The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
Off-Season Travel: Where and When to Go
August 15, 1995 -- 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 $275 each to fly in a nearly empty widebody jet to Italy. Instead of paying full rate at a ritzy resort in the California desert, they received a huge discount and complimentary breakfasts at Rome's five-star Grand Hotel.

And while still other travelers were forced to wait in long lines at Florida's theme parks, the New Yorkers were virtually alone in Tuscany, free to investigate the winding side streets of San Gimignano and browse the alabaster shops in Volterra.

Our savvy travelers' secret? They travel in the off-season, the times of year when prices are low, crowds are small, and the weather is, if not perfect, usually fine for touring. But they are wary of rock-bottom deals that could leave them shivering in Siberia in January or slogging through India during the monsoon season.

How do you know when and where to travel in the off-season?

"Research, research, research," quips Jacquelyn Wolfer, president of International Tours & Cruises Fifth Avenue, a large travel agency. "Call the tourist office, talk to your travel agent, and do your homework."

The so-called peak season at many destinations is contrived. "Americans have a school mentality when it comes to traveling," explains British Airways executive John Muller. "As kids they had June, July, and August off, so now as adults they tend to travel only in the summer." In other words, Americans go to Europe in summer--and gladly pay a premium for the privilege--for no better reason than habit. In truth, there's nothing intrinsically magical about the European summer. Sometimes there are drawbacks: Parisians and Romans take their own holidays in August, leaving the shops closed, cities deserted and neighborhoods nearly devoid of local flavor.

Break away from the summer-travel syndrome and you'll soon discover the pleasures of those months just before and after the peak tourist time. In Europe these "shoulder" periods are April–May and October–November. The advantages of traveling during a shoulder season are plentiful: The weather is usually just as good as during the peak season, the crowds of tourists have thinned out and prices decline substantially. Consider the British Airways six-night "London on Stage" package. Solely on the basis of timing, prices differ by as much as 25 percent: at least $999 a person in September but as little as $759 in November.

Beach and warm-weather destinations have their favored times, but once again the peak tourist season is often contrived. 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 and friendlier place to visit in February than it is in October. Their high seasons are determined by outside forces: Americans and Europeans who flock there during their own cold and snowy winter months. But beware: in some places it's just too cold for an off-season dip. It gets down to 60 degrees in Bermuda in the off-season The Greek isles are cool and rainy.

On the other hand, off-season travel is less risky if your goals are primarily cultural and centered on museums, the theater and historic 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 the big cities, however, the climate can be an important factor. Museum-hopping, for example, is technically an any-weather activity, but waiting for buses or cabs in the stinging cold or torrential rain can make the experience unpleasant. Check the weather: Ask about precipitation as well as temperature before planning any off-season trip.

Be flexible and open-minded. An off-season trip is a matter of your own taste and a balancing act between price, weather and timing. It can also be a terrific opportunity. "Travel isn't like a lightbulb," says Muller of British Airways. 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."

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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