When longterm traveling, you’ll find yourself in places all around the world during all seasons of the year. Sure, summertime is popular because the kids are on vacation and the weather is warm, and it can be fun to watch fireworks over San Francisco Bay.. but over the years, we have grown a real affinity for traveling in the off-season.
Let us tell you why.
This comes first because this is our favorite reason to travel off-season. We love to have our space, and we hate tripping over thousands of other people. People who break the serenity of the beach, people who unwittingly step in front of my photographs, people who block the walkway with red umbrellas and selfie sticks, people who raise my stress level and diminish my experience of a place.
Crowds mean we have to wait in lines longer, eating into time better spent exploring. Crowds drain the energy of service workers, making them more flippant and impatient. Crowds fill the air with cigarette smoke and litter the ground with wayward ticket stubs, receipts, and food stall garbage.
Masses of people also attract unsavory characters who use the confusion and cacophony to take advantage of tourists through scams or theft.
Don’t get me wrong; we aren’t antisocial, and crowds are good in certain scenarios. Restaurants, concerts, and sporting events would be very boring with no one there. But we don’t want to fight them while sightseeing.
Without other people, we can truly enjoy a place as it’s meant to be observed. I can quietly take my pictures without being jostled by fifteen screaming kids who couldn’t care less about the stunning vista before them. I can walk the trails in peace and calm. Everything is at our own pace – no pressure and no interruptions.
Though we visited in November, Rome was still packed with people. We waited in line for the Colosseum for almost an hour, and Aaron narrowly escaped being pickpocketed. We had to dodge large groups everywhere we went, and we were hounded by people constantly trying to sell us tours. The Vatican Museum was a nuthouse; we could barely move through the halls (or fight the current of populous to stop long enough to take a picture). We’re glad we went, but we won’t quickly repeat the experience.
Conversely, when we visited Dubrovnik – a city popular for its many Game of Thrones filming locations – it was almost a ghost town. Its main attraction is the city walls, which are ordinarily packed with people. We had them almost entirely to ourselves. Circumnavigating the city from above was peaceful, beautiful, and delightful. Bonus: without too many people to scare them away, there were street cats everywhere!
This is also why we’re a fan of early morning excursions. While we don’t relish the idea of waking up early, there’s nothing that can compare to being alone at Landscape Arch at sunrise. To us, this is heaven.
Depending on where you go, you might also have cooler weather. Some see this as a negative, but if you’re active like we are, this is a huge plus!
Summertime is quite popular for many attractions, especially if they’re outdoors. This time of year typically promises better weather (drier days) and plenty of hours of daylight.
We have found that winter is actually an excellent time of year to visit places like national parks, especially if you’re into hiking. We visited Zion National Park early last year, and we hiked the famed Angels Landing. Not only did we have next to no one to battle on the ridge (which can be quite dangerous), but the day was pleasantly cool – perfect for a strenuous hike! The sun was still shining, and the views were spectacular, but we didn’t have to suffer in sweltering heat!
We visited Colorado every year for Christmas, and we went on hikes every trip, without fail. While it was colder (there was often snow on the ground), Colorado boasts over 300 days of sunshine – perfect weather to scale a mountain or explore rock formations!
Snow also opens up a whole new category of experiencing a location. Snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling, iceskating, sledding… not to mention it’s a great excuse to sip on mulled wine or spiked cocoa!
This is another major perk with traveling off-season. With most of the tourists gone, many businesses lower their prices to attract more of the locals. Attractions are discounted, and some are even free of charge! Kotor’s castle and fortress ruins are ordinarily €8 per person. When we arrived, we were thrilled to see the turnstiles lowered and the ticket booth unmanned. The same was true for the Trsak Castle in Rijeka.
We have found some national park admissions are also greatly reduced. Visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park during the winter cost us less than a quarter what it would have during high season.
In addition to cheaper activities, accommodations also cost less (unless you go for free lodging options). Airbnbs charge less and are more amenable to negotiating prices when there’s less competition for the rooms.
If you need to rent a car, these are also often less expensive.
And of course, flights are cheaper, too. This deserves its own category, because this could be a huge cost savings. Depending on where you’re going, there could be hundreds of dollars of variance between high season and low. If you want to travel longer, like us, that matters!
With less demand, you’re more likely to have a spare seat next to you (extra space!), and you’re less likely to be asked to gate-check your carry-on.
Want to know which days are the cheapest to fly this year? Check out this post by FareCompare for some ideas.
More flexible travel options
During the off-season, there are fewer people contending for the same activities, transportation, and lodging as you. Therefore, travelers have much more flexibility during this time.
You can show up to an attraction without booking in advance and still get in. You can get a bus ticket to a neighboring city the day before. You can tack on an extra night at your Airbnb when you find you’ve fallen in love with a place. We’ve even been able to arrange late checkouts to better align with departing flights so we aren’t stuck for hours wandering the city with all our gear.
This flexibility can be great if you meet fellow travelers on the road who say you have to check out X place but you didn’t even know it existed beforehand. Instead of missing out on something that ordinarily books months in advance, you can just go.
