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Top five off-peak destinations for winter 2003/2004

SmarterTravel

Aside from ski resorts and most tropical areas, winter is the low season for much of the Northern Hemisphere, including most of North America, Europe, and Asia. Cold temperatures and snowy weather may scare off some travelers, but for hardy souls looking for a bargain, a low-season winter vacation can mean rock-bottom prices and the chance to experience a destination as few other visitors do.

When tourist demand in these areas drops after the holiday season, you’ll usually find lower prices for airfare, accommodations, and other travel services. While the time frame for off-season pricing varies by locale, you can generally expect the prices to remain low through the end of March.

Our top five choices for low-season winter travel feature four cold-weather destinations Iceland, Montr���©al, Japan, and Alaska, plus one warm-weather surprise, French Polynesia.

Iceland

All of Europe is off-season in wintertime, but the often-overlooked Iceland presents a particularly good opportunity for budget travelers. Most visitors to Iceland come in the summer months, but Iceland’s tourism bureau and travel providersÃ?Â?Ã?Â?particularly IcelandairÃ?Â?Ã?Â?have been promoting winter activities and offering deeply-discounted airfare and vacation packages to attract low-season visitors.

Icelandair regularly has discounted last-minute fare sales, which SmarterTravel.com tracks in our last-minute airfare section. The last-minute winter fares tend to cost half as much as last-minute summer fares. For example, last February, Icelandair was offering round-trip fares from Boston to Reykjav���­k for $269, while last-minute fares for the same route in July were $500. In the past, Icelandair has also offered discounted companion fares and low-cost fares to other European countries with free stopovers in Reykjav���­k. SmarterTravel.com will report on the details of any Icelandair winter specials in our air section.

While this Nordic nation has limited hours of daylight and temperatures that hover around freezing in the winter, the weather is not as harsh as you might think considering that its winter climate is comparable to Boston’s, although possibly a bit more blustery. Winter is the best time to visit Iceland’s geothermal spas, particularly the Blue Lagoon, near Iceland’s capital city, ReykjavÃ?Â?Ã?­k. Plus, ReykjavÃ?Â?Ã?­k itself has numerous cultural events and vibrant night-time festivities throughout the winter, including a wild New Year’s celebration, the Viking Celebration of Winter held throughout the month of February, and the Winter Lights Festival, held February 27 to 29, 2004.

Students looking to join in the winter celebrations may be interested in low-cost Iceland packages from StudentUniverse that include round-trip airfare to ReykjavÃ?Â?Ã?­k, two nights’ accommodations, daily breakfast, and entry into the Blue Lagoon from $515 per person.

Begin planning a trip to Iceland in winter by visiting the website for the Iceland Tourism Bureau. Top

Montr���©al

Like most other destinations featured in this story, cold weather is the culprit for MontrÃ?Â?Ã?©al’s lower tourist numbers in the winter. And it does get very coldÃ?Â?Ã?Â?expect average temperatures to be below 20 degrees Fahrenheit in January and only slightly warmer in February.

While we don’t yet see a major drop coming this winter for airfare from the U.S. to MontrÃ?Â?Ã?©al, we do know that rates for accommodations will be lower as hotels struggle to keep up occupancy rates.

Sample winter rates compared to peak summer rates for accommodations in Montr���©al are:

Hotel Winter rates Summer rates
Le Confo B&B $55 to $140 $75 to $165
L’Appartement Hotel $109 to $169 $140 to $209
Hotel Maritime Plaza $139 to $249 $159 to $309

These prices are based on the per-day rates posted on the hotels’ websites and do not include taxes.

Aside from reduced-price lodging, MontrÃ?Â?Ã?©al’s tourism bureau is offering some off-season package specials, good for travel through April 30, 2004. The packages include accommodations and options such as dinners, theater tickets, tours, and attraction admissions. A basic “MontrÃ?Â?Ã?©al City Sights” package includes two nights’ accommodations, a city tour, a $20 (CAD) cash certificate at the Casino de MontrÃ?Â?Ã?©al, and taxes, and starts at $135 per person.

Cold weather might freeze out some visitors, but it’s no problem for the winter-loving Canadians who keep the city’s attractions and atmosphere alive and kicking through the season. The city’s museums and attractions are open, performance schedules for the opera and symphony are in full swing, shops and restaurants are busy, and the nightlife moves at its usual frenetic pace.

Plus, several city-wide festivals are big draws in the winter. La F���ªte des Neiges de Montr���©al, a family and outdoor winter sports festival is celebrated from January 24 to February 8, 2004. And, the Montr���©al High Lights Festival, spotlighting the best of Montr���©al culture with events centered around cuisine, music, art, and more, runs from February 19 to 29, 2004. For more information about traveling to Montr���©al, visit the website for the Montr���©al Tourism Bureau. Top

Japan

According to a study using data from the Japan National Tourist Organization, winter is the slowest season for tourist arrivals in Japan, with about 40 percent fewer visitors than during the peak summer season. As a result, winter airfares to Japan can be over 50 percent less than summer fares.

We compared round-trip fares for this coming February with fares for next July between various U.S. cities and Tokyo:

Departure city February fare July fare
New York (JFK) $586 $1,222
San Francisco $621 $757
Seattle $680 $991

Prices include taxes and fees. Fares were found on Orbitz on November 4, 2003. February airfares are for travel February 4 to 11, 2004. July fares are for travel July 7 to 14, 2004.

The July fares quoted are too far in advance to account for potential sales; however, past years indicate that even sale fares are likely to be higher for the summer. For example, summer fares to Tokyo from the West Coast started at around $500 (from San Jose) in 2002 and 2003, and sale fares from the East Coast averaged around $750. Looking back to last winter, sale fares to Tokyo were much lower, averaging around $450 from the West Coast and about $550 from the East Coast.

For lower-priced winter sale fares this year, keep your eyes on United Airlines, which often has discounted last-minute fares to Japan from several U.S. cities, which we track in our last-minute airfare section. You can also check for air sales to Japan on the websites of carriers that serve the country such as Japan Airlines and Northwest.

Geographically a long, slender country, Japan reaches the same latitude as Portland, OR, in the north, while southern Japan is at roughly the same latitude as Florida. And, similar to weather in the U.S., Japan’s north is cold and snowy in the winter; mid-latitude is cold, but sunny; and subtropical south is warm.

Ski resorts, hot springs, snow festivals, and peak viewing of Japan’s national birdÃ?Â?Ã?Â?the Red-crowned CraneÃ?Â?Ã?Â?are draws for visitors to the north in winter. And, in the rest of the country, it’s still possible to see many of the usual cultural attractions, all with less competition from other visitors.

To learn more about winter travel in Japan, visit the websites for the Japan National Tourist Organization and Outdoor Japan. Top

Alaska

Below freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls drive down the number of inbound travelers to Alaska in the winter. Statistics kept by the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau show that the number of outside visitors may drop by almost 75 percent in the winter months. With this drop, you can generally expect airfare costs to fall along with the visitation rates. So, if you’re hardy enough to put up with the cold, you can save on an Alaska vacation by going in the winter months.

We compared round-trip Alaska Airlines fares for this coming February with fares for next July from various U.S. cities to Anchorage:

Departure city February fare July fare
Los Angeles $311 $432
Chicago (ORD) $338 $490
Newark $453 $530

Prices do not include taxes and fees. Fares were found on Alaska Airline’s website on November 2, 2003. February airfares are for travel February 4 to 11, 2004. July fares are for travel July 7 to 14, 2004.

Although the summer prices quoted are likely to fluctuate as the time gets closer, even last-minute sale trends from the past year show a notable price difference. For example, round-trip fares from Seattle to Anchorage averaged around $274 in winter months compared to $330 in the summer months.

Watch Alaska Airlines and United for last-minute winter specials this year. Any such sales will be reported in our air section.

So, the airfare may be cheaper, but why visit Alaska this time of year, you wonder? Not only will a winter visit allow you to save on travel expenditures, but you can also experience many unique sights and events that the summer visitors will miss. Winter brings the brightest and longest displays of the Northern lights, winter sports like dog-sledding and skiing, and events such as the Fur Rendezvous Winter Festival and the famed Iditarod dog sled race. For more information on winter activities and events in Alaska, visit WinterInAlaska.com. Top

French Polynesia

While all the destinations featured above have fewer tourists in the winter due to the cold, we did manage to find one tropical region that is also off-season: French Polynesia. This island chain is considered by many to be a year-round destination, but prices for travel drop in the winter when the weather is a bit more muggy and rainy, and visitation rates go down. Excluding Christmastime, air carriers that service the islands commonly reduce the price of round-trip fares by $100 or more.

We compared round-trip fares from three different airlines for travel this coming February with fares for travel next July between Los Angeles and Papeete, Tahiti:

Airline February fare July fare
Qantas $972 $1,072
Air Tahiti Nui $973 $1,073
Air New Zealand $1,042 $1,154

Prices include taxes and fees. Fares were found on Orbitz on November 2, 2003. February airfares are for travel February 4 to 11, 2004. July fares are for travel July 7 to 14, 2004.

Also, according to tour operator eTahitiTravel.com, round-trip fares during Tahiti’s low season are considerably less. For example, fares between Los Angeles and Papeete on Air Tahiti Nui are listed as $896 in the low season (January 1 through June 30) and $996 in the high season.

Before purchasing airfare, you should check directly with several air carriers that service the islands to see if there are any winter sales or other specials that might help you to save even more. Check the websites for Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti Nui, Hawaiian Airlines, and Qantas.

Also, many hotels offer low-season rates, and tour providers and cruise lines may discount their services. For a list of current deals, visit the “specials” page on the website for Tahiti Tourism North America.

Located in the South Pacific between Hawaii and Australia, French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands including Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea. Since the islands are situated below the equator, the warm season occurs between November and March, with weather much like Florida’s summer: humid, with frequent but brief rain showers.

While it does rain more often during the “wet season” than the rest of the year, research compiled by Tahiti’s tourism bureau shows that there are still many more hours of sunshine than rain this time of year. Most of the outdoor activities that draw visitors to the islands are still available; however, the underwater visibility for divers is better during the summer.

Learn more about travel to, and activities in, French Polynesia on the Tahiti Tourism website. Top

This feature is the fourth installment of a five-part series on low-season travel. You can read the first feature detailing general strategies for planning low cost, low-season trips, the second feature on the top five low-season destinations for summer travel, and the third feature on top five off-peak destinations for fall travel. The final feature on our low-season picks for spring travel will be posted this coming February.

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