We’ve been on 3 European trips during the winter. The first one was in Spain in March 2006. Next was Poland with a Christmas Market tour on the Danube from Budapest to Prague in 2013, and then Italy for 3 weeks, a cruise on the Mediterranean and London during November/December of 2014. Being a Southern Californian gal from Los Angeles, I wasn’t used to dealing with cold weather and had to find warm clothes to wear and pack them so I wouldn’t break my back in the process. I made some silly mistakes on all three trips and that’s why I wanted to offer my winter travel tips to help anyone who comes from a warm climate deal with traveling in winter.
Winter Travel Tips
1. Don’t be afraid of traveling in the middle of winter – it’s fun!
One of the best parts of winter travel is that there are fewer people on the streets to deal with and shorter lines at popular attractions. Traveling during the holidays is also gorgeously festive. When I read the itinerary of our Christmas Market cruise, I planned to skip the markets and sign up for other excursions because I’m not a huge shopper, Jewish, and thought it would be cheesy. Was I ever wrong! The Christmas markets are stunning with amazing holiday foods, drinks, decorations, arts and crafts, music and fun. Now, I can’t wait to see more. Luckily, I eat pork because there were yummy sausages everywhere and OH, were they delicious!
2. You get better rates and service during the offseason
Flights for winter travel are generally cheaper because there isn’t as much demand. Our driver in Italy told us that we were there at the best time because in the summer it’s so crowded that waiters, hotel staff, and shop owners get cranky and customer service is bad. Winter travel is more relaxed. You can carry on meaningful conversations and get to know the locals. Prices overall are usually lower too.
Popular tourist spots like Saint Tropez are empty in the winter. While we were there, we sat down at one of their famous restaurants and were shocked at how expensive it was even though there were only a few customers. We got up and found a local hangout that was affordable, yummy and relaxing.
3. Pack as light as possible even though it’s cold
On our trip to Spain, Doug and I each brought a huge suitcase that weighed in at 50 lbs and one 22″ carry-on. My big suitcase was stuffed with bulky sweaters, a big wool coat, and knitted hats. Doug’s brother was the set and costume designer for a production of La Boheme at the Teatro Real in Madrid. Our plan was to spend two weeks in Spain traveling by train and then one week in Madrid to visit his brother, who had invited us to attend the performance and King’s reception. That meant we had to carry formal wear in addition to everything else. Trying to lug all our luggage from one train to the other and to each hotel was a bitch and we swore we’d never carry that much again.
We were determined to travel light when we went to Poland. I bought a navy blue synthetic down parka that easily squished into a small bag. It had a metallic lining that regulates heat and cold. Underneath, I wore a black thin cotton shirt, black leggings and a sturdy pair of boots that were comfortable and had good treads for walking on cobblestones. It became my basic uniform. I also packed infinity scarves, gloves, silk thermal tee shirts, and a flattering travel dress for special occasions.
4. Only bring a carry-on
As I learned in Spain, carrying too much luggage is hard, especially if you’re over 50. I also hate the thought of losing my luggage in transit. Now I only bring a carry-on no matter where I travel or for how long. A 22-inch carry-on bag, with a large pocket to slip my computer in, is all I really need. If I weren’t a writer, I’d leave my computer at home because it adds to the weight. That’s why I love leggings, silk underwear, and micro-fiber scarves. They keep you warm, don’t wrinkle, and can be packed into a tiny space.
I always carry my coat on to the plane and put it in on my seat because it’s smooshy and comfy for long flights. Boots take up space in my suitcase, so I wear them to board the plane, but take them off once we’re in the air and replace them with socks and light slippers so my feet don’t swell and to use the restroom. The only hard part is getting the carry-on up into the overhead. I’ve found that younger men are willing to help if you give them a look like “Hey, I could be your mother. (or Grandmother) Be a good Boy Scout and help me out.” They usually oblige because they know you’ll accidentally whack them on the head with your suitcase if they don’t.
A good rule of thumb for knowing how much to bring on a trip is to take your bags downtown before you leave and walk around with them to see how hard it will be. There aren’t always elevators and help available in train stations and small airports. When we arrived late at the Port in Rome to board The Queen Elizabeth for our Mediterranean cruise, we saw two “over 50” women trying to drag HUGE bags from the train to the ship’s Embarkation station. There was no one there to help because most of the passengers had already boarded. We were lugging our own bags along with items we had bought during our 3 weeks in Italy. You can believe that we were all ready for a martini once we made it to our staterooms.
5. Shop in countries that offer discounts
Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are not on the Euro, so clothing, restaurants, and activities are much more affordable. If you live in a warm climate like me you may not have much of a selection of stylish winter clothes to choose from. Shopping in countries where the dollar has more value is a good opportunity to find unique items you won’t find where you live at affordable prices.
Travel Shopping Tip – If you’re ever in Gibraltar, everything you purchase is duty-free.
