Off-season Traveling: The Pros and Cons

Most trips and vacations take place during the summer. Students are on break and working people have time off, so this is to be expected. When I finished Peace Corps in August, I started my fourth-month trip home, labeled on this blog as “The Great Escape” because of an off-hand joke about leaving Peace Corps by a fellow PCV. I arrived in the US in December, meaning the majority of this trip took place during the fall. Now that I’ve traveled in a few different seasons, I thought it’d be interesting to make a list of the pros and cons of “off-season traveling.” This time period could be taken as “winter” or “not-summer,” and for this post I will generally just be assuming the latter.

The benefits and drawbacks will clearly vary depending upon your location in the world and personal interests and traveling style, but these should be relevant to many Western travelers.

Let’s start with the CONS:

1. Weather – This seems obvious. Sunny weather is better for walking around cities and the countryside. Rain means less walking, less seeing, and if you are camping, more time inside the tent. Possible wetness. Misery likely.

Fog and clouds didn't stop us from hiking in Kazbegi, Georgia, but we couldn't see much of this beautiful area.

Fog and clouds didn’t stop us from hiking in Kazbegi, Georgia, but we couldn’t see much of this beautiful area.

2. Shorter Days – Like weather, the shorter days mean you will likely spend more time indoors. When it’s dark at 4pm, at 8pm it seems like time for bed. You feel old and boring. If you are camping and can’t build a fire, you get in your tent well before dinner and have 14+ hours to kill.

3. Closed! – Museums and other tourist attractions are more likely to be closed, or at least have a more limited schedule, during the off-season. 

4. Heavier packing – Jackets, heavier shoes/boots, other items to keep you warm. It’s extra weight. I hate weight. 

5. Fewer people to meet – This could be a pro (as you’ll see below), depending on the place and your mood. If I was staying at a hostel, I hoped to meet other cool travelers. There were times I was the only person in my hostel (when I wasn’t couchsurfing). It can be lonely.

And now for the PROS:

1. Fewer tourists – In virtually every aspect besides being occasionally lonely at a hostel, the fewer tourists, the better. If you stay at a hostel, you never have to book ahead, giving you more flexibility with your schedule to do spontaneous things. There are shorter lines to get into museums and other tourist attractions. The likelihood of running into obnoxiously drunk Westerners who have come just to party is smaller.

2. Fewer tourists (more travelers) –  There are less people, of course, but the ones you meet are the kind who are probably doing something a little different with their life. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have free time to travel much outside of summer. I met a couple biking from Spain to Vietnam. A few people had quit their desk-jobs to see the world. A guy who was had riding his scooter from England to Mongolia and back. A guy who had lost everything in the economic downturn, found a decent job for a year, and said, “F*** it, if I don’t travel now, when will I?”

3. Cheaper prices – At many places, there are off-season prices. This was particularly true of accommodation. Hiking up to the castle in the Bay of Kotor was free.

Biogradska Gora National Park, Montenegro

Biogradska Gora National Park, Montenegro

4. Changing colors – If you are lucky enough to be in the former Yugoslavia during the fall, you’re in for a treat. The leaves are beautiful. I saw some particularly beautiful colors in Bosnia (Visegrad), Montenegro, and Kosovo (Peja and Prizren).

5. Less sweat – It’s colder and you’ll probably walk less. Less sweating means less laundry, less smelling, and fewer showers. Might seem strange, but it certainly made a difference to me.

6. Snow – It’s pretty, and if you like it and have the budget, you can ski or snowboard.

7. CHRISTMAS MARKETS! – In addition to the first pro, this is probably one of the best reasons to travel in December. They aren’t in every country, but I visited them in Italy, Slovenia, Austria, and Germany, and they got better each time. Lots of good food, pretty lights, music, and most importantly, mulled wine. In Slovenia, there was even a massive anti-government protest that rolled through the Christmas market in Ljubljana.

Christmas market in Graz, Austria

Christmas market in Graz, Austria

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Post-trip post

The last month of “The Great Escape” (mid-November to mid-December) hasn’t made it on my blog yet. Not sure if any of it will. I zipped through Croatia, made a slight detour into Bosnia/Hercegovina (my second), before heading up through Slovenia, eastern Italy, Austria, and finally Germany. Much of December can be summed up in two words: Christmas markets. They were really the highlight of this part of Europe. When snow and the cold weather get you down, nothin’ like a hot mug of mulled wine and beautiful Christmas lights hung above the various food and beverage booths to cheer you up.

All of these pictures, as I’ve said before, were taken with my 2mp camera on my iPod touch. Though I’ve now upgraded, I’m glad to have been able to take all these pictures with such a small device. Another post will be dedicated to some thoughts on what I’ve learned about packing on this trip.

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Christmas market in Graz, Austria

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A blazing drink in Munich

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A Christmas market in Munich’s main square

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Munich in B&W

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The walk home

Albania

Tirana, the capital of Albania, is currently experiencing some inclement weather. Because of this, and the fact that it is dark after 4 pm, I am staying inside my hostel and not exploring the city. But the weather looks like it will be opening up tomorrow.

I spent the last two days in a city known as Elbasan, a mid-sized city with not a lot to offer when it comes to standard tourist attractions, but much if you want to see how normal Albanians live. It was my first stop in Albania, and I’m glad I chose it. A few Peace Corps volunteers are living there, and I was able to couchsurf with one. I’ve been in the “Balkans” for a few weeks now, but I just recently realized that while this word can often be interchanged with “the former Yugoslavia,” this is not always the case. The “Balkans” refers to the mountain range and, as some Croatians and Serbs told me, a certain mentality. But while Slovenia what part of Yugoslavia, it is not considered to be a Balkan state. Albania is the opposite. Though it is a Balkan state, it turns out it was actually an independent (and fairly isolated) communist dictatorship up until the early nineties.

Albania has a noticeably different feel than the former Yugoslavia (which is why my first impression of it was good – “Something new!”), and it took just a quick Google search to find out why. Its people and language are not slavic and, like the now de facto independent state of Kosovo, its inhabitants are mostly Muslim (as are Bosniaks, who make up 48% of Bosnia/Herzegovnia), though in practice very secular like most former communist states. It is also poorer than the rest of the Balkans. The food seems to be quite similar because of the Ottoman influence (example: burek). They also drink a similar homemade alcohol called raki (rakija in the slavic version). I still know very little about the country, but am slowly getting a feel for it and hope to learn more in the next few days. Unfortunately, that is all the time I am able to spend here.

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