Many of us have a kind of love-hate relationship with winter. Between the holidays and the cold weather, the season presents a number of challenges for travelers. In this guide, I outline some of the most important winter travel tips to help you stay warm, enjoy the holidays, and save money. The tips in this guide focus on cold-weather travel.
Travel After the Holidays to Save Money
If possible, consider delaying your winter trip until mid-January or later. The first part of the year is one of the cheaper times to fly because everyone is already home from their holiday vacation. Flight prices decrease considerably. You can also score some good deals on hotels and tours during this time. January and February are slow months for many businesses.
Book Flights in Advance if You’re Traveling During the Holidays
The holiday season is the most expensive time of the year to fly due to the high demand for tickets. Everyone wants to make it home for the holidays. Tickets sometimes double in price. If you need to travel during the second half of December, be sure to book at least a couple of months in advance to get a decent price on your flight. Train and bus tickets increase in price during this time as well.
Try to Schedule Nonstop Flights When Traveling During the Winter
This lowers your risk of encountering flight delays caused by winter storms. If you must make a stopover, try to schedule it in a city with a warmer climate where winter weather delays are less likely.
Every year you see stories in the news about people getting stuck in Airports for days on end and missing the holidays. For example, check out this Christmas Eve travel horror story from Travelers United.
Schedule Extra Time in Your Winter Travel Itinerary in Case of Delays
Winter travel is generally slower. Flights get delayed. Cars and buses travel slower due to icy road conditions. The weather is unpredictable. Schedule yourself a few extra days in case there are delays. This relieves stress and increases safety by allowing you to take your time. You don’t want to be in a rush during a snow storm.
Plan Where You’ll Spend the Holidays
If you’re traveling long term, chances are you’ll be spending the holidays away from friends and family in an unfamiliar destination. If you’re not in the right city, this can be lonely. Many cities essentially shut down from Christmas through New Years. People spend that time with their friends and family. Businesses shut down.
When designing your winter travel itinerary, plan an interesting destination to spend the holidays. For some ideas, check out this guide about the best holiday destinations around the world from Travel and Leisure.
I spent the last holiday season living in Tijuana. While it wasn’t the best place to spend the season but I had a good time. My landlord brought me a big plate of homemade tamales on Christmas morning because she knew that I was spending the day alone. On New Years, I went out and watched people lighting off fireworks in the neighborhood where I lived. The number of fireworks going off in the city was absurd. The whole city was covered in a layer of smoke. I’m generally not a big holiday person but spending the season abroad was a memorable experience.
Join in the Local Holiday Celebration
Even if you don’t like the holidays or are not a religious person, joining in a local holiday celebration is an interesting cultural experience. Most every culture has some kind of winter festival or celebration that you can join in on. For example, every country has a specific meal that is enjoyed during the winter season. You could also visit a temple or church to experience the local holiday religious ceremonies.
Don’t Wrap Gifts
If you’re traveling for the holidays and plan to pack presents for friends or family, wait until you arrive to wrap them. The reason is that security may need to unwrap packages for inspection. This applies to both carry-on items as well as checked items.
Pack Warm Clothes for Winter Travel
One major drawback of traveling to a cold-weather destination is the fact that you have to pack a bunch of bulky clothing to keep yourself warm. Luckily, high-quality clothing made using modern manufacturing techniques allows us to pack light yet still stay warm.
Down is a great material for cold weather travel. It is lightweight and compresses down small. A nice down jacket weighs less than a pound and takes up just a liter of space in your pack. Most importantly, it’s incredibly warm. I like the Tommy Hilfiger Men’s Packable Down Jacket.
Another lightweight material that is great for travel is merino wool. It does an excellent job of wicking sweat and trapping heat to keep you warm. Thermal long underwear are an essential piece of clothing for cold weather travel. As an added benefit, merino wool blocks odors. I like the Meriwool Men’s Base Layer.
In addition to warm clothing, you’ll also want to pack winter accessories like a warm hat, gloves, and scarf. For more packing ideas, check out my Ultralight Travel Packing List. Here, I outline how to pack all of your clothing and travel gear into a carry-on sized bag.