This is true travel freedom! The way we travel, we aren’t even really sure exactly where we’ll be next week or next month. And even if we have an idea, we don’t have exact dates arranged more than a week or two ahead of time. Setting a specific date a few months down the line is very difficult. We much prefer to go where the wind blows us and take each day as it comes!
More authentic experiences
Most of the tourist-driven businesses close during the off-season. This might lead to some disappointment if you have your heart set on seeing a famous attraction, but this opens the door to alternate, off-the-beaten-path activities. Visiting during this time, you’re forced to eat where the locals are eating and exist in the city without the glamour erected for the sake of tourism.
While the Computer Museum was closed in Rijeka, Croatia, the squares in the center of town came alive at night with their Advent Christmas Market. Packed with locals for illuminated Christmas trees and lights strung across pedestrian walkways, dozens of food stalls serving fritule and hot wine, and free music across multiple stages, the atmosphere is magical.
Furthermore, without hordes of tourists, more locals emerge. The interactions are more real, and residents are more excited to hear the story of someone not afraid to visit their home while it’s raining.
And public events are geared more toward the locals than travelers. You’ll probably find less catered to English-speakers, but this is where you can really experience the true nature of a country.
Later and earlier golden hours
This one’s for the photographers out there (especially the ones who love to sleep)! While “low season” doesn’t always translate to “winter,” this is often the case. And one of the major benefits to traveling in the winter is the shorter days. Sure, you don’t have as much daylight to shoot, but it’s so much easier to photograph sunrise at 8am than it is at 5:30am!
And if you’re into night shots like me, you don’t have to wake up at 2am to capture the Milky Way! Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert was plenty dark to shoot the stars by 8:30. The sun was down by 6:30pm in Spitzkoppe, and we shot moonscapes at 9:30pm. We had no trouble getting up in time to shoot sunrise the next morning at 7am. I love golden hour, but I’m also highly possessive of my sleep!
Conversely, when we visited Norway, we almost never saw the sun rise or set. We were there during the shoulder season (still next to no crowds!!), on the cusp of summer. It was still light out at midnight, and the one day we got up at 4:30am, the sun was already in the sky! However, at this latitude, golden “hour” lasted at least three!!
And along these lines, traveling off-season lets you see a place seldom seen by high-season tourists. The scenery changes with the foliage, and if you are fortunate enough to visit during a holiday, you might witness unique decorations.
While it wasn’t due to a particular season, we were thrilled to experience Deadvlei in the fog – something few see! And though others typically just see the ruins of Trsak Castle (which are incredible on their own), we had the additional treat of being delighted with its curtains of lights.
Everyone visits Japan in the spring. We deliberately avoided that high season (though we’ll hit it next year on our return trip) and went for autumn instead. This still wasn’t off-season (it’s actually quite popular – especially among Japanese traveling within their own country), but it was different from what most people picture for Japan. We loved the trees this time of year (I’m a sucker for fall colors!), and we still got to see everything we wanted to.
I was also thrilled to visit Bryce National Park in the winter with the mysterious hoodoos capped in snow, the white beautifully contrasting the bright orange of the rock. Photographing in the wintertime is one of my favorite things; snow makes everything more beautiful! Can you tell I also have a soft spot for the frozen white stuff?
Of course, off-season is less popular with travelers for a reason.
Weather is more of a risk. We were in Ireland in October, and it was very rainy. That doesn’t make for very pleasant sightseeing, especially outdoors. But it was perfect for hopping pubs in Dublin! We’re fortunate in that we’re traveling slower than most, so we can afford to stay in one place longer and hold out for the better weather days. If you’re considering traveling in the off-season, be sure to familiarize yourself with the regions weather patterns and be prepared. A lightweight, waterproof jacket can make all the difference!
Some of the attractions might be closed for the season or have restricted hours. This doesn’t bother us too much, as we want to explore more of the lesser known sites, anyway. But if you really want to see something in particular, look into it ahead of time to make sure it’ll be open during your visit. Keep in mind places like national parks might also have partial closures or become inaccessible with snow. This was true for both Yosemite National Park and Plitvice, but we didn’t feel it diminished our experiences at all… it just gives us an excuse to return and see the rest!
You might have a harder time finding restaurants. Many are supported by tourism and therefore only operate seasonally. But don’t worry too much; the locals need to eat as well! You’ll just have to look a little farther off the tourist track.
Other services could be limited as well. Generally, tourist offices operate year-round, but you might encounter fewer English-speakers. We personally haven’t had any issues in this department, but it’s a great excuse to brush up on some of your foreign languages!
We discovered traveling in the off-season years ago with a trip to Yosemite. Ever since, we’ve been hooked! Traveling long-term, we were guaranteed to hit off-season eventually, and it’s something we look forward to! Now, we love the lack of crowds, the cheaper prices, and the more authentic experiences. Sure, there are some drawbacks to this type of travel, but if you approach it with the right frame of mind, it really can be the best way to go.
Have you ever traveled off-season? Where did you go?
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