Labor Day often heralds the “end of summer” and the week between Christmas and New Year is the traditional time to take a winter break, but who says that’s when you have to travel? If you’re lucky enough to break free of the school or work schedule, off-season travel can often mean fewer crowds, more comfortable temperatures, and better prices.
We’ve hit the road throughout the year and some of our shoulder season trips have been the most memorable, when restaurants are quieter, the sights less Instagrammed, and the local business owners not so harried and thus more able to engage. Here are some of our favorite memories and tips for off-season travel in the United States and beyond.
Iceland in December—Whether You See the Northern Lights or Not Julia Cosgrove, VP, Editor in Chief
In December of 2010, my now-husband and I traveled from Seattle to Iceland for four days. Why, you might ask, would two people, generally sound of mind, choose to go to a place that was dark for much of the day and all of the night? Reader, we like the cold. We like the dark. We like Bjork. So amid the haze of jet lag, we explored compact Reykjavík on foot, ate a tasting menu that included minke whale (forgive us), shopped for thick woolen blankets to bring home, and marveled at the spare architecture. We rented a car and drove the Golden Circle road, stopping along the way at geysers, frozen waterfalls, and roadside farms where peculiar Icelandic ponies grazed on tufts of grass sprouting from the lunar landscape.
We encountered very few people (tourism in the country has since skyrocketed, especially during the summer high season) and were the only diners at a restaurant in the countryside that served beer and a bucket of langoustines. The trip was solitary and deeply satisfying. En route to the airport for our flight home, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon and soaked and swam among a scattering of locals, covering ourselves in silica mud. Thinking back on it now, I don’t think the jet lag ever wore off, but we embraced our liminal state and the limited light. And we’d do it again in a second.
Rome as Winter Approaches Maggie Fuller, Associate Editor
I once met a man at a café in Belgium who told me I should see Rome in the winter. He said that it was too crowded and hot in the summer, and there was a special beauty to the famous city when the temperatures dropped.
A few years later, I got the chance to spend a week there in November while visiting a friend who was studying abroad. He was right. The chilly but sunny weather made for comfortable (read: not sweaty) sightseeing while every ristorante felt cozier and every plate of pasta more comforting. I can imagine that the summer sun creates a certain romantic ambience in the Eternal City, but the cold weather seemed to make everything more crisp, and I’ll never forget how dramatic the Vatican looked as storm clouds rolled over it.
A Hassle-Free New York in October
Laura Dannen Redman, Digital Content Director
Does a city of 8 million even have an off-season? Technically, January through early March is low season for NYC, and I kind of love that post–New Year’s Eve exhale when the holiday shoppers leave and hotel prices drop. (I once booked a staycation in January at the Quin hotel—plus Broadway tickets and a table at Cosme were easier to come by.) But you’ll probably hear locals wax poetic about NYC in September and October.
It’s pretty close to perfect, whether you’re enjoying the fall breeze on the waterfront as you stroll through Brooklyn Bridge Park in pursuit of a cocktail on 1 Hotel’s rooftop or a cone at Ample Hills Creamery; you have tickets to a postseason Yankees game; or you’re cramming in every possible show of the fall arts season, from the New Yorker Festival (Oct 11–13 this year) to the Guggenheim (get there before November 6 for Basquiat’s “Defarcement”: The Untold Story). It’s the best the city has to offer without humidity or hassle.
Spain Just After New Year’s Day
Kate Sommers-Dawes, Deputy Digital Editor
A couple of years ago we drove down a dirt road outside the village of Gratallops in the Priorat region of Spain, heading toward a winery we’d read about. It was just after New Year’s, which we’d spent in nearby Barcelona, and the air was crisp and the sky bright blue. The place was deserted when we arrived and asked the bewildered proprietor for a tasting. He gamely offered to put something together for us, despite the fact that the winery was technically closed.
So we sat on the porch, looking out at the sun-drenched countryside, sipping glasses of red and snacking on the nuts and olives he’d scrounged for our makeshift tasting. For a brief hour, we were the only three people in the balmy, wintry world. This is the beauty of off-season travel in Spain. No crowds, no lines, just you and the locals, disregarding the closed signs and enjoying the quiet.
New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere’s Winter Sarah Buder, Assistant Editor
I visited New Zealand during May, which marks the end of fall (shoulder season) and the start of winter (off-season) on the North and South Islands. I was repeatedly told by locals I spoke with that the destinations I visited—popular spots such as Queenstown and the Coromandel Peninsula—were exponentially less crowded during this time of year. Plus, it was much cheaper for me to travel during May than it would’ve been during December, January, or February because hotel and car rental rates peak throughout summer in New Zealand. Sure, the air was slightly crisper in the mornings and evenings as winter approached in the Southern Hemisphere, but a light jacket was enough to keep me warm at most hours—and catching the end of fall foliage in New Zealand’s national parks was more than enough to distract me from any incoming winter chill.
