American Airlines has some great off-peak prices for award tickets to Europe. Rather than the usual price of 60,000 miles, during off-peak a roundtrip ticket would only cost 40,000 miles. And you can get that amount of miles simply by getting the AAdvantage credit card’s 50,000 mile bonus. (Learn more about these off-peak prices here.)
So when is “off-peak” for Europe?
According to American Airlines, off-peak for Europe is anytime between October 15 and May 15. Other airlines may have different off-peak dates. But basically off-peak exists during the colder, winter months. (US Airway’s off-peak dates for Europe are extremely narrow- only January 15-February 28.)
For this post, we’re going to consider the more generous off-peak dates and take a look at the pros and cons of traveling Europe during winter.
1.) Christmas Markets
The month of December is an absolutely charming time to be in Europe because of the vast number of cities that set up “Christmas Markets” in their main squares. Imagine the quaint and decorative architecture of days gone by, set aglow with festive lights and market stalls selling baked goods, hot spiced wine and bratwurst. It’s as if people are fighting back against the gloom of an early sunset.
Each Christmas Market is a little bit different. In Verona, Italy you may find dried meats. In Villach, Austria you’ll find plenty of bratwurst and glühwein; in Brussels, waffles and in Prague, traditional rolled pastries called Trdelnik.
2.) Snow in the Alps
The Alps take on a different feel when covered in snow. Even if snow has not yet made it to the ground below, when the peaks are dusted and white, it feels like the Alps are all the more striking. Not to mention Ski enthusiasts can explore the Alps best when they’re covered in snow.
3.) A (slight) decrease in tourism
“Local tourism” is still pretty big during the Christmas season when Christmas Markets decorate the city. But otherwise you may notice slightly cheaper hotel rates and slightly thinner crowds. Certainly, as mentioned in the first paragraph, you tend to at least see slightly cheaper airfare.
1.) European winters produce gray and sometimes foggy skies
My first trip to Europe was during the summer years ago. But since then, most of my European travel has been during the winter time. This time around I finally decided that it is not just a coincidence that most days are sun-less. In beautiful Bled, Slovenia there was always either fog or clouds creating a thick veil over the steep mountains behind the lake. Rather than the striking photos of peaks reflected in the lake’s waters and towering above the local castle…I have some misty photos that barely even permit a sighting of the island on the lake.
2.) Sometimes tourism is too slow
While reduced levels of tourism can be nice in hot-spots like Prague and Venice, for more off-the-beaten-path destinations like Bled, Slovenia or Bercthesgaden, Germany, you may find that half the town is closed down. This means half the number of choices for hotels and very few options for dining as well. And restaurants that DO stay open likely have sporadic hours.
3.) Extremely short days
Europe is Northerly enough that the hours of daylight are quite minimal during the winter months. In Prague in December for example, the sun sets at 4 pm and it’s pretty much totally dark by 4:30pm. According to timeanddate.com Prague has 8 hours and 11 minutes of daylight on this day, December 9th. Compare that to Boston’s 9 hours and 11 minutes.
We made the mistake of sleeping in today and by the time we squared away a bit of online work and lunch, we only had two hours of daylight in which to site-see.
Europe is beautiful. Just walking around ancient little cobble-stoned streets and soaking up the feeling of being somewhere timeless and historical is all I need for my Europe tours. And in that case, I really don’t mind doing this meandering whilst wrapped in coats and scarves. Especially when there’s an ample supply of hot spiced wine or hot cocoa to sip as I walk.
But for lovers of photography, it can be quite frustrating. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been, my husband and I sometimes wait until the sun sets to take our photos. We switch to a lens that works best in low-lighting and take advantage of all the golden lights of evening. We prefer this to giant opaquely gray skies that dull the photo.
I have recently decided that wander-lusters come in many varieties- many more than I had thought. You know, we like to find our commonalities so it is comfortable to believe that a traveler is a traveler is a traveler is a traveler. But one man’s treasure is another one’s trash. That is true for the non-material treasures we find out on the road just as it is in “real life” back home with material things.
