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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE CARIBBEAN OFF SEASON:
HOW TO PLAN FOR THE BIG BARGAINS


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

April 20, 2000 -- Want to stay at some of the world's most beautiful resorts and save hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars? Good. Just wait a few days, then make a reservation any place you fancy in the Caribbean.

The "off season" officially begins May 1 throughout the islands of the Caribbean, the Bahamas and the coastal Mexican resorts in Cancun and Cozumel. Room rates promptly plummet between 30 and 50 percent and stay far below the "official" published rate until the end of October.

And here's the good news: There's no trick and no bad weather. Prices fall in the off season simply because winter-weary travelers stop coming, not because the weather in the Caribbean changes. During the spring, summer and fall, most Caribbean islands are balmy with lovely tropical breezes--just like in the winter. Rain is scarce--just like in the winter. The water is warm and clean--just like in the winter. In fact, everything in the Caribbean in the off season is just about the same the winter--except for the number of tourists.

"The off-season here isn't a matter of climate, it's a matter of travel patterns," explains the general manager of a swanky hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "In the winter, we're the only warm place around. People pay a premium to be here. But when it gets warm in America, visitors stop coming. So hotels and resorts have to slash their room rates to keep the properties full."

How can you take advantage of this bonanza? Consider these timely tips:

1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
There are literally hundreds of Caribbean islands and thousands of seaside beach resorts competing for your business. Each offers a unique experience, a distinctive pastiche of local culture and the region's old colonial influences. You'd be surprised how "British" the British Virgin Islands still are. French language and sensibilities continue to drive daily life on islands like Martinique and Guadaloupe. Dutch influences dominate Aruba and Bonaire. Do yourself a favor and get the free Caribbean Vacation Planner, published by a coalition of local tourist interests. The 160-page guide covers 31 destinations and offers most of the facts, figures, and Web sites you need to plan a holiday. (Call 800-356-9999, extension 899.)

2. KNOW YOUR OWN FANTASIES
If you crave nonstop action and round-the-clock entertainment, you'll be disappointed by off-the-beaten track islands such as Tortola or Antigua. Don't head to St. Thomas or Montego Bay if your idea of perfection is a quiet beach. Do you want to gamble or avoid it? Water-sports fans have special needs, but what's good for fishing fans isn't necessarily good for scuba divers. It's important to match your fantasies with the particular character of each island.

3. PLAN YOUR FLIGHTS
Many pristine Caribbean islands remain pristine because they are isolated and difficult to reach. Moreover, few Caribbean destinations have direct flights from North America. So plan your travel carefully. Popular destinations such as Cancun, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Nassau/Paradise Island, Bahamas, are easy to reach. But other places will require an additional connecting flight--and then ferry rides or "puddle-jumping" small-plane journeys.

4. CONSIDER "ALL INCLUSIVES"
The Caribbean has many "all-inclusive" resorts. These sprawling operations, including Club Med, SuperClubs, Sandals and Viva, bundle food, lodging and activities into a single price. You pay upfront, then you rarely go into your wallet during your holiday. That's great if you never plan to leave the resort and expect to take all your meals and entertainment on the premises. But if you're expecting to dine in local restaurants or explore the area beyond the resort, you'll probably be paying for products and services you might not use.

5. ASK FOR A SPECIAL DEAL
Most hotels and resorts have separate "rate cards" for the winter "high season" and the upcoming off-season period. Off-season rates range from about 30 to 50 percent below the prices charged in winter. But go beyond the rate cards and ask about a special deal. These value-added packages may include breakfast, touring, romantic dinners, spa treatments or otherwise costly water activities. And while Sunday newspaper travel sections, travel magazines and travel-oriented Web sites may report on some of the deals, most of the best offers are never publicized. So ask about special bargains before you book a vacation.

6. UNDERSTAND THE HURRICANE THING
The official hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June 1 to November 1, but that's the only guarantee. Hurricanes are totally unpredictable and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. No one knows how many hurricanes--if any--will make landfall. No one knows a "secret" place where there can never be a hurricane. Hurricanes are the textbook definition of "an act of god." So make your plans and don't worry about what you can't control. The chances of your vacation being ruined by a hurricane are statistically insignificant.

This column originally appeared at Mapquest.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.