I am frequently asked why I don’t run my tours in July and August. I sometimes run a tour in late June that overlaps into the first few days of July. However, I prefer not to go during those two months for the reasons given below.
Obviously if your schedule only allows you to go in July and August then don’t let my reasons dissuade you one bit from going. The Alps are great anytime and should not be missed. On the other hand, if your schedule is flexible I believe June and September are the optimal times to tour the Alps.
- Crowds – The mountains are alive with people in July and August. Hiking and mountaineering are very popular during the summer. The Alps attract European, American and foreign tourists in droves. The result is significant traffic, via cars and tour buses, heading up the pass roads in the morning and down again in the late afternoon/early evening. It also means that the little restaurants and refuggios at the top of each pass are crowded which can translate to no seats readily available for your favorite snack or lunch. It can also mean more stop and go traffic in the valleys. For me, this level of congestion detracts from the overall Alpine experience. Especially when there is so little traffic in June and virtually no traffic in September.
- Crowds also have an obvious impact on shops, museums, hotels, etc. There is something perverse about walking through the old part of Munich in July and hearing more English spoken than German as you jostle in line for a seat at an outdoor cafŽ. Not for me thank you. One of the ways I enjoy learning about the local area and way of life is by talking to the people who live there, especially the hotel owners and staff. You don’t get to talk to these folks nearly as much in July and August when they are busy with a full hotel. They have more time available in June and September not only to talk, but to perhaps prepare your food a special way, or cook something not on the menu, or just tell you a story about something special in their village.
- Weather – The temperature in the Alps is similar to New England. July and August are the two hottest months. While daytime temperatures average in the low to mid 70’s(F) they frequently hit the mid 80’s(F), or higher, in the valleys. If you get stuck in traffic on a hot sunny day with your riding gear on you get sweaty pretty fast. When you get to the top of a pass it can be 15 – 40 degrees cooler, depending on altitude, cloud cover, wind, etc. Then your sweaty undergarments become chilled and uncomfortable. Just about the time you’re starting to dry out you’re back in the valley and sweating again. Some riders like to ride in t-shirts and jeans when it gets hot. I’m a firm believer in riding with protective gear on, as are the people who come on my tours, so I choose to go when the weather suits our attire.
- The other weather factor to consider is that most hotels in the Alps do not have air conditioning regardless of whether they are three, four or five star rated. If you hit a spell of hot weather in July or August you might have trouble sleeping, even with the windows wide open. A good night’s sleep is important after a full day of riding. I sleep better when it’s cooler at night, which is another reason I prefer June and September.
- Alpine Ambiance – In June many of the mountaintops still have snow on them which I think enhances their visual appeal. From mid-July through August the snow is usually gone, especially from the lower peaks. In September it frequently snows on the mountaintops overnight, and sometimes during the day, so the visual beauty of snow capped mountains is back.
- Another ambiance factor is that much of Europe goes on vacation in August. This means that some of the little shops and restaurants, particularly in the smaller villages, are closed because the owners are off on their August vacations. If you’re not into little shops it won’t be noticeable. However, if you like to stroll around town during a two or three day layover you will see it. I intersperse my daily riding with occasional bakery stops for cappuccino and local delights. It can be a bummer to pull up to a “backeri” only to find it closed due to vacation.
- Cost – July and August are high season in the Alps. This means that hotel costs go up 10-20%. For me it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium for crowds and discomfort when I can go in June and September for less money and get a more pleasurable experience.