“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It was a warm June evening as the Seabourn Ovation began its voyage northward from Copenhagen, sailing toward the west coast of Norway. Herb and I were taking in the views and toasting our trip from the panoramic-windowed Observation Bar. At the table next to us, a man leaned over to say hello, brimming with enthusiasm.
“I hope we’ll be seeing those Northern Lights!” he told us.
“That would be amazing,” I replied, surprised by his comment. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that our chances of seeing the aurora borealis in June were about as likely as Santa Claus himself greeting us at the North Cape. And if the Northern Lights were the reason he was heading to Norway, I wondered, why was he traveling here during this “midnight sun” season of endless daylight?
We never crossed paths with the Northern Lights traveler again, but his words have stayed with me long after we left Norway. I’ve thought about the expectations we carry with us when we travel and how that oh-so elusive concept called timing plays a critical role our experiences. More than ever, I’ve realized that the when of our travels is almost as important as the where.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the destination, but if we also make sure that the timing of our trip coincides with what we hope to experience, we can create realistic expectations for ourselves. We can simply enjoy the moments of where we are, rather than finding ourselves at the end of the journey wondering why we haven’t seen the Northern Lights.
In the spirit of honoring the when of the destination, I’ve put together a few thoughts on timing our travels. I hope they will make the road to future adventures a little smoother and the seasons of our journeys a little sweeter.
Timing Our Travels
1. Don’t forget about unexpected holidays.
I learned this lesson after being caught off-guard on a cruise stop in Monaco that landed on an unfamiliar-to-me holiday. Fresh from traveling in Italy and the Vatican, where we’d visited the world’s smallest country and its post office, I was looking forward to stopping by the post office in the world’s second smallest country. Not only was the post office closed, but so was most of Monte Carlo.
Depending upon where you travel, religious or national holidays may result in various site closures on the dates you plan to visit. Bank holidays, religious observances and longer observances such as Ramadan can impact travel plans in a fairly significant way. I typically google the city where we’re headed followed by the word holidays, which leads me to websites that paint an accurate picture of dates that are best to avoid.
If you’re traveling on a cruise excursion or land tour or even an independent trip where the dates aren’t flexible, you likely won’t be able to change your itinerary. However, if you know ahead of time that something you’d hoped to see or do will be closed, you may be able to find a replacement activity for that day. At the very least, you will avoid being surprised and disappointed.
2. Check out local festivals.
Depending upon your point of view, a local festival on the day of your visit could be considered fun or a fiasco. Sites may or may not be closed, but there are sure to be additional crowds and maybe even a parade to contend with. A quick google check with your city’s name followed by festivals or events will diminish any concerns – or add a bit of excitement to your plans.
3. Research the typical monthly weather.
Although the weather is our most unpredictable traveling companion that tags along with no guarantees, it’s always a good idea to know a destination’s typical forecast before booking a trip. The “averages” page of holiday-weather.com continues to be my go-to website for helpful travel information. It lists high, low and average temperatures by month in both Fahrenheit and Celsius, the amount of rain and number of rainy days per month, and the average number of daily sunshine hours.
To access a destination, go to holiday-weather.com, add a forward slash, then the city name, another forward slash, and then the word averages. If your city has two names, use an underscore between them. Here are two examples that will link to the page:
Skyline Webcams is another helpful site for checking the weather and seeing what people are wearing in real time. A link at the top of the page lists “Live Cams” around the world by country and category.
4. Assume there will be rain, even if it seems unlikely.
I’ve found that if I pack the right type of clothing, extreme heat or cold isn’t too much of a deterrent when traveling. Rain is probably the biggest culprit for spoiling plans, but again, having a rain jacket, umbrella and the right shoes makes a rainy day not so bad.
In all our years of travel, we’ve only experienced two days when heavy rains severely limited our plans. When we left our ship at the port of La Pallice, France, for an excursion to Cognac, the wind-blown rain was pounding so hard that my extremely sturdy umbrella turned inside-out! The tour in Cognac was indoors, but a stop along the way to walk among Roman ruins in Saintes was all outside – and quite miserable.
On a stormy morning in Dalian, China, our planned outdoor walk and ancient Chinese kite flying excursion was wisely cancelled and replaced with a visit to an indoor market and a café where we were served tea and watermelon slices. Many people who had signed on for the tour turned back after stepping outside the ship, but Herb and I were glad we had continued on. It turned out to be a fascinating peek into a culture that we may not have experienced with our original plans.
5. Look for seasons within seasons.
The idea of seasons within seasons is especially significant when traveling to destinations known for wildlife and nature. Visiting Monet’s Garden in Giverny, for example, requires traveling between April and October. And if seeing specific flowers is a priority, you can time your travels by checking the garden’s online flowering calendar for a list of month-by-month blooms.
Despite their close proximity to one another, Ecuador’s nineteen major Galápagos Islands are a study in contrasts, with different and sometimes unique flora and fauna. Cruises typically offer seven-day itineraries that outline the islands you will visit and the activities offered at each stop. The Galápagos is a year-round destination, and although its equatorial climate is moderate, each month offers a different season for bird and animal sightings as well as landscape variations and weather conditions.
In Antarctica the travel season is just four months – November through February – but wildlife sightings vary from month to month. Voyages are completely weather-dependent, and planned stops can change in an instant. It’s critical to have a clear understanding of what to expect from the travel time you select. My heart’s desire was seeing newly-hatched baby penguins – a wish that was granted by timing our visit in January.
6. Whenever possible, consider the shoulder season.
It goes without saying: The shoulder season is a great time to travel. Loosely defined as the window between the peak summer season and the off-peak winter months, it typically means traveling between April and early June or September through mid-November in the Northern Hemisphere. Destinations tend to be less crowded, prices are often lower than during the prime tourist season, and the weather is usually cool and comfortable.
Of course, this time of year may not be workable if you’re bound to a school calendar or other time restrictions. And it also may not be realistic depending on your destination or your reason for taking the trip. But it’s a good place to start when considering travel timing options.
Many years ago when our family was planning a trip to Washington, D.C., we opted to travel during our school district’s April spring break rather than waiting until our traditional summer vacation. It turned out to be a wonderful decision. Not only did we experience fewer crowds and great weather, but we also were treated to the city’s radiant cherry blossom season.
Now as seasoned empty nesters, Herb and I look to the shoulder months whenever possible. I especially love traveling in the fall. Stunning autumn colors, azure skies and crisp-yet-warm air paint a beautiful backdrop for exploring a destination, offering a chance to see at city at its finest.
Timing our travels, as with life itself, is an intangible that can make the difference between a joyful experience and a disappointing one. The real magic of timing, of course, is the happenstance that can’t be planned. But if we set ourselves up with a framework of timing that feels right, we leave space for the serendipitous moments to appear. We travel with a lighter step.
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If you have additional tips or thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments. I’d love to hear your ideas on the when of travel!