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Go Against the Grain

Spring, Summer Full of Off-Peak Travel Options

When the rain started hammering their windows and seeping into their hotel room last October, Geoff and Lisa Gerhardt thought a hurