Around this time every year I open my email to find an inbox full of cheap airfare alerts–cheap winter flights to cold weather destinations. I feel cocky seeing those cheap winter airfares. And oh yes, smug. Just for a minute or two, I indulge in contempt for snowbirds, for sun-worshiping zombies, for geezer cruisers. While they’re flipping themselves rotisserie style on some lame beach, HOB and I will be exploring a historic European village, our cheeks rosy from the brisk air, wearing smart winter gear which will naturally include a beret for me and a cravat for him. We’ll step into a quaint café where we’ll be immediately befriended by the locals who admire our commitment to off season travel.
Cut to the actual winter trip: I’m wearing an unattractive thrift store coat with pockets stuffed with dirty tissues since my nose is running like a faucet in the freezing air. My shoes are soaked from near-constant rain/snow/sleet and my toes are by turns burning and numb. HOB is trying to read a map that’s whipping back-and-forth in the wind. All the charming locals are inside, wishing they were on a lame beach getting skin cancer.
Traveling in winter is cheap—not just airfares, but hotels are often deeply discounted. Crowds? Forget about them. Since you’re not shuffling along with a mass of bodies like a cog in a tourist-industry machine, you can take your time and fully engage in the place you’ve traveled so far to visit. Sound great? Yes, but…travelling in winter requires serious preparation. Consider the following;
- Most importantly: be extra organized and do your research. Attractions frequently have decreased opening hours in winter. Let’s say you’re dying to visit a particular church–that church will almost certainly have two sets of opening hours, say May – September versus October – April. To add to the confusion, just locating accurate information about opening hours can be a challenge. I know it’s time consuming, but you’ll be better off checking multiple sources. Google the attraction and see if it has a dedicated website. Contact the local tourist office. Check a guide book.
- Remember you’ll have short days with limited daylight. Try to plan your walking tours before mid-afternoon. Since we’re church hounds, we think about daylight and how it will affect seeing church interiors—that gorgeous stained glass will be sadly hard to appreciate after sundown. Whenever possible, plan your long train and bus rides during the evening so you’re not missing out on limited daylight and opening hours.
- Dress strategically. Packing light and packing for winter are not mutually exclusive, but you’ll need to be tactical. I’m a big advocate for silk long underwear as a base to your winter wardrobe. Once you’ve got your underthings, focus on layers that you can modify according to the weather; high-end socks (I like wool-blend socks) and the best waterproof walking shoes you can afford. The same winter gear you wear at home (coat/scarf/hat/gloves) will work fine, though I prefer to wear a cheap thrift store coat since I’ll invariably trash it with picnic food stains like the notorious slob I am.
- Book a centrally-located room. You’re saving by staying in winter, so spring a bit more for the well-located hotel or b&b. Choose a place as close as possible to your target attractions. If the weather is too nasty to picnic, you can pop back to your room for a hotel picnic or just a quick warm up and pee. Empty bladder + warm feet + full belly = travel super-powers restored.
- Seek out hot street food. Never, ever underestimate the power of warm food. Can’t find hot street food? Go into a bakery or deli and point to something that would be warming and delicious: a slice of quiche, for example. Point and say cave-man style “Please. That. Hot”. Most businesses will stick it in the microwave or oven for you.
- When totally desperate go inside stores and browse for a long time. This is easiest at a book store, though we’ve been known to linger in wine stores and to browse tchotchke shops, faking interest in collectible spoons while waiting for the frost to melt from our noses.
- I’ve heard people advise winter travelers not to overdress or wear long underwear “because you’re not going to be outside all that much anyway.” Well, maybe these folks travel differently than us, because we are out walking for hours at time and we never regret our warm clothes. And don’t fool yourself by thinking that since you’re going to be inside a church you’ll be warm. People, these churches are not heated. You’ll be protected from the elements, but still chattering your teeth. Don’t listen to anyone who says you won’t be outside enough to justify the warm layers.
I’m not going to lie–there have been cold, wet and miserable travel days when I’ve questioned our judgment—why the hades would we choose to be in this situation? And there have been other times, like our stay in Goslar, when fairytale-quality snowflakes transported us into a bewitching medieval landscape. So you know those cheap flight that just showed up in my inbox? I bought the tickets of course. Our next trip is in January.
Goslar, Germany: village of the musical theater snow and the Bruegel-esque timber and slate houses.
Did you notice the snow drift on my backpack? That’s a picnic I have in the green bag–I bet you can guess if this was good day for picnicking.
Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (picture from Wikipedia). One advantage of travelling through medieval towns in winter is that when it snows you can pretend you’re in a Breugel painting.
Me disappearing into a Bruegel landscape during a winter visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
February, from Très Riches Heures by Paul Limbourg (picture courtesy of Wikipedia). You already how much I adore the Très Riches Heures, right? Travelling though rural France in winter by bus it’s not been much a stretch to see this French Gothic manuscript illumination out my window. Obviously I’m the lady in the blue dress warming her toes by the fire while her laundry hangs to dry around her.
Not pictured: medieval winter landscape and two budget travelers unthawing their toes in front of toasty radiator.