Everyone knows off-season is the cheapest time to travel, but who wants lousy weather?
Rather than strictly travelling in the offseason, when savings can be greatest but weather is often at its worst, the trick is to find soft periods in times of stronger demand. Cheaper travel varies widely by destination, but there are a few general guidelines to follow while planning. In addition to checking convention traffic (Las Vegas lists its meetings at vegasmeansbusiness.com), look for holidays in a foreign destination and probe airline booking calendars for soft travel days. Search engines like Kayak indicate “good days to travel,” meaning bargain days, and the airfare prediction app Hopper shows a calendar colour-coded to pricing.
“If you’re flexible with your dates, you can get so much more bang for your buck,” said Yves Marceau, the vice president of product at G Adventures, a tour company where spring itineraries to Europe, for example, can save 20 per cent or more over summer trips.
While not comprehensive, the following month-by-month list, starting with April, provides information on deals in popular global destinations, and a few cautionary flags.
Spring in Alaska offers early wildlife-watching opportunities as animals emerge from hibernation and whales return. This year, two small-ship cruise lines, UnCruise and Alaskan Dream Cruises, are introducing new sailings that start in April and highlight the season of gushing waterfalls. UnCruise begins its itineraries April 6 with a seven-night sailing between Juneau and Sitka starting at $2,995 (Dh10,999) a person. In July, a similar sailing starts at $4,495.
Tip: In Latin America and Christian religious sites like Rome, Semana Santa, or Holy Week, can clog not just the week of Easter but the week prior, and you can expect higher prices.
Orlando, Florida, receives 72 million visitors throughout the year. High season coincides with school breaks, including spring break, summer vacation and the winter holidays. But the window after spring break in late April until Memorial Day, there’s a slight dip. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, for example, has rooms at 25 per cent off during this period (it also has a similar sale for summer if booked by March 24). A recent search on Travelocity showed weekend rates at the Hilton Orlando at $146 in May versus $221 a month later.
Tip: Japan during Golden Week, generally the first week of May (April 29-May 6), is a vacation period that is expected to be particularly busy this year as a new emperor takes the throne.
Normally pricey, Aspen, Colorado, is a relative steal in early June, when the mountains are green again, and occupancy is at 57 per cent. The Limelight Aspen hotel has rooms from $225, versus more than $400 in summer. Visit before the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, in mid-June, and the Aspen Ideas Festival, June 20-29.
In the Caribbean, the hurricane season runs June 1-November 30, with the heaviest storm activity historically taking place in September, according to the National Hurricane Center. If you can handle the heat, the calm of early summer brings both deals and good visibility for snorkelling and diving. June and November are both relatively inexpensive. A recent check at Montpelier Plantation & Beach on Nevis found rooms in June at $235 versus $675 in February.
July and August
In the United States, the July 4 holiday is a busy time to travel and a lousy time to look for deals. But just on the other side of it, there’s a relative lull in a few unexpected places, including Lake Tahoe, California. Over the July Fourth week, rates at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe, according to a recent search, were running from $272, and drop $30 a night the week after.
In Costa Rica, you will likely see some rain in the afternoons during the May-to-November “green season,” but the forests will be lush. Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge in San Gerardo de Dota near Los Quetzales National Park has rates in green season from $159, versus $184 in high season.
September and October
With family vacations, traffic peaks in Hawaii in summer. But once school is in session, traffic wanes, making early autumn a cheaper time to say aloha. October is its lowest occupancy month when a hotel like the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel in Honolulu goes for $169, versus July at $195.
San Diego also empties out when school resumes. San Diego businesses sweeten the deal to attract families with a Kids Free San Diego promotion, offering free admission and deals at more than 100 attractions, hotels and restaurants in October.
In addition to Antoni Gaudi fans, foodies and cruise passengers, Barcelona is popular with conventions, drawing more than 200 a year. The International Congress and Convention Association, which tracks meetings, has Barcelona as its top international location. Go in November for weather in the 60s, but check the convention calendar at barcelonaconventionbureau.com.
In Egypt, the tourism plunge that followed the Arab Spring is over. Statistics from the World Travel & Tourism Council show 2017 arrivals in Egypt topped 2011 for the first time and tour operators report sellouts are common.
“The sneaky time to go to Egypt is November 15 to December 15,” said Jim Berkeley, the founder and chief executive officer of Destinations & Adventures International, which specialises in Egypt. “Americans don’t travel there much over Thanksgiving Day, the weather is perfect and it’s not as crowded as holiday seasons.”
Tip: Don’t miss Cyber Monday sales. It’s one of the few times each year that national park lodge operator Xanterra Travel Collection puts rooms on sale.
Pre-Christmas is a good time to hit desert destinations in Arizona. The hotel rates in Scottsdale, for example, are a third lower than they will be in February at an average daily rate of $176 while the average high is 20 degrees Celsius, ideal for hiking and golfing.
In Miami during Art Basel, the first week in December, rooms are at their most expensive. Just after, while many of the art installations are still on view, room rates plummet from an average of $463 to $227 up until Christmas.
From a savings perspective, January is an ideal time to visit northern US cities. You’ll give up fair weather, but culture fans won’t notice from inside museums and theatres.
According to 2018 figures from STR, Inc, a research firm that tracks hotel data, New York City was at its lowest annual occupancy rate, 75 per cent, in January with an average daily rate of $185.73, versus an average rate for the year of $262.31 per night. (The figures are similar in February).
From these metrics, many promotions flow, including NYC Broadway Week with two-for-one tickets for about three weeks in late January and early February, and Hotel Week NYC in early January when hotels like the Freehand New York offered rooms for $100, versus $260 normally.
Similarly, Washington, DC, is on sale in winter. Its average hotel rates in January, $173, are $100 less than they will be in March when school breaks drive occupancy.
Tip: Book a cruise during “wave season,” January through March, when cruise lines put their itineraries on sale. CruiseCritic.com, the online cruise publication, cautions that wave season doesn’t necessarily net rock-bottom prices, but it’s a good time to get a cabin upgrade or onboard credits.
After Christmas and New Year’s weeks, President’s Day week is the busiest, and costliest, on the ski slopes. But back it up to Super Bowl Sunday and you’ll save.
“As airlines and hotels have shoulder periods, at ski resorts you can find good options in the high period,” said Evan Reece, the chief executive of Liftopia, which sells lift tickets for more than 250 ski resorts in North America. “A few examples are Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday.”
Operators in Napa Valley, California, have taken to calling the December through March period Cabernet Season, highlighting the cooler temperatures when richer winter foods pair best with the wine region’s signature cabernets. By February, colour returns to the vineyards as wild mustard plants flourish.
In this period, hotel occupancy hovers around 60 per cent, versus close to 80 per cent May through October, saving, on average, $100 a night, according to Visit Napa Valley.
Tip: Chinese New Year, which usually falls in February, is seismic in terms of its impact on travel, within Asia and abroad. “You don’t want to be anywhere near China for two weeks on either side of Chinese New Year,” said Stan Godwyn, a California-based travel adviser at the Travel Store, who specialises in China.
Spring is the time to head to Europe for culture without the crowds. Airfare is about 20 per cent cheaper in March, April and May, versus June, July and August, according to Hopper. Those savings in 2018 ran between $160 and $210 a ticket.
Among beach destinations, try Bali the last three weeks of March after Nyepi (the Day of Silence), which takes place on March 7. “Bali is one of those places that’s pretty constant temperature wise because it’s near the equator,” said Sandy Staples, the president of Artistico Travel Consultants, a Folsom, California-based travel agency in the Virtuoso network. “In March, some of the hotels are 50 per cent off what they are in July and August.”