The Highs and Lows of Low-Season Travel

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Alhambra in the rain low-seasonTravelling in high-season can be a bitch. I should know, I foolishly planted myself in Italy for the entire month of July last year and endless queues and searches for beds ensued. Prices were high, street space was low. There. Were. People. Everywhere.

So, it seemed logical (in my tiny mind) to test the converse and travel to Europe in low-season and see what this less popular tourist-time of year might hold. Still in the grasps of winter, Christmas a long-forgotten dream, I flew into Malaga airport on the 1st of February. This part of Spain is known to many Brits as the gateway to the Costa del Sol with its seemingly endless coastline and promise of an annual slice of sun, sea, sand and sangria. Meanwhile, further inland, the broader Andalucian region, with its year-round Mediterranean climate, held the possibility of a much needed respite from the unacceptably cold temperatures of England.

I was excited for my month-long stay in Spain. A wink of sunshine, low tourist levels and an absence of crowds at the sights. It was going to be perfect…except I hadn’t quite considered that there might also be some lows to travelling in low-season.

This week I spent an afternoon traipsing through the sodden grounds of the Alhambra in a relentless stream of drizzle that eventually soaked me to the bone. As I ducked and dove between the limited areas under cover, forever shoving my camera into an increasingly slimy, wet plastic bag, I recalled with sudden clarity that I’d made this low-season travel mistake before. More than once, but most memorably by visiting the Taj Mahal during monsoon.

It should have been a memory that lingered at the front of my mind during the trip planning stage of every subsequent adventure, but the positive buttons in our brains don’t seem to work that way. So, for the benefit of those about to dash out and bag a low-season ticket (and for the benefit of my future trip-planning self), here’s a run down of the highs and lows of low-season travel.

The highs of low-season travel

Crowds at the airport - not low season
This was the sight at the airport when I flew to Pisa in summer

The upside of travelling out of season are pretty obvious to most tourists, but let’s quickly list them:

  • the less popular travel season means fewer people and less crowds so you can have that plaza, beach and restaurant practically to yourself
  • shorter queues for the big attractions (I was inside the Alhambra in under 10 minutes
  • more hotel availability
  • low-season discounts on beds, food and more
  • a real chance of getting tickets/reservations that might otherwise prove impossible (theatre tickets and Michelin star restaurants come to mind)

The lows of low-season travel

Sounds like a sweet deal, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s enough to make you wonder why we don’t all travel low-season, all the time?

Here are a few reasons why…

The lack of crowds

Empty streets Seville - low-season
Walk-way by the river in Sevilla – desolate.

Yeah, I know I spent the whole of last summer complaining about the cruise-crowds that filled every corner of every Piazza in Italy, and perhaps the biggest upside of low-season travel is the lack of crowds. However, there is also something to be said for having some company.

Even if you’re travelling with friends or a partner, empty hotel lobbies, dormant dorm rooms and tumble-weed whistling over ancient cobbled streets can leave you with the feeling that you’ve walked onto the set of the Shining (Steven King reference in case you’re not sure).

Travel in low-season may have evaporated the masses and I may have been able to grab a next-day ticket for the Alhambra (a practise close to witchcraft is required to do that in Summer), but there is something rather solitary, desolate and little bit desperate about wandering around historic centres or beach towns when nobody else is about. Spain’s cities have been better, offering a more constant buzz, but when I turned up in Cadiz, I was the first guest of the season at my accommodation and the manager opened the door with a tin of paint in his hand.

The weather

Sevilla storm low-season
Storm rolling in over Seville.

Mediterranean climate, my ass! I’ve honestly seen as many grey days in Andalucia as I would expect to see in England this time of year. I accept that the temperature is a couple of degrees higher, but I’m also a couple of layers shorter, having traded my winter coat for a windbreaker and my thick thermals for lightweight jumpers. I’d been mis-sold on the weather and the constant reassurance that “it’s really unseasonably cold” has done nothing to change my mind from thinking I’ve been duped.

Low-season in most destinations is commonly defined by that period when the worst weather is prevalent. Sure, it may still be warm in the Maldives in May but days of rain are going to but a dampener on your sun-lounging trip. Likewise, that bargain deal to Bulgaria’s slopes just beyond the end of the ski-season is unlikely to pan out too well either.

Closed or reduced hours at attractions

My out of season trip to Mount Fuji last year was a good taster of what can happen when you turn up at the right place at the wrong time of year. And things seem to be worse in Europe. With a lack of crowds and lousy weather, beach areas all but shut down for the season, major attractions are subject to limited opening hours (which I’m personally finding a bit of a drag as a late riser) and, as frustrating, low-season is also a popular period for essential maintenance and renovations.

