The Brancatelli File



June 22, 1997 -- When my old man finally gave up the six-day-a-week grind of retail, he retired to live the life of Mr. Travel.

Considering that my father never really went anywhere in his life--unless, of course, you want to count his years in China with the Marines during World War Two--Mr. Travel has done a pretty good job making up for lost time. He went to Bermuda and threw around the name of his son, the travel writer. He went to Hawaii and threw around the name of his daughter-in-law, the former Hawaii resident. He went to Vegas and Atlantic City and just threw around his money. He hit Disney World, Miami, Cleveland (don't ask, okay?), Canada, the Hudson Valley, the Bahamas, Seattle, San Francisco and even Los Angeles. Mr. Travel even took an overpriced escorted tour of Northern Italy and Switzerland--and loved every minute of it.

So lately I've been thinking it's time to take Mr. Travel home--to Sicily, the birthplace of his parents.

"Great," says Mr. Travel, "let's go in August. I'll call your aunts and your uncles and we'll stay with them."

"Uh, Dad," I say as calmly as a hard-headed Italian son can speak to his hard-headed Italian father. "First of all, I don't stay with family. I stay in hotels. And, second of all, no way am I going to Sicily in August. We'll go in November, in the off-season, when all the tourists are gone and the planes are empty."

"It's too cold in Sicily in November," he says.

Now what Mr. Travel knows about Sicilian weather is less than nothing. No matter when you travel to Sicily, I explain to him, it will be ten degrees warmer than in New York, which is where Mr. Travel currently resides.

"Not going," he says. "Too cold."

"But, Dad, you're gonna be in New York in November and Sicily is ten degrees warmer than New York. How can that be too cold?"

"It's too cold. I know."

He doesn't know, of course, but Mr. Travel's problem isn't meteorological, it's sociological.

Like all too many travelers, my Dad is a prisoner of what my friend at British Airways calls the "school mentality." As kids, he explains "travelers had June, July and August off, so now as adults they tend to travel only in the summer or only when the schools have long holidays."

This school mentality is dangerous: it means, like sheep, travelers head off to Europe during the summer high season, when prices are highest, the planes and hotels are packed and the Europeans are off on their own vacations, leaving towns like Rome and Paris devoid of locals. It means, like sheep, you'll pay top dollar to visit the Caribbean and Mexico in the peak season of February and March, even though the weather is just as good in September or October

Since Mr. Travel won't listen to me, perhaps I can convince you: Don't go anywhere during the "peak season" if you can avoid it. You'll pay too much, receive too little, find yourself traveling cheek-by-jowl with other tourists and get the overworked locals at their worst possible moments.

My best advice to travelers these days is to go during the off season: You'll pay a lot less (sometimes 50 percent less), get a lot more for the money you do spend, and have the opportunity to interact with the people who actually live in the places you're visiting.

Break out of the summer-travel syndrome and you'll discover the pleasures of "shoulder" seasons, those months just before and after the peak tourist time. In Europe, for instance, the shoulder periods are April and May, and October and November. The weather is usually just fine, the prices plummet and the crowds have thinned out substantially.

Beach and warm-weather destinations have their own seasons, of course, but once again the peak tourist season is often a contrivance. The Caribbean's beaches are no warmer during January's peak season than they are in May's off season.

Nor is Hawaii a warmer, friendlier place to visit in February than October. Yet their high seasons are determined by outside forces: Americans, Asians and Europeans who flock there during their own cold and snowy winter months.

Now is off-season travel always the way to go? Of course not. You don't want to be slogging through Siberia in February or in India during the monsoon season. On the other hand, off-season travel isn't risky if your goals are primarily cultural and centered on museums, the theater and historical attractions. Big cities are perfect off-season destinations: Restaurants are open, the city's social life is in full swing and the shopping is robust.

I know this is a radical concept--and I know Mr. Travel will probably force me to take him to Sicily in August after all--but I urge you to be flexible and open minded about when you travel. An off-season trip is savvy thinking.

And as my friend from British Airways metaphorically explains it: "Travel isn't like a light bulb, the lights don't go out on a destination the moment its peak season ends."

Maybe if I hit Mr. Travel over the head with a light bulb...

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.