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The year's best time to travel: 'Dead Week'

While everyone from family to five o'clock news anchors frets the often-harrowing , some travelers are looking right past turkey day to a bird of a different color: December's "Dead Week," the annual post-Thanksgiving lull in the travel habits of Americans (and Europeans, for that matter).
Tourists fight against gust of wind as they stand near Eiffel Tower in Paris
Tourists fight against a gust of wind as they stand near the Eiffel Tower in Paris Dec. 30, 2005.Charles Platiau / Reuters file
/ Source: Independent Traveler

While everyone from family to five o'clock news anchors frets the often-harrowing Thanksgiving travel weekend, some travelers are looking right past turkey day to a bird of a different color: December's "Dead Week," the annual post-Thanksgiving lull in the travel habits of Americans (and Europeans, for that matter).

With very few people traveling in the run-up to the year-end holidays, Dead Week produces some of the best prices and opportunities of the year.

Early Thanksgiving = Opportunity
The so-called Dead Week is usually a bit longer than that, spanning the two weekends after the long Thanksgiving holiday. After that, you're headed into the holiday travel season proper, and all bets are off -- availability plunges, prices soar, airports swell with people, and tourist and holiday attractions are overrun with visitors, all well into the new year.

This year, the calendar should give travelers a full extra week (and then some) of seasonal and saving opportunities. Thanksgiving always falls on the fourth Thursday in November, which makes this year's 11/23 holiday only one day away from the earliest possible date. Additionally, Christmas falls on a Monday, so many folks won't really bail from their jobs and hit the road until Friday December 22 or Saturday December 23. As a result, we'll get close to three full weekends of lower volume, lower prices, and, in my experience, some of the best travel and tourism conditions of the year.

Why Pre-Holiday Travel Beats Holiday Travel
The first week of December is often a temperate one as far as weather goes -- this is the case throughout much of the northern hemisphere, and arguably almost worldwide, as spring is well-advanced in the southern hemisphere. Of course you won't be tanning in Torino or swimming in San Francisco at this time of year, but it is equally unlikely you will be stranded in by blizzards or ice storms -- it is only late fall after all -- and the cooler temps are more than balanced by outstanding ambience almost anywhere you care to travel.

Favorable weather, low volume and superb deals make these three weeks a favorite of many frequent and seasoned travelers. By traveling in early and mid-December, you can skip the tourist hordes and high prices and still enjoy all the trappings of holiday travel: lights, decorated trees, candles and menorahs, the most dramatic storefront and household displays of the year, extraordinary civic and commercial exhibits, and, not least, enough good cheer to last all year.

It is also a time of low expectations on the tourism front, which is the perfect cover for travelers who prefer to disappear into the local culture and live with the locals for a bit. Any "visitor fatigue" left over from the summer is almost completely dissipated, and most locals are too focused on the coming holidays to sweat a few travelers in their midst.

My most powerful experience was a combined business and leisure trip to Paris in December a couple years back. While I had avoided Paris during the summer several times -- including driving within 10 miles of the city center twice in the past few years without even considering stopping -- my December 10 arrival found a city fully and almost casually going about its business of being one of the great centers of Western civilization. Bustle without bruising crowds, cultural attractions without crushing lines, and a room in the heart of town without ridiculous price markups made for one of the best "long weekend" trips I have ever made.

I had a mind-bending experience at a nearly empty Musee d'Orsay, which is packed with spectacular Impressionist paintings tailor-made for December viewing. The Louvre was similarly easy to roam, and as for the Eiffel Tower, we took a late morning run from one end of town to the Tower, stood in line for three minutes, rode to the top, peered around to our hearts' content, and were back on the pavement still loose enough to complete the run home. Try that in July.

Not Just the Great Cities
I have had similar experiences on Maui and in the Caribbean. On Maui I surfed a perfect swell on the west side with about three other people in the water while a friend went off to visit a famous artist at his house studio. A "cold call" email exchange revealed that his studio had been quiet for a few weeks, and he was uncharacteristically happy to have a visitor.

The Caribbean trip was planned, purchased and completed in about five days, and we wound up with one of the best waterfront rooms on the west side of the island for under $100 a night. This year, we're staying on a pier over the Pacific Ocean in California at what the proprietor admits are "very off-season" prices. "We're empty," he said when we booked our stay. "Do you know which room you would like? You have your pick." The sound of the ocean, sunsets over the Pacific, a swaying pier and the best room -- all that and holiday decorations too.

Best Prices of the Year
Late last week, I did an extended round of airfare searches for the first two weekends in December, and found nothing but fantastic airfares: $262 roundtrip cross-country to southern California, $195 RT to Seattle, $224 to San Francisco, $433 to London, $512 to Paris, $524 nonstop to Rome -- probably the best prices of the year to these destinations. And I did everything I could to stack the deck against success; I didn't even do these searches from the "cheapest" airport in the region.

It was far more difficult, almost impossible, to find expensive fares than to find great fares. I even did searches from the West Coast to Europe: $442 nonstop roundtrip from San Francisco to London, $605 to Rome. The SFO-Rome fare was the highest I could find on any of my searches, and you fly 14,000 miles for only 600 bucks!

Add to this some of the best lodging prices of the year, and you almost can't afford not to travel. (Don't ignore package deals either; already low airfare and lodging costs can be even better when bundled together at additional discounts by packagers.)

More Holiday Considerations: Attractions and Shopping
A few weeks before the holidays, very few venues or exhibits are closed, and some even have extended hours to coax museum-goers into museum shops. Additionally, many hotels, attractions and merchants are rolling out the red carpet to entice holiday revellers, and you may get better treatment at this time of year than any other.

There's another benefit to traveling while everyone else is mall-hopping: you can do your shopping somewhere else besides the same stores everyone else is scouring. I'm not much of a shopper, but I've come home from every Dead Week trip I've taken with a few showstopper gifts for people who deserved them -- and didn't have to storm the store entrance throwing elbows at midnight on Black Friday, or park a half-mile from the mall entrance, to get them. I just kept my eyes open while walking around in my travels, and the gifts almost seemed to find me.

So if the notion of strolling while you should be shopping makes you nervous, you might just find the right gift where you least expected it: out on the road. And you might also find the whole process a heap more pleasant walking the streets of Paris, paddling over reefs off Maui, checking out Christmas preparations in Rome, beachcombing in the Caribbean ... it's Dead Week, so take your pick!

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