Dress in Layers
The best practice for staying warm in a cold climate is to layer your clothing. This way, you can easily adapt to temperature changes and different levels of activity. You can bundle up in the cold mornings then remove layers as the weather warms up outside. Try the following layering system:
- Base layer- This is what you wear against your body. Your winter base layer should be long sleeve and long pants. Avoid cotton when choosing a base layer.
- Mid layer- You wear this outside of your base layer. A thick shirt, sweater or fleece jacket works well for your upper body. Jeans work well for your lower body.
- Outer layer- Wear this over your mid-layer. A down jacket is the ideal outer layer for your upper body. You can usually get away without an outer layer for your lower body. For extreme cold, insulated or down pants are nice.
- Waterproof shell- Wear a rain jacket and rain pants over everything else to keep you dry in the rain and snow.
The above layering system works great for temperatures down into the 20s (around -7° Celcius). If you’re traveling in an extremely cold climate, you want to consider packing a parka instead of a down jacket. These are bulky but can keep you warm down well below zero.
For help choosing the best clothing materials for layering, check out my down vs fleece vs wool pros and cons list.
Get a Flue Shot Before your Winter Trip
Winter is flu season. While traveling, your chances of catching the flue increase considerably due to increased exposure. You come into contact with lots of people while traveling. Your immune system can also be compromised due to stress, dietary changes, and lack of sleep. This further increases your chance of getting sick.
Catching a bad case of the flue could ruin your entire trip. You don’t want to travel thousands of miles just to lay around in bed. Before your trip, go to your doctor and get a flu shot. Chances are, your insurance probably even covers the cost.
Protect Yourself From Frostbite
Frostbite develops when tissue or skin freezes. Often times the damage is irreversible. Luckily frostbite is easily preventable. Simply keep warm. Your fingers, toes, ears, nose, and cheeks are the most common places for frostbite to develop. Be sure to wear warm gloves, socks, a scarf, and a hat to keep these high-risk areas warm. For extreme cold, consider a face mask.
For more info on frostbite and how to prevent it, check out this guide from the Mayo Clinic.
Participate in a Winter Sport or Activity
While snowy weather makes some activities impossible, it opens up other opportunities. Take advantage of the snow and go skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, sledding, or ice skating. Even if you don’t know how to do any of these things, a winter trip is a great time to learn a new skill. Take a few lessons and you’ll be skiing in no time.
Schedule Indoor Activities
You don’t have to be out and about sightseeing and being active every day of your winter trip. If it’s cold and snowy out, stay indoors. Read a book. Watch a movie. Go to a bar or restaurant. Walk around a mall. Sit by a fire. There are plenty of indoor activities to keep you busy during the winter.
Pack Smart for Winter Travel
Packing for winter travel is challenging. Particularly for ultralight travelers who like to stick to carry-on bags. Warm clothing is bulky and heavy. A pair of boots and a jacket could fill an entire suitcase if you don’t pack right. Here are a few tips for packing for a winter trip:
- Wear bulky items to the airport- This way, they aren’t taking up valuable space in your luggage.
- Carry ultralight clothing and gear- These items use high tech materials that are durable, quick-drying, and incredibly lightweight. For example, an ultralight down jacket can keep you warm well below freezing and weighs less than a pound.
- Don’t pack duplicate items- You don’t need multiple jackets or pairs of boots. Just pack one pair.
- Pack a good thermal base layer- These are lightweight, provide a lot of warmth, and weigh very little. Wear them under your favorite clothes and you’ll stay plenty warm. You don’t need to pack a bunch of bulky sweaters and jeans.
It is possible to pack everything that you need for winter travel into a carry-on bag and still be prepared. For help with this, check out my Ultralight Travel Packing List.
Drive Safely in Snowy and Icy Winter Conditions
Many travelers decide to road trip to their winter destination instead of flying. This is particularly common during the holidays. Driving is much more economical if you’re traveling with the whole family.
If you plan to rent a car or drive your own vehicle during your winter trip, be prepared for winter road conditions. While driving in the winter, you should:
- Have the proper tires- All-season or snow tires increase traction in the snow and ice.
