Captivated by the deep discounts offered for off-season travel, I have visited Moscow in January, slogged through the rain and 29 degree weather in Budapest in late November and scaled an icy precipice to view the Bled Castle on a blustery winter’s day. In each off-season foray, prices were less than in the high summer season. From the lessons I gleaned the hard way, I now answer 5 questions before booking my flight for off-season vacations.
The draw is that off-season hotel prices can be reduced by as much as 50%. Moreover, in Paris in January, not only are hotel prices a bargain, but large groups of other tourists don’t block your view as you stroll through the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay. Long lines for restaurants are reduced, and you can set your own pace. Similarly, traveling to the French Riviera mid-September, I found ½ price sales for 5 star hotels.
Since solo travelers often pay a premium for traveling alone, how can you know if an off-season discount is a good value?
Tip I: What does up-to-date research show?
I once traveled to the Caribbean for a seaside vacation. On arrival, I found out a storm had washed out the beach. Luckily, the hotel next door was 5 minutes walking distance and had not been impacted by the hurricane. On other trips, I arrived in a West African island only to find an ongoing cholera epidemic while my arrival in another destination coincided with a dicey political situation. In each case it worked out. However, with better information, I could have saved myself from unwelcome surprises.
The Internet travel sites make it easy to connect with other travelers and to see press accounts of current conditions. I have traveled in regions where outside of major resorts running water was only available during part of the day. Ongoing domestic turmoil can be very hard to evaluate as a foreign visitor. If you are aware of local issues before you go, it is much easier.
The key question: Is your chosen destination offering “off-season” rates because it is unsafe currently or otherwise problematic for leisure travelers?
Tip 2: What impact will the weather have?
Generally off-season discounts are available in areas where bad weather dissuades tourists from visiting. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter is cheaper as the temperatures drop. However, even transitional seasons, such as spring, can be questionable. I “viewed” the Rock of Gibraltar through a foggy rain and 55 degree boat ride on a fast moving hydrofoil. Although I knew that it snowed in the Atlas Mountains, I did not anticipate a spring day in Morocco at sea level would be so chilly.
The key question: Will rain and cold (or conversely blazing hot days) prevent you from enjoying the trip at any price?
Tip 3: Will key sights be open off-season?
When I arrived one winter’s day in Bled, Slovenia, I was armed with a detailed guidebook. I had read of how popular a spa and tourist haven Bled was dating from the 1890’s when European royalty had made it a chic destination. One of the sought after sights was a trip by boat to the Church of the Assumption located on an island in Lake Bled. As I looked at the iced over lake, I saw there was no bridge and therefore no access in the winter. On another trip off-season, I headed to Spain during the spring only to arrive just in time for closings to coincide with the Easter Week observance.
The key question: Will you need a “redo” to see everything you missed because of closings off-season?
Tip 4: Even if major attractions are open, will they be accessible?
On a Jan. business trip to Siberia, I was pleased to be able to add time in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
I knew what it meant to be traveling off-season when I arrived at Immigration in the Moscow Airport and watched the adjacent long line of Russian citizens move ahead. My “line” of non-citizens included only one other person on that blustery January day.
I soon discovered that tours outside St. Petersburg to the famous Peter and Katherine Palaces were discontinued for the winter. I had two options: 1. Pay about $200 for a day tour with private transportation or 2. Follow the local custom of hitchhiking. With only 1 year of Russian, trying to hitchhike was not realistic.
The key question: Apart from seasonal closings, will it be too hard to get to tourist sites?
Tip 5: What will be the added cost of transportation if you cannot walk or take a local bus or train?
One of the delights for me in traveling abroad is strolling through the streets and markets and getting a feel for local life aside from museums and national monuments. As I found in Amazonas, Brazil, the local bus was around $2.00 for the same taxi ride of about $36! However, since it was the rainy season and I had just dodged an hour’s downpour, the fare was worth it. In northern Europe, taxis often run at least $25. Moreover, airport commutes into nearby cities can be especially costly when finding/taking a subway or bus won’t work.
This is even an issue for domestic travelers as I discovered traveling from Washington, DC to a Montana ski resort. I had just missed the last airport van since service was curtailed for off-season/late spring skiing. My option was to have a taxi come from the resort and take me back for about $150. As luck would have it, a nearby van circled back to save me from having to find alternate overnight lodging near the airport.
The key question is: Will you net any real savings if you have to pay for taxis/arrange private transportation throughout the trip?
Notwithstanding the challenges of taking the road less traveled, I recommend off-season travel where:
1. Cost and scheduling requirements (time off from work?) are a factor.
2. The purpose of your trip is not thwarted by local closings.
3. Your enjoyment is not greatly reduced by weather at your destination.