Every guidebook covering a destination has a “when to go” section and most comprehensive travel articles do too. The problem is, a whole lot of people never read that part. They just look at the #beautiful photos on Instagram and assume that’s how it’s going to look for their trip too. Then they arrive to a week of rain, or freezing cold, or closed-up hotels and moan about how unlucky they are.
The off season is usually “off” for a good reason. There are exceptions, but Caribbean resorts don’t close in September and October just because they want to give the staffers a long vacation. It’s because there’s a fairly good chance something like this will head their way:
That is an NOAA satellite photo from September 7, 2017, when three hurricanes were simultaneously moving across the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. The one in the middle was Hurricane Irma, which did a number on Puerto Rico, the Florida Keys, and many other islands that were in its path. It was ugly, to say the least.
As I write this, Hurricane Dorian is about to plow through the Caribbean and hit Florida again. Are the people who have to evacuate their expensive hotel suite in Palm Beach “unlucky?”
No, not really. Unlucky is when I got to Palenque and it poured down rain all day and I took exactly one photo. It was just a random storm front passing through. Unlucky was when a freak hail storm hit Mexico City and it took us hours to find a taxi back to our hotel. But for this example we’re talking about something totally predictable: southern Florida during hurricane season.
The travelers just ignored the “when to go” advice and rolled the dice. Unfortunately, they crapped out.
When to Go: Not Hurricane Season, Rainy Season, or Monsoon Season
Back in 2010, it was an ugly few days for travelers who decided to visit Machu Picchu the last week of January, around the height of the rainy season. “Helicopters had taken 700 people by mid-afternoon from the remote village, the closest to the ancient Inca ruins 8,000 feet up in the Andes mountains. About 2,000 travelers were trapped in the town for days, strapping resources and testing travelers’ patience.”
Photo by Jon Asato on Unsplash
That was the short version from the Associated Press. The trouble started when train service—the only way in or out—was halted because of rain and mud. People were sleeping in the streets, scrounging for food, and generally being miserable. It got worse as the days went on since hundreds more people per day kept arriving via the Inca Trail, including all the porters who couldn’t get home to their families.
This was a bad rainstorm, but pretty much any guidebook on Peru tells you that mid-January to the end of February is the absolute worst time to visit Machu Picchu and you’re almost sure to get drenched. The Inca Trail isn’t even open in February because it’s too slippery and muddy. (Plus they do maintenance work then while they’ve got it closed.) Whether from ignorance or a “maybe we’ll get lucky” sentiment, a lot of tourists avoid this advice and go anyway. Sometimes it works out, just like sometimes people win at roulette or craps. The odds are not in your favor though, especially if you challenge Lady Luck over and over.
About a decade ago I did a public chat session thing for Budget Travel’s site on traveling in Mexico and Central America. The question that kept coming up over and over was basically, “Is it really all that rainy during the rainy season in Costa Rica?”
The honest answer is “buckets of rain,” and I said so, but you see they wanted to go during the summer break, when they had already set their vacation time or when their kids had a long stretch off school. So maybe it was all a misunderstanding and their vacation would be full of sun and fun?
The problem is, weather systems don’t care one bit about your schedule, whether that’s rainy season in Costa Rica, monsoon time in southern India, or hurricane season in Cancun.
During the Hurricane Dorian coverage, we will eventually see some poor sops who had to leave their hotel and are now in a shelter, with the newscaster talking about how they traded a $750 room with an ocean view for a spot on the hard floor in a school building. Boo hoo. They should have spent $20 on a guidebook and read it. Or at least Googled when hurricane season is on the Atlantic coast of Florida.
Here’s my advice, based on 25+ years of regular travel: Find a way to fit your schedule into Mother Nature’s schedule instead of trying to hope she’ll smile down on you and change her historic patterns. Pay real attention to that “when to go” section of guidebooks or spend more than two minutes researching historic weather patterns for where you are going on vacation.
I feel a little bit sorry for everyone stranded in Aguas Calientes town for days in Peru, or stuck in Cancun during a hurricane, or driving around trying to find gas for their rental car to escape north with in Florida. I’m glad it wasn’t me. It probably wouldn’t have been me though. If I’m going to make risky bets, I’d much rather do it in a casino. At least those bets come with free drinks.