Any inveterate shopper knows that the best time to buy summer fashions is in August; that the best ski apparel deals are in March; and that holiday decorations and cards are cheapest after December 26. Well, the old supply-and-demand paradigm applies to the travel industry as well—especially leaving out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Here in the U.S., travel agents refer to it as “off-peak” or “off-season” travel. In Europe, it’s known as “shoulder season” (it marks the change from peak to off-peak). Whatever idiom or destination you favor, there are some serious travel deals to be found this time of year, most all of which begin at BWI (while a trip to Dulles will get you to the Pacific’s beaches).
“Off-peak” constitutes September through the weekend prior to Thanksgiving; it resumes on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and runs through December 15. Better still, after January 1, European travel bargains plummet into an even more attractive netherworld known in industry parlance as “low season,” which lasts through mid March.
Keep in mind that certain blackout dates usually apply around the holidays, and that deeply discounted travel packages that encompass Thanksgiving, Christmas or the New Year may be tough to find. But the flexible vacationer should have no trouble coming up with a fabulous trip that’s surprisingly easy on the purse strings.
As always, there are caveats: Be very aware that it is possible to book yourself into disappointing conditions. “Look for value as opposed to price,” warns Marty Sitnick, co-founder of Fare Deals Travel in Owings Mills. “Pursue trips within the range of your personal standards. You can find rock-bottom prices, but not necessarily as much quality value.”
To Sitnick, “value” means quality arrangements at a better price. The good news is that bargains can be found on every quality level. Sitnick advises that a good rate is $125 per night for “deluxe” accommodations, including airfare to and from your destination of choice.
Deciphering the travel jargon is the key in acquiring the accommodations you are seeking. For example, Sitnick explains, an off-season, “first class”-ranked, all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic—including airfare, hotel accommodations, food, drinks, and transfers for seven days—is less than $500 per person. A more finicky traveler might opt for the same seven nights in a “deluxe” all-inclusive resort with more restaurant options, plusher rooms, and better hotel amenities for just under $700 per person. Factors that play into the labeling include the lavishness, size and appointments of the rooms, hotel activities and included services, as well as quality of the food (e.g., imported meats, top-shelf liquor, etc.).
Be forewarned, though, that the ambiguities of the descriptions can become fuzzier in resorts outside the U.S. Louise Kemper, a certified travel counselor from Commerce Travel in Pikesville, advises that speaking to a travel professional will help in interpreting the classifications (“deluxe” accommodations in Costa Rica differ immensely from “deluxe” lodgings in Hawaii). However, if an authentic cultural experience and remarkable natural surroundings are higher priorities for the traveler, slightly less luxurious accommodations may be an adequate trade-off.
By general consensus, the most popular and reliable charter operators with whom travel agents contract in the Baltimore area are Apple Vacations and Vacation Express. Kemper reveals that, “the best deals offered are new markets and destinations for the charter operators. Apple, for example, will be opening up Aruba as of January 11, 2003, and you can presently book seven nights to the deluxe La Cabana all-suite beach resort for $999 per person. Airfare alone at that time of year can be as costly as $800 per individual.” The charter carriers lease and fly their planes and make their own schedules. You’ll know that everyone on your plane will be heading to a mutual destination, though not necessarily to the same lodgings. The major airlines also offer travel packages within their regularly scheduled flights.
The new kids on the getaway block are, of course, the Internet’s discount travel web sites like Best Fares, Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. Tom Parsons, CEO of BestFares.com, warns that it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and confused by the numerous sites promising bargains on the web. Availability is also limited, and it is difficult to get through on the telephone numbers they provide. “The problem with the Internet is that you have information overload,” says Parsons. “Do some research on your destination. Choose a site that has live booking agents and offers 24-hour emergency contact service reps. Unless you are certain that you are familiar with the destination and carriers, never blindly book a trip on a web site where you can’t speak with a live person.”
So now that you know how to get away on a budget, the question is: Where should you go? We’ve found four very different packages that can take you far from home in different ways.
When national weather reports announced that snow had begun falling in Utah on Thanksgiving Day last year, Dave C. breathed a sigh of relief. He had already booked his annual ski excursion weekend with his son for the following weekend, and Utah had been uncustomarily dry that year. Dave needn’t have worried. The terms of his Southwest Airlines “Kids Fly ‘N’ Ski Free Getaways” package would have permitted him to cancel and get a credit to reschedule another weekend, space permitting.
Utah gets 300 to 500 inches of what it bills as “the greatest snow on Earth” each year. Its chronic dry weather conditions create the perfect powder for winter sports. Utah’s resorts offer traditional and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, helicopter and snowcat skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, tubing, ice skating, and even sleigh rides to enchanting mountaintop restaurants. Winter ski season begins statewide in early to mid-November and continues through April.
The Southwest Airlines package includes Dave’s own airfare, hotel and lift tickets. Southwest’s Utah packages fly non-stop from BWI into Salt Lake City, and there are at least ten major resort areas (many offer “Kids Ski Free” packages) located within a 60-minute drive from the airport, and most are within 30 miles. Dave and his son usually leave Baltimore on a 6 a.m. flight and are skiing the slopes in Utah before noon, all for a great rate: four days and three nights from $789 per adult, and from $299 per child (including the “Kids Ski Free” offer).
