Year after year, Europe gets ever more popular for travelers—a trend that doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. Don’t just take our word for it: In 2018, the continent saw 710 million international visitors—more than double that of Asia-Pacific, which had the second-highest number of visitors, and an increase of 5.5 percent over 2017, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). But things are changing fast. Overtourism has hit the continent hard, with locals in destinations like Venice and Barcelona protesting travelers, and Europeans at the center of the new “flight shame” movement, which originated in Sweden and encourages people to stop flying in order to help the environment.
Not that this is bad news. The growing focus on air travel’s environmental damage has inspired improvements to Europe’s extensive, efficient rail system. And, thanks to those new trains, new airline routes, improved technology at borders, and a strong dollar, travelers searching for Europe’s seemingly disappearing charms will be able to find them with ease. Here’s what you can expect.
New Flight Routes
This year saw a bevy of new flights: Some of the best include Newark–Naples (United), Tampa–Amsterdam (Delta) and Chicago–Athens (American Airlines). If you thought that was good, 2020 will be even better.
The airlines are creating links to more European cities, including longtime favorites that typically haven’t been accessible, and lesser-visited ones that will finally get their turn in the spotlight. Our top pick: United heading straight for the sun, with a Newark–Palermo summer route launching in May. (It’ll be the only direct flight to the Sicilian capital from the United States.) Newark to Nice, France, launches at the same time. Both seasonal routes finish at the end of September.
American Airlines, meanwhile, is making a bid for central Europe, with flights from Chicago to Prague, Krakow, and Budapest (seasonal, May–October). For the same period, it also adds Philadelphia to Reykjavík—picking up where the now-defunct WOW Air left off—and throws in some Mediterranean sun with Philadelphia to Casablanca (June–September) and Dallas–Fort Worth to Tel Aviv (year-round, starting in September).
Look to Delta to ramp up its departures from Boston with Rome (May–September), London Gatwick (starts May, year-round), and Manchester (May–September) for 2020, along with bringing back the seasonal Edinburgh and Lisbon routes it launched in 2019.
A small note, but an important one: British Airways is adding new U.K.–Europe routes for 2020, meaning travelers can make through-bookings via the United Kingdom from its 28 North America departure airports. Putting these flights on a single booking allows fliers to check luggage through to a final destination, transfer at Heathrow, and, most importantly, rebook for free if a connecting flight is delayed. Just a few of these new destinations: Perugia, in Italy’s Umbria region, and Podgorica, the capital of increasingly popular Montenegro.
Down the line, keep an eye on JetBlue, which is still on track to launch U.S.–U.K. flights in 2021 and may be putting these fares on sale in 2020.
The big theme of European travel in the past couple of years has been overtourism, and in 2020, expect to see a trend of countermeasures. “Italy is overflowing, and it’s getting more and more difficult to get the prime hotels,” says travel agent Rudi Steele, a member of the Virtuoso network who specializes in luxury travel to Europe. Instead of the usual suspects—think Florence, Venice, Rome—Steele suggests Sicily, which has history, culture, and good looks in spades, along with excellent accommodations and improved infrastructure. “It used to take a day to drive from Catania to Palermo, but now you can do it in two-and-a-half hours,” he says. (Bonus: Thanks to those direct flights from Newark, it’s even more accessible for East Coasters.)
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to visit the classics—Europe’s reputation is built on the likes of its grand cities, after all. Just be aware that tourist taxes are on the rise: Venice plans to introduce a €10 (US$11) entry fee in 2020, while Amsterdam will raise its overnight taxes to the highest in Europe on January 1: 7 percent of the room rate plus €3 (US$3.30) per person.
Dubrovnik, Croatia, is going all out to make things easier for locals, closing 80 percent of souvenir stands, imposing daily limits on cruise ships and tour buses, and imposing an effective ban on new restaurants. (The ban specifically does not allow any new tables outside restaurants, but since 99 percent of restaurants operate primarily with outside tables, it is essentially a ban on new restaurants.)
Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a warm welcome in places such as Barcelona and Venice, where locals have been protesting against overtourism, but do follow behavior and decorum rules in Italian cities, lest you be fined. Above all, be a good traveler: Don’t sit on public staircases to eat lunch, budget to buy souvenirs from local artisans rather than tacky stalls, and stay in a locally owned hotel as often as you do an Airbnb, which many locals say prices them out of their own cities. These days, enjoying the sights comes with the reciprocal expectation that you will contribute to the local economy.
Destinations on the Rise
Remember when everyone wanted to go to Iceland? In 2020, Nordic countries are still on everyone’s to-do list, though the death of budget airline WOW Air in March 2019 has led to a dip in the country’s visitors.
