An optimist’s guide to off-season travel bargains

Story highlights

Very hot destinations offer big savings when temperatures are high

Prices drop in the Caribbean during hurricane season; odds are your side

If you're museum-hopping, the weather isn't an issue

Everything from airfares to hotel prices plummet during Europe's low season

CNN  — 

If you want to stretch your travel dollars, do not, under any circumstances, head to Disney World right now. It’s the height of peak season and hotel and airline prices, which fluctuate like the Dow Jones, are about as high as they get.

Likewise, steer clear of Chicago, which is about to host 300,000 screaming Lollapalooza fans; Cape Cod; and any other northern U.S. beach town.

But just as every bull market has a bear, every tourist destination has a flip side, a season when prices go down and savvy, flexible travelers can score big savings. Especially those who are good at spotting silver linings.

No matter what your personality type, it’s important to remember this bargain basement credo: It’s always off-season somewhere.

50 states, 50 spots: Natural wonders

Great deals, if you can take the heat

Except for the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and a few other high-elevation spots, Arizona in the summer is as deserted as the streets of Tombstone after the famous shoot-out.

Or it would be if it wasn’t for a whole posse of savvy hotels and tourist attractions that drop their prices as fast as outlaws dropped their guns when Wyatt Earp and his brothers rode into town.

With average highs in the triple digits, Arizona’s weather, its calling card in the winter, drives those with disposable income to more temperate climes. That leaves the state’s fancy resorts, its abundance of golf courses and its ooh-la-la spas for the rest of us.

Savings: The Arizona Biltmore Hotel and Resort offers a $129 summer golf pass that allows the proletariat to play on five prestigious courses normally frequented by U.S. presidents, foreign heads of state and Hollywood celebrities.

The Phoenician, a ritzy resort that in high-season starts (and that’s if you’re lucky) at $255, is offering $149 rooms with a $100 resort credit and a fourth night for free. For $30 more, they’ll throw in unlimited golf.

The silver lining: People pay big bucks for dry saunas like this.

Where the party’s never really over

If you’re a misfit, a rebel, a troublemaker or a round peg in a square hole, take a dip below the equator.

Steve Jobs, in his famous quote, probably wasn’t referring to off-season adventurers. But travelers who notice the crowds (Munich during Oktoberfest, Indianapolis during the 500 or a Thai party beach on a full moon, to name a few) and go the other way not only find lowball prices, but reap rare experiences that those lemmings chugging $12 steins in Munich beer tents could never appreciate.

So sure, Rio de Janeiro is a kick during Carnival, but now that the World Cup is over and the Brazilians have turned their attention to such civilized affairs as work, its famed beaches are practically deserted (it’s the winter there, after all) and prices are falling like ripe acai berries.

Savings: Any destination with the infrastructure to host roughly a fourth of its international tourists during the same week (Carnival when 2 million revelers per day fill the streets) is inevitably faced with fluctuating occupancy rates.

That means Rio’s beach hotels are all but giving rooms away right now. Most Cariocas, as the locals call themselves, think a 75-degree day, the average winter temp, is unworthy of their skimpy bikinis, so that means North Americans looking for beach vacations can score big.

Airfare to Rio might be more than flying to say, Cape Cod or Santa Cruz, but once you get there, off-season deals, many at half what you’d pay during the hotter (and much more humid) summer can be found up and down Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

The silver lining: It rarely rains this time of year and ocean waves are bigger and better for surfing

Adventures in storm chasing

During hurricane season (June 1 to November 30), resorts in the Caribbean, Mexico and the Bahamas slash their prices by 40% to 70%.

And get this: the average number of named hurricanes in the Northern Atlantic is a mere 10.1 per year with fewer than half of them becoming actual hurricanes. Of those, only 2.5 become Category 3 or greater. So out of 183 days of official hurricane season, your odds are pretty good.

On top of that, most of the islands in the Caribbean are relatively small. A hurricane making landfall is akin to finding the mini-bike key that floated out of your jean shorts when you swam into the ocean.

Savings: Discounts (in the hurricane zone) run across the board, so this is your chance to stay in a luxury hotel for the price of a Super 8.

The Bahamas Atlantis, for example, starts at $719 during peak season. Right now, during summer hurricane season, it’s $179. The Ritz-Carlton Cancun, that, at peak, goes as high as $659, is booking rooms for $175.

The silver lining: Because of the influx of Europeans this time of year, the atmosphere is more continental and cosmopolitan. Lift your pinkies.

Morning coffee with your hosts

During peak season, innkeepers, B&B owners and other tourism hosts barely have time to sleep six hours, let alone share with guests their fascinating back stories, their favorite local restaurants and other important intel that make vacations worth writing postcards about.

During the off-season, those innkeepers who aren’t recuperating on their own vacations have more head space and generosity and are more than willing to sit down with guests to answer that burning question: “How in the heck did you get so lucky to live and work in paradise?”

The Florida Keys, a necklace of coral islands stretching 127 miles from the tip of the Florida Peninsula, is filled with colorful characters.

Often pilgrims from other places, these potential new friends have managed to reinvent themselves with nothing but a dream and the cojones to pick up stakes and move south. During the summer low season, when southern Florida is hot as a pizza oven, they’re more inclined to sit down and tell you about it.

Savings: Joe and Ronnie Harris, New Yorkers through and through, worked for NBC until Joe, on a diving trip to Key Largo, turned around and saw what he called the world’s most beautiful sunset.

That was in 1991 and, before he was able to regain his senses, he was the proud owner of a small beach and the 11-room hotel that fronted it.

In the high season, between December 23 and April 30, a two bedroom suite at their Kona Kai Resort goes for between $699 and $1,078. The rest of the year, when the duo has time to share happy hour, Ronnie’s own guacamole and Jamaican cherries grown on their two-acre grounds, those same suites go for $200 to $250 less.

The silver lining: Kona Kai Resort features nightly, knee-weakening sunsets four seasons out of the year.

In the summer, Joe and Ronnie watch them under the tropical fronds of their very own botanic garden, a nonprofit complete with an ethnobotanist, educational programs and tours of more than 250 species of plants.

Cool spots for the culture vulture

“How’s the weather?” – that classic go-to conversation starter – is the arbiter when it comes to determining peak, shoulder and low season.

While that makes sense for campers, hikers, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, the weather does not deserve its starring role on vacations designed around theater, museums, art galleries and dance performances.

Last we checked, 100% of these indoor venues are air-conditioned and/or heated. In other words, exactly the same temperature whether it’s the rainy season, freezing cold or simply lacking blue skies.

In Montreal, for example, there’s a big chunk of year when prices drop precipitously. From September through April, when temperatures drop in Montreal, hotel rates follow suit. Yet, the city’s famous joie de vivre is alive and kicking up a Cirque du Soleil aerial tango.

In the square kilometer known as the Quartier des Spectacles alone, there are more than 80 cultural venues, including the Place des Arts, home of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; Les Grands Ballets Canadiens; and Opera de Montreal.

Savings: Rates at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, the hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono conducted their second Bed-In For Peace and wrote “Give Peace a Chance,” start at $409 in the summer. In winter, rates begin at $219.

The silver lining: Because Montreal’s Metro, the underground rail that doubles as an art museum (there are more than 100 works of public art), is linked to 10 major hotels, shopping malls and lots of fine dining, it’s possible to visit in the dead of winter and pack nothing but shorts and T-shirts. But with the city’s chic French style, we wouldn’t recommend it.

Channeling your inner Paris Hilton

Gray skies and chilly temps deter travelers to London, Paris, Prague and other European cities between November and March. But if you’re there for the nightclubs, who gives a bloody yo-ho-ho.

What card-carrying party animal is awake or alert enough to notice daytime skies anyway?

For those who do occasionally rise before twilight, lines for a hangover-nursing latte in the coffee shops around say, Venice’s St. Marks Square, are infinitely shorter. And after a night of mumping, tutting and twerking on a crowded dance floor, February’s average 40-degree temps for Paris (the city, not the heiress) are a welcome change.

But the pièce de résistance for nightlife aficionados is that there’s considerably more night to enjoy. Because the sun sets by 5 p.m. or so, “night” technically starts four hours earlier than it does in June or July when all those pesky tourists are trying to elbow their way past the doorman.

Savings: Everything from airfares to hotel prices plummet during Europe’s low season. A round trip flight between Dallas and London on British Airways, for example, runs nearly $2,000 in July compared with $1,172 in January.

Round trip between New York and Paris (on Air France) drops from around $1,700 in the summer to $1,122 in February. Doesn’t take much of a mathematician to deduce, even with Grey Goose martinis ringing in at more than $10, that’s a lot of extra drinks.

The silver lining: Hello? London Fashion Week (at least one of them) is February 14 through 18.

Winter wonders for the introvert

Yellowstone National Park gets fewer visitors any winter month than a single day in August.

So instead of the 3 million people who pile into the park each summer, winter guests get the rare chance to commune with elk, bison, bighorn sheep and the resident wolf packs.

“Winter presents a face like no other season,” says Marysue Costello, director of West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce. “The colder it gets, the more gorgeous it becomes.”

Savings: Only two of Yellowstone’s nine lodges are open in the winter, so prices, at least in the park, are not heavily discounted. At Mammoth Hotel, the $129 summer rate dips a measly $30. But outside the park, in West Yellowstone, for example, savings range from 30% to 50%.

Plus, skiing for $15? OK, so it’s cross-country skiing, but with views like this, only a fool would choose to whiz by too quickly.

The silver lining: Monkey flowers that grow near thermal springs, leaping snowshoe hares, ghost trees, snow mirrors and geyser rain.

Monster savings for a mammoth family

Even if you don’t have “19 Kids and Counting,” Disney World, for a big family, almost requires a second mortgage, especially during the high season.

The trick, says Don Munsil, whose independent website,, lists codes and coupons for scoring little-known deals, is to either call your brood in sick from school (don’t tell them we told you) between January and mid-March or between late August through November.

Whatever you do, avoid Christmas, the two weeks around Easter (it’s spring break), the heart of midsummer and any holiday weekend.

Savings: When occupancy is lower, Disney throws down some bargains at their on-site resorts.

An outside garden view room at the Grand Floridian that can sleep up to five (maybe more if they’re Tinkerbell size) goes for $856 during peak. Between January and early February (with the exception of the Martin Luther King holiday), it’s $549.

The silver lining: Just try getting tickets for Hoop-Dee-Doo, the popular hootenanny and chicken feast, during peak season. Unless you were smart enough to call six months ahead, tickets to any one of the three seatings are probably not going to happen. During off-season, it’s often possible to get tickets the same day.