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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE ADVANTAGES
OF OFF-SEASON TRAVEL


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

September 23, 1997 -- During the Presidents Day Weekend, while many travelers paid top dollar for sold-out flights to the crowded beaches of the Caribbean, a New York couple paid just $298 each to fly a nearly empty widebody jet to Italy. While other Americans paid the full rate for rooms at resorts in Arizona and California, the New Yorkers received a huge discount and complimentary breakfasts at Rome's five-star Grand Hotel. And while still other travelers waited in long lines at Florida's theme parks, the New Yorkers were virtually alone in Tuscany, free to investigate the twisty side streets of San Gimignano and Volterra, Italy.

What did those New Yorkers know that the others didn't? They know how to travel in the "off-season," the time of year when prices are lower, crowds are smaller, and the weather, if not picture-postcard perfect, is usually fine for touring.

DON'T FOLLOW THE CROWDS To appreciate why an off-season vacation can be desirable, it's important to understand that the so-called "peak season" at many destinations is contrived (see below). "Americans have a school mentality when it comes to traveling," explains Aer Lingus executive Jack Foley. "As kids they had June, July, and August off from school, so now as adults they tend to travel only in the summer."

In other words, Americans flock to places like Europe in the summer--and gladly pay a premium for the privilege--for no better reason than they're conditioned to travel in the summer. In truth, there's nothing intrinsically magical about the European summer. And sometimes there are drawbacks: Parisians and Romans routinely take their own holidays in August, leaving the shops closed, the cities deserted and the neighborhoods devoid of local flavor.

ALL IN THE TIMING Break out of the summer-travel syndrome and you'll soon discover the "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 advantages of traveling during a shoulder season are plentiful: The weather is almost as good as during the peak-season, the crowds disappear, and prices decline substantially. One typical example: the "London on Stage" package from British Airways Holidays (800-876-2200). Based solely on the timing, prices for the popular 6-night deal differ by more than 25 percent: at least $1,079 a person in September, but as little as $779 each in November.

THE BEACH BRIGADE Beach and warm-weather destinations have their own seasons, of course, but once again the "high 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 peak seasons are determined by outside forces: Americans and Europeans who flock there during their own cold and snowy winter months.

But beware: Sometimes it is too cold for an off-season dip. Bermuda and the Greek Islands are typical examples. "It gets down to 60 degrees in Bermuda in the off season and the Greek Isles are cool and rainy," says Gary Topping of Gulfstream Travel (800-844-6949), a large travel agency.

On the other hand, off-season travel is less risky if your goals are primarily cultural and centered on museums, the theater and historical attractions. Big cities are also good off-season destinations: Restaurants are open, the city's social life is usually in full swing, and the shopping is robust. Even in big cities, however, the climate can be an important factor in deciding whether to make an off-season trip. Museum-hopping, for example, is technically an any-weather activity, but stinging cold or torrential rain can make the experience unpalatable.

WEATHER WATCH So how do you know when--and where--to travel in the off season? "Research, research, research," quips Topping. "Call the tourist office, talk to your travel agent and do all the homework you can." And when you check the weather, be thorough: Make sure you know the wind conditions and precipitation patterns as well as the temperature before planning any off-season trip.

Lastly, be flexible. An off-season trip is a matter of personal taste. It's a balancing act between price, climate, and timing. It's also a terrific opportunity. "Travel isn't like a lightbulb," says Foley of Aer Lingus. "The lights don't go out on a destination the moment its peak season ends. There's usually plenty to see and do after the tour buses leave."

HOW THE OFF SEASON RATES

SOUTHERN EUROPE
Peak season: April 15 to September 15
Off-season outlook: In March and October, the sun shines and the crowds are small. Prices are lowest in the cooler, rainier winter, but many tourist towns close.

THE CARIBBEAN
Peak season: December 15 to April 30
Off-season outlook: Prices plummet when spring arrives in America, but it's always warm and sunny in the islands--except for the occasional hurricane.

HAWAII
Peak season: December 15 to April 30
Off-season outlook: Prices are lowest just before and after the winter rush. The weather is excellent throughout the off season on the leeward side of most Islands.

PHOENIX/SCOTTSDALE
Peak season: December 15 to March 15
Off-season outlook: Summer temperatures routinely soar above 100 degrees, which is why the discounts reach 50 percent at some of America's best hotels and resorts.

THAILAND
Peak season: November 1 to February 28
Off-season outlook: Whether you're headed to Bangkok or the resorts, the off-season is either too hot (April and May) or too wet and too hot (June to September).

SCANDINAVIA
Peak season: June 1 to September 1
Off-season outlook: May and October are okay for touring, but, unless you love to ski, it's too cold, wet, and dark from November to April.

This column originally appeared in Frommer's Travel Update.

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