This year I missed a Caribbean storm by a few weeks, was in the direct line of a hurricane in Puerto Vallarta, and was a few hours south of a Category 5 hurricane that plowed into Acapulco. Prices were great where I was traveling but for a good reason: they call it the Off Season because something is usually off about it.
Did you previously think a trip to the Virgin Islands in September was a good idea? Did you perhaps have friends taking a Caribbean Cruise this month—during hurricane season? As many have found out the hard way, going somewhere in the off-season can literally turn into a disaster.
Back in 2010 I wrote this post called Pay Attention to That “When to Go” Part in Guidebooks. This was after a bunch of tourists who went to Machu Picchu in the absolute worst time of year got stranded because of epic rain storms. The only way in or out of Aguas Calientes and the citadel is by train and the train line got blocked by landslides and flooding. It’s so rainy in the Sacred Valley of Peru in February that they close the Inca Trail for a month. Almost everything you could read about travel in Peru says it’ s a bad time to visit the best-known region. Yet somehow all those tourists were there anyway. More will tempt fate again this coming January.
People don’t read guidebooks as much as they used to and that’s probably not helping with the problem of tourists not realizing when the off season is. Or that there even is an off season.
In the past few months I’ve seen quotes from tourism officials in Puerto Vallarta and Cancun crowing about high occupancy levels and saying there’s not really an off season anymore. There’s a busy season and a “less busy” season, but the flow of vacationers never stops.
While I’m sure this is great news for hotel owners, it’s not sustainable. Sooner or later visitors are going to find out in a very painful way that they came at the wrong time of year. Sometimes that just means going four or five days without seeing the sun, as happened to me one year when I got invited to a conference near Playa del Carmen in early October. (We got a lot of business done, but not by the pool.)
It can go well beyond that to being dangerous though, as anyone who was in Cuba or St. Martin found out last week courtesy of Irma, or visitors to other Caribbean islands are finding out this week from Maria. Often you see these visitors whining on the TV news and talking about how “they never expected something like this.” The only reason they didn’t expect it though is they never bothered to research what to expect.
It’s called hurricane season for a reason. In the old days that meant most businesses closed their doors, put plywood over the windows, and went away for a couple months. Now the clueless tourists keep coming, so the restaurant and hotel owners stay open to take their money, hoping they have another lucky year with the weather. This year their number came up.
Shoulder Season Yes, Off Season No
I’m a big advocate of going places during “shoulder season” and I laid out a bunch of places to consider for that time in my timeless book Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. You can save a small fortune on airfare and hotels, plus you won’t be fighting so many bodies when you go see the sights or sign up for activities. Sometimes this can be the difference in sharing a historic city like Prague or Dubrovnik with thousands or sharing it with dozens.
Shoulder season can also work well if you have to take your vacation when the kids don’t have school. If you head to the southern hemisphere it’s their winter in our June, July, and August. It’s a great time to go to South America, Africa, New Zealand, or Australia.
In the tropics it’s just a choice of rainy/not rainy though and it’s not so simple. I’ve found that families really don’t want to hear it when I tell them it’s going to rain buckets if they go to Costa Rica during our summer school break. I’ve actually heard mothers say with genuine surprise that “it rained all day every day while we were there.” Well duh. They can call it “Green Season” all they want in the marketing materials, but when a country gets seven inches of rain (175 mm) each month of the summer, every year, you’re probably not going to see blue skies very much. Go December through March though and it’s gorgeous.
The key is to make sure you’re really going in shoulder season and not the off season. One’s a smart way to get a better deal. The other is a roll of the dice that can get ugly.
Be Flexible With Your Destination
As I’ve said before, keeping your travel options open will result in lots of savings and a better trip. There are some beaches that almost never get hit by a hurricane. The Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao only get hit about once every three decades. Barbados only gets hit about once every 20 years. Granada and Trinidad/Tobago are safer than the islands to the north. None of those are cheap destinations though, so you’re better off heading to Colombia, where hurricane winds are extremely rare but there are some fine beaches.
You might be better off just forgetting the whole idea of a beach getaway, or heading off to safer spots for one: southern Europe, northern Africa, or Southeast Asia. Browse around on Skyscanner or Google Flights with an open mind.
Don’t forget though that the Atlantic beaches in the southern USA still have warm water in September and part of October, plus you’ll have lots more getaway options when the news turns bad than you would have from a Caribbean island. Prices take a big drop after August in the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach, and the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Tropical storms sometimes head up that direction, but not as often as they hit the Gulf of Mexico areas.
Long-term or Vacation?
When I was backpacking around the world for years, we were more slack about hitting a place during the off season than you should be if you’re on vacation. When you’re on the road for a year or more, you can take more chances and just move on if you hit a bad weather spell. You’ve got another 51 or more weeks to make up for it.
When you’re on vacation though and you only get one or two breaks from work a year,why take a huge risk? Crack open a guidebook, do a half hour of internet research, or just look up “month by month weather in _____” to see what you’ll probably be up against. The charts above come from a site called Holiday Weather. If you see a chart like this one for Peru, you might want to delay that January and book a trip when there won’t be washed-out roads and train lines.