Image: Florida Keys
Lynne Sladky  /  AP
While vacation destinations such as the Florida Keys refer to themselves as year-round destinations, in reality there are times to go, times to stay home — and most importantly, times you can find great deals while avoiding the crowds. Let travel expert Christopher Elliott straighten you out.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/7/2008 10:59:26 AM ET 2008-01-07T15:59:26

If you’ve seen one tourism brochure that refers to itself as a “year-round” destination, you’ve probably seen them all.

They lie, of course.

Take a place like the Florida Keys, a lovely string of subtropical islands with perhaps the best diving and fishing in the United States. As a frequent visitor to the Keys, I would buy the line that there’s no bad time to visit the Conch Republic.

But as someone who has lived there, I can tell you that’s not entirely true. If you’re coming for a little peace and quiet, you’ll want to avoid Margaritaville during spring break and October’s Fantasy Fest. And people who tell you to head there during the off-season should have their heads examined. At the nadir of low season in early September, many residents take their vacations, leaving restaurants and dive shops closed.

It may not be a coincidence that some of the most devastating hurricanes tend to tear through the Keys at exactly the same time the locals like to vacation. The Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane, the most intense hurricane of record to hit the United States, churned through the islands on Sept. 2, 1935. Hurricane Donna roared ashore on Sept. 10, 1960 with a destructive 13-foot surge. Even Hurricane Rita, which clipped the Keys in 2005, was enough to reaffirm everyone’s September vacation schedules.

There’s a reason they call it “off season.”

In my column two weeks ago , we discovered four days when you’re better off not vacationing. Today I’ll tell you when to go and still get the benefit of low prices and no crowds.

Don’t go there when the natives leave town
That’s usually a sign that the destination is so boring, or dangerous, that it ceases to be any fun. And I’m not necessarily referring to the Keys. Most ski resorts have a time of year that’s called “mud season” in late winter and early spring, when the water from melting snow turns everything to mud. It’s too warm to ski, too cold to hike and let’s be honest, it’s a yucky time to be in the mountains. These “we’re gettin’ out of Dodge” dates aren’t advertised, and are not the easiest to find. But restaurants and smaller businesses, such as bed-and-breakfasts, will sometimes post their vacation schedules on their Web sites.

There’s an exception to this rule. If you’re interested in doing nothing on your vacation, then this might be the perfect time to go. Hurricane worries aside, one of my favorite places in the Keys is Long Key in early September. You have the island, and gorgeous Long Key State Park, pretty much to yourself. If you just want to read a book or go fly fishing, there’s no better place. (Trust me, I used to live on Long Key.)

Go for shoulder season, not low season
Most tourist destination have at least three seasons — high season, low season and “shoulder” season. High season comes with high prices and crowds. Low season — well, we’ve already covered that. Shoulder season is usually the ideal time to go. Consider Europe’s major tourist traps, which are filled with foreign visitors during the summer. You’ll want to stay away during low season — usually January or February — unless you’re skiing in the Alps. It’s too cold to do anything but go shopping. But November and December can still be nice.

That’s a favorite strategy of Tommie Imbernino, an Irvine, Calif.-based travel agent. He recently visited Rome for Christmas and Florence for New Year’s. “The weather, to me, is perfect,” he says. “Only eight days of rain is ever predicted and the low is about 45 degrees. A hat, scarf, coat, gloves and boots and you are ready to join the locals.” (And locals are who you’ll find around that time of year in most European destinations.)

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Seasons change — sometimes by ZIP code
The smartest travelers know that shoulder season, high season and low season are not constants. They can change based on which freeway exit you take. For example, when I lived in Southern California, Anaheim’s hotels were bursting at the seams with Disneyland-bound visitors at predictable times during the summer, spring and winter. Nearby Newport Beach had busy summers and weekends, but could be slower during the week and in fall and spring (except spring break). Yet these destinations are less than 20 miles apart.

One of my favorite examples of how seasons can change happened to me about a year ago. I was sent on assignment to Lake Louisa State Park near Clermont, Fla., last winter. Since it was one of the busiest times of the year at Disney World, which was less than 20 miles away, I feared the worst. I expected the park to be overrun by loud families in minivans. But it turns out that my family was the only loud one — actually, the only one — staying in Lake Louisa’s roomy, affordable cabins. The theme park visitors preferred the condos on Highway 192. For Lake Louisa, it was shoulder season. I can’t wait to go back.

Remember, some seasons last longer than a season
Climate is just one of the variables that can affect a destination’s seasonal status. Other things can come into play. The closing of a popular tourist attraction can end a season (once the snow’s gone, ski season is pretty much over) but it can also translate into many months, or even years, of bargains for visitors who don’t care about that particular attraction. In that sense, global warming may be a good thing for deal-hunters who like the mountains but don’t want to go skiing or snowboarding.

Amy Pollick, who works for a newspaper in Decatur, Ala., likes to vacation on Alabama’s Gulf Coast in fall. “The prices plummet, but the weather is still usually very nice,” she says. “And while a few people are around, most have gone back home to start school and the snowbirds haven’t arrived yet.” The best deals on lodging aren’t necessarily found in the hotels, but the low-rise condos. Thank Hurricane Ivan for that, she says. Many hotels were damaged by the 2004 storm, and have recently been repaired and reopened. So if you don’t mind staying in a condo, low season — at least when it comes to saving money — may last longer than a season. It could extend months, or longer.

Bottom line: if you want to avoid crowds and still have a good vacation, skip low season and book your trip during shoulder season. Keep an open mind about where and when you stay, and you might be surprised — pleasantly surprised — by what you find.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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