Off-Season Travel...Keep it a Secret
Off-season travel can be like this: you get off your plane in Venice, walk out into pouring rain, take the boat to the island, then walk for ages in the dark, wet cold, down deserted streets to your hotel which has inadequate heat. Yep, it's just like that. Every day. You really don't want to do that, right? OK, that is all, move along, please. Don't finish this article, that is all you should know.(Low, stage whisper) OK, for those loyal readers who are sticking with me, now we will get to the good, secret stuff. Off-season travel is the BEST. But don't tell everyone. If everyone knows, we won't have it to ourselves. Let's keep this between friends.European travel is so much fun, there is so much to see and do, that everyone from everywhere wants to do it. The past 5 years have been pretty amazing, watching the crowds grow exponentially in the high season. I remember having no problem doing tours of the Vatican Museum using my voice, no headsets for amplification. Now it is so noisy and crowded in there that even with the required sound systems, one can hardly hear oneself think. Some museums (mostly the Vatican) are dangerously overcrowded, and some museums are sold out for months in advance, making the casual visit impossible. Some days it seems that my work is no longer to teach and guide but to run interference between my tour members and the crowds that conspire to ruin their vacation.The one of the most common questions I am asked (after "Which shoes should I wear?") is "When should I go?" My instant answer is always "Anytime other than September." I'm not sure where the legend has come from, but there seems to be this general idea out in the world that the only time to go to Europe is September. September is the highest of high seasons, it is the most crowded moment in every single place, maybe with the exception of the far north. Being the most demanded time, it is also the most expensive time to go, with hotel rooms and flights costing a small fortune. Many cities are so crowded that finding a hotel room at any price can be tricky. Why would you do that to yourself? Sure, the weather is usually nice, but in this age of climate change the good weather is not a given benefit. Don't go in September.When to go depends on what you want to do. If going to the beach is at the top of your list, an off-season strategy may not work well for you. Still, the season for beach towns doesn't really pick up until about mid-June, any time before that will be better. If you stick to the far south, beach time starts as early as April. August is the time to avoid the beach. If you're doing the museum and city thing, then I have great news for you, you are the perfect candidate for off-season travel. Go in November, or January-March. These are the best months to travel, in my opinion.Your airfare will be cheap. A friend in Italy is looking to come visit me in Seattle this month and I found tickets as low as $600. Compare that with my last ticket to Italy, departing September 3 for $1600. That is a $1000 difference on airfare alone. If you are a frequent flier, your points will go further in odd months and availability is good, which means that you can often book tickets last minute. Many flights have tons of open seats at this time of year, you can often find an entire empty row on the plane to stretch out on.Hotels can be just as economical, depending on where you go, the discounts can be more than half the price of the high season. Many hotels have incentives in the quiet months, like package deals or upgrades. To get the maximum discount, plan to be in big cities on the weekend. Outside of tourist season, hotels book with business travelers who are there during the week. Hotels often go out of their way to make the cold months cozy. A hotel I stayed at in Cappadocia last November served hot wine in the evenings and made sure there was a fire in our fireplaces when we returned to the rooms.If you like to live like a temporary local, off season is a delight. The most touristy districts will be full of local tourists rather than international ones. Winter events in cities are usually geared to the local crowd. When I'm in Europe in the winter, locals don't automatically speak to me in English and seem genuinely surprised to see a foreigner. It's refreshing.If you're a shopper, January is shopper's paradise in European cities. We are used to a new sale practically every day at the local stores in the US. In Europe, they only do it twice per year, January and July. They start the month with small markdowns and then discount a bit more every few days until it's all gone. It's the craziest thing at big department stores, there's almost a feeding frenzy when new markdowns are taken.The biggest benefit to off-season travel is the crowd-free scene almost everywhere you go. Museums see a huge drop in visitors in the winter. Lines virtually don't exist in late January. I walked right up to the Mona Lisa at that time of year and looked her right in the eye, something totally impossible on a summer day. You can make all of your plans for sightseeing spontaneously in the quiet season, no need to pre-book everything. If you have a car rented, you can hit the road without any reservations and see where the day takes you. That's a concept that has died out somewhat with the increase in visitors. I used to love doing that.You may be wondering where the catch is. There are some downsides to travel off-season, it's true. Some places are totally closed down in the winter, usually places that have a beach. The Cinque Terre is mostly shut down. Taormina and Cefalu in Sicily are both ghost towns and there isn't much to do. You can still go to those places in the off-season, but it's better to stay in a larger town nearby that has year-round hotel and restaurant services. I've stayed in Santa Margherita during the winter, then took the train in to the Cinque Terre to hike during the day on empty trails. Not a bad compromise.Popular summer hiking destinations can become expensive in the winter. Towns like Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland have cultivated a good business in the summer for hikers, but their bread and butter is the ski season. Prices for mountain resorts sky-rocket after December 1.The weather and short daylight hours can also be a downside for some. I live in Seattle, where winter is almost year-round and rain rarely stops, I am not bothered at all by the weather. The way I see it, either I'm cold and wet at home or cold and wet in London! In big cities, no matter what time of year, you'll often be in museums all day anyhow, so choosing the destination is key. Florence, for example, is great off-season since so many of the things you go there for are indoors.There are some exceptions in terms of when low season is, I'd skip December and around Lent. Festivals happen throughout Europe before Lent begins, which shifts around every year. Venice, for instance, is packed at that time for Carnevale and you'll have a tough time finding a hotel. December is busy for Christmas markets and religious events all over Europe, and keep in mind that Christmas lasts until Epiphany in Europe so strike the first week of January off the list.To enjoy the many benefits of off-season travel, you'll need to do some research and make a few adjustments. Many museums and sightseeing spots close down earlier in the winter, do a little research on opening hours at your destination. If you aren't the kind of traveler that normally goes to evening performances, add that to your sightseeing list to maximize your visit. Symphony or opera performance seasons typically run in the off-season, so take advantage of the nightlife action when tourist destinations close early.You'll have to pack differently in the colder months. More warm clothes, fewer flip-flops. I still assert that you can manage to pack light even if you need warmer clothes. I've done it and so can you. In my next post, I'll give you a list of things to bring and strategies for cold weather travel that will keep you warm and your bag carry-on sized.Overall, the benefits of going in the off-season are huge. It's far less crowded, making your experience more enjoyable, and it's much cheaper. That's a winning combination for me.Thinking about taking a tour? Rick Steves Tours run in the winter now! And they're discounted! Woohoo! Check it out at ricksteves.com... who knows, maybe I'll be your guide.