For instance when my husband and I were conversing about the reasons why we travel, one man said that our travel style would not be his idea of a good time at all, even though he considers himself a traveler too. For him, travel is about photography and natural beauty. And if he can’t take his camera lenses somewhere, then it won’t be as joyful to be there.
The fact is, there are as many types of travelers as there are types of people. There are people who love history and that’s why they travel. And people who love people and that’s why they travel. Or people who love animals and that’s why they travel. It goes on and on.
Of course, most of us who love travel probably have many passions sourcing that love. We love people and adventure and culture and artwork and nature…and that is why we travel.
For that reason, it can be hard to answer that question…”Where was your favorite place to travel to?” One place fuels one passion while another place fuels another.
Thus, I give you my 15 paradises for my 15 different passions.
Zakynthos is just the place to go to feel like the rest of the world’s hustle is out of reach. The towns are small and everything is on “island time.” The day’s itinerary often included “jumping into blue water” and “riding a scooter along the cliffs.”
Amritsar is essentially the birthplace of the Sikhs and is home of their most important temple, the Golden Temple. Unlike some religious sights, the Golden Temple is both accommodating to tourists and apathetic of them. I love that. They are purely going about their own religious duties here and while tourists are welcome (as long as they cover their heads and remove their shoes,) there are no disgenuine displays for them.
It’s a place to soak up a genuinely fascinating series of religious practices. Men and women bathe in the waters, there is a kitchen dedicated to serving literally thousands of poor people and visitors, and many of the men have enormous turbans and long swords at their sides, important pieces of the Sikh disciplines.
Anyone who’s been to Prague disagrees with me on this but I have yet to see Prague (hopefully this fall). So until I see Prague, Vienna wins out as my favorite city for architectural beauty. Every building has that gorgeous stature of something built in a time when things were beautiful instead of efficient. The effect is quite romantic. Unfortunately the Rathaus, one of the most impressive buildings in Vienna, is frequently hosting private festivals, parties, events, etc. So you cannot always get very close to it if a special event is going on.
Not to worry though. Every other building is beautiful too.
Queenstown is not only gorgeous but also has at least three different area mountains for skiing, snowboarding, etc. etc, including The Remarkables which are…remarkable! But you aren’t out of luck if you dislike skiing or snowboarding. You can go sky-diving or hang-gliding or hiking. There’s something for everyone.
Switzerland is full of incredible views at every turn. Just driving to your destination is an activity in and of itself simply for the scenery throughout the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, it’s heinously expensive.
I love Thai food. Everything from the fried noodle dishes of Pad Thai and Pad See Ew to the soups like Tom Ka Gai and Tom Yum. Thai food is full of the delicious flavors of kefir lime, lemongrass, ginger, coconut milk and other novel things. If you like spicy food go for the Pad Kra Pow (minced chicken in peppers and basil) or if you like the sweeter dishes, go for the Tom Ka Gai, (a coconut based soup with straw mushrooms, pea eggplants and other quintessentially Thai ingredients.)
Bangkok in particular is a good spot for Thai food because you will be able to find Northern Thai dishes as well as Southern Thai dishes. Also Bangkok has lots of street vendors with quality dishes for sometimes even less than a dollar.
Fiji is not only home to some pretty amazing tropical fish, but to some impressive soft corals as well, which contributes greatly to its popularity as a spot for diving and snorkeling. Snorkeling is a beautiful adventure in the Yesawas where there’s no telling what you’ll see in the clear waters. (…anyone know what that thing in the picture is? We could never figure it out!)
Next time someone asks you where your “favorite place to travel” is, what will you say? Do you have a favorite place for each of your interests?
It’s an increasingly accepted as fact that, as a nation, we have allowed a work culture to develop where taking time off is seen a sign of disloyalty or lack of care, and where extended time off is more of a concept than a reality. It’s also a given that more and more data suggest that the costs of this approach in stress and lack of free time for rest, recreation and family is having a profoundly detrimental effect on our society.
Traveling in Europe always brings the difference between the US and European cultures with regard to work/life balance was illustrated in sharp relief for me. It’s one thing to hear how the Europeans put priority on the “life” side of the balance, and it is another to see it in action. As many know, the Europeans enjoy social benefits such as maternity as well as paternity leave, and up to six weeks of vacation time per year.
