These days, smart travelers are going off-peak and off the beaten path
My favorite column topic, by far, is the idea of contrarian travel, or traveling against the grain. It's my strategy for getting luxury for less. But recently one of the pillars of this strategy -- the tactic of traveling off-season -- has lost some of its punch. As more people are traveling smarter, the lines between on-season, "shoulder season," and off-season have blurred, and the return for traveling off-peak has gotten smaller.
These days you have to look at travel opportunities differently, not only off-season, but off the beaten track. Rather than simply thinking of going to Arizona in July (which is still a hot bargain, in terms of both price and heat index), think of out-of-the-way destinations that you'll enjoy, and consider some other contrarian strategies while you're at it. Here are some tips to help you get the idea.
Think like a celebrity. Paparazzi-shy stars are often seeking out-of-the-way places to relax in comfort. Think Namibia. It was good enough for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Consider trendy passe. The real finds are the up-and-comers, those places that have yet to catch on with the mainstream (like Prague in the early 90s, but now overrun with tourists). Two good bets for today's traveler: the coastal towns of Dubrovnik and Zadar in the western Balkans on the Adriatic Sea.
Act like a humanitarian. Natural disasters and other calamities that wreck havoc on a destination also leave the local tourism community in turmoil. Not only can you score luxury at a fraction of the usual cost, but you can also help the local economy with your tourist dollars. A friend of mine traveled to Indonesia after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami and found great hotel bargains. He also spent a few days of his vacation helping with local relief efforts. In his words: "I had a great vacation and helped needy people at the same time."
Play the loyalty card. If you must travel to busy tourist places, parlay your past loyalty into upgrades. The cheapest hotel rooms, rental cars, cruise cabins and airline seats generally go first, so travel providers end up upgrading guests to higher levels of service. Get ahead of the game by notifying your travel provider of your travel plans and requesting an upgrade based on your past loyalty.
Catch the opening. Whenever a hotel, cruise line or airline offers a new property, route or service, try to get in the door before the crowds. The best strategy is to travel a week or two after the opening. The first weeks will be full of VIPs, but between the opening and the crush of the later-coming general public, you can scoop up some good bargains.
Skip school. This bit of advice will be appreciated by your kids. A few days of missed school can mean a truly memorable vacation and valuable family time -- at preseason prices. Just make sure to get your kids' homework so they can keep up with their classmates in between swimming, rafting and horseback riding.
Save a day. Go for quality not quantity. My recent trip to the Grand Hyatt Kauai lasted only four days. But those four days in the 2,700-square-foot Presidential Suite overlooking the blue Pacific were certainly more memorable than six days spent overlooking the parking lot.
Consider luxury. In their quest to save money, most travelers consider only budget travel choices. Ironically, luxury can be cheaper. The Four Seasons, a name synonymous with luxury, routinely offers a fourth night free with three paid nights. When you add up all those numbers, luxury can actually save you money. Other luxury hotels are well-priced to begin with. In Bilbao, Spain, for example, the Silken Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao offers five-star luxury with rates reasonably priced at 110 euros. And from its teakwood terrace, you get views of the city's extraordinary Guggenheim Museum, one of the must-see sights of Europe.
Here's my current list of areas of opportunity for traveling off the beaten path. All it takes is a willingness to go a little farther afield.
Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, not the Italian or French Riviera. Both the Hyatt and the Four Seasons have wonderful hotels in Sharm el Sheikh, a seaside resort with some of the finest beaches and diving in the world. At press time, the Four Seasons was offering a bed-and-breakfast package starting at $195 per night.
Vienna, not Paris. With a famed opera house, world-class museums, hotels, restaurants and cafes, Vienna offers a nice alternative to pricey Paris.
Panama, not Cancun. While lacking the festive reputation of Mexico's beaches, Panama offers a delightful retreat at a fraction of the cost. The Bristol Hotel, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, offers luxurious accommodations in the center of vibrant Panama City. At press time, rooms with daily breakfast were available from $125 nightly.
Budapest, not Prague. While both cities have stunning baroque architecture, Budapest has the mighty Danube, fewer crowds and generally lower prices. The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest, a former palace, has been transformed into an Art-Nouveau-and-Renaissance landmark. Many of the rooms have views of the Danube, the Chain Bridge or Buda Hills. Delta Air Lines recently initiated direct service to Budapest from JFK.
The world of travel offers boundless opportunities, and you can find truly memorable travel at a bargain. If you're not sure how to do it, check out the advice in my book "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel."
And remember, there's nothing better than a first class flight to a five-star hotel.