Ancient castles, legendary landmarks and enduring cultural touchstones make Europe the most popular destination for Americans going abroad. More than any other part of the world, Europe offers travelers the chance to experience a wide variety of languages, cuisines, histories and cultures, all within a relatively compact geographical area.
Many travelers take their first international trips to popular destinations in Western Europe, such as Ireland, Italy and France. The eastern reaches of the continent offer more esoteric experiences for adventurous groups. And panorama tours of Europe can highlight the best of the continent from one side to another.
To give you a head start on planning travel to Europe, we asked three tour operators that take trips there for some of their insights:
Jen Halboth, director of channel marketing for Globus Family of Brands
Moira Smith, general manager, Africa, Europe and the Middle East for Goway Travel
Mike Kasmauskis, president of Image Tours
What are some of your top-selling itineraries in Europe?
Halboth: The Best of Italy is our No. 1 seller, followed by Britain and Ireland, then our panorama tour. We’re seeing some really strong growth in Greece and Turkey and in Spain and Portugal. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for Greece, and it’s on a lot of people’s bucket lists.
For two years now, we’ve done really well with new Italy tours that have a lower per-diem rate because Italy is definitely more expensive than Britain and Ireland. Last year, we launched the eight-day Italian Vista, and it was the most successful new tour launch we’ve had in decades. This year we’re launching the nine-day Italian Sampler, and it’s on track to be very successful as well.
Smith: Italy is the biggest seller. You have some people who want to do the northern part of Italy, some that want to do the south, and some that will do a combination. We also find that the British Isles are still very popular, and people are wanting to incorporate themes, like Downton Abbey. And combinations of France and Italy, or Spain and Portugal are very popular.
The average length of these trips is two weeks, but some are as short as seven days.
Kasmauskis: The most popular are 15-day to 22-day trips, leveraging the airline prices, because airfares have gone up. A multicountry itinerary seems to be the most popular. People want to go to Western Europe in general because that’s as safe as it gets at this point in time.
What is the best time of year for groups to travel to Europe?
Halboth: For Italy, the best time is May or early October. You want to avoid Italy in August — it’s just way too hot, and a lot of Italians take holiday then. So you want to get out there ahead of the crowds. In May, you get shoulder-season airfare, but the weather is pretty good, and it’s not too hot.
On the other hand, August is a great time to go to Britain and Ireland because of the weather, even though airfares are a little higher.
Smith: September and October are ideal times, to avoid the peak summer season. June through August is very busy. But we also have demand for things like the Christmas markets in Germany or ski trips in the winter for groups that want to experience that.
Kasmauskis: Between March and October, the weather is nice. Summertime brings some crowds to the situation, but anytime between March and October that the majority of the group wants to go is fine. Groups should plan those trips at least a year in advance.
What are some of the best places for first-time international travelers to get a taste of Europe?
Halboth: It’s definitely Italy or Britain and Ireland. We speak the same language as Britain and Ireland; and American and Italian culture are just kind of intertwined. We also encourage people to do a panorama tour, because you might surprise yourself and find that you really like Austria. A panorama tour allows them to check off some of the must-see sites. Those are actually our youngest average travelers — they’re in their 40s and 50s and, for some reason, have never made it to Europe.
Smith: Certainly, the British Islands — England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales — because the English language is a benefit. It’s a soft landing. But to be honest, Italy and France are also great because people know so much about them and are yearning to visit them.
Kasmauskis: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France or even Belgium and Holland. The easiest place of course is the British Isles. But if you have a tour manager with the group that knows some of the languages, these other places in Western Europe can be some of the best places to go.
What is a great European destination for more experienced international travelers?
Halboth: You can start getting into Eastern Europe. We have a tour East Meets West, where you go to Dubrovnik in Croatia, up to Bosnia, then to Slovenia and finish in Vienna. Poland is also a destination that sells really well. But unless you’re of Polish descent, you’re probably not going to do Poland as your first one.
Smith: Something like Hungary or Romania. Croatia is becoming more mainstream. It’s a wonderful destination if you haven’t been there. Russia is also great — you can start in Moscow and do a river cruise and finish up in St. Petersburg. But a lot of people are avoiding Russia right now.
Kasmauskis: Austria is a good place. You could dive more into the villages instead of just going to Innsbruck and Salzburg. There are fun hiking places to go. Croatia is very popular right now, and Sicily is actually becoming more popular.
What is an unforgettable experience that travelers should seek out, no matter where they go in Europe?
Matlock: On an afternoon off, ask your tour director for directions to an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood, and take time to go explore. It’s so fun to just see people — moms riding bikes with babies in their baskets. Just go walk the city, have lunch at a place that you wouldn’t normally go to and buy something special.
Smith: For me, it would be something like a private cooking class in Tuscany, followed by an afternoon at the spa.
Kasmauskis: I would get a recommendation for a more local restaurant in a small village. Then go there and strike up a conversation with the staff.