Why is off-season travel best? I’ll tell you, but don’t go spreading it around. Those of us who like it want to keep the secret to ourselves.
First, what exactly IS off-season travel?
Travel is split into three “seasons.”
- Peak season is when most of the world takes vacation or heads to popular spots. It’s determined by the calendar (school holidays and summer) or desirable weather at the destination. For the United States and Europe, mid-June through August is peak season.
- Shoulder season happens when the weather can be great, but also a bit of a gamble. (Think hurricane season…) Prices are better than peak season. Travel + Leisure has a nice guide to shoulder season around the world. Fall shoulder season (September and October) is great in the U.S., Europe, and the Caribbean.
- Off-season is the plum for travelers looking for no crowds, bargains galore, and the chance to really experience a destination. Weather is usually not a factor when choosing to travel during this time. If it’s nice, that’s the cherry on top of your vacation sundae…or gelato. November through March is considered off-season, but any place with a rainy season will be different. For example, Thailand’s off-season is June. Here’s a handy infographic to guide you.
Why choose to go if the weather isn’t fabulous?
There are plenty of reasons to let the rest of the world head to the beaches and theme parks during the summer. And to schedule a trip before (in the spring) or after (in the fall) shoulder season. Here are half a dozen justifications:
- Fewer tourists: Obvious, but also important. Everything is less crowded, from landmarks to restaurants. Residents don’t feel overrun and can actually spend time with you, answer your questions, and tolerate your sincere effort to speak their language. They also appreciate the fact that you’ve chosen to explore their city or country at a slower pace.
- Reduced rates: Savings at hotels can be astounding during off-season. Hotels want to stay open and keep staff employed. Besides lower rates, there can also be more free amenities. Restaurants often lower prices, too. With peak-season visitors gone (the ones standing in line to pay more) restaurants want to attract you–and the locals–with reasonable prices. Like the hotels, there may be special deals, such as bargain menus or free wine.
- Shorter lines: Again, obvious…but if you’ve ever stood in a museum line for hours, this is beyond wonderful. No throng at the Mona Lisa. Step right up to see David. This is truly one of the benefits of off-season travel. To me, it’s worth packing heavy socks or an extra jacket in order to see the Sistine Chapel without camping out.
- Easier reservations: Are you a foodie? Always wanted to eat at that Michelin-starred restaurant? You can actually make a reservation–and get a reasonable time. Same with sites and attractions that require reservations. You can plan your itinerary how you want, instead of having to work around limited availability.
- Better seats: Whether you’re taking a train, booking a flight, or getting tickets to a show, there is less competition for a place to sit. Not only will you have a better selection, you can do a lot of it ahead of time. Arrive at your destination knowing that you’ve got the best seats, guides, and times–perfectly planned.
- More authentic: Think Parisians stay home in the winter, because there are no sidewalk cafes? Think again. One of my favorite parts of off-season travel is seeing how people live when the tourists go home. Children walking to school in their uniforms. Men gathering in cafes to play cards. Beautiful stores decorated for the holidays. Theatre and opera.
Not all off-season travel is cold
Off-season doesn’t always mean miserable cold weather. I went to Sicily in late November, when the temperatures were in the sixties. It was divine, compared to the nearly 100 degrees of summer. The markets were open and full of local people. Tourists were few and far between. Or try Costa Rica during rainy season–experience a tropical storm and the sunshine that follows. Both places offer deep discounts…and are magical without hoards of tourists.