Brent and Michael's Guide to Travel in the Off Season
Travel in the low and shoulder seasons isn't all rainbows and lollipops. But with our help, it can be *mostly* rainbows and lollipops.
Michael and I are spending a few winter months in Split, Croatia, which is one of the big ferry hubs to the beautiful Croatian archipelago — long a favorite vacation destination for Europeans but only discovered by Americans in the last decade or so.
A week ago, Michael and I took a weekend trip to Hvar, one of the closest islands, and spent a couple of nights in Hvar Town, which, at 4500 people, is the island’s biggest population center.
It’s now the dead of winter here, so our Airbnb was a very reasonable $40/night — easily, $150 a night or more in summer — and we had the entire medieval town almost entirely to ourselves. We explored a long stone walkway along the sea, past a series of rocky coves, and hiked up the hill to a charming fortress with a stunning view of the harbor and surrounding islands. The fortress has an admission fee, but no one bothered to man the booth when we visited.
It was a lovely, romantic weekend.
Except getting to Hvar Town, we misread a Croatian schedule and took the wrong ferry to the wrong landing, which wouldn’t have been any problem, except the island buses were on a reduced winter schedule and one wasn’t coming for another four hours. There also weren’t any waiting cabs and no Uber this time of year. Eventually, we managed to arrange a pickup through our Airbnb host, but it took a while to arrive, and we had to wait a half hour in the cold and dark.
Because it was the off season, the host had mistakenly turned off our hot water — a problem that took several hours to solve. And there was only a single open restaurant (and a couple of cafes) in the entire town.
As chance would have it, the weather was perfect — warm and sunny. But two weeks earlier, it had been raining miserably, and this time of year the Adriatic is often on the receiving end of something called the Bura — basically, cold, hurricane-force winds. Had one rolled in unexpectedly, we would have had to spend the entire weekend indoors.
In this newsletter, Michael and I have repeatedly said, “Travel in the low season! Travel in the low season!”
But the truth is, while there are some pros to traveling in the off season, there are also some fairly big cons. It’s not all rainbows and lollipops.
Fortunately, you have us to explain exactly how to maximize the rainbows and lollipops, and minimize the crappy weather and lack of waiting cabs.
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What Are the Different Travel Seasons Anyway?
The year may be made up of four seasons, but in terms of travel, there are only three. Here’s a short primer on each:
High or Peak Season
Not surprisingly, this is the period of time when most tourists visit a destination. In temperate climates, the high tourist season is usually summer. In Europe, high season starts in mid-June and generally runs through the start of September.
Naturally, it’s different in winter sport destinations, like ski resorts, where winter is obviously the high season. Winter is also high season for many beach destinations, if most of the tourists are coming from somewhere cold. The Caribbean high season, for example, is when it’s cold in America and Canada — but only after hurricane season has passed.
Other exceptions? If there’s some seasonal attraction, like New England’s famous changing of the leaves. Obviously, lots of people want to see that, so autumn instantly becomes one of that region’s high seasons, along with summer. Likewise, Europe’s lavish Christmas markets can turn the month of December — what might otherwise be low season — into a brief winter high season.
And let’s not forget other factors that can suddenly turn a low season into a high one, if only briefly: local holidays or school breaks. In the United States, many colleges have Spring Break, which typically runs the last two weeks in March — and turns beach destinations accessible from America from the high season into a really high season.
In many tropical areas, the high season is usually the dry season — the opposite of the rainy season. It’s not so much about rain, because “rainy season” doesn’t necessarily mean endless rain; it’s about the humidity, which can be unbearably high.
And, of course, let’s not be “hemisphere-ist” and forget that in the Southern Hemisphere, the summer high seasons runs from mid-November through February.
In short, high season depends on a lot of different variables, but they all boil down to the same thing: it’s the period of time when demand is highest and people most want to visit a particular destination.
Low or Off Season
This is obviously the opposite of the high season, when fewer tourists visit a destination. In some places, it correlates with when kids are back in school.
But not all low seasons are the same. Some tourist destinations welcome visitors all year but in fewer numbers. Other destinations basically shut down. Like high season, low season depends on lots of different variables.
There is also sometimes an element of tradition to the low season: large crowds stop coming, because people have always stopped coming at a particular time — maybe because the community previously decided, “That’s it! Stop! We need a damn break.” Sweden, for example, has a longer high season than the countries on either side, Norway and Finland, and tradition is part of the reason why.
But demand is rising everywhere, and travel patterns are changing. Which means there are places where the weather can be fairly glorious even in the “low” season.
Which brings us to the third travel season…
This is — duh! — the time between the high and low seasons — usually spring or fall.
This also includes a tourist season I just made up called “the shoulder-shoulder season,” which is the period of time right after (or right before) a high season. The prices and crowds are lower, but the weather is often still perfect.
This time — September or June in many places — can be the absolute sweet spot of travel: most of the advantages of high and low season at the same time. Michael’s and my absolute favorite travel months are September and October, especially in Europe.
Incidentally, are there any places in the world where the weather is good all year long?
Why, yes! Popular contenders include San Diego, USA; Costa Rica; Oaxaca, Mexico; Medellin, Colombia; Lima, Peru; Lisbon, Portugal; the south of Spain and the (Spanish) Canary Islands; Malta; Cyprus; and the American state of Hawaii.
Traveling to destinations like these in their low seasons is — like the sweet spot of the shoulder-shoulder season — another way of getting most of the advantages of high season with the benefits of low.
Keep reading for specific tips on how to make the most of low and shoulder season travel.
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