PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The hordes of harried holiday travelers have cleared the concourses. Their piles of checked presents no longer crowd the baggage claim. The airfares they inflated by taking up every seat on holiday flights have started to lose their Christmas bloat.
The last three weeks of January and first few weeks of February are "dark weeks" for the travel industry, but bright spots for travelers whose savings haven't been sucked dry by holiday trips.
It's a time many potential vacationers have been scared off travel by the holiday crush they endured. A full 43% of travelers surveyed by TripAdvisor said they expected to be stressed out by their winter holiday trips. That doesn't include the 31% of travelers who were already reduced to emotional rubble by thanksgiving travel. Combine that stress with the cost of those trips -- estimated at an average $436 per person -- up from $401 last year, according to TripAdvisor -- and the lack of vacation days accrued by many American workers this early in the year and you get a population of travelers willing to tether themselves to home and earth for a while.
Empty hotel rooms, vacant airports and general lack of tourists are strong anecdotal evidence, but the numbers do a better job of telling the whole story. About 48 million passengers took trips aboard U.S. airlines last January, according to the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation statistics. That's up almost 1 million passengers from January 2012, but still well below the 51.2 million passengers who caught holiday flights a month earlier in December -- and woefully shy of the 59.3 million who fly during peak season in July.
There is only one month in which travelers get around less, and the 45.7 million brave souls who hit the skies this February paid for their cheap trips in terrible weather and lengthy delays.
If travelers can shake off the holiday trauma and emerge from their winter shelters, there's a chance to save big and stretch out while no one's around. We consulted with the folks at TripAdvisor's travel deals site SmarterTravel and found five places that make for great "dark week" travel destinations:
Music City doesn't have a whole lot of down time, but even this city's vibrant venues see traffic slow down in the colder months. Overall, hotels and flights tend to get less expensive during winter as travelers shy away from even the slightest nip in the air. As SmarterTravel discovered, winter flights from the East Coast to Nashville are roughly $100 cheaper than high-season summer flights on similar days of the week.
As New Year's Eve celebrants will discover this week, Nashville has one of the more cost-effective celebrations in the country. Its free party on Lower Broadway features performances by artists such as Hank Williams Jr. and Blackberry Smoke and ends with the Music Note Drop -- which features a 15-foot-tall music note covered in lights making its descent at midnight. It isn't Times Square, but it also isn't a whole lot of expense to cram in behind police fences with hundreds of thousands of other people in what becomes the world's largest latrine.
Want to see what the new Pope is all about? Take a number.
Since Pope Francis took over at the Vatican, SmarterTravel says interest in travel to Rome has jumped 7% this year. He doesn't make it any warmer in town around this time of year, which is a big reason a weeklong package tour from Monograms that goes for $1,571 per person in spring and summer drops to $1,285 per person in January and February.
Meanwhile, studio rooms at the opulent Portrait Roma hotel go for $495 in January before jumping to about $773 per night in June. The Hotel Albergo del Senato Rome sees nightly room rates drop to $235 in February from heights of nearly $355 in July.
Cheap? No. Cheaper than you'll see until next winter? Absolutely.
We have no idea why winter tourists would busy themselves with the bustle of Tokyo when all of the history and scenic winter landscape lives in this ancient city.
Home to a whopping 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, a geisha district, ancient temples and Zen rock gardens, Japan's former imperial capital has plenty to woo U.S. tourists even during its coldest season. The lower prices certainly don't hurt.
The Hyatt Regency Kyoto offers twin rooms for $230 in January that go for $270 in July. How do you get there? Well, round-trip airfares from the West Coast to Tokyo go for as little as $820 in January and February. Compare that with $1,000 for the rare "cheap" summer excursion, and you have a discount worth delving into.
It's cruise season, but that doesn't mean you'll be stuck hitting the same Caribbean islands your aunt and uncle did before sharing their 1,000-photo slideshow with you.
Surprisingly, the United Kingdom is angling for U.S. cruise dollars now that there's a century between it and a certain epic-film-inspiring disaster we won't name here. Hint: There's a nude sketch, a giant sapphire and a surprisingly happy ending for a film documenting an incident in which a whole lot of people drowned in icy waters.
What's been learned since then, other than the folly of the "unsinkable" ship, is that a cruise is a great way to lure American travelers who'd otherwise be afraid of an unfavorable exchange rate. Luxury liner Cunard is offering seven-day winter cruises from New York to Southampton that not only allow U.S. tourists to pay for their U.K. lodging, meals and entertainment in their own currency, but give them a huge discount on the regular fare.
At $799 per person, the lowest prices are still costly. Compared with $1,600 tickets for the same passage during the summer, though, it's a bargain boat. The U.K. is a burgeoning cruise market. And cruising is, for the most part, a very economical way to explore international lands, especially for American travelers visiting destinations with unfavorable exchange rates. When much of what you would otherwise need local currency to pay for -- from meals to entertainment to lodging -- is included in your cruise fare, there's less of a need to trade your dollars in for stronger pounds or euros. One of the best ways to save money on a cruise to the U.K. is to ply the waters during the low winter season.
Similar Cunard sailings during summer months cost nearly double the price. Those are some pretty significant savings.
It goes without saying that you won't get many deals in Sochi from Feb. 7-23, but the Winter Olympics have little bearing on a country whose light season stretches all winter long.
SmarterTravel found round-trip flights from Boston to Moscow in January on Aeroflot for $749. Boston to St. Petersburg on the same airline, meanwhile, goes for $775 round-trip in March. Even the most affordable summer airfares to Russia don't tend to drop below $1,000, with last year's summer low hitting $1,189 for a round-trip ticket from Detroit to Moscow on Lufthansa.
Russia knows people think of its winters and envision snow and cold that can defeat armies. It's why the Russian Ministry of Culture is allowing visitors from select countries -- including the U.S. -- to visit parts of Russia for up to 72 hours this winter without a visa. If you're already in Europe, you jet over to Russia on a major Russian airline without going through the visa application process. It seems the least that a country known for its punishing winters can do, but it's a win for all involved.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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