Revised December 28, 2018Whether you arrive during the dead of winter or the frenzy of the summer tourist season, you will have a great time. Yet, if you are fortunate enough to be able to select any season, you will want to consider spring and fall to visit the continent, when the crowds are smaller or gone and the prices of accommodations are lower.
When you choose to go should be based on
Someone who wants to go canyoning in southern France should do it when the sun warms the rocks you slide through, someone who is cold sensitive should plan a trip between May and September, because winter days can bring snow or dreary rain that makes travel difficult. But keep in mind that the weather is changing, that while Scandanavian countries are generally cool even during the summer they have had hot days without the ubiquitous air conditioning most travelers have come to expect.
Like most Americans, Europeans tend to take their vacations in the summer, especially those with children. If you are going to Europe to hear the sound of history echoing through castles and cathedrals, you might prefer to go off season when the crowds of locals and tourists thin. On the other hand, if you want to meet people, the warm nights of summer bring folks into the town squares and onto the streets, letting you experience the communal feeling that makes Europe so special.
The "high" season, throughout Europe, starts in late June and ends in August. Most Europeans vacation in July and August. Specific dates when "high season rates" go into effect vary by community or facility, but you will generally pay more for services and find things a bit more crowded if you are traveling during the months of July and August.
The benefit of traveling during the "high" season is that every museum, hotel and campground is open and eager to make their season's profit. This is particularly important to the traveler who wants to visit museums and churches--the summer schedules tend to be longer. The down-side is that additional hours may disappear as you wait in longer lines.
The "high" season is the best time for seaside, lakefront, and other water-oriented vacations. Companies that rent boats and sailboards are open, snack bars are ready to rent beach chairs and serve drinks, and campgrounds are in full operation. Until July, you are likely to find cooler temperatures and fewer facilities available. In September, many of those companies shut their doors for the season.
Alpine resorts have developed ways for tourists to enjoy the spectacular mountains even when the snow has melted from the mountainsides. The Olympic town of Chamonix is buzzing, winter and summer, with activities for bikers, climbers, and other thrillseekers. Many other ski resorts open their cable cars and ski lifts for summer sightseeing, offer summer luge rides or toboggans on rails, and provide exhilarating ziplining experiences to visitors. Even as summers get warmer, there are still many ways to enjoy the Alps in June, July and August, all made easier by the varied forms of transportation, funicular, cable car, cogwheel train, and "telepherique", that will get you to the peaks.
Those who travel in spring and fall will surely save money, for most prices are lower during these "shoulder" periods. Europeans who aren't traveling with school age children often schedule their vacations in June, when facilities are open and less expensive but while the staffs at hotels and campgrounds are still enthusiastic about the upcoming tourist season. Many of the eager, helpful young people who start working in June are exhausted by the end of August and, perhaps, a little less energetic than they were a few months earlier. And as crowds thin, the number of facilities serving tourists also diminish, especially those providing activities that appeal to families with school-children. We were surprised to find limited restaurant choices in popular tourist towns the week after schools reopened in France; this was true though many of the hotels were fully booked. The crowds who travel off-season are often retired or traveling with infants and toddlers, enjoying the last of the sunny days before the rains and snows return.
Though most of Europe greets its guests in the warm summer months, the tourist season never ends in many of the major cities. Museums operate on shortened off-season schedules and fewer hours of daylight and more layers of clothing are part of the bargain, but if you want to spend a week in the Louvre or the Vatican Museum, a trip in February or November might be perfect. If you're heading to the flower fields of Holland or the great gardens of Europe, you'll want to look at dates in April or early May.
To start planning, pull out your calendar, check with travel partners and find a different dates that would work for you. Then make a list of the things you'd most like to see while you are there, noting which ones occur on specific dates or in specific seasons. That should help you decide. If there's nothing that says you should go in off-season and if it's your first trip, try to schedule your trip in June or early July, when you'll get to vacation like a European and enjoy the attractions that fill their summer holidays. Summer trips are more likely to be filled with crowds but also the beauty of parades and light shows and the religious celebrations that are so much of European life.
How Hot or Cold Will It Get
Ireland & Great Britain
These islands enjoy moderate temperatures most of the year and can attribute their beauty to the frequent rains that develop from the warm gulf currents. Winters can be cold with fog or, in more northern locations, snow. The sunniest seasons are spring and fall.
Summer days are long and comfortable, though rain is common. Winter temperatures, during the long northern nights, may stay below freezing for weeks.
Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, and Northern France
Summer brings warm weather with a likelihood of afternoon rains in many parts of this area. Still, the northern shores of these countries fill with sun-worshippers who enjoy the beauty of its pleasant summer climates. Expect some gray days in the these lovely places whenever you visit, but enjoy the lushness that the occasional rains bring to the area. Winter snows can be expected but rarely stay for long periods.
Switzerland, Austria, and the German and French Alps
The altitude and latitude of this area ensure the early arrival of winter snows that may continue into April. For winter sports enthusiasts, the weather is ideal, especially because it is likely to be bright and clear when it isn't snowing. Summer days are equally beautiful, though clouds frequently develop in the region and cling to the mountaintops. You are likely to experience a spectacular summer thunderstorm if you travel to this region, so build some extra time into your schedule so that you can wait till a potential storm blows through to enjoy this region. Fall is often the best time to visit. Whatever time you visit, remember that you are often above 2000 meters (6000 feet) in the Alps and may experience cold temperatures and storms. Bring clothing for the worst even if the sun is shining when you start your day.
Spain, Southern France, Italy, Greece and the Adriatic States
Be prepared for very warm/hot days that end with comfortable but sometimes humid evenings if you travel during the summer. In southern France you may also experience the strong, hot winds of the Mistral which blow violently through Provence and affect temperatures throughout the Mediterranean. (If you are camping, prepare for these winds which may fill your tent with dust and sand; in Venice, the same winds often cause the area near St. Mark's to flood.) Plan to develop a tan wherever you stay in this region during the summer and schedule sightseeing in the early hours and evening. Save the heat of the day for swimming and relaxation. Winter temperatures are fairly comfortable -- temperatures rarely drop below freezing. The best travel weather comes in late spring and returns in early fall.
Many people come to these countries to enjoy their summer warmth. While the air can be hot and humid in Venice, the balmy temperatures are ideal for playing in the Adriatic. If you are headed to Slovenia or Croatia, summer temperatures make river or ocean kayaking delightful and provide those sailing through the coastal islands with sunshine to warm the blowing breezes.
Like Ireland, Portugal experiences the warmth and rain that is carried to it by the Gulf Stream, which is much warmer when it reaches Lisbon, so expect rain and warm days. Coastal temperatures tend to be consistently pleasant with small changes from the daytime low to the daytime high. Inland temperatures are still warm and mild.
Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania
These areas have warm summers but cool, snowy winters. These landlocked countries have climates that intensify the temperatures of their neighbors to the north as the warmth and moisture of the Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean dissipate as the air masses climb the Alps and other mountains to settle into these countries. Be prepared for cool gray autumns and springs as heavy winter fogs can linger into those seasons. If you arrive in winter, you may even find that the Danube has frozen as bitter winds arrive from the Ukraine bringing cruelly cold air.