Peak season means seeing the garden of Versailles in full bloom, hot-air ballooning over Bagan in Myanmar, and white-water rafting in India. It also means hordes of tourists climbing on top of each other to get a better view, crowding the tube on the Circle line and not being able to just show up in a place with no plans – you know full well that everything that isn’t booked up will take a cheery chunk out of your budget. If you’re booking up accommodation for Sydney on New Year’s and around last minute, the two last hotel rooms in the city will not come for under two hundred dollars.
Because of the way my university holidays line up, I’ve spent my short holidays in Europe in the winter and long summer holidays in Asia in the summer. For Europe winter holidays usually mean bitter wind, skeletal gardens and drizzling rain (which I welcome – it is still going to be warmer than in Finland). For Asia, however, travelling during the European summer means stumbling right into the monsoon season. Even when all the city guides tell you to pick your destination according to the season, sometimes you just end up travelling off-peak. With my extensive knowledge gathered from January visits to Poland’s no. 1 beach destination and trips to places known for flooding during the monsoon season, I have put together a few important things to keep in mind if you, too, always manage to pick the wrong time to travel.
You will not get everything that you would during high season.
Some services might not be available during the slow season. A lot of holiday resorts basically die down during the winter since there are no tourists to boom up the business, which means that some shops and hotels/hostels will be closed and transportation options might be scarcer. For example, the ferry services between Greek islands is very restricted during the winter season. Some attractions might also be closed.
Some services are not available because they are downright impossible to arrange. Last July I didn’t get a chance to try white-water rafting in India because the monsoon rains – even though last year was a lot drier than usually – had swollen up the rivers and created new, dangerous undercurrents that made rafting too hazardous. On the other hand, had I visited Northern India during the main peak season (November to March), it would have been impossible to hike to the Valley of the Flowers since the area is covered in snow and is in general only accessible between June and August. Even the local shopkeepers and hotel owners move to the lower villages for the winter.
So, travelling off season might require a bit more planning, and you might have to be ready to give up an impossible goal.
Prices may be lower but don’t expect them to be.
A popular myth, which often holds true, is that prices go down massively during the low season. Hotels and hostels offer winter deals or even radically cut their rates to entice the few tourists that are on the move – competition is harsh. But like I mentioned earlier, some places might close down entirely for the low season, which then grants a monopolic opportunity for the one or two remaining accommodations to keep their rates as high as they wish and the traveller will have no choice in the matter.
In addition to this, some airlines won’t fly to off-season destinations at all – such as Finnair, that only flies to Greece during spring and summer – which might mean that you need to opt for a more expensive flight or for one with more stopovers.
Some cities, like London or Helsinki, will still be overall expensive even with the reduced rates of the off-season. Cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. So even when the price range usually drops during the low season, don’t get upset if you still find yourself picking pennies from the deep ends of your pockets.
(By the way, this goes for those infamous hordes of tourists as well – some places will be crowded no matter the season. You wouldn’t think you need to queue for the Parisian catacombs for six hours in January…)
Weather is usually bad in some way.
Peak season is peak season for a reason. People travel to beach destinations for the sun, to winter destinations for the snow and to metropolitan cities for pleasant tours in the historic quarters, so it is understandable that they might want to avoid the monsoon season, the wet spring or a gloomy, windy autumn holiday. Make sure you know what the weather is like before you travel and expect anything.
However, I don’t want to scare you too badly with visions of apocalyptic weather because that is not always the case. When I travelled to Poland a couple of months ago, I remembered the traumatizing wind in Copenhagen and braced myself for the worst. Instead the weather was pleasantly dull – not even crispy cool – and it barely rained. (I would still not recommend you wear a leather jacket to Poland in January… just sayin’.) Similarly, I visited India during the monsoon season, but it happened to be an El Niño year – meaning that the rains were not as heavy and frequent as usually. I was lucky and only got caught in the rain a few times. Ironically, the worst I saw of the monsoon was in the desert town of Jaisalmer.
Less people means less travel friends.
Less tourists usually means that less backpackers are on the move, as well. If you’re travelling solo and hope to find friends on the road, you might be out of luck. In Poland I was luckily travelling with Katri since we were the only guests in an 8-bed dorm for three nights. In India it was difficult to find other backpackers even in hostels.
Try to find a hostel that looks like it is still alive – that means recent reviews or “only 2 beds left in this dorm” texts at booking. Couchsurfing might also come in handy, especially if you’re not visiting the city during local holidays when people prefer to travel away. If you’re staying at someone’s place at least you know that you are going to meet somebody. Or just go all out, embrace the soloist in yourself and book a cheap hotel room just for yourself.
However, the whole country might not be off season.
Especially in countries where the geography varies greatly, there are different peak seasons depending on which region you’re heading to. India, Australia and Vietnam with its slinky figure are good examples of a country where different regions get different kinds of weather. If you’re travelling long-term, taking advantage of the changing of the seasons could even be in your favour if you move along with the seasons.
Moreover, in case of European cities, most big attractions will still be open to audience, and it is more pleasant to stroll the streets without an annoying baby waddling into every single one of your artistic black-and-white church photos. Speaking of photos – have you noticed how annoying it is trying to get the contrast right between the darkness of old town alleyways and brightness of the glaring sun? If you visit the city in the gloomy autumn, the skies might give out a nice dull hue of grey which doesn’t look so pretty in landscape photos but might help you capture that one fantastic street shot.
So, if there’s something I would like to leave you with here, it is an encouragement: don’t be afraid to travel outside of the peak season. There are pros and cons to both options, and if you look past activities that are impossible during the low season, it doesn’t really matter when you travel. And if the low season worries you, there’s always the shoulder season.
Do you travel off-season a lot? Do you prefer it or the peak season?