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Cheap Travel in Pariah Destinations

Know Your Seasons for the Best Travel Bargains

Off Season Travel Bargains in Provence, France
Stay in a castle apartment in Provence, France for an off season bargain in October, and the greens, the weather, the light, the wine, and the food are still at their peak — while the natives are far more friendly than during the summer tourist stampede. Photo by Gregory Hubbs.

Shoestring travelers go to great lengths to stick to their budget: finding inexpensive lodging, getting cut-rate airfares, and taking the cheapest local transportation. One often-overlooked variable, however, is the time of year they visit a particular destination.

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. Whether it's a Thai party beach during the full moon, Goa around the Christmas break, or Europe in the summer, this is the time when prices shoot up and you'll find little to no room for negotiation.

Low season is often low for a good reason, however. Prices are cheap, but they often deserve to be. Hurricanes are blowing around the Caribbean and Florida, Egypt feels like the inside of an oven, the Andes are obscured by clouds. Many beach towns all over the world are literally boarded up in the off-season. It can be a good time to work on a novel or to meditate, but many find the lonely streets and bad weather during low season to be a downer.

The Joy of Shoulder Season

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 good. Rates on everything from lodging to adventure trips often 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 U.S. tourists have stopped thinking about escaping the cold back home.

Most guidebooks and country-specific websites 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 would ideally want to visit. 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 is not another soul around and you can't find a place to get dinner.

If there is a specific time of year when you it is best to go hiking (such as October through December in Nepal), try to arrive at the beginning or end of that window. I once rented a nice little guesthouse room in Kathmandu for $2 per night in early October before I went to Pokhara to start my trek. When I returned three weeks later, at the height of the tourist season, the owner wanted $4.50 for the same room. One room we rented in Turkey was $5 per night; the owner told us it routinely went for $15 a month before we arrived. This same scenario plays out all over the world, with the intrinsic laws of supply and demand driving prices up or down.

Following are a few specific recommendations for predictable shoulder seasons around the world, divided by season.

Winter Travel Bargains

While most of the U.S. is obsessed with shopping for presents, travelers can find great values at tropical beaches until Christmas week. Skiers heading to Europe can take advantage of the cheapest flights of the year from the U.S.

Flights to Asia generally go down in the winter due to waning demand. In Japan and Korea this can mean experiencing snow-covered temples and cozy rooms with heated floors, while in other parts of Asia it's a tropical paradise. Travelers who want to travel through Southeast Asia in particular should look for the best deal to anywhere in the region and then go overland from there.

Despite this being the summer in South Africa, the best flight prices and package deals are on offer January through April.

Spring Travel Bargains

Flights to Europe start rising when temperatures do, but rates are still far cheaper than during the summer months. This can be a good time to see the tulip fields of Holland or the green hills of Ireland. If you are studying or working in Europe, take advantage of any spring breaks to travel locally.

Starting in mid-April, hotel rates and flights to Mexican beaches and the Caribbean take a drastic drop. From Jamaica to Tulum to Tobago, the water is warm and the beaches are less crowded. Flights to Central and South America often drop in tandem -- except around Carnival and Easter.

It's autumn in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with shoulder season rates on flights and lodging. March through May are great months to visit hot and dry countries such as Morocco, Egypt, or Jordan.

Summer Travel Bargains

Summer is the toughest time to find a bargain, mostly because demand is so high from North Americans, Europeans, and the Japanese. Add June weddings and honeymoons to the mix and there are a lot of people on the move.

However, in June and early July Caribbean and Mexican destinations are at their lowest shoulder season prices, before Europeans start filling resorts in August and rains start picking up. For budget travelers, less touristed destinations provide the best lodging and diving deals: Venezuela's Margarita Island, the Bay Islands of Honduras, or the islands scattered off the coasts of Belize, Panama, and Nicaragua.

June to September is shoulder season in Kenya and Tanzania, when the high season is over, but the weather is still cool and dry. This is an excellent time to go on a safari.

In Canada, there is a short shoulder season for national parks in the first two weeks of June and the last two weeks of August.

While it is summer in North America, it is winter in the southern hemisphere, but you will find beach weather without the summer humidity in Rio de Janeiro. Few Brazilians are on the move during this time, so rooms are plentiful.

If you can stand the heat, you will find flights and hotels only slightly higher than in the spring in Southeast Asia, including Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Fall Travel Bargains

Flights to Europe usually start going on sale in October. Lodging rates drop, and with a wider selection of rooms it is easier to be choosy. In southern European cities, the weather can still be pleasant until mid-November or early December.

The summer cruise ship crowds have mostly left the Greek Islands and Turkey, but the early fall weather is still sunny, the party kids have gone home, and hotels are open to bargaining.

Mid-October to mid-December marks the transition from the wet season to dry season in Costa Rica and Panama; plan lush jungle trips before the big crowds arrive.

TIM LEFFEL, a regular columnist for Transitions Abroad, is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.

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