- Keep the gas tank full- If you get stuck in the snow, you want to make sure that you have enough fuel to keep the car’s heater going until you can get a tow.
- Have chains- Sometimes they are required to drive over a pass or during a heavy snowstorm.
- Carry extra food and water- So you have something to eat and drink if you get stuck or in an emergency.
- Carry a shovel and some sand- To dig yourself out and help get traction if you get stuck in the snow.
- Have a window scraper- to remove snow and ice from your vehicle’s windows before you hit the road.
For more info, check out these winter driving tips from AAA.
If you have never driven in winter conditions before, you may want to reconsider your plans. Snow and ice increases your chances of being involved in an auto accident considerably. You can always take public or private transportation instead if you’re not comfortable driving in winter conditions.
Consider Buying Winter Clothing or Gear at your Destination
If you live in a warm climate, chances are you don’t have the proper clothing and gear for winter travel. The local shops probably don’t even stock cold-weather gear. If this is the case, consider waiting until you arrive at your destination to pick up what you need. That way, you can pick up the perfect gear for the climate that you’re traveling in.
A warm winter jacket or a pair of boots make for an excellent souvenir. You’ll also save money because you can avoid checking a bag when you fly. The only drawback to doing this is that you’ll be cold when you arrive because you won’t have the proper clothing or gear. Make your winter clothes shopping trip a priority.
Consider Renting Winter Travel Gear Instead of Bringing your Own
If your winter trip involves outdoor sports such as skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, or ice skating, you may be better off just renting the gear. Particularly if you’re just learning or don’t already have your own.
By renting gear, you save on the cost of transporting it. As an added bonus, you don’t have to deal with the hassle of dragging it around for the duration of your trip. Before your trip, add up the costs and consider your options. Even if you already own your own, it may be cheaper and more convenient to rent.
Be Prepared for Cold and Flu Season
While traveling during the winter, you have a greater chance of getting sick. Take basic precautions to prevent sickness. For example, you should:
- Wash your hands often- Use soap and warm water.
- Use hand sanitizer- to kill bacteria.
- Keep your immune system strong- Eat healthily, get plenty of sleep, and exercise.
- Wear a face mask in crowded areas- They look goofy but are effective.
Also, be sure to pack some throat lozenges and cough medicine in your toiletry kit. If you’re traveling long term, you’ll get sick sooner or later. There’s really no avoiding it. While these medications don’t cure you, they can offer some relief. Getting stuck on a flight with a sore throat and congestion is torture.
While you’re recovering from a sickness, take it easy and give your body time to recover. Spend a couple of days in bed as you would back home. If you keep traveling without giving your body the chance to recover, a common cold can develop into a serious condition. At the very least, you’ll stay sick longer.
For more health tips, check out my guide: How to Stay Healthy While Traveling: Tips for Diet, Sleep, Exercise, and Avoiding Sickness.
See the Northern Lights
This is one winter travel experience that is on everyone’s bucket list. The northern lights are caused charged particles from the sun interacting with gas molecules in the earth’s atmosphere. You can only view the aurora borealis at far northern latitudes.
The best place to travel to see the northern lights depends on a number of factors. One of the world’s best viewing locations is in Fairbanks, Alaska. Here, you can see the northern lights on average 4 out of 5 nights between August 21st and April 21st according to this article from explorefairbanks.com.
Other places where you can view the northern lights include Northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland as well as Iceland, Greenland, and Russia.
Travel Somewhere Warm During the Winter
If you’re not a fan of cold weather, travel somewhere warm instead. There are plenty of incredible travel destinations that are warm year-round. Alternatively, you could travel to the opposite hemisphere where it’s summer.
Final Thoughts: Winter Travel Tips
Due to the holidays and weather conditions, winter is one of the most difficult times to travel. The season is stressful, cold, and often busy. It’s also slightly more dangerous due to the risks that cold weather carries. If you pack right and take your time, you can have a safe, warm, and enjoyable winter trip.
Do you like to travel during the winter? Share your winter travel tips in the comments below!