Portugal in December
Ann Shields, Guides Editor
My then-boyfriend Thom and I drove around Portugal’s Alentejo region for three weeks one December in the late 1990s. In some small towns, like Monsaraz, Elvas, or Redondo, we were clearly the only tourists. We knew because people would tell us in the local bar that they’d seen us walking into the local museum earlier that day and were hoping we’d show up for a drink.
The area booms in warm months but tourism slows to a trickle in winter, so the locals were happy to see us. We were left alone in a port wine tasting room—with a fireplace and a view over the Douro to Porto—because the guide wanted to go home early and we looked trustworthy. We also toured a museum that was so empty that the guard would run ahead and turn on the lights in the next gallery, then back to switch them off when we’d passed through.
In Estremoz, a hill town near the Spanish frontier, we went to see The Nutty Professor at the historic Bernardim Ribeiro Theater, a movie palace created from an old theater. The Portuguese subtitles meant that the locals often read the joke before it was spoken, so their laughter would drown out the punchline for us. At the time, screenings had an intermission so the audience could smoke, so when most people filed out of the house, Thom and I stood at our seats to admire the place. The manager shyly approached and insisted, in Portuguese, that we let him give us a tour. He took us up to the balconies and boxes to show off the ornate woodwork, to the lobby to see framed newspaper clippings about performances, and then backstage, behind the screen, to admire all the theatrical trappings. We thanked him profusely (we knew how to say that much at least), and he led us around to the front of the screen to find rows of cross teenagers glowering, waiting for the Americans to finish their tour so the movie could begin again.
Aspen Between Thanksgiving and Christmas Tim Chester, Senior Editor, Digital
Taking time off during the December maelstrom of holiday shopping, nonstop parties, and work-related loose ends is tough. Even if you manage to persuade the world you’re not needed for a few days, you’ll find yourself working double time before and after to compensate. But there’s a payoff. Very few others seem willing to do it. That’s what I discovered last year relearning to ski on the pristine slopes of Aspen.
Each morning as we lumbered with our gear to the lifts, we were greeted by as many helpful docents as other skiiers. We sipped coffee in empty cafés before gliding right onto the lifts, where quiet bunny slopes offered forgiving terrain for us (re)newbies. I can only imagine how hushed the miles of more challenging trails must have been for those lucky enough to spend this time of year on black runs instead of school runs.
Denmark in the Fall
Lyndsey Matthews, Destination News Editor
I spent a week spanning the end of September and the first few days of October in southwest Denmark last year. Even though I traded idyllic weather and summer sunlight that stretches long into the night for rain jackets and giant knitted sweaters, the blustery weather and shorter days meant I got to experience Danish hygge culture at its coziest. Evenings were spent at historic thatched-roof inns over long dinners with lots of wine and even more candles, while mornings often started slowly with quiet walks on beaches that I had all to myself.
The highlight of the trip was an afternoon spent wading through chest deep water in the Wadden Sea to forage invasive—yet tasty—Pacific oysters. The trek was tiring and one of my friend’s waders sprang a leak soaking an entire pant leg, but shucking oysters plucked directly from the sea while sipping champagne outdoors is a memory that’s lasted much longer than the chill.
North Carolina When Everyone Else Is Back at School
Michelle Baran, Travel News Editor
When you have small kids (babies and toddlers), take advantage of the fact that they’re not on a typical school schedule. I love using the week following Labor Day for off-season travel because most older kids are back in school, but the weather is still great in many places. The most recent trip my family took at this time was to North Carolina in 2016, specifically Raleigh and Winston-Salem. We had museums almost entirely to ourselves and had no trouble nabbing a covetable room at the latter’s Kimpton Cardinal Hotel.
Similarly, I love traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday, when many people are just going home to see family. We’ve driven to Big Sur and to Portland during Thanksgiving week the past few years and had no problem booking hotel stays, nabbing tables at A-list restaurants, and seeing the sights minus the crowds.
Greece in the Springtime
Sara Button, Assistant Editor
This year my husband and I went to Greece in early March, which is really more off-season than shoulder season. We took the ferry from Athens to Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades, and there we found plenty of spring blooms, sunny weather, fantastically fresh seafood—and absolutely no crowds.
Sure, there were cons: it wasn’t quite warm enough yet to spend much time swimming (water temperatures were low and the meltemia winds that blow off the Aegean Sea added a chill factor), and a lot of lodging and dining options were still closed for the season. But we had the beaches completely to ourselves, literally, and we were there during a number of pre-Lenten festivities taking place in the mountain villages. What we lacked in seaside sunburns we made up for in hiking from the towns of Melanes and Apo Potamia along the Naxos Village Trail, watching the sunset over the island’s ancient ruins, and gorging on the amazing breakfast buffets at Hotel Grotta, the boutique hotel where we were treated like family.