January can be a great month to travel on a budget, because rates start dropping precipitously right about now and won’t go back up until spring.
Many of us just returned from vacation, or spent all our money on Christmas, so tourist destinations offer bargains to lure you in the door. The exception to this rule is ski resorts, which will be busy if there’s snow, but you can find deals even there.
Typically, airfares are at their lowest points of the year between Jan. 15 and March 15, so it’s a good time to take that trip to Europe that’s prohibitively expensive in the summer.
Yes, you have to be prepared for bad weather. But if it’s a choice between never seeing Europe at all and going in the winter, by all means, go now. Switzerland is magical covered in snow. And you can choose temperate climates like Spain or Greece, where it will still be cool, but not snowy.
The holiday crowds have also left New York, so you can get a hotel room and walk on the streets without jostling. If you’re willing to go farther afield, look for deals to Southeast Asia, where it’s always warm, even in winter. In fact, it’s better now than in the hot, steamy summer when you just might melt.
And allow me to point out that it’s summer below the equator, in South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Just check out whether it’s the rainy season, and decide what that could mean to you. Being in Peru’s Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu in the November shoulder season, just as the rains were starting, convinced me I really wouldn’t want to go in January and February when it’s pouring, because most of the things you want to do there are outdoors.
London, on the other hand, is fine. Let’s face it, it’s rainy most of the year, and there’s a tea shop on every corner to duck into during a downpour. As long as you have your raincoat, umbrella and “wellies,” you’re fine.
You should be able to save 30 to 50 percent on airfares by avoiding the summer high season, when it actually can sometimes be oppressively hot because of a lack of air conditioning.
Don’t plan on saving at the ski resorts or other popular domestic resorts on Presidents Day weekend, Feb. 13-16. Otherwise, deals can be found.
If someone in your party wants to learn to ski, take note: January is the annual Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, when many resorts offer special package deals that include lessons, rentals and more. Call the resort that interests you and see if they have an offer. More info: www.learntoskiandsnowboard.org.
How about Yellowstone in winter? Watch the last-minute airfares and fly into Salt Lake City, Utah, or Missoula or Billings, Mont., then rent a car and drive. Most of the park roads are closed, but that’s part of the adventure.
January through March is Wave Season for cruise lines, which is when the lines offer deals. Not necessarily deeply discounted deals — for the Caribbean especially, there will be more of those in summer — but moderate discounts and/or upgrades and credits.
Also watch for deals on Europe cruises in the spring and fall, when cooler temperatures bring prices down, especially in locales other than the Mediterranean. Pair the lower cruise fares with springtime airfares, and you can really save.
CLASSICAL MUSIC AND DANCE
Music lovers should take note that winter is high season for classical music in Europe, especially in cities such as Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin and Prague, with a chance to see the opera, symphonies and the ballet. Make sure you book hotels in advance for any festivals.
But don’t let any guidebook information slow you down. The first opera I ever saw was in the winter in Vienna, many years ago. I was traveling there with a friend, and our guidebook warned us not to bother to try to get tickets to the opera, because they’re sold out far in advance.
“C’mon, let’s get dressed up and just pretend like we’re going to the opera,” I told my friend.
I wanted to see the beautiful wedding-cake-like Staatsoper, the Vienna Opera House, all lit up for the night. So we put on our best dresses and got onto the subway, where we found ourselves in a packed car full of elegantly clad people also heading there.
We streamed with everyone else out onto the plaza, heading to the opera house.
“Well, what the heck,” I told my friend. “We might as well just ask if they have any tickets.”
We went to the box office, found someone who spoke English, and discovered we could buy standing-room-only tickets to see Strauss’s “Salome” that night for the equivalent of 90 cents.
Once inside the opera house, some nice women noticed our confusion and showed us where to check our coats and then walked us up to the rafters, where we stood with a crowd of other people to watch.
Afterward, we joined the crowd strolling across the plaza to the Cafe Sacher, a traditional place to go and have a Viennese coffee heaped high with whipped cream.
Later, I realized I’d had a night at the opera in Vienna for a total cost of $5.50.