Closed restaurants

Restaurant businesses aren’t immune either. With a reduced level of tourist income in locations that thrive off visitor spending, there is hardly a strong motivator for restaurants to keep their doors open seven days a week. I’ve encountered almost as many closed restaurants as I have open ones during my time in Spain…ok, that’s definitely an exaggeration but there were slim pickings in some of the smaller towns I have visited and a handful of places I’d researched and wanted to try were firmly closed when I turned up (leading to an angry appetite more than once).

Food quality

Food Tarifa low-season
Yes I was served this in Tarifa, and yes I tried it

Arguably the biggest risk (for your taste buds) when a restaurant isn’t gaining coach-loads of customers is that owners might be more inclined to turn to less than fresh foods. My tagine the other night comprised frozen vegetables (sliced carrots and peas…please?!), I’ve suffered through sad dishes that would have been much better were they not cooked in last season’s oil, and I’ve been delivered more than one dish fresh from the microwave. Sure, this can happen year-round, but I’ve noticed a significant reduction in the number of enticing kitchen smells (an indication of fresh cooked food) while I’ve been wandering the streets of Spain during low-season.

Empty or closed hotels

The hotel situation in low-season really is a double-edged sword. There was more staff at my hotel in Ronda than guests and with many hotels shutting-up shop for the season, choice can become limited. Of course, all of these arguments lose their significance the second you manage to score a four-star hotel for under $50 a night. I can learn to live with lonely at that price…but never for too long.

Random public transport schedules

I waited for what felt like a short decade in Tarifa’s wind-surfing gales for the bus to take me to Gibraltar. After two scheduled buses failed to show, I gave up. During the same time, two unscheduled buses to an unscheduled destination passed me by.

In short, public transport can be somewhat sporadic and rather random during low-season and I wouldn’t even approach the word reliable, particularly in smaller towns. Getting around in low-season can feel like an exercise in testing your patience – you have to accept that it will happen when it happens…as well as the possibility that it won’t happen at all.

Sub-prime sight-seeing conditions

Queue at the Alhambra low-season
Not only were there still queues low-season, they were in the rain

I know exactly the number of greyed out, dull photographs I have on my camera from this low-season trip: precisely all of them except for the dozen I took the other day in Sevilla when the sun graced me with it’s presence for the afternoon. I couldn’t (read: wouldn’t) walk into Tajo Gorge because of the rain and during my one night in Cadiz, the wind broke my umbrella within seconds of me stepping out of the door. Needless to say, the rain soaked me through in the same time.

In towns where the main sights are outside (beautiful plazas and gnarled streets are the real charm in many European cities), poor weather can be a real bummer. As I mentioned, I visited the Taj Mahal in low (monsoon) season. The rain wasn’t such a chore because of the heat, but instead of the gleaming white building most people capture on their cameras, my lone picture is a mass of dull white – the Taj, the sky and my even my face blend into blankness. All that way for such an anti-climax.

How to make the most out of low-season travel

The Taj Mahal low season
Can you just about see the sad white building against the sad grey sky…and my (nearly) sad white face

So, there definitely are some downsides to low-season travel but it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a cost-friendly jaunt to a place during a sub-prime time of year.

Here are a few ways to make the most out of any low-season trip.

Opt for a city break if a lack of people (and the corresponding atmosphere they create) might bother you

Be discerning with your destination – warm-weather spots like Thailand and Mexico are still usually busy even in low-season because it coincides with European and North American summer vacation time

Decide how vital the weather is for your trip. If you’re going on a beach break, don’t just look at temperature, look at rainfall and monsoon or hurricane risk

Pack right – as my uncle says “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing” – check the weather and pack accordingly (like I wish I’d done!)

Do your research – make a list of what you want to see, places you want to eat and areas you want to visit and make sure they will be open while you’re there

Eat local – stick to restaurants where the locals hang out and use your nose to sniff out good meals

Consider hostels if you’re travelling solo – a hostel is going to be a better bet for meeting people (many have private rooms if you’re not into communal sleeping)

Use trains instead of buses – train schedules are usually more reliable than buses. Just plan your trip because hours can pass between buses and trains.

Consider car hire – if you have the budget, some good deal can be had on car rental in low-season.

Stay flexible – I planned to spend a few days in Cadiz but the weather wasn’t with me. As I’d only booked one night, I moved on to Sevilla the next day, which has much more to do in the rain.

Ultimately, whether to travel in low-season is a case of trade-offs. You may well get wonderfully low prices on hotels and less crowds but being somewhere out of season is not without its downsides. Of course, the real trip is travelling in the shoulder-seasons – the month or two that abuts the high season, but that’s another topic entirely.

I’m enjoying my time in Spain, but on balance, I’d take a scorching summer sun with a tourist’s elbow in my gelato any travel day.

