Travel Deals Dominate in 'Dark' January

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- It's a dark spot on the travel industry's calendar, but January's full of bright prospects for deal-seeking excursionists with excess vacation days.

Labeled "dark weeks" and "dead zones" by travel experts, much of January is marked by airports and attractions clear of holiday crowds and hotels with more vacancies than vacationers. In January 2010, for example, the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics says U.S. airlines carried 52.6 million carriers. While that's a 1.5% improvement from the previous January, it's also a steep drop from 57 million who traveled a month earlier in December 2009 and well south of the 64 million to 68 million passengers who fly during the summer peak months.

January travel is an expensive way to dodge the miseries of air travel resulting from overbooked flights at holiday time.

"While the weather may be chilly, travelers can often find decent airfares and fewer crowds when taking a trip in January, since it falls after the holiday rush and before spring break season," says Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flightz. "One holiday to keep in mind is Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the 17th, which makes for a busier weekend since many travelers have the day off and often take a quick getaway for the long weekend."

The King holiday and such events as the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and the X Games in Aspen, Colo., aside, SmarterTravel editor Anne Banas notes that holiday travel, spending fatigue and unaccrued or otherwise unavailable vacation days help keep travel to a minimum around this time of year. If you're one of the fortunate few who wasn't stung by holiday shopping and doesn't have to skimp on days off, TheStreet found many last-minute travel deals to help brighten this dark month:

Airfare: Heather Green, a spokeswoman for FareCompare.com, notes that the first two weeks in December -- sandwiched between two high-traffic holidays -- tend to be another travel "dead zone" and provide a decent barometer for January deals.

"Tickets from Los Angeles to New York during the second week of December were $249 round trip," Green says. "The price for the same trip a couple of weeks later was $440 and up. But in January it drops down again to $249."

January, though, has the benefit of being outside holiday blackout periods, which offers immediate use for Southwest Airlines' ( LUV) Click 'n' Save fares that get a frozen Buffalo resident to Orlando, Fla., for as little as $119 each way or allow a chilled Chicagoan to thaw in Tampa for as low as $129 each way. American Airlines ( AMR), meanwhile, made today its cutoff date for $29-each-way fares from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and $97-each way flights from Milwaukee to Miami, but gives fliers until Tuesday to book fares to Miami, Atlanta, Chicago and elsewhere starting at $59.

AirTran ( AAI), however, provides the greatest amount of leniency by allowing travelers to book special fares to the Caribbean -- including $89-each-way rates from Memphis, Baltimore or Charlotte to Nassau in the Bahamas and $89 each way from Atlanta to Cancun, Mexico -- and use them any time through May 24.

International airfares tend to get a lot cheaper, too, as SmarterTravel found round-trip fares from Chicago to Florence, Italy, dropped from an average of $1,358 in June to $891 in January, with fares from Boston to Rome plummeting from $1,170 to $808.

Hotels: A slow season tends to bring out the vacancy signs, which inspire hotels to offer travelers a ton of incentives. The Sonesta chain of hotels, for instance, is offering $111 room and per-person rates in the U.S., Caribbean, South America and Egypt through Jan. 11 as part of its 1.1.2011 promotion.

Not to be outdone, luxury hotelier Fairmont is offering guests $300 to $500 credits to stay at its $429-and-up-per-night Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, Calif., a 30% discount and boat tour for the kids at its Mayakoba resort in Mexico and a fifth night free at its Kea Lani hotel in Maui.

Local tourist boards are getting in on the action as well, as the Islands of the Bahamas are giving away free companion airfare to travelers who book an airfare-and-vacation package of four nights or more. Las Vegas, meanwhile, is offering 50% off on hotel rooms and "buy two nights, get one free" hotel deals to lure tourists. Southwest, meanwhile, is baiting families with a fourth night free at any of Disney's ( DIS) Disneyland resort hotels in Anaheim, Calif., to travelers who buy packages including airfare, hotels and park tickets.

Vacation rentals: Even during ski season, vacation rentals are pretty easy to come by in January. On last-minute vacation rental site PackLate, property owners in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Mammoth Lakes, Calif., have their properties listed for January rental at 40% to 50% less than what they fetch during the rest of the season.

"January is the best time to go skiing," says Stephen Daimler, spokesman for PackLate. "The conditions are great, there are fewer crowds and average vacation rental prices across our 13 ski resorts are 28% lower during the month of January compared to the holidays."

A two-bedroom condo in Steamboat Springs that sleeps six, has a gas fireplace and a balcony with a view of Emerald Mountain and is just blocks from the Howelsen Ski Area is available for much of January for as little as $126 a night. Meanwhile, a two-bedroom, three-bathroom condo with a wood-burning stove, private hot tub and sleeping space for eight can be had in January for roughly $160 a night. If a pre-Sundance stay in Park City is a must, however, a two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom condo with a gas fireplace, hot tub and jetted bathtub is still available for $240 a night.

National parks: This is, by far, the coldest January travel option, but it's perhaps the most cost effective.

At Yosemite National Park in California, for example, visitors bold enough to stay in the park's unheated cabin tents Jan. 7-8 or Jan. 21-22 will pay based on celsius temparature. Tents that usually go for $39 a night will be $10 if it's only 10 degrees celsius that night (50 degrees Farenheit). If the temps drop below freezing, however, that night's stay is free. For those willing to part with a little extra not to lose their extremities or have to bring seven blankets as carry-on items, heated tents are available for $49 a night, with that price dropping to $25 if it falls below freezing.

A much warmer, if less private, deal awaits at Yellowstone National Park in Montana, where rooms are available at its Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge for $49 a night from Jan. 4 through March. While ideal for folks who like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating, it's a little less so who for those who like to relieve themselves without disturbance. The deal applies only to rooms with shared bathrooms.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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