Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Still Time to Enjoy Europe Before the Zombies Come

It's hot, it's humid. There are thousands of people smashed into a village that's not big enough for the full-time residents even without the tourists. The air is thick. The sun is blistering. There's no air conditioning in the hotel rooms. There's no room to move down some pedestrian thoroughfares. Sweat is running down the temples of everyone on the street. The heat makes people move so slowly, they look like zombies out of a movie.

If I asked readers to name the place I just described, I'd get a thousand different responses from Asia to South America to Brooklyn. A few people would no doubt claim it was "all of Europe in the summer." And they'd be right.

That's why I'm not talking about the summer. Spring is fast approaching and if you want to do Europe, any of Europe, the spring and fall seasons are the way to go. Avoid the summer, and August in particular at all costs. For seasoned travelers, I'm preaching to the choir, I know.

This advice is really for those well-intentioned souls who are salivating over that precious two-week vacation they get once a year and want to go lie on a beach somewhere listening to the French or Italian chatter coming from all around their beach umbrellas. Don't do it in the summer. You will come home pissed off and decidedly un-relaxed.

Aim for May or October. Airfares are reasonable, the weather is warm but mild, the locals are less tense, and there's no need for air conditioning. I've spent hours lying on perfectly warm Italian beaches in October, with only a handful of other people; including the waiters from the bar where I rented my umbrella.

The picture I painted at the beginning of this piece is of Cortona, Italy. Tuscany in the high season is my idea of hell on Earth. Cortona's population swells by 5,000 to 7,000 people during the summer. I muse on this astounding fact as I spend several pristine, calm, romantic evenings meandering through the narrow cobblestone streets of the town that you can easily see all of within an hour or two. It's tiny. But it is a fairy tale when the timing is right. When it's not, it's horror sci-fi.

As of the date of this post, there's still time to get to Europe in April or May. Check travel sites like Travelzoo for bottom-barrel deals on flights for the off-season. The standard travel hotspots will still be busy, but it will be bearable. And those waiters will be extra attentive. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cover Your Ass

International travel is one of the most exciting things you can do in life. It's mind-broadening. It breaks down biases and bigotry. It opens one to new cultures and ideas.

And while it is true that more people are killed in domestic auto accidents each year than are killed in attacks or accidents abroad, there is one thing that you can do to help mitigate certain circumstances if the crap hits the fan in the country you happen to be vacationing in.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs runs the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program which allows the State Department to keep track of you in the worst case scenarios, aiding them in getting you out in the case of evacuation, or simply by helping to get your passport replaced faster if you left it in the cab the night before. Register with the State Department before you head out at: http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/registration/registration_4789.html.