Summer travel can be crowded, hot and expensive, especially in Europe, where it’s peak tourist season.
But there are ways to make the most of a summer trip, says guidebook writer and travel expert Rick Steves.
Steves says most lines at tourist sites aren’t to get inside, but to buy tickets. The solution: Buy tickets ahead, online, or look for combination tickets that can be purchased at less popular spots where there are no lines.
For example, one ticket covers Rome’s Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, so buy tickets at the Palatine Hill where there are no crowds. Then you can walk right into the Colosseum without waiting on the ticket-buying line there.
Steves says “the greatest congestion” at most attractions in Europe is from 10am to 4pm. That’s when tour buses bring groups. If an attraction opens earlier or later, “be there and it’s all yours”. On a recent visit to Versailles, Steves said, “I came late and I had the Hall of Mirrors to myself”.
Steves also thinks travellers overreact to terrorism, and that’s cut crowds in some places: “Those people who have a grip and don’t confuse fear with risk” can visit “Paris or Greece or even Egypt and be all alone at the pyramids of Giza”.
But summer crowds aren’t always bad. “For most of Europe north of the Alps, believe it or not, I want crowds,” Steves said. “Norway is boring when there’s no crowds. Ireland shuts down when there’s no crowds. Crowds enliven medieval banquets in Wales. The tourist office is open in Cornwall when there are people there. So I like the good weather and the liveliness that comes with peak season travel in the north of Europe,” along with long hours of daylight.
BEAT THE HEAT LIKE A LOCAL
Handle summer heat like “local people do”, whether it’s taking an afternoon siesta or eating dinner at 9pm when it’s cooler. In Turkey, he said, people believe in drinking hot liquids as a way to stay hydrated.
“The smart traveller is like a cultural chameleon,” he added.
Steves also advises getting “a hotel in the centre of town so you have a refuge, where you can take a little break and not carry around so much stuff. And you can venture out early and you can venture out late.”
On a trip to Venice, Steves walked across town early each morning. “It was cool, it was empty, the light was warm and mellow,” he said. “I loved my two hours in Venice before the cruise ship people got there”. After the evening rush hour, “by 6 o’clock, Venice takes on a different personality. The local people come and reclaim their squares”.
SPEND LESS, EXPERIENCE MORE
Steves doesn’t obsess about budgets or deals. Instead he saves money by becoming “a temporary local”.
“The less you spend, the more you experience,” he said.
He does research and uses public transport instead of taking guided tours. He eats in family restaurants, and says all his favourite eateries in Paris have a similar set-up, with eight or 10 tables, the owner on-site, handwritten menus in one language, with dishes that change seasonally. And he immerses himself in local culture.
“I’m sitting here as the sun’s going down on this beautiful Greek island drinking a glass of ouzo – as if a glass of ouzo just hits the spot,” he said.
“I never go home and think, ‘Man, I want a glass of ouzo!’ But when I’m in Greece, I feel like a glass of ouzo. It costs a dollar. Then I see everyone in these tourist resort places and I realise they’ve cloistered themselves in a world that puts a barrier between them and the world they travelled so far to see.”
Another tip: Visit “second cities” that are less expensive and less crowded. In Portugal, consider Porto instead of Lisbon; in France, Marseille instead of Paris; in Germany, Hamburg instead of Munich or Berlin; in Ireland, Belfast instead of Dublin.
Steves travels with two credit cards so he has a backup but he mostly uses cash when abroad. He heads straight to a bank ATM for money, avoiding the terrible conversion rates and high fees charged by currency exchange kiosks and hotel desks. Because there’s a flat fee per ATM withdrawal, instead of getting $100 in euros every day, he suggests getting $300 every three days.
“I travel so inexpensively that the fact that I didn’t get a deal on the flight doesn’t really occur to me so much,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Where is the dollar strong?’ I would say the best value is, ‘Where are your travel dreams taking you?’”