6. Stay in a hotel that reflects the culture of the country you are visiting
Small boutique hotels run by locals, as opposed to major chains, are a much better way to immerse yourself in the culture and lifestyle of the country you are in. Winter travel is, even more, fun during the holidays.
Before we left for Poland, I noticed that our travel agent had booked us into a big American hotel in Warsaw that was 30 minutes away from the old town center. That didn’t sit well with me because I love being within walking distance of historical sites and medieval towns. I went online to TripAdvisor and found a hotel with glowing reviews called The Castle Inn. It’s located across from the Royal Castle in Old Town Warsaw and has a quirky, bohemian feel. Each room has a different theme. Our travel agent immediately protested, but I made him make the switch. I’m so glad I did because we absolutely adored our room. The hotel staff was friendly, helpful and they had a fabulous free “Polish” breakfast. Check out the guy who sits in their lobby below.
Our room had a psychedelic theme.
We could walk outside and see Old Warsaw being dressed up for Christmas. What a treat!
If you really want to be infused with the culture, rent a home or flat at Home Away.
7. Dress so you won’t be tempted to delete your selfies
Bulky winter clothes make you look even bulkier, especially in pictures. If you’re not happy with your over-50 body, you may feel tempted to trash all the pictures taken of you before they make it to Facebook. It’s frustrating to share photos that make you look 20 pounds heavier than you actually are. Shoot wide shots instead of close-ups to show off the scenery and de-emphasize parts of your body you aren’t happy with. Warm, sleek leggings are not only comfortable but slimming when coupled with a long shirt of the same color. It’s a good way to disguise an over 50 muffin top.
8. Be careful with your money and stay safe
When you’re walking in crowds, especially a busy Christmas market, you always have to be aware of pickpockets. I like to carry a small backpack to keep my hands free and use it to store small purchases, food, my water bottle and other paraphernalia I may pick up. But, I never ever use it to store valuables like my phone, camera, important documents, or money. I wear those around my neck underneath my coat. There are all sorts of small organizer bags available on Ebags that include passport holders, money belts, and RFID protected wallets, and purses.
It’s confusing when you travel to countries with different currencies. Poland has Zlotys, Hungary HUFs, Prague – Crowns, Germany, and Austria Euros. Converting them is hard to figure out if you’re not a math genius. It was a good thing Doug is better at numbers than I am because I’m hopeless.
Tipping in some countries is also confusing. If you put a tip on your credit card, the waiter may not receive it because the restaurant takes it all. It’s usually better to tip with cash. In many countries outside the United States, 10% is more than enough. Tipping may not be required in a few countries and may, instead, be thought of as an insult.
As much as I hate to mention this, we all have to be careful about the possibility of terrorist attacks. I don’t believe it should prevent us from traveling but always keep a lookout and know what to do in the event something horrible happens. The attack at the Berlin Christmas Market and so many other iconic places in the world is abhorrent and maddening.
9. Make rinsing out winter clothes easy
On extended winter travel trips or any time of year, there will come a time when your clothes need to be rinsed out and the easier you can make it the better. Who wants to wait for a bulky sweater stained with hot cider to dry out when you can pack easy dry garments instead? The same goes for underwear. Leave your cotton undies at home and pack 3 – 4 pairs of quick drying underwear that won’t slip off. (For some reason, now that I’m older, my underwear falls off at the most inopportune times.) That way they won’t take up extra space and can be rinsed and dry by the time you wake up in the morning. Most hotels offer shampoo samples. Instead of bringing detergent, rinse out your clothes with shampoo. Synthetic down winter jackets dry quickly but if you put them in a dryer use low heat so they don’t melt.
10. Be prepared for an emergency when you travel
While we were in Vienna, I received the sad news that my 90-year-old father had passed away. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear on my trip of a lifetime. I didn’t return right away because my sister was handling the arrangements and we were on a river cruise in the middle of Austria and Germany. On the last day of our trip, our hotel concierge in Prague was able to arrange a re-routed trip to Colorado instead of LA for his memorial. In order to qualify for a bereavement discount, I had to track down the funeral home in rural Colorado to receive a copy of my dad’s death certificate. The funeral director had to drive to the doctor and then back to the funeral home to scan it. Our concierge helped tremendously, so in that case, I was glad we stayed at the large hotel our cruise company recommended.
During winter travel the weather may be bad so bring shoes that are designed to keep you from slipping. A bad fall can seriously screw up your entire vacation. I tripped over my suitcase the 3rd day of our cruise on The Queen Elizabeth and bruised one of my toes. The ship had a small hospital and spa on board so even though it was painful to walk, their stellar services made it easier.
Winter travel may also mean you have to cancel or re-route your trip due to weather or airport closures. Always purchase travel insurance whenever you travel in case of an emergency.
Do you have winter travel tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below.