BEACH DESTINATIONS. Typically, the fourth quarter of the year is the slowest in United States, Caribbean, Central American and Mexican beach destinations. Instead of vacationing, many Americans are preoccupied with holiday planning and shopping, and schools are still in session. As I'm writing this, for example, one big resort in Cancun is pitching a "sale" rate of $249 per person for a five-night all-inclusive stay. The best deals are pre-holiday; once the pre-Christmas weekend rolls around, you see fewer deep discounts. And the slow season can suddenly turn very high: Typically, the Christmas-New Year period is the busiest week of the year in Hawaii.
MOUNTAIN DESTINATIONS. The fourth quarter is also slow for mountain resorts. In most, it's after the summer peak but before they get enough snow for winter sports. Mid-December rates in Aspen, for example, are less than half the typical rates in mid-January. The main problem is that you don't find much going on at this time of the year, although enterprising destinations are trying to cultivate off-season events and activities to help extend their seasons.
CHILD-CENTRIC DESTINATIONS. Periods when school is in session are obviously the best times to visit the several Disney complexes and other theme destinations keyed to kids. According to data posted by Disney, the weeks between Thanksgiving and the Christmas/New Year weeks are among the lowest of the year, with "moderate" resorts averaging a tad more than $190 per night. The end of the quarter, however, is not the absolute bottom season: Rates are a tad lower in early January. But rates rise dramatically for the holiday week starting December 21 and again for spring break times.
BIG CITIES. Business travel tends to wind down during December, and it often doesn't pick up for several weeks after the holidays. As a result, business-oriented hotels often slash rates or offer promotional packages. For the holiday period, the website NYC Tourist (nyctourist.com) posts a bunch of holiday week rates that are roughly half high-season rates. Check, too, for holiday event hotel packages. In Chicago, several hotels are offering packages for the many seasonal "Nutcracker" performances by the Joffrey Ballet. The slow season can extend a few weeks after the holidays, too. But that holiday lull isn't universal. According to Hotwire's "TripStarter" data, you'll find the year's lowest rates in most big U.S. cities in January and mid-February, not December.
Finding your deal. Once you decide where you want to go, you have several ways to find the best promotions:
-- Check with one or two of the big online travel agencies for specials and promotions.
-- Log onto the official visitor website for the area you've chosen, where you'll usually see a list of promotional deals.
-- For hotel accommodations, consider placing a really low hotel bid through Priceline or finding a big discount on Hotwire.
-- Consider a vacation rental.
-- Check a few of the "flash" sale websites for deals.
Airfares are apt to be your biggest challenge, and here you'll find no consistent patterns. Again, Hotwire's TripStarter is probably the best place to start looking for seasonal patterns, but you can never outguess possible last-minute sales. Just cast as wide a web as you can for airfare information and pounce when you see something that fits.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)