Contrarian Timing: Pay Attention to the Travel Seasons

By Tim Leffel

Make your travel dollars worth a fortune
Tim Leffel’s book cover

Have you ever bought a calendar on January 1? If so, you probably paid half what buyers did a day or two earlier, even though you’ll use it the same number of days. Have you ever bought a dozen roses on February 15? Christmas candy on December 26? A bathing suit in September? A leather coat in March? In each case you probably got the goods for half price or less. Same product, same function, but peak season is gone. Smart travelers use this principle to their advantage.

All but the wealthiest travelers will usually find some way to keep their travel budget in line. Even the dimmest tourists will make some attempt now and then to find inexpensive lodging, get a cut-rate airfare, and give some thought to whether they can really afford a particular destination.

One often-overlooked variable, however, and one of the most important, is the time of year they visit a particular destination.

Contrarian travelers know that finding the right time to visit can chop hundreds or thousands of dollars off their travel tab.

High Season, High Prices

In any area that attracts a lot of tourists, high season is expensive. In some cases, downright outrageous. High season can be as long as summer, or as short as New Year’s Eve weekend, depending on the location. In any case you are sure to pay top dollar. It costs more to get there, lodging prices shoot up, rooms get full, and there is almost no room for negotiation. Both crowds and rates are at their maximum. Around Christmas and the New Year’s holiday, it’s not uncommon to see a flight price jump from $250 to $1,000. A $99 hotel room will suddenly go for $299.

Here are a few examples where your credit card can get maxed out in a hurry:

  • Europe during the summer school break
  • The Caribbean from Christmas through March
  • The Canary Islands, Goa, or the Maldives around Christmas break.
  • Cancun or Key West during college Spring Break
  • Nearly any U.S. or Canadian ski resort on January and February weekends
  • Lake resort areas and national parks in the summer
  • South American tourist areas during their school break (Jan. and Feb.)
  • Disney World during any school vacation
  • New England during “leaf viewing season” in autumn

If you must go to these places at these times, be prepared to open up the wallet. It can be worthwhile to do so for a good reason, but finding any kind of a deal can be quite difficult.

Against the Tide in the Off Season

by Max Hartshorne

My parents took us to Atlantic City in February, 1973. In those days, Donald Trump had not yet arrived, and the ritziest place on the boardwalk was the ancient Chalfont Hadden Hall hotel, a towering edifice that would later be torn down to make way for Harrah’s Casino. Atlantic City had yet to become the gambling mecca of the Jersey Shore.

I wasn’t sure why my parents wanted to take us. After some grueling summer afternoons with us fighting like cats and dogs in the hot car on the way up to Cape Cod, I was sure we had taken our last family trip. But as we headed down the New Jersey Turnpike for that paradise by the sea, I realized it was their idea of a romantic weekend. So they got us kids a room and they had their own across the hall.

February in Atlantic City is bleak. Winds blow across the boardwalk swirling trash, and the winter ocean is fiercely uninviting. But inside our two rooms in this magnificent hotel, we were at peace. Room service brought asparagus with hollandaise sauce and thick steaks, and we watched our favorite Saturday night TV shows while our parents “reconnected” across the hall. The price was right, and that made this grand hotel affordable, even with two rooms.

Why go to Atlantic City in February? Or St.Croix in July? As a friend told me who often visits the Caribbean in the sultry summer months, “the temperature is the same in the winter or the summer….it’s just that nobody goes in July.”

Many people love going to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, but they usually choose July or August to descend upon these little islands, joining the hordes trying to park huge SUVs in small cobblestone spaces, or negotiating the narrow streets by moped. But these summer islands are perfect examples of why traveling off-season is so much more rewarding. In late September the water is finally warm enough to plunge into without fearing a heart attack or watching your manhood disappear up inside you. The light of September is clearer and brighter without the haze of the summer.

Casting out a line on a beach anywhere in Massachusetts in October is also more likely to get you a fish. So the next time you are making travel plans, think beyond the norm. Stretch a bit, and consider that if you have a choice between seeing and being seen or actually getting to enjoy the loveliness of the place you are visiting, you’ll probably enjoy the latter and be glad you went against the tide, during the off season.

Max Hartshorne is editor of, a comprehensive resource center that provides inspiration and information for independent and alternative travelers.

The Joy of Shoulder Season

As Max illustrates, low season can have its charms and you can’t beat the prices. But shoulder season offers the chance to score a bargain while the getting is still good. This period between high and low season is when prices drop, but the travel experience is still excellent. Rates on everything from lodging to adventure trips usually drop for reasons that are based on demand, not intrinsic value.

Europe is still quite nice in the fall, but all the college kids and family vacationers have returned home. The Caribbean and Mexico still have great weather in the late spring, but prices go down because US tourists have stopped thinking about escaping the cold back home. New England is beautiful in the spring, but the crowds are thin because the tree leaves are growing, not changing colors.

Most guidebooks and country-specific web sites have a “when to go” section that describes the ideal time to visit an area, as well as the worst time. In between those two extremes is when you get the best bang for your travel buck. You’re not jostling with hundreds of other people to get a room and see the sights, but you’re also not arriving when there isn’t another soul around and you can’t find a place to get dinner.

I’ve heard people ask, “Oh, how much difference can it really make?” Well, here’s how much. In a typical summer, a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Ireland will run $900 to $1,500 per person in economy coach. In May or September the same route will often be on sale for under $500, with a corresponding drop in room rates as a bonus. That fancy Cape Cod inn that starts at $400 per night in the summer? Try $150 per night in September.

From $2 to $5 Per Night in Nepal

In my globetrotting backpacker days, I once rented a nice little guesthouse room with a private bath in Kathmandu, Nepal for $2 per night in early October. When I returned three weeks later from my trek, at the height of the tourist season, the owner wanted $5 for the same room. At the high-end hotels in the same area, nightly rates jumped from $80 to $150 in the space of a few weeks—and then back down again a couple of months later. My arrival flight from India was cheap and half empty. My departure flight was fully booked and 50 percent more expensive.

It’s the same story at the beaches. One hostel room I rented in southern Turkey in September was $5 per night; a month earlier it was $15. Either time you could swim in the water, but I arrived when the tourist season was over. Along the Mayan Riviera coast of the Yucatan in Mexico, I’ve saved $100 or more per night at an all-inclusive resort by going in May or June, even though nothing has changed except the crowds. A few times I’ve rented a beach house in the U.S. with friends or another family. When I’ve done this in July, I’ve paid absolute top dollar. When I’ve done it in September, the price has literally dropped in half.

This same scenario plays out all over the world, with the intrinsic laws of supply and demand driving prices up or down. Never forget that airplane seats, beach houses, and hotel rooms are a perishable product: when empty, they generate no revenue. When demand is at its peak, prices will peak as well. When the crowds drop, price changes are necessary to lure a dwindling supply of customers. Pay attention to the seasons and you can get the same item or service at a drastically reduced price.


Excerpted from Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler’s Guide to Getting More for Less Copyright © 2006 by Tim Leffel. Reprinted with permission from the author and Travelers’ Tales, Inc.All rights reserved.

Buy Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler’s Guide to Getting More for Lessir?t=gc0a7 20&l=as2&o=1&a=1932361391 From Amazon

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