irish friend told me to “go to Kerry. All the Americans go to Kerry.” Evidently, he’s right; Southwest Ireland accounts for 61% of leisure travel to the island. Dublin and Northern Ireland are likewise well-trodden. But why not try something less famous? Connemara is well-known among the French (there is a pop song attesting to its awesomeness) but is still relatively undiscovered by Americans. Close to castles, monolithic tombs, and beaches full of sheep and solitude, I’ve always wondered why.
In Italy, Ischia is the big sister of glamorous nearby Capri. While Capri has been a world-famous resort destination, Ischia was somehow left out of the development. You may lack the glamorous zip code, but the beaches never got the memo.
Nature preserves can also mute a beautiful area’s tourist impact and make for a less hectic destination. In Spain, the Illes Cies islands, near Vigo, are almost undeveloped and preservation is paramount. This bypasses the tourist jam in Ibiza, but offers the same breathtaking landscape.
Another point to consider that can ease travel in the peak season is that car-free destinations are delightfully free of tour busses that come with access. On Italy’s Amalfi coast, tour busses stream into Positano, filling its streets with crowds. Other Amalfi towns, however, are inaccessible to busses and delightfully less overrun.
In Switzerland, Grindelwald, which is accessible by car, is also swarmed by busses. Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn, however, is a car-free town. Take the train or tram and enjoy a slower pace, with only pedestrians in the streets.
On the flip side, there are plenty of advantages that come with crowds. Especially for families, line-waiting is offset with the bustle of excitement and activity you may find in peak season.
Peak Season Benefits
Friendship and playmates: Parks and piazzas are bustling spots in the peak season with local kids and tourists (more English speakers!) willing to join in a game of soccer. Clowns and entertainers blow bubbles and perform street shows. There’s just no Paris like the Paris with a small, frightening mime riding a miniature tricycle. Hostel and camping families: the chance to meet other families is heightened when there are plenty of other people around. While adults may appreciate the ghost-town atmosphere, kids typically thrive with playmates.
Festivals: Music in parks and piazzas, locals enjoying picnics, and big festivals beckon in the peak season – they are virtually non-existent in November. These are charming cultural opportunities and often far more welcoming for families than sticking to the well-worn streets or hotel rooms. Spreading out in parks is, after-all, a way to relax and keep kids happy at home so why go abroad and forego the opportunity?
Bigger festivals can be planned or avoided – such as Edinburgh’s August Fringe Festival which means high prices and a booked-solid old town.
Carnaval in Venice, Munich’s Oktoberfest, and Halloween in Transylvania (more bars, fewer kid activities) can be the same. Plan ahead.
Gardens: Along the same line as music festivals, these can be spectacular places to visit as well as chill out with kids, let off steam, and spend time away from crowds. Your chances of enjoying them in the winter is far less.
Scandinavian Nights: The farther north you go, the longer the days. Stockholm is farther north than Moscow, and at nearly 60 degrees north latitude, is closest to the U.S. city of Anchorage, Alaska. On the 1rst of July, Stockholm sees an 18 ½ hour day, with a 3:37 a.m. sunrise and a 10:05 p.m. sunset! That same destination on Christmas saw sunrise at 8:18 a.m. and sunset at 2:55 p.m. Rough! It’s a short tourist season, but it’s worthwhile to enjoy the best of the year in these destinations.
If you’re looking forward to skiing or seeing the Northern Lights, winter is the time to go. Otherwise, enjoy the peak season while it lass.
Avoiding the shut-down: France and Italy’s famed August vacation season can mean closed restaurants and services, particularly in small towns. Services can be sparse and for tourists looking to indulge, this can mean slow and boring towns.
The shut-down can be a blessing in big cities that are otherwise crowded. Tourist offices remain open, and restaurants are easy to find in large cities. Tourists may hardly notice that the local optometrist is off lounging on a beach chair in San Tropez.
Early June and early September offer the best of the weather, later summer sunsets, and long museum hours, but with waning crowds and prices. If you can’t travel in these small windows, but don’t need the kids in school, fall is by far the best city-tourism shoulder, with less rain and bright, sunny days. Stick to the Mediterranean and tourists can be found swimming well into November.
Travel issues are the biggest problem for our family, and we prefer the low winer season for spreading out on trains and navigating the sights with the fewest crowds as possible. We tend to find friends no matter when we travel, but smaller children may need the stable schedule of park afternoons to let off steam and meet the locals.
Whatever you choose, let me know and comment about other issues I’ve forgotten!