A lot of us tend to gain weight over the holidays. But our piggy banks seem to go the opposite direction. Still, if you plan carefully you can have a great winter holiday (without the crowds) in Europe, one of the most popular vacation spots for Canadians and North Americans. And there are a number of tips, tool and features known as travel hacks that can help you. Here are my top 2018 travel hacks that will help you plan a European trip that’s enjoyable, safe and cost-effective.
1. Choose your destination based on your budget
One of the best ways to narrow down the amazing array of choices is with KAYAK. They have a great Explore Tool, which is one of the best tools around for making educated (and budget-friendly) travel decisions. Explore features a sliding scale and filters so you can specify the money you have to spend, the time of year you want to go, how long you want to be away and the days you want to fly on.
You can even adjust the length of your flight, once you’ve done your initial search – this is really helpful, especially if you really hate getting up early or taking a redeye. For fun, I went online and typed in a search for a non-stop flight out of Toronto for Feb. 11-18. I asked KAYAK to find flights of up to 12 hours, but with a top price range of $1,000. One great thing about the tool is that it’s open to just about anything. There’s no predetermination that says, “Oh, Jim likes this kind of place or that kind of holiday.” So when I typed in my requirements for a trip, KAYAK’s Explore tool came back with dozens of options; everything from Dallas (I hadn’t thought of that) to Halifax to Aruba in this part of the world, as well as London and the Azores in Europe.
(I personally LOVE the Azores; the green countryside, black lava rocks and red-roofed villages feel like a combination of Ireland, Hawaii and mainland Portugal, which the Azores is part of. The hiking is tremendous, the people super-friendly and the food fantastic; both fresh seafood and surprisingly tasty steaks. It’s only five and-a-half hours from Toronto; the same as California on many flights I’ve taken. But so different and lush, with fine February daytime highs of around 16C.)
2. Travel in shoulder season
I got a flight from Toronto to Maui for about $700 Cdn in September a couple years ago. Recent searches for flights from San Francisco to Maui showed prices up around $800 US! So travel when it’s not so busy. Europe is great in February, as the tourists are mostly at home. Maybe it’s not 20 Celsius in Paris but who goes to Paris to work on their tan, anyway?
3. Consider lesser-known but still terrific destinations
Some popular cities, including Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona, have complained of being overrun by tourists. Some have talked about limiting visitors, so severe is the congestion and the general mayhem. You’ll find Las Ramblas in Barcelona or the tube in London considerably less jammed in February than you would in June or August, but you still should consider some lesser-known destinations.
Valencia is a great city that’s only a couple hours south of Barcelona. The City of Arts and Sciences is a gorgeous series of buildings designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. It’s a hugely popular spot on Instagram. But only a few steps away you’ll find old, medieval-looking streets and postcard-perfect cafes and church spires.
Rome and Florence are great, but they can be completely overrun at times. Try lesser-known regions such as Puglia in the south or Emilia-Romagna in the north, which is home to smaller cities such as Bologna but also amazing hilltop towns like San Leo. The island of Capri can be cheek-to-jowl with tourists. I loved my visit a few years ago to Ponza, a short boat ride from Rome.
There are great alternative cities all over Europe. London can be crazy busy and expensive as all get out, so try Manchester (awesome architecture) or Liverpool (great pubs and bars and museums, such as the new Tate Liverpool).
4. Get the lay of the land before selecting your accommodations
Another great tool on the KAYAK site is the hotel heat map feature. If you’re not familiar with a city, or even if you know a destination a little bit, it’s a great tool that points out hotel options at various price points on a map that also lets you highlight the main shopping, food, nightlife and sightseeing areas in a city. You can quickly look and find out if that hotel you were checking out for Vancouver is near the hottest areas for dining or late-night bars.
5. Choose the middle seat
When it’s time to book your seat, look for an aisle seat at the back in the middle section. Why? Because those are almost always the last seats anyone picks. If your flight has even a dozen empty seats, a few of those are likely to be the middle seats in the middle section (if your plane is laid out that way). If you’re on the aisle, you have at least a chance of having an empty seat next to you.
6. More clothing, less fees
Wear your heaviest clothes on the plane. They’re not weighing passengers yet, but you might pay a hefty fee if your bag is too heavy. Wear your jeans and a heavy coat on the plane and pack lighter stuff in your check-in bag. Better yet, try to get by with just a carry-on. If you ARE travelling with only a carry-on bag, you still have to be careful. Some airlines have cut back on how large they can be (mostly because people were trying to shove monster bags into tiny compartments). A few budget airlines even charge you for carry-on bags.
7. Mind your wallet
Using cash on the road helps you avoid those credit card expenses that smack you upside the head when you get home. Take some cash with you but not too much in case you lose your purse or wallet. Use ATM’s on the road. You might get dinged $5 per transaction, so try not to take out $20 at a time or your fees will skyrocket. On the other hand, you shouldn’t wander around any city in the world with $1,000 in your jeans so find a comfortable place between those two amounts. Also, it’s a good idea to keep your wallet in your front pocket instead of the back, where it’s easy to steal. If you carry a purse, keep it around your neck and upper body and not dangling loosely over a shoulder where someone can grab it.
Looking for other tips? Check out KAYAK.com to find tons of great travel hacks.
This blog was written in partnership with KAYAK