The Mayan Riviera
You can almost hear the voices of ancient Mayans amidst the screeches of wild monkeys in the Yucatan’s lush tropical forests. Calm prevails on the peninsula’s serene, unspoiled beaches, where aqua waves gently lap the coastline. The tranquil disposition of the smiling Mayan people you encounter is contagious, and the daily stress of “civilization” feels a million miles away.
Mexico’s newest resort destination, Playa del Carmen (“xaman-ha” in Mayan), lies along the sparkling Caribbean, just an hour south of Cancun on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It was vacationing Europeans who first were drawn to its uninhabited, alabaster-white beaches, gentle surf, vivid coral reefs, and tranquil lifestyle, and favored it to the more expensive island of Cozumel, visible just across the straits. It’s a short boat trip across to snorkel or dive on Cozumel’s incredible coral reefs. Many of the region’s natural treasures reside here and nearby, including the pyramids of Tulum, Coba, and Chitzen Itza, as well as a myriad of secluded snorkeling enclaves and underground streams.
Just steps away from the charming village of Playa del Carmen, the private, gated retreat at “Playacar” is home to a dozen luxury properties. Along with sumptuous banquets of fresh fruits, vegetables and cooked-to-order entrées, they each offer several specialty and international gourmet cuisine restaurants on-site, at no additional charge. An abundance of water sports, resort activities, and kids camps are also included. Riu Playacar, a five (out of a possible six) “Golden Apple” (Apple vacation’s equivalent to five-star rating) all-inclusive resort, presently has a seven-night package that departs from BWI for a mere $595 per person (reduced from $1,250 during peak travel season).
Costa Rica’s Pacific shore
Costa Rica is a natural wonderland studded with tropical forests, rushing rivers and exotic animals (five percent of all plant and animal species to be found on the planet are in Costa Rica). Pristine, uncrowded beaches blanket the shores of both the Caribbean and Pacific oceans, and high mountains and spectacular volcanoes frame a majestic horizon. The Costa Rican inclination toward modesty, simplicity and friendliness—along with the country’s commitment to peace (they have no military, only police)—creates a comforting climate of trust for travelers.
From the Baltimore-Washington region, the best package deals fly from Dulles International into Guanacaste, in northwest Costa Rica, where there are more beach resorts than any of its other regions. Guanacaste is an eco-tourist’s paradise, offering cloud forests, vast beaches, and deciduous dry forests. Visitors can choose from an array of national parks and refuges, and privately-owned reserves. Local travel agents are presently offering 8-day/7-night all-inclusive packages through Liberia Airport to the new El Nakuti Resort (“superior first class”) for $699 per person. And here’s a good tip: even the most discriminating travel agents say it’s not necessary to spend more for Deluxe accommodations, since visitors often spend so much time exploring the gorgeous countryside outside of the resorts.
Castles, bistros, and palazzi
European travel rates are almost at their nadir. It’s the perfect time to explore medieval castles, see the world’s finest art and most renowned architecture, or simply surrender yourself (and your waistline) to exquisite Continental dining. How low are prices? The currently available trans-Atlantic package rates are lower than a domestic, cross-country flight.
The civic heart of the Italian Renaissance, this city in Tuscany is, arguably, the unmatched confluence of art, architecture, history, gastronomy, and shopping in the western world. The beauty of the architecture, paintings, and sculpture; the villas and palazzi; the food (oh, the food); the radiant natural light; the fragrances of Tuscany; and the trendy haute-couture boutiques housed in thousand-year-old dungeons—they all combine to make Firenze an extraordinary and beloved city. “I cannot imagine a more exciting spot to holiday shop!” gushes Louise Kemper. “The travel opportunities this time of year make it irresistible.” She’s not exaggerating: one special offered from November 1 through March 31 includes five nights in centrally located hotel accommodations, breakfast and roundtrip airfare to either Florence, Rome or Naples—for just
$599 per person.
Paris’s attractions are known to all. There’s the spellbinding Louvre, the majestic Eiffel Tower, the avant-garde West Bank—and yet a never-ending trove of hidden treasures can be found simply by wandering its ancient streets, or pausing in its sidewalk cafes. It’s a city that pervades all of your senses, luring you to see, touch, taste, smell, and hear things in ways you can’t in your hometown. Much of the city can be explored over a long weekend, but chances are, you’ll wish you could stay longer.
Spend a dreamy weekend shopping, eating, and romancing in Paris. At present, there are deals as low as $499—including roundtrip airfare—at enchanting “first class” lodging at boutique hotels like Du Cadran (with private baths and breakfast).
The Irish say that you haven’t truly seen green until you’ve gazed upon the lush, rolling hills and glens of Ireland. A moderate year-round climate produces the perfect environment to breed Ireland’s endless emerald foliage. In a country just 85 miles long and 70 miles wide, you can still drive uncrowded roads from the surf-washed Atlantic beaches of the Causeway Coast, through Belfast, and on to the seaside resorts of the Kingdoms of Down, in just two or three hours. And you can travel from the City of Derry through the Sperrins to the Fermanagh Lakeland in even less time.
Travelers have the opportunity to select and route their own B&B lodging amongst the hundreds of inns across Ireland through an innovative government-supported voucher system.
Begin your day with 18 holes of golf on one of the world’s most exquisite courses. Lunch in a medieval Irish pub, and round out your afternoon browsing in charming village shops filled with native crafts and culture. Travelers can find packages including air, car, seven nights’ accommodations—including historic and cozy Bed & Breakfasts—for as little as $391 per person this fall. Ever dream of spending an enchanting night in a grand castle? That can be included in an upgraded accommodations package for just $49 more per person.