On a Sunday afternoon in September, Zagreb’s Ban Jelačić Square is mostly empty. A statue of Josip Jelačić on horseback stands in the town square. It’s one of the most iconic sites in Croatia, and just a few weeks ago, you couldn’t get a picture of it without fighting crowds of tourists.
But with the summer travel season over, things are much quieter.
“We had a busy summer,” says tour guide Ivana Mudronja. “Not as busy as 2019, but much better than last year.”
And this fall?
“We’ll see,” she adds.
That’s good news for American visitors, many of whom have Croatia on their bucket list. Fewer visitors means lower prices and more opportunities for an authentic experience as you travel around Europe. There are still European travel packages available to places you could see this summer — and yes, there’s still time for a perfect European vacation in 2022.
As far as destinations go, Europe has a lot of buzz this fall. A report released yesterday by Bounce found that 8 of the 10 best fall destinations were in Europe. Amsterdam, Paris, London and Berlin topped the list.
Can Americans travel to Europe now?
Yes. Most European countries have restrictions on the books requiring proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19 or a negative test result when entering countries or areas with “high epidemiological risk.” However, no countries are on that list as of Sept. 17, 2022.
If you’re planning a trip to Europe, there’s one thing to know: Next year, the European Union is introducing the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS). It’s an electronic system that tracks visitors who don’t need a visa and works similarly to the U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The ETIAS application fee is $7, and you can pay by credit card. Here’s my free guide to planning a trip.
It’s still too early to tell how fall travel will go in Europe
At the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, business is almost back to normal. The hotel, opened in 1925 as a stopover on the Orient Express, is one of the most luxurious in the city. Yet room rates at this time of year are only $136 a night, which means the centrally located property is also affordable to many American visitors.
Ivica Max Krizmanić, the general manager, says occupancy could reach the record levels they did in 2019 for this year. But it’s still too early to tell.
“Summer was good here, and fall is looking good, but you can’t see too far into the future because the booking patterns have changed,” he told me.
Still, Krizmanić thinks the window for bargain hunters is small. Summer travelers are staying later, pushing into fall. And there’s no room at the inn when Zagreb’s famous Christmas Market begins November 26. Krizmanić says he can’t be certain about availability but recommends booking sooner rather than later.
Experts say this uncertainty and the likelihood of a shorter window for bargain-seekers is widespread in Europe this fall. And it may be the grand finale of COVID pricing. In fact, one of the biggest trends I’ve been following for 2023 is the return to normal booking patterns. That means the last-minute deals we’ve seen during the pandemic could all but vanish.
Sights to see in Europe this fall
I asked Claire Saylor, a marketing manager for luxury agency Audley Travel, where to go this fall.
“Europe has long been one of Audley’s top destinations,” she told me. “And this is continuing post-pandemic.”
Among their top places this fall: Italy, Spain and Portugal.
“Our clients particularly enjoy the cultural touring, meeting locals and getting to really understand the character of a country,” she added. “The strength of the dollar helps balance out some of the inflation-related price rises seen in the destination, making it an excellent choice for travel this year.”
Here are some of the Europe travel packages her company is currently offering.
September in Spain
Spain in September is pleasantly warm and mostly dry. Visitor numbers are lower than during the peak summer months and temperatures are more comfortable for hiking and city sightseeing, says Saylor.
Her company has package tours to Madrid, San Sebastián and La Rioja tour this fall. Among the most-wanted visited attractions in Spain are its museums, including the Prado in Madrid and Guggenheim in Bilbao. Spain’s historic capital, Toledo, and wine tastings in the Ribera del Duero and Rioja wine regions, are also high on her customers’ lists.
October in the United Kingdom
Saylor says nothing compares to a visit to England and Scotland in October. You’ll see the vibrant autumn foliage in the city parks and countryside. Plus, the temperatures remain moderate, so you can explore cities without the summer crowds.
A typical fall itinerary includes stops in London, Edinburgh, Bath, and the Cairngorms. She says travelers enjoy exploring the mountains and lochs of the Cairngorms National Park and taking High Tea at the Roman Baths.
November in Italy
Thanks to its mild Mediterranean climate, Italy is the top destination choice in November, Saylor says. In southern cities like Naples and Palermo, daytime highs are often in the 60s, allowing visitors to spend time outdoors. There are almost no crowds.
Americans like to visit places like Florence, Rome and Naples in the fall. One of her top tours includes a Tuscan cooking lesson with a local chef in Florence, a tour of Naples Archaeological Museum to see original objects from Pompeii and a visit to the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel is far less crowded at this time of year.
Is there still time to plan travel to Europe this fall?
Travel agents like Saylor say there’s still availability for her fall tours. But they’re filling up fast. I spoke with tourism insiders — hoteliers, tour guides and restaurateurs — and they all agreed: Right now, demand is strong for travel to Europe, but even the experts don’t know if that will last.
Back in Zagreb, the weather is still warm at this time of year. Finding a table at a popular restaurant is easy. There’s no line for the Zagreb Funicular on Tomić Street, one of the shortest public-transport funiculars in the world. If you wanted to plan a last-minute trip to Croatia, it would be easy. A flight next week from Washington, D.C., to Zagreb, would set you back about $1,100.
But October and November are a little murkier. The energy crisis in Europe could intensify, disrupting travel but lowering prices because of the advantageous exchange rate. The war in Ukraine could escalate, scaring some visitors away. But it’s also possible that other hotels will follow the Esplanade — a strong summer, followed by an equally strong fall.
And if that happens, you can’t book your European vacation soon enough.