How to pack for all off-season European cruises by region; Mediterranean to Baltic; autumn, winter and spring
Christmas Market in Vienna - December 2012
I have traveled in Europe during all four seasons; summer, winter, spring and fall, to both the north and the south. Let's discuss the conditions in each region during all of the seasons and the ideal attire for you as a traveler.
Summer is the peak vacation season in Europe - for the locals as well as visitors. So, although it may be a convenient time to get away from your job, it is actually a more challenging time for Americans in Europe to see sites of interest due to the crowding. Yes, it is not only Americans who want to go to the top of the Eiffel tower, visit the Crown Jewels in London, gaze at David in Florence or tour the home of Mozart in Salzburg.
Workers throughout Europe typically get four to eight weeks of vacation time every year, and in a continent full of small villages with family owned businesses, it is common for the local businesses to scale back and open for fewer hours or just close up shop for the entire month of August. So, not only are you battling the hordes of international tourists, you are also in towns where half of the workforce is on their own vacation.
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The Regions of Europe
There are basically three different climatic regions of Europe; the Mediterranean with its hot air blowing in from Africa; the middle region of the Slavic and Germanic states, and the northern region surrounding the Baltic Sea.
Summer Weather in Europe
Crowding conditions aside, summer is still the most popular season to visit Europe due to the comfortable weather. It is not impossible to see Europe in the summer - it is just more crowded. That being said, summer is always a magic season with its warmer nights and less restrictive dress requirements.
Summer is the only season to visit the Baltic region. In fact, most ships stop cruising there in September. I have been to St .Petersburg, Russia, in mid-September and it was very, very chilly - low 40s and quite windy. I would not want to go any later in the year. Right now, (December 2012) the city is experiencing temperatures below 0-degrees F.
The summer weather is also beautiful for river cruises along the Danube and Rhine. But even the Bavarian region can be surprisingly warm and humid during the summer months. If you need a hotel, try to book one with air conditioning.
Naturally, that means all Mediterranean ports like Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Athens and Istanbul are just plain hot in summer, often close to 100-degrees Fahrenheit. While all cruise vessels have air conditioning, not all hotels do.
Autumn Weather in Europe
Technically, winter does not start until the solstice on December 21, but the climatic changes between September and December are vast. Summer ends in late September, meaning the month can be even hotter than August, especially in the south. In the middle states like Germany it can be the perfect time to travel, usually just starting to cool down in early October. As noted, in the Baltic it is already starting to get frigid and can be very cold, although the days can alternate with very warm ones, depending on the prevailing weather system.
By October a jacket is mandatory in Northern Italy and the middle regions. This can be the ideal time to visit the Mediterranean, however. The Baltic region has already closed down. Although Russian River cruises continue through mid-October by that time they are very cold - deep winter conditions.
By December you are experiencing cold weather in most of Europe. A southern Mediterranean cruise to Athens and the Holy Lands can still be very nice this time of year. However, France and Northern Italy will be brisk, but not frigid cold. A heavy jacket and gloves are recommended, although you probably do not need long johns or wool caps. Southern Italy can be very pleasant, a light jacket.
I just returned from a "Christmas Markets" cruise on the Danube last week (December 8-15, 2012) - technically still autumn. We started in Hungary and ended in Germany, passing through Austria on the way. The day I arrived in Budapest my very first task was to find a hat that covered my ears and a pair of long johns. The temperatures were in the 20s to 30s (F), but the wind got very chilly. You will need wool socks, long underwear, a heavy hat, a neck scarf (or equivalent) and gloves. Ideally, everything should be waterproof because rain and snow are very likely. But it can also get just warm enough to turn the snow to mush. Wet and cold feet are very uncomfortable, so try to find water-proof shoes, water-resistant at least.
Winter Weather in Europe
From January through early March tourism slows to a crawl in Europe except in the Mediterranean. It is a good time to see the archeological wonders of Rome, Greece, Athens and Egypt if your goal is to avoid crowds. You will have many of these places mostly to yourself, but be prepared to dress warmly and not to spend much time sitting in outdoor cafes.
You will also find shipboard cruises to Madeira, the Canary Islands and North Africa sailing in January from as far north as Genoa, stopping in Rome, Barcelona and Malaga. Cruises from Venice to the Greek Isles and Turkey are also common.
River cruises on the Danube and Rhine generally "go dark" in January through early March, meaning they stop running completely.
Spring Weather in Europe
The return of river cruises in Europe corresponds to the day of the spring solstice.
March 20 is when the Tulips and Windmills cruises start in Holland. These cruises can be very chilly, a heavy jacket and gloves are recommended. The season begins in early March and ends in late April, so expect the weather to change considerably depending on which end of that season you choose.
French cruises from Paris to Normandy (to the north) or to Avignon (to the south) also resume with the spring solstice. I once took a cruise on the Seine River in late March, from Paris north through Normandy. Paris was quite cold; heavy jacket, gloves and hat required. But we also had periods of gently warm breezes during the days in Givernay. As we got closer to Le Havre and the beautiful Honfleur near the beaches of Normandy it was brisk enough that long johns would have been welcome, had we brought them, but that was the only day, so we managed the trip without them.
Of course, solstice weather is also always unpredictable, so it is best to be prepared for cold and feel lucky if you do not need to wear them.
Dressing for Any Cruise
I have another article called "how to pack for any cruise" which recommends always bringing clothes you can layer. I got by on my Christmas Markets cruise in Germany in December using a t-shirt, a long-sleeve polo shirt, a wind breaker and a medium jacket on top. You do not need an "arctic jacket" for Europe if you bring enough clothes to layer.
However - there are always two things to consider; how likely are you to get wet? A cruise to the North Cape of Norway in August can chill you to the bone if you happen to get wet. This can happen on expedition cruises where a lot of sightseeing is done in Zodiac-style rubber pontoon boats. It can also happen if it rains. Keep in mind that cold and wet fingers and toes can be miserable - so take waterproof gloves and shoes.
Summer is not the only season to visit Europe - it is equally attractive in winter, although in different ways. The advantages are less crowding and generally lower airfare and hotel costs. Keep an open mind and be prepared and you will have a fantastic vacation.
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