For 2020, flight app Hopper, which collects and analyzes billions of airfare quotes, says the fastest-growing destination in popularity and bookings is the Faroe Islands—the self-governing Danish archipelago sitting roughly between Iceland, Norway, and Scotland. Tromsø and Rovaniemi, above the Arctic Circle in Norway and Finland, respectively, are also in the top 10. Steele has also seen a surge of interest in Scandinavia from clients for 2020 and says it’s not surprising. “They [travelers] think it’s clean and safe—the same way people look at New Zealand,” he says, pointing to global political upheaval as a factor. “When things are happening around the world, and you feel you have to look over your shoulder, we always see an increase in Scandinavia.”
Other trends, according to Steele: an increase in interest in Berlin from U.S. travelers, following the 30th anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And as Greek island accommodations get increasingly sold out, clients are opting to charter yachts for island-hopping trips.
The Brexit Effect
There’s good and bad news about Britain’s will-they-won’t-they exit from the EU. Let’s start with the good: The United Kingdom’s political uncertainty has driven down the value of the pound, making it excellent value for outsiders who often balk at hotel prices in London, where city-center hotels regularly top £500 (US$651) per night.
“It’s possible the pound will drop further if we move to a no-deal situation,” says Tom Jenkins, director of the European Tourism Association (ETOA), the trade body for tour operators in European destinations (although he thinks a no-deal unlikely, so don’t bank on it).
Jenkins says that so far it’s business as usual in Britain, as Brexit is “unlikely to have a dramatic effect on the Britain that visitors come for. It won’t affect Stonehenge or Windsor Castle.”
At least, that’s the short-term prognosis. Longer term, things are less clear, says Hayley Berg, economist at Hopper. If the United Kingdom becomes more politically isolated and airlines incur more fees flying to airports there, airlines could cut flights, meaning prices could rise within the first couple of years post-Brexit.
(Better, Faster) Travel by Train
In Europe, the way you travel is equally as important as the where. After all, this is the home of the flygskam (flight shame) movement, championed by Greta Thunberg, and it’s had an effect: In 2019, the number of passengers taking domestic flights in Sweden dropped by 8 percent, according to airport operator Swedavia.
Flight-shaming extends to airlines, too. In November 2019, easyJet started carbon offsetting all its flights, while Dutch airline KLM has run an advertising campaign suggesting passengers take trains for short hops and substituting one of its five daily flights between Amsterdam and Brussels with a high-speed train.
Germany, meanwhile, will double taxes for passengers on short-haul flights for 2020, rising from €7.50 (US$8.30) to €13.03 (US$14.50) round-trip. That’s a notable increase, but not yet as high as the U.K. airport departure tax (APD), which is holding firm at its current rate of £13 (US$17) for a short-haul flight in economy or £26 (US$34) in business.
With a high-speed network across much of the continent, and no border checks in the Schengen Area, it’s easy to see why Europeans love their trains. (In the Schengen Area, which comprises 26 European countries, there is no passport control at borders.) Ticket prices tend to be higher than budget flights, even with those taxes, but there are rarely restrictions on luggage—and streaming through the countryside is, after all, part of the vacation. RailEurope, which bought out rival Loco2 in 2019, is the place to plan your cross-border trip.
Starting on March 31, 2020, Eurostar will run direct trains from Amsterdam to London (they already run the other way). Rail specialist Mark Smith from Seat61, which covers the best options for European train travel, also recommends the fancy new “Excellence” class on Switzerland’s Glacier Express, one of Europe’s most scenic routes.
Night trains are also increasing in popularity in Europe—they saw a 25 percent jump in 2019 bookings, according to Swiss operator SBB—and the United Kingdom has swanky new versions of two of its big hitters. The London-to-Penzance Night Riviera sleeper relaunched last year, while the Caledonian Sleeper, which goes from London to the Scottish Highlands, was refurbished in 2019 with what Smith calls “hotel-style carriages, including some sleepers with double beds and ensuite bathrooms.”
Faster Border Checks
Forget standing in long lines after your red-eye flight; this year, several European countries have opened up their border control e-gates to U.S. citizens holding biometric passports, speeding up the process considerably. Instead of the minimum 60-second questioning, all travelers have to do is scan their passport and have a photo taken before moving through to baggage claim. U.K. airports have offered this since May 2019, and other European countries are opening them up to U.S. travelers, including Italy (Venice, Rome, Milan), Germany (Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt), plus Finland and Lisbon on departure.
Note that U.S. citizens can also travel to Europe in 2020 without completing any paperwork, as long as trips are less than 90 days. That will soon change: The European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) goes into effect in 2021, and it will require U.S. citizens visiting the Schengen Area to register passport information online prior to travel. The application costs $7 and is valid for three years.