To see the very obvious benefits of that strategic choice for a shorter work year play out in the lives of everyday Europeans illustrates the point. Watching families strolling in the parks, laughing and chatting happily, on a weekday afternoon or visiting with friends over a drink in a café—enjoying the free time their generous benefits affords them—is to reinforce any stressed-out American’s suspicion that we are on the wrong side of the equation.
Of course, there are economic trade-offs along with such benefits. With less time focused on work and more time focused on free time, GDP is affected and taxes are high to support these benefits. Countries with a historically take-it-easy approach to life such as Italy and Spain had no trouble swapping time at work for time with friends, but how do these policies fare in the more traditionally industrious nations of the north? Does this bother many of them?
Not very much, it seems. “Everyone hates taxes of course,” a German told me, “but we willingly make the trade-off because it’s a good bargain. The time is more valuable.” Another said, “We made the conscious choice to arrange the society this way, with the emphasis on maternal and paternal leave and more vacation time. It has many positive benefits. We just do with a little less material things.”
In a surprising finding that bolsters the arguments of proponents for more European-syle work arrangements, a recent analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (link to the study is here) found that workplace productivity doesn’t necessarily increase with hours worked. Workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but the latter’s productivity is 70 percent higher. In other words, there’s not necessarily the direct correlation that our system is predicated on.
“You Americans kill yourselves with antiquated work policies,” says a French acquaintance. “You have two weeks of vacation, if you are very lucky. We are a very prosperous, industrialized economy with a national healthcare service too. We make it all work.”
I knew it begged an inevitable question, and my friend asked it. “So why can’t you?”
That statement and its inevitable question was put to me many times, in many places. It is a question I brought back to the US with me. It stayed in my mind as my flight arced across the Atlantic and over the North American continent, remaining as an important souvenir. The issue was never about lingering in cafés or visiting the Alps, but rather the stuff of a good life: choices, time and freedom to make of it what we will. Would you be happier and more productive if you had more of these? What will it take for us as a society to finally demand it?
Since it’s summer and the beach is on my mind, I thought I would do a recap of my favorite beaches I’ve visited over the years. I’m not really one for the crowded party beaches, or cold weather beaches, both of those seem to have made my list because of how beautiful they are. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that there’s nothing much better than walking a quite beach at sunset, reading a good book in the shade, or enjoying a tropical drink with the ocean in view. Most of these beaches took a bit of traveling to get to but they were worth it.
We’ll start with Italy, specifically the Amalfi Coast.
A friend and I made the trip here a few years ago and I was amazed at how picturesque it was. We rented a car and had to drive up along the coastal cliffs, which for me was a bit nerve-wrecking. The roads were narrow and windy and people drive insanely fast. In September we were able to find a last minute hotel for around $40 a night, with a beautiful ocean view. To get to the beach you had to follow steep switchback stairs for about half an hour through charming coastal neighborhoods. Some parts of the beach are crowded, others very secluded.
Beach number two, Gili Meno, a small island in Indonesia.
Getting here required a flight to Bali, then a flight to the island of Lombok, then a taxi to the harbor, and then a long boat to the second island in the Gili chain. My friend and I were dropped off on the beach after sunset with no hotel reservations and no plan, but as we walked the coast we easily found a hotel with friend staff right on the beach (as are all of the hotels there). You can walk the perimeter of the entire island in one hour, and the sunsets are supposedly world famous.
Starting from Minneapolis, Minnesota, I spent 30 days exploring the United States (traveling to 37 states) and documenting the faces and places I saw on the Greyhound Bus system with photographs and short stories. I showered rarely, slept infrequently, ate poorly, and I loved every uncomfortable minute of it.
My fascination with the culture of the Greyhound started in college when I would take the bus to Montana to visit a dear friend. As I discerned my creative inspiration to street photography, I felt a pull to quit my awful job, forget about my recent heartbreak and get on the road. Why wait?!
While exploring in the few moments I had off of the bus, I wanted to learn about each city’s preferred method of travel. Was it bus? Subway? Bicycle? On foot? Why were people commuting the way they were? As you can imagine, the answers varied based on financial and geographical limitations.