Have you ever travelled in low-season? Are you a fan or have you have any travel disasters or disappointments as a result’s.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Avatar for Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.

13 thoughts on “The Highs and Lows of Low-Season Travel”

  1. Some of my low season trips were great: less crowds, lower prices at hotels, also on flights… but: on some trips, the weather ruined much of my trip and wished I had traveled during the high season!

    • escapehunter – it’s the weather that was the main downer on low-season travel for me, too. I can cope with grey skies (though it’s not ideal for photos) but incessant rain can really alter your enjoyment of a place.

  2. Great tips. We travel a lot in the off-season because of cost and a low tolerance for crowds. But after seeing snow and TONS of rain in Ireland in March and being similarly soaked in Italy the following March, we’ve started to consider out choices a bit more 🙂 And, yes, closed attractions has to be the worst downside to off-season travel.

    • Hi Laura, it’s a tough call isn’t it? I’m also not a fan of the crowds, lack of beds and inflated prices but last summer was my first time in Italy in summer (been there low season many times) and there was something almost euphoric about it. Everyone was so excited to be seeing the sights in the sunshine, sipping wine and chomping on gelato. I guess the shoulder season is the real trick.

  3. Very helpful tips, Jo! I think low-season travel could be great, depending on where you are going. In Northern Tanzania, some accommodation prices in April and May are 1/2 what they are in peak season (July to October). Considering how much safari lodges cost (i.e. averaging US$500-1000 a night), it is a huge saving! Yes, it is true that it rains sometimes, but it never rains all day long. Without tens of other safari cars next to you, it’s an amazing experience to be alone in the wilderness with animals. And interestingly enough, we find that altitude sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro does not affect trekkers as much when it rains (just our observation). We guess it could be the increased oxygen level in the air? Like you say, “pack right, do your research, stay flexible…” low-season travel definitely has some high points!

  4. Nice write-up! I stayed in Montreal for 2 months in the summer and that was lovely. Fireworks practically every week, about 2 festivals happening at any one time, free concerts, perfect tshirt-and-shorts weather… But I’d hate to be there now, when it’s often -30C outside. I’d probably stay huddled near the heater at the hotel the whole time!

  5. Hola Jo! I’m finally reading your (great) website (and of course I’ll read about Napoli too).
    I liked your post and I totally agree with these 2 points:
    -Eat local, this a milestone for every true traveller, even more, avoid turistic area, because if it’s true that paella is from Valencia and lasagna is from Bologna, it’s highly rare to eat a proper paella and lasagna in a restaurant in the centre of these cities
    -Consider hostels if you’re travelling solo: always! Not only for the convenient prices, hostel staff is usually happy to help out with good info and can be a good company in case there aren’t many other guests around (Granada ‘docet’)

    However a part for the weather conditions (but then what if you get even an only one day of rain in summer, wouldnt you be more upset? 🙂 ), I would always go for the low seasons.
    It’s true that less people are travelling but that’s a good reason to meet locals (and I guess cities are full of them, aren’t they?) while during high season you mostly meet tourists.
    Plus in low season it’s higher the chance to meet true travellers, to hear stories and experiences from them is 100 times better than the usual and occasional tourist ones.
    Regarding the public transportation, for my personal experience, in almost all european cities the schedules are reduced in high season and not viceversa. This is a service for locals and in low season people are expected to work and study, they use the transportation more.
    You are correct about the connections to touristic places out of town, often these services run only during high season. In that case why not using blablacar portal? 🙂

    • Thanks, glad you liked the article. I completely agree about your “local food” point. I ate some excellent bolognese in Bologna and ribolita in Florence but some terrible paella in parts of Spain (because I didn’t make it to Valencia ). I think the subject can get complicated in places like Granada – the city is so small and with up to 6,000 people visiting the Alhambra each day, the effect is that the entire town creeps closer to touristy menus, so you have to work that bit harder to find good food, though it is possible. I agree that low season is grey for meeting locals but I’ve long dismissed this distinction that many longer-term travellers make between “tourists” and “travellers” or “true-travellers”. At the end of the day, we are all visiting a location that is not our home. Perhaps those who visit new locations more frequently (longer-term travellers, for example) might engage more locally and do more than just the destination highlights, but I know many people who would fall into the “tourist” category as defined by many “travellers” and actually do a better job than many of the people I’ve met backpacking Thailand at the whole travelling thing 🙂 Interesting point on the bus schedules in high season. I found them more reliable but then I confess I’m comparing different countries. Blabla car is great but personally the travel part is something I like to do alone and in silence – a chance to gather my thoughts and prepare for my next destination.

  6. Very good post! I hate crowds and tend to travel in low season but I really get annoyed when the attractions are closed during this time.


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