Best Time to Travel
If you want to know “What is the best time to travel?” the honest answer is going to be “When you can!” There’s never a perfect time! You either don’t have the money, kids would miss school, some family event interferes, the dog sitter bails out at the last minute. When our young kids were not in school, we could travel in winter when things were least expensive. In elementary school, we’d travel shoulder season (fall or spring) and take them out of school for a week. Now, their schools really frown on taking kids out even for travel so we’re traveling in summer! So, my advice to you is: Look at the calendar, pick a time that makes sense and book the tickets as far in advance as you can. Then, you’re committed! Other considerations can influence your decision. Let’s review the three biggest ones: Cost, Crowds and Weather.
Costs are for-the-most-part cheaper in shoulder or low season than summer. Shoulder season is typically defined as April-mid-June and low season from Nov 01 to March 31 with an exception for Christmas break. The classic slowest time of the travel calendar is the first two weeks of December when people are distracted planning for the holidays or getting ready to travel over the holidays. When planning a family trip with multiple air tickets and perhaps a need for larger accommodations, the savings of avoiding high season can bolster your budget. I took my first son to France before he turned two years old so his ticket was still free. We had a blast!
My favorite time to travel with my family was over Spring Break in April or Fall Break in October. This worked well by pulling the kids from school and having them commit to doing “independent” projects plus their regular work negotiated with their teachers. Now, middle schools or high schools may enforce stricter moratoriums on this arrangement so summer or Christmas are the only options for longer than one week. Once you determine when you can go, then you can make decisions that align with that date to maximize your experience and minimize your expenses.
Despite the cost, traveling in Peak Season can also have its benefits. The weather is nice so the family can swim and go to the beach. The days are longer so you can stretch out the day’s activities to a leisurely pace. The key is booking your accommodations and activities early so you make sure to get what you want before the most desirable options get booked up.
Activities may be more pleasurable. Dinner alfresco in the evenings can’t be beat. There’s always a full schedule of festivals and events. Parks and gardens are in full bloom. The short answer is … each season has its pros and cons. Go when you can!
Everyone hears stories of how crowded the top tourist sites can be during Peak Season. It’s true, top sites are crowded but it’s because they are wonderful to see. First, you have to reconcile with yourself that you are not going to see everything. It’s simply impossible and you don’t want to make the family miserable while trying. We always have the “Next time” list and take it in stride. Not all of Europe is as crowded as you would think in summer. In France and Italy, the locals go on vacation especially in August and the cities empty out of locals but this rarely interferes with the establishments that a tourist typically encounters.
The crunch is manageable with a bit of planning. The three things you can do to avoid unnecessary disappointment is to plan ahead, pick a couple of special highlights, and relax.
Plan ahead: Thinking through what you really want to do and how you want the experience to roll out has enormous implications. The flights will be busy so book early not only for the best fare but also for the best seat assignments (see Planning Ahead Activities and Getting There). Prepare your kids for the travel days. Many appealing accommodations fill up early so decide what kind you want: downtown hotel, a local apartment, small town villa? Decide if you want to book organized tours, probably best if you have older children, or “Skip the Line” entry tickets to major attractions so your family is not exhausted by wasting hours just waiting to get in somewhere (see Accommodations and Activities). Planning ahead also means packing properly so your family is comfortable and prepared and you don’t have to waste time tracking down some item you accidently left at home or dealing with bored, cranky kids (see Packing).
Pick Highlights: Every destination has something really cool that your family would enjoy. Pick one or two as the highlights of your trip and build the rest of your trip around them. For example, maybe you have always dreamed of going to Wimbledon or sleeping in a castle or sailing on the Mediterranean or seeing the Vatican. Don’t just see the Eiffel Tower, have dinner there! Be sure to get your kids involved if they aren’t too young. I’ve seen kids bring costumes appropriate for where they are. Or, look at pictures together or ask your children what they would like to do. Try to build in relaxing time at the beach if you are also planning to see a big city.
Relax: Once you get going, go with the flow. No trip escapes some unexpected surprise so don’t get uptight. Model good traveler behavior for your children. Keep smiling and be sensitive to the needs of your family.
Plan for what weather you can expect. Dress in layers and be prepared for rain. If it’s winter, just look for more activities that lend themselves to the weather. Sites will be empty of the summer throngs so you have more time to explore. Castles can be so atmospheric in winter! A fun bus tour on an especially rainy day is a good way to see a lot while enjoying a comfortable seat. Or, go to a concert or other cultural event. Find a café that has a story and have soup, a special pastry or tea time. Be sure to plan for short days as the latitude in Europe makes for early sunsets in winter. On the opposite end of the scale, the hot days of summer present their own challenges. Having an umbrella for shade ($3 at Walmart) or a fan ($0.99 at World Market) can provide a lot of relief. Don’t feel guilty taking a siesta in the afternoons like the locals. Kids and you will need it! Head back out in the evenings when the lights and stars come out. Heavenly! With a little forethought your family can manage to have an exceptional trip no matter what the weather!