Europe in winter

Venice during Carnival (Jan. 23 to Feb. 7) is an expensive exception to cheap European winter vacations.
Venice during Carnival (Jan. 23 to Feb. 7) is an expensive exception to cheap European winter vacations. AP

I’ve never been to Europe in the summer. Not even once. I’ll tell you why: It’s hot. It’s expensive. And it’s crowded.

I prefer Europe in the offseason, when I can save money and won’t get run over by swarms of other tourists.

Now, note that Christmas and Easter holidays, particularly at ski resorts, aren’t going to be any bargains. Though if you can go just after Christmas, you can sometimes still hit the New Year holidays and find some deals. The rest of the winter, though, is generally offseason where the locals sigh with relief that the tourists have gone home and they can get back to their regular lives.

Here are 12 reasons you should make your winter travel plans.

▪ You can find airfare deals for half what you’d pay in the summer, especially during the week, and on red-eyes. Check Skyscanner ( for lesser-known airlines like Norwegian ( flies out of Fort Lauderdale) that frequently offer specials. And your frequent flier miles will go a lot further, too.

▪ Your plane is likely to be less crowded. Dare I say it? You might even get a few seats to stretch out and nap on, if it’s a red-eye.

▪ You won’t be dripping with sweat when you climb the stairs to the roof of a cathedral or the top of the Eiffel Tower. You won’t be overheated anywhere. Yes, you’ll have to bring a winter coat, but it can double as a pillow on the train or plane. Do bring a scarf and gloves, too, and a mini-umbrella that fits in your pocket. Lightweight, silk long underwear can also be useful.

▪ No need to worry about air-conditioning. Nature will take care of that for you. Do check on the heat in your lodging, though. Two blissful words in any European winter: central heating.

▪ You might actually be able to get within 10 feet of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. If you’ve ever seen the crowds trying to get near this iconic painting, you’ll know that’s an achievement. In Rome, you can buy a ticket to see the Sistine Chapel without worrying that the capacity will already have been reached. And cities like Vienna have their winter music season in high gear.

▪ You can meet locals. They haven’t been driven into hiding by hordes of package tourists descending from motorcoaches, and they aren’t off on their own summer holidays, leaving the city deserted, like Paris in August.

You can meet locals. They haven’t been driven into hiding by hordes of package tourists descending from motorcoaches.

Marla Jo Fisher

Sit at the bar in a pub or a cafe and look friendly, you might strike up a conversation.

▪ Hotel deals. You can save up to 40 percent by booking your hotel in the winter rather than during the high tourist season, especially midweek. However, this is not the case at ski resorts or during special winter festivals, so check your location in advance. In Europe’s most pricey cities, such as London and Venice, you will see the greatest savings.

▪ You can see a very different side of Venice in the winter. It’s foggy and mysterious. You immediately get lost walking around the narrow streets. It feels otherworldly. Few tourists are afoot, so the city feels less like a theme park. Bring warm clothes against the damp. Note that Venice floods a few times in winter due to high tides; the Venetians just wait it out and go about their business. And, most important, in winter, hotels are cheaper and the canals don’t stink. (Note: Prices will skyrocket during Carnival — this year from Jan. 23 to Feb. 7 — so keep that in mind. If you want to go, make sure to bring money. One Carnival ball costs $900 to attend.)

▪ The Riviera is cheaper and less crowded. Winter is a great season to be on the coast of France or Italy, as long as you don’t care about lying out on the beach. You can avoid horrific traffic jams, tourist traps, heat and sky-high prices by visiting in the winter, when the temperatures will be moderate and cool, in the 50s and 60s. You can probably get a table at that great restaurant, too.

▪ Switzerland is just a gorgeous wonderland in the snow. Anywhere in the Alps, including Italy, Germany or Austria, you’ll be amazed by the spectacular snowy landscapes.

Some exceptions to the winter-is-cheaper rule: Ski resorts, Christmas, Easter, Venice during Carnival

Ski resorts aren’t going to be cheap, though they’ll get more affordable as the season wears on and the snow melts. And if you’re willing to brave Scandinavian winters, you can save a bundle on destinations like Copenhagen and Stockholm that are uber-pricey in the summer.

▪ Honestly, you just don’t appreciate a hot cup of Earl Grey tea as much as when you’ve just come into one of London’s ubiquitous tea rooms from a frosty walk past Big Ben. You lean over, inhale the warm steam from the teapot, warm the tip of your nose and it’s like heaven. And French onion soup never tasted as good as when you come into the restaurant in Paris, stamping your feet because they’re cold. In Austria, you’ll want to head for a coffeehouse and imbibe one of the decadent Viennese coffees with 6 inches of whipped cream on top. Maybe try the Cafe Mozart, across from the opera house. I dare you to have a piece of cake with it, too.

▪ If you just can’t stand cold weather, head to the Mediterranean. Keep in mind that sunny destinations like Greece will be warmer than Zurich, but some hotels and restaurants on the islands might be closed for the winter. And don’t expect “lie on the beach” weather — it can be quite chilly. Greece is a bargain this year, I’ve been scoping it out myself. Or check out southern Italy and Spain.