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November 18, 2017

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Take it on the shoulder

Why the months between the high and low season may be the best time to travel

There are those who simply can’t wean themselves from booking vacation travel at peak times. They endure lineups in airports, restaurants, museums and theme parks, and bear the brunt of surly service from overstretched wait staff. When the credit card bill arrives in the mail, it’s time for the smelling salts. “There must be a better way,” they plead.

The good news is there is a much better way. Travelling in what tourism insiders call “the shoulder season” is a breath of fresh air: tourist hordes are blissfully absent, wait times shrink, prices plummet and service staff are all smiles. The trick is to find that slot of time between the low season (usually plagued by bad weather) and high season (high demand and low supply, stratospheric prices). The bliss of shoulder season doesn’t fall at the same time everywhere — it takes a bit of research. We’ve got your back, with some planning suggestions and tips to go along with some popular locations.

Canada


Shoulder season: After Labour Day is the perfect time to practice leaf peeping in the Maritimes, Ontario and Quebec. Daytimes are still warm (thank you, Indian Summer), the pesky bugs have disappeared and roads are clear for hops between farmers’ markets or along culinary trails. For winter travel, many ski resorts in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec open in November, but the crowds don’t clog the hills until the Christmas break. Check websites for early season specials on accommodation and ski passes.


Tips: Road trips, resort stays and camping dominate Canada’s short warm weather window in the summer months. Late spring and early fall often bring good weather and great deals at campgrounds and resorts.

Consider camping during the shoulder seasons when you may have large parts of the park to yourself. Ontario Parks (ontarioparks.ca) have developed a system of yurts — round, tent-like structures on an elevated wooden platform — outfitted with bunk beds (sleeps six), dining table, propane barbecue, picnic table and fire pit.

Parks Canada (pc.gc.ca) has a similar system called oTENTiks — soft-sided platform tents with sleeping and dining for six, solar powered lights, charcoal barbecues and fire pits. Rent a kayak and paddle out to an island of Thousand Islands National Park and you may have it to yourself. The leaves change about two weeks later on the islands than on the mainland due to the water’s insulating properties. Local outfitter 1000 Islands Kayaking (tel: 613-329-6265; 1000islandskayaking.com) will even schlep your gear out for you.

Finally, think outside the box. Wintertime in frosty destinations like the Yukon is magical, with guaranteed snow conditions for skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and dogsledding. Toss in Northern Lights watching, sightseeing flights over glaciers, soaking in hot springs and you’ve got an instant vacation. Hotels and local outfitters rent heavy-duty cold weather wear especially popular during the territory’s many winter events like the Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race (February 6, 2016) or Sourdough Rendezvous Festival (February 19-28, 2016).

US


Shoulder season: As a general rule, right after the kids head back to school: from September through mid-December (avoiding US Thanksgiving) and in January immediately after the winter break has ended. The toasty Southwest states (Arizona and New Mexico) run deep discounts in the summer months, but temperatures in the Phoenix area can easily top 100 degrees. Fall and springtime have perfect weather and low crowds.


Currency: Given the loonie’s sharp tumble, US travel this year requires close scrutiny of prices. Add 30 percent to get a figure closer to the ultimate cost in Canadian dollars.


Weather: The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June through November, so popular tourist destinations like Florida’s Keys and Gulf Coast, and the Carolina and Texas coastlines are vulnerable. The good news is the chance of a major storm hit is small and weather disturbances are tracked days in advance through the National Hurricane Center (nhc.noaa.gov).

Tornados are a more tempestuous danger, but the Storm Prediction Center (spc.noaa.gov) issues outlooks for the following eight days. The main season is late springtime and early summer across the Southeast, Midwest and Plains. The infamous Tornado Alley in the southern plains of the US (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska) consistently receives supercell thunderstorms and violent tornados. Remember Dorothy and Toto?


Tips: Like Canada, the United States is a travel buffet of vastly different climate zones and geography. A general rule of thumb is to stay away from school breaks and national holidays.

Canadians tend to think of Florida and Walt Disney World in the same breath as a peak cold-weather destination. The truth is Disney’s high season happens whenever kids are out of school: Christmas, Easter and the sweltering summer months. Avoid these times, and prices drop and lines for rides shrink. Orlando is inland and may see rain and wind in the fall, but not the same dangerous weather as along coastlines.

