When most of us daydream about a European vacation, we probably envision soaking up the sunshine while sipping a cappuccino and people-watching at an outdoor café. After all, the busy summer season is when the vast majority of tourists travel to Europe. Families tend to restrict themselves to summer holidays because that is when the kids are out of school. What many parents don't realize, though, is that late fall, early spring or winter vacations from school can be an even better time to travel to the continent. During visits to both London and Paris in early March, my family discovered the advantages of exploring Europe with kids in winter.
Since it's considered the off-season, costs from airfare to accommodations are reduced during the winter and that makes a vacation in Europe more affordable for a family.
In both London and Paris my family stayed in apart-hotels, which were far less expensive in the winter than they would have been any other time of the year. Travelers are also much more likely to stumble upon a true bargain during the winter than they are during the more popular seasons. For our London apartment we received a stay three nights and get the fourth free deal which meant that two of our 10 nights were free.
Fewer visitors mean shorter line-ups and less crowded attractions—making it much easier to travel with children who aren't always patient with long waits and overcrowding. Capital cities are always going to be busy and many of the most popular attractions still have high volumes of visitors during the winter but the crowds are nothing compared to what they would be in the summer.
We visited The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia in August and it was so crowded that people were queuing to have a glance at a painting. I swore after that experience that in the future I would avoid visiting a popular museum during the summer whenever possible. In contrast, we visited the Louvre in Paris in March and, apart from the area around the Mona Lisa, there were no crowds at all.
The European atmosphere in the off-season is more laid-back and friendly than it is during the summer when locals are overwhelmed with crowds. It doesn't matter where in the world you are, people are going to be friendlier when they aren't rushed off their feet. It's much more likely that shopkeepers will take time to chat when they aren't quite so busy trying to serve their clientele and waiters won't mind if you linger after finishing a meal if there isn't a line of people out the door waiting for a table.
If, like us, you are escaping the cold in Canada or the northern U.S., then chances are the weather in Europe will be milder than what you are leaving behind so it can still feel like a break from the bone-chilling cold. These cooler temperatures can also be more favorable for sightseeing than the heat and humidity of the summer when Europe's cities can become stifling. Even though we had to wear coats, scarves and gloves part of the time, our March sightseeing adventures in London and Paris were far more pleasant than sweltering August days in Rome, Athens, and Istanbul.
You should, however, be prepared for variable weather when traveling to Europe off-season—depending on where you are traveling and at what point in the year—you may experience several seasons over the course of one trip (or even one day).
If you are visiting capitals or larger cities, winter and summer train and museum schedules or restaurant hours probably won't vary much but it's always a good idea to check for a reduced winter timetable or that an establishment hasn't closed for a winter holiday when tourist traffic is light.
I would never turn down an opportunity to visit Europe at any time of the year but our school break in early March is fast becoming one of my preferred time for European travel. If you're planning a big family trip to Europe, don't be afraid to think beyond the summer months on the calendar—winter or early spring can be a great time for a trip to Europe too!
Have you visited Europe with kids in winter? Tell us about your experience in the comments!