Image: Disney World
John Raoux  /  AP file
The well-versed family traveler already knows there are good times to visit family destinations such as Walt Disney World, and there are times that should be avoided at all costs. Columnist Christopher Elliott goes beyond theme parks and offers a “B-list of blackouts” you might not have heard about.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/31/2007 9:41:39 AM ET 2007-12-31T14:41:39

You probably already know about Spring Break, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.

That is, you know enough not to travel around those days. Scoring a frequent flier award ticket is pretty much impossible, hotels aren’t discounting their rooms, and you’ll probably pay full price for your rental car. Plus, it’s usually a tragic mess out there — long lines at the airport, dense traffic and frayed tempers.

But this isn’t another story about blackout dates.

This is a story about the other days you should stay home. Call it the ‘B’-list of blackouts.

For example, say you’re planning a Disney World vacation, but you’re not sure when to visit. If you’re an annual passholder (full disclosure: I am) you know that “blockout” dates are Dec. 22 to Jan. 4, March 15 to 28, and June 7 to Aug. 14. (Those dates are off limits to some seasonal passholders because the theme parks are so busy.)

So when’s the best time to see Mickey? Well, that’s a topic for another column, but I won’t make you wait until then. “Value season” runs from early January to mid-February, from mid-August to the end of September and the first three weeks in December. That’s when the crowds are thinner and the deals are more generous.

What other times should you stay off the road? Here are four other blackout days that aren’t as well known:

Conventional wisdom: steer clear of the party.
This year there are two places you absolutely don’t want to be unless you have to. Denver from Aug. 25 to 28 and Minneapolis/St. Paul from Sept. 1 to 4. Those cities are hosting the Democratic and Republic conventions, respectively. I’ve been in a host city during a political convention, and it’s absolutely insane. Tight security, throngs of delegates and protesters, and no way to find a table at a decent restaurant. Stay away — and avoid the airports too, even for a stopover.

But those aren’t the only blackout dates related to a special event. The 50th running of the Daytona 500 takes place Feb. 17th. I don’t even live in Daytona Beach, Fla. (I’m in Orlando) and I’m thinking of getting out of town. Don’t even think about renting a car — they’re taken that weekend. And stay away from the Orlando theme parks, unless your idea of family fun is to stand in a long line with a lot of rowdy NASCAR fans.

Mother nature knows best.
Hurricane season may run from June through November, but late summer and early fall is the peak of storm season. Mark those as blackout dates if you’re considering a trip to Florida, Louisiana, the Caribbean, or anywhere along the Atlantic coast of the United States, for that matter. Fall is wildfire season in parts of California. It’s a beautiful time of the year to visit the Golden State, but one spark and a strong Santa Ana wind can smoke out your vacation. The Midwest has tornadoes during the summer, and there can be intense thunderstorms just about anywhere in the United States. Winter blizzards can affect travel anytime between November and March unless you’re in parts of Florida or Texas.

In other words, you know when Mother Nature is likely to be in one of her moods. She could find you on Valentine’s Day, as she did to the passengers on scores of JetBlue Airways flights last year. Or at some random date — like, Dec. 29th, which is the day passenger rights activist Kate Hanni was trapped on an American Airlines flight at Austin International Airport for nine hours. The point is, you don’t know exactly when the weather will stop your trip cold, but nothing is stopping you from making an educated guess.

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These blackout dates don’t have 24 hours.
‘B’-list blackout dates don’t always last 24 hours. Savvy travelers already know that there’s an ebb and flow of crowds. Everyone wants to make the morning flight, but the red-eye flights are less frenzied. Likewise, a hotel gets hopping around mid-morning to late afternoon when the previous evening’s guests check out and the next day’s guests arrive. Time your trips to coincide with the “down” period in these cycles, but don’t get too fancy. One of the most common tips I hear from travel “experts” who are asked how to avoid traffic is to hit the road during the early morning or late evening. Sounds like great advice, on the surface. But you have to wonder if these talking heads have a driver’s license or ever leave Manhattan, because the late morning or early evening is when a lot of construction crews like to block off a lane or two for road repairs.

How do get around that? Check the construction information along your chosen route. I always consult the Florida 511 Web site before I drive anywhere. It has links to ongoing construction projects, along with their hours. There’s also a national site operated by The Federal Highway Administration.

Three strikes and you’re ... oh, you know the rest.
Sometimes it pays to follow the news. And I’m not just saying that because I’m in the news business. This summer there were labor problems at Northwest Airlines and this fall, at Air France . Of course, these days should top your travel blackout list, because no matter what an airline says, there’s probably going to be some kind of trouble. Northwest, for example, canceled hundreds of flights, leaving passengers stranded and at the carrier’s mercy (airline contracts do little to protect passengers in the event of a strike). Air France made some allowances during its strike, but many of its passengers were inconvenienced, all the same.

Keeping up with the news could prevent you from booking a ticket with a troubled carrier. And if you don’t want to read the news — after all, it’s pretty depressing — then find a good travel agent. A competent travel advisor will keep abreast of the news and warn you when an airline is headed for a strike. Sure, you’ll pay a booking fee — but would you rather be stuck in Detroit for a few days, or pay $30 extra for your ticket? Yeah, me too.

When you plan your next trip, think outside the blackout box. Stay on top of the news, keep an eye on the weather, question what the experts have to say and watch out for big parties.

If you don’t, your next big trip could be big trouble.

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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