Creative solutions abound with one-way drive programs like Toronto Drive-Away (tel: 800-561-2658; torontodriveaway.com), a service that has been shuttling cars for snowbirds back and forth between the GTA and Florida in the spring and fall shoulder seasons. Once accepted as drivers with the service, you chose a date and location to pick up (or drop off) a car in Florida for the Toronto owners. Drivers are given several days to follow a direct route back to Toronto and are reimbursed for gas costs. In addition, the driver receives a bonus payment for performing the service (an amount that easily covers one-way airfares and baggage charges).

The locals rave about the empty beaches and the fishing along the Carolinas coastline in the fall. Autumn is white shrimp season in South Carolina and the perfect time to buy right from the dock at shrimpers like Gay Fish Co. outside Beaufort (the docks may look familiar, they were a film shoot location for Forrest Gump). The Outer Banks of North Carolina are practically deserted, perfect for windsurfing, kite flying and beach walking.

Caribbean


Shoulder season: Fall brings the promise of warm waters, clear snorkelling and diving and — if you choose your spots right — almost no risk of tropical storms. The closer you get to the Equator, the less fluctuation in temperatures year-round. As a result, spring and fall are warm enough to fight off the memory of northern winter chill.


Weather: Like the Southeast US, much of the Caribbean is on tropical storm and hurricane watch from June through November. Weather disturbances can be tracked days in advance through the National Hurricane Center (nhc.noaa.gov).


Tips: The islands of the southern Caribbean lie outside the traditional hurricane belt: the chance of a tropical storm barrelling through Trinidad or Grenada is low and almost non-existent in the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Being tucked out of the way is a tourism blessing. The three small islands sit far west of the hurricane path and — with a low chance of rainfall and a high chance of sunshine — are considered a reliable bet for postcard-perfect weather year-round. For those who crave relaxation and downtime, Aruba’s Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort (tel: 297-583-1100; bucuti.com; from US$483 per room a night, December through March) is an adults-only boutique property perfect for anniversary celebrations, honeymoons, romantic getaways and adults looking to unwind without the buzz of scheduled activities.

Curaçao’s (curacao.com) capital city of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with Dutch colonial architecture in a rainbow of pastel colours and gabled, red-tiled roofs. The three- and four-storey buildings are part of the original Dutch settlement where the merchants plied their trade in the main floor shops and warehouses, living on the floors above. Today they are filled with trendy shops, bars and restaurants.

There are dozens of major music festivals in the islands through the low-season summer months. In Barbados, August’s lively Crop Over festival marks the traditional end of the intensive sugarcane harvest. August is also the month when Grenadians let loose at Spice Mas, a carnival celebration of the island’s African, French, British and Caribbean heritage.

Europe


Shoulder season: As the leaves fall, so do prices in cities like London, Paris and Rome. Fall also brings the harvest experience in many of the wine-growing regions of France, Italy and Germany. Airlines often hop on board with deals at much better rates than summertime prices. In short, fall is fantastic (followed closely by the magic of springtime in Europe, without the crowds).


Currency: The euro was trading around $1.50 Canadian at the time of writing. Check exchange rates before you book.


Weather: The weather across much of the continent is fantastic in the fall and spring. This autumn the unseasonable warmth is predicted to continue across most of central and eastern Europe.


Tips: The tight quarters in historic cities — think of the alleyways in Venice or Heidelberg, or the Colosseum in Rome or the flea markets of Paris —seem so much more spacious when the high-season throngs have evaporated. Shoulder season for European river cruises like Avalon Waterways (tel: 800-268-3636; avalonwaterways.ca/river-cruise-deals) is March/April and late October/November. Look for excellent value in Christmas Market cruises in November/early December, visiting charming outdoor markets in medieval settings. Avalon has numerous promotions and sales year-round, and many are offered in shoulder season, either through cash savings, waived single supplements or other goodies.

Rail passes offer special deals and promotions in the quieter fall months. Eurail’s (eurail.com) 2015 fall promotions include deep discounts or free promo days on rail passes. The Swiss Rail Pass offers deals through the Rail Europe website (raileurope.ca), handled by Rail Europe in Canada), with info on promos like a two-for-one offer, a discounted price or added values.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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