'Dark' Days a Bright Spot for Holiday Vacations

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Savvy travelers know it's always darkest before the best January deals.

These next few weeks of January are known as "dark weeks" in the travel industry. It's when many potential vacationers have had the will to travel stripped from them by holiday trips in which 51% of travelers surveyed by TripAdvisor ( TRIP) said they expected to be stressed out by the experience. Combine that stress with the cost of those trips -- estimated at $2,636 per family of four, according to the American Express ( AXP) Spending and Savings Tracker -- the average $707 Consumer Reports says Americans spent on holiday gifts this year and the lack of vacation days accrued by many American workers this early in the year and you get a nation of happy homebodies.
Travel during January's dark weeks is minimal, but so are prices

If the empty hotel rooms, vacant airports and generally thin tourists crowds aren't enough evidence of that early year slowdown, consider the numbers. About 53.7 million passengers took trips aboard U.S. airlines last January. That's up more than 1 million passengers from January 2010, but still well below the 58.6 million passengers who caught holiday flights a month earlier in December and woefully shy of the 69.8 million who fly during peak season in July.

There is only one month in which travelers get around less, and the 50.1 million brave souls who hit the skies in February pay for their trips in terrible weather and interminable delays.

"The first two weeks of January tend to be really great times to travel," says Anne Banas, editor of Smarter Travel. "People are so exhausted from the holidays and have spent so much money that it tends to be a dead time."

That dead time can lead to some desperate measures. Hotels.com just concluded a two-day sale offering customers 50% off hotel rooms for stays through Feb. 7, including $65 rooms in Washington, D.C., $73 nights in Chicago and $80 stays in Barcelona. Southwest ( LUV) and recent acquisition AirTran are trying to woo air travelers with round-trip airfares including a $258 package from Seattle to Atlanta and a $118 fare from Charlotte to Orlando for flights from Jan. 13 through mid-May if booked by tomorrow. Alaskan Airlines' ( ALK) Frontier, meanwhile, has flights from Houston to Denver for $90 round-trip for trips between now and March 7 for those who book before Jan. 12.

Since it's smack in the middle of the winter low season for much of Europe, it's not such a bad time to hop across the Atlantic, either. Lufthansa's been running a sale since December that features round-trip fares from New York to Dublin for $507, from Boston to Barcelona for $696 and from San Francisco to Zurich for $866. Those fares apply now through late March and travelers still have until Jan. 12 to book them. Air France has a similar promotion running through Jan. 12 with round-trip flights from New York to Istanbul for $622, Los Angeles to Moscow for $712 and Houston to the warm winter lights of Paris $742.

Even deals to the Caribbean aren't out of the question. Cheap Caribbean is offering a three-night stay at the Radisson Resort Grand Lucayan in the Bahamas and airfare for $374 through February when you book by Friday. JetBlue Vacations, meanwhile, provides airfare to Turks and Caicos and a three-night stay at the Comfort Suites ( CHH) Ports of Call for $445 per person at the end of January.

"It tends to get busier when February vacations hit because a lot more people tend to be traveling," Banas says. "Carnival season starts to happen in the Caribbean so you start to see a lot more high-season travel there later in the month."

Even the destinations themselves are trying to deal their way out of the winter doldrums. Disney's ( DIS) theme parks shouted out their latest promotion to anyone within earshot of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve or college bowl games this New Year's when it announced its four-nights-for-the-price-of-three hotel promotion for late February and March. In Vegas, Southwest's vacation arm is offering airfare and three nights at the pyramid-style Luxor hotel starting at $124. The city itself is promoting 40% to 50% room discounts at casinos such as Circus Circus, with rooms starting between $26 and $28 in what is usually Vegas' high season.

Even in peak-season towns where the hotel deals aren't so hot, vacation rentals can give travelers a de facto discount. Stephen Daimler, co-founder of vacation rental site PackLate, says even skiers with their sights on some of the nation's most popular slopes can get deals in January. A three-bedroom luxury condo on bustling Main Street in Park City, Utah, with a private hot tub and pool table and just down the block from the resort's lift, is going for a 50% discount at $465 a night. A three-bedroom luxury condo four-bedroom home in Breckenridge, Colo., with a private hot tub and shuttle service to the slopes gets a 25% discount at $387 a night.

If travelers love the cold but don't need as many comforts, there's far greater dark-weeks savings to be had.

At Yosemite National Park in California, for example, those willing to bundle up in the park's unheated cabin tents between now and March 19 will pay based on how low the temperatures go. Tents that usually go for $39 a night will be $10 if it's only 10 degrees Fahrenheit that night. If the temps drop below zero, 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 $59 a night, with that price dropping to $20 if it falls below zero. This was a slightly better deal last year, when the price was based on Celsius temperatures, but it can still be a bargain for those willing to risk it.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.