I took over 4000 digital and film photographs using four different cameras: Canon DSLR, Holga, Fish Eye and iPhone. My trip was funded solely by the Minneapolis community with individual donations. The gallery exhibit profiling my journey was funded by a FEAST MPLS grant I won in November 2010. My self published book, Falling Asleep Behind the Lens, documenting my journey is available on my website: KPCreates.com
Finding yourself tired and achy after a long day’s sightseeing in Budapest? That can be easily fixed by indulging in one of the city’s great experiences—a long soak in the healing waters that residents and visitors have been availing themselves of since Ottoman times. Blessed by its location—it sits above numerous natural springs spouting warm water fortified with minerals—the Hungarian capital offers visitors some of the world’s great public bath experiences.
With over fifty baths, spas and public pools, Budapest wisely takes full advantage of the waters burbling up from its sediment. The experience of the spa/bath has become a way of life in this city, and integral part of its social fabric. Some baths date to the sixteenth century when the Ottomans first indulged in the bath craze, and others date from the early twentieth century. It is not unusual for a Hungarian physician to prescribe a visit to the baths, such is the strength of Hungarians’ belief in the restorative powers of the experience.
There are dozens of great thermal baths to choose from, but for the first-time visitor the popular Széchenyi offers a fine look into a top-notch Budapest bath experience. Housed in a grand old yellow building situated in the City Park, the enormous complex with the Baroque copper dome looks like every bit the grand nineteenth-century retreat it is; a recent renovation has given the historic building a fresh coat of gleam.
The brainchild of a Budapest mining engineer, Széchenyi was the first thermal bath on the Pest side of the city, with records showing that an artisanal bath existed on the spot by 1881. By 2014 a full panoply of options existed, including an outpatient physiotherapy department.
Upon entering, you’ll choose the options you want (children under 2 are free and there is a special student discount), rent your towel, and hit the locker room to change. If you get lost in the complex or just plain overwhelmed by the choices, attendants in white will try their best to assist, though many do not speak English. This being Europe, there are some swimsuit-optional areas, but the American visitor will be happy to know that most patrons are covered—minimally, by severely strained Speedos—but still covered.
Settling into the hundred-degree water, stress tends to melt away like an ice cube under a blazing summer sun. There is nothing to do but watch the other visitors, a great European pastime. An observant guest will find a feast of people-watching opportunities such as blissed-out regulars playing chess in their Speedos and local big shots discussing weighty political matters while struggling to stay awake in the relaxing water, their eyelids heavy as steam swirls around them. Don’t worry; you almost certainly be the only tourist there.
There are older, more historic spas and thermal baths in town (some of the Ottoman-era spas) and swankier spas (the Gellert Baths are justifiably popular) but for a locally-loved and affordable introduction to Budapest’s water wonders, spending a lazy afternoon relaxing under Széchenyi’s glimmering domes is a great way to start.
For a trove of information on spas and bath experiences around the world, visit http://findmesauna.com/ run by spa connoisseur and world traveler Sandra Hunacker.
Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.
I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.
Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.
So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.
One of the many great things about Europe is the magnificent way it celebrates the Christmas season. Throughout the continent, a spirit of festivity can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies.
With that said, this is the first in a series of posts on the various ways Christmas is celebrated in Europe. While each country has its own festive quirks, many of them share the greatest of the ancient traditions and it’s a joy to be enveloped by it.
Germany, for example, is one of the most magical places to experience the season. This seems ironic, as it’s arguably Europe’s most progressive, twenty-first century nation. But old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Austrian border to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, Germany comes alive at the holidays. Its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.
The sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading the bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic old Germanic carols, their puffs of visible breath ascending into the sky on the frosty air.
Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the predominantly Catholic South and Protestant North (this, after all the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism). Jolly St. Nicholas looms in the dreams of children eager for the big day to arrive.
It’s a good reminder that there is more to Germany that Oktoberfest and the Autobahn. They keep the best of their ancient traditions very much alive as they indulge in the classic sights, sounds and tastes of Christmas festivity.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Ancient Mayan religious rites being performed in a Catholic cathedral… a unique blend of religions that tells stories about a part of the world with a conflicting history.
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.