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When to visit, revisited

Earlier this year, I addressed a question readers frequently submit here: “When is the best time to visit (wherever)?” I noted then that many people don’t really define what they mean by the “best” time: Climate? The widest choice of activities and events? Fewest crowds? Lowest fares and hotel rates? Something else?

Obviously, the overall answer is highly personal for each individual. But when you define “best” time as the time when you’ll find lowest costs, you can narrow the question down to something you can handle, at least for many of the world’s most popular vacation spots.

The CheapTickets list

Revisiting the “when” question was prompted, in part, by a press release from the online agency CheapTickets. It listed the lowest-cost times to visit some 36 popular worldwide destinations, with at least one mention for every month of the year. The data were extracted from the site’s records of airfare and hotel costs actually charged by customers:

Amsterdam: February
Aruba: November
Athens: January
Austin: July
Cancun: September
El Paso: April
Florida Keys: August
Green Bay: April
Greensboro-High Point: April
Guadalajara: June
Hartford: March
Hawaii: May
Hilton Head: December
Jackson Hole: January
Killington: November
Lake Tahoe: November
Las Vegas: June
London: February
Miami: September
Montego Bay: September
Montreal: March
Napa-Sonoma: February
New Orleans: August
Palm Springs: June
Paris: January
Park City: May
Phoenix-Mesa: July
Punta Cana: October
Rome: December
San Antonio: October
Sarasota-Bradenton: August
Tallahassee: July
U.S. Virgin Islands: October
Vail-Beaver Creek: May
Venice: March
Washington, D.C.: December

This listing, of course, does not reflect possible variations depending on where you start your trip. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting compilation.

TripStarter: Still the winner

In my earlier report, I explored the (then) new TripStarter feature on Hotwire. It provides an easy look at the long-term price picture for both airfares and hotel rates, in far greater detail than the above list. And it remains my first choice for when-to-travel cost information.

To use it, you log on and select your point of origin and your destination from drop-down menus. The resulting default display shows a graph of typical leisure-travel economy airfares, week by week, for almost two full years: all of 2006 and 2007 through close to the present (late October when I checked in early December). Click on the “Hotel Rates” tab and you get the same sort of information for hotel costs. In both cases, data are extracted from Hotwire’s actual bookings: Economy excursion airfares purchased 21 to 60 days in advance and average booking rates for three-, three-and-a-half-, and four-star hotels. TripStarter throws in some other useful information: historical climate data, and a fairly long list of events and attractions in the destination area. It also displays a composite “best time to visit” recommendation combining prices, climate, and activities.

Currently, the site provides data for 64 originating cities in the U.S. plus Toronto. The number of destinations covered depends on the size and importance of each origin point:

  • The shortest destination listing I found was for Grand Rapids, with only about 50, all in the U.S.
  • The longest I found was for Los Angeles, with 140 destinations, including 50 outside the U.S. (Los Angeles shows more destinations than New York because the site tabulates JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark separately, with some but not total overlap.)
  • Other origin cities fall somewhere in the range between these two.

Even where airfare isn’t tabulated, however, you can use the Los Angeles destination list to check hotel costs in all 140 areas.

Is the past a good predictor of the future? So far, TripStarter’s figures for most of 2007 track pretty closely with those for 2006, so they’re probably a pretty good measure of what you can expect for the next year or so. Overall prices may (in fact, undoubtedly will) increase, but the seasonal peaks and valley patterns should hold. And if you prefer to cut hotel costs still further by staying at two-star, one-star, and even zero-star properties, the seasonal variations should be about the same as for the more expensive spots.

Caution: Price isn’t everything

Clearly, the best deals at just about any destination are in each destination’s off-peak or low season. That’s certainly no surprise to any seasoned traveler. But you have to keep in mind that many important destinations are really completely different products in the off-season than they are in peak season: There’s a reason for the big price differences. For example:

  • Phoenix is a prime destination in winter, when snowbirds flock to escape harsh weather in the Midwest and Northeast. In July, when you open the door to your air-conditioned hotel room, the outside air hits you like the blast from a furnace.
  • The Caribbean is a prime snowbird destination in the winter but it’s hurricane season in late summer and early fall.
  • Ski areas are obviously cheaper when there’s no skiing.

But the off-season experience can be close to peak-season in many places. Although they may be a bit cooler than you like in winter, the big European capital cities still offer their unique mix of culture and history—and crowds are definitely down from their summer highs. And destinations, generally, work hard to provide attractions and programs to lure off-season visitors.

As to climate, if the TripStarter data aren’t detailed enough to satisfy you, you can find extensive year-round climate information from specialized online sources. My favorite site remains Weatherbase.

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