Great weather can be a trade-off for high prices and huge crowds in peak tourist season – and to a lesser extent, in increasingly popular shoulder seasons. Before you consider travelling in low season, though, give your expectations a reality check...
The down side
Sights, activities and tours closures
Make sure what you most want to see and do will be up and running in low season. For example, Monet's garden in France, Britain's stateliest Elizabethan home, Burghley House (www.burghley.co.uk), Turkey's Canakkale Archaeological Museum near Troy, and the only-in-America Barbed Wire Museum in Kansas are among countless attractions that close completely for part of the year.
Weather aside, closures are due to maintenance schedules (like rubbish removal on the Inca Trail each February), or simply too few visitors to warrant opening. Sights that do stay open often reduce their hours or days, so do check. Activities can be affected, like snorkelling in the northern Australia summer wet season (roughly October to March), which is also marine stinger season. And tours often cease, such as to Thailand's Similan Islands National Park from mid-May to mid-November.
Fewer accommodation, dining and entertainment options
Coastal resorts and even entire islands can turn into veritable ghost towns in low season (even if the weather's sublime), when places to stay, eat and party (virtually all of Ibiza's clubs, for example) put the shutters up. If you're looking for solitude, renting self-catering apartments may be a solution.
Reduced tourist information
Tourist offices may operate on a skeleton staff and schedule, or close for the season in smaller towns and villages. Especially where English-language information may not be available, pre-arranging your accommodation and having maps on hand can save hassles on arrival.
Informal sources of tourist information are also in shorter supply, as you'll have fewer fellow travellers around to ask for advice (solo travellers can find it isolating).
Fewer daylight hours limit the amount of sightseeing you can pack into a day. You're also more likely to find yourself travelling in complete darkness in some countries - something to be aware of on picturesque routes like the awe-inspiring ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ road, rail and boat journey (www.visitnorway.com). Splitting scenic trips up into several days will help you get the most out of the experience.
Check transport schedules before you book accommodation to make sure you can actually reach it. Many ferries stop running due to rough seas, and bus and train services are often scaled back, or cease altogether, such as Germany's Romantic Road Coach (www.romanticroadgermany.com), which doesn't run between mid-October and mid-April. Renting a car may be an alternative, depending on road conditions. Which brings us to...
The serious side of less-than-ideal weather is getting caught up in an abominable blizzard, impassable flood or a cyclone/hurricane, which could severely disrupt your trip or leave you stranded. Keep a close eye on forecasts - adjusting your plans might ultimately save time, money or even your life.
But there are fantastic benefits to low-season travel too, especially for those on a budget...
Outside peak times, you can bag huge discounts on airfares (some airlines even charge lower baggage rates, too). Accommodation prices are often slashed dramatically (this might be your chance to splurge on a five-star suite). Restaurants may have cheaper seasonal menus, car rental prices can plummet, and sights, activities and tours often offer big reductions too.
Queues are shorter or non-existent, and you won't spend your time jumping out of the way of other people's photos and waiting for them to jump out of the way of yours. There's less pressure on transport, and you can sit right down in bars and restaurants without having to wait (and wait) for a table.
Whereas during busy times the need to pre-book accommodation, transport and tours and activities days or weeks ahead locks you into a schedule, in the low season there's more room for spontaneity with the freedom to plan as you go.
When locals aren't run off their feet, you'll have more opportunities to chat to them, and experience local life yourself (including more opportunities to use the local language, even if by necessity).
Lack of high-season closures
High-season travel can still mean annual closures. For instance, many of Paris' shops and restaurants close during August, when Parisians themselves leave the sweltering city on their own holidays, and the opera and ballet go on hiatus.
Best of all, low-season weather can offer opportunities high-season visitors don't experience, such as magical central European Christmas markets, ice skating along Scandinavia's frozen coastline, witnessing the 'green season' in tropical destinations like Costa Rica (May to November), with nesting turtles and lush vegetation, as well as superlative whitewater rapids and surf, and catching the aurora australis (southern lights) from New Zealand's Stewart Island (its Maori name, Rakiura, means 'glowing skies').