NEW YORK (MainStreet) — As much as you didn't want to be in an airport in late December, an airport in much of January through February can be a serene, almost religious experience.
The last three weeks of January and first few weeks of February are "dark weeks" for the travel industry, which tries desperately to draw customers who've been shellshocked by a grueling stretch of holiday travel.
Last month, 43% of travelers surveyed by TripAdvisor (TRIP) 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. That stress wasn't helped by the cost of those trips — estimated at an average $436 per person, up from $401 last year according to Trip Advisor. Finally, the lack of vacation days accrued by many American workers this early does an excellent job of keeping much of the U.S. at home this time of year.
That translates to empty hotel rooms, vacant airports and general lack of tourists. 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 2013, but still well below the 54.3 million passengers who caught holiday flights a month earlier in December and woefully shy of the 61.7 million who fly during peak season in July.
There is only one month in which travelers get around less. In February 2014, 45.5 million passengers paid for their cheap trips in terrible weather and lengthy delays.
For travelers who either kept things low-key during the holiday season or have just one more big trip left in them, this is a great time to catch a deal. We consulted with the folks at TripAdvisor's travel deals site SmarterTravel and found five places that make for great “dark week” travel destinations:
Yes, it's a large country to throw the “best bargain” blanket over, but this year its low winter rates combine with some new airline service to make it even more accessible to weary U.S. travelers.
Southwest just kicked off its San Antonio–to-Mexico City route late last year, while Mexican budget airline Volaris began Fort Lauderdale–Mexico City service in early December. Delta launched its Salt Lake City–Mexico City service just before Christmas, debuted flights between Los Angeles and Monterrey in November and ran new routes between Seattle and Puerto Vallarta for much of the year.
That's made just about everyone else a lot more competitive with pricing on airfare, hotels and other amenities. Aeromexico and American are running sales, with the latter charging as little as $474 (round trip, including taxes and fees) between Charlotte, N.C., and Cancun. The Preferred Hotel Group has winter discounts as deep as as 57% on rates at the Sandos Cancun Luxury Experience Resort. Occidental Hotels & Resorts, meanwhile has winter discounts and offers including rates from $86 per night at the all-inclusive Occidental Grand Nuevo Vallarta.
It's cold in Montreal this time of year. We know this, Montreal knows it. That's why the city basically spends the winter filling its short days with parties and events.
The outdoor al fresco dance party Igloofest braves the elements in January and February. In February, Montreal en Lumiere sheds some light on the city's cultural events calendar with shows, concerts, culinary tours and more (yes, Bryan Adams qualifies as “more”). Finally, the underground Art Souterrain lines Montreal's 20-mile-long Underground City with contemporary artwork.
Even at this late date, Air Canada is offering cut rates to Montreal. United, meanwhile, has a limited number of discounted last-minute fares from U.S. cities. Even when you arrive, there are deals to be had. From January through April, the city's Sweet Deal package gets travelers 50% off a second night at two dozen hotels around the city.
You wouldn't think the islands would be such a hard sell around this time of year, but the Bahamas want U.S. tourist dollars so badly that they're willing to put up with tourists' kids just to get it.
New nonstop service on Bahamasair from cities including Baltimore, Newark, N.J., and Cincinnati are making the islands and their mild climate a lot more accessible to frozen folks on the East Coast and Great Lakes. But the Bahamas and their businesses want those frigid folks to bring the whole family along. The Kids Stay Free deal at the Wyndham Nassau Resort keeps an open mind by covering accommodations for two children up to age 17. Congratulations: You finally got your high schooler a holiday present he or she won't dismiss with an eye roll. Meanwhile, other deals on boating, fishing, diving and other family activities are available on the Bahamas tourism board's website.
If you'd prefer to leave the kids at home, JetBlue is also featuring Nassau packages, including one with round-trip airfare between Orlando and Nassau and three-nights' accommodations from $653 per person.
Yellowstone National Park
OK, it's cold, but you know that big line of cars that isn't there, all those people who aren't gawking at Old Faithful and the din of parties by the campfire that you aren't hearing? Winter says “You're welcome.”
It is absolutely gorgeous in Yellowstone around this time of year, and it's about the only spot on the calendar that the park is desperate to fill. That's where the deals come into play. The Frosty Fun package, for example, includes a place to stay, breakfast and ice-skating for prices starting at $149 per night based on double occupancy. The Winter Wildlife Expedition package, meanwhile, includes four nights' accommodations, most meals, expert guides and field trip transportation, evening programs and snowshoe and ice skate rentals for $759 per person. Oh, and when you book those packages, you also get a deep discount on Yellowstone's winter shuttle from the airport in Bozeman, Mont. Good luck getting any kind of break on that around Independence Day.
Around any other time of year, this is one of the more expensive European airline tickets a U.S. traveler can buy.
In winter, it's the cheapest deal in Europe for North American travelers who don't mind bundling up. Ever want to stroll the beautiful — if chilly — cities of Krakow and Gdansk? European low-cost carrier Air Berlin will go from New York to Krakow for $696 or from NYC to Gdansk for just $9 more. If you want just slightly more amenities, Polish airline LOT has offered sale fares on flights to Gdansk, including $720 from New York and $935 from Chicago. Lufthansa, meanwhile, has spent much of the winter advertising flights between New York and Krakow for $719 round trip, including taxes and fees.
— By Jason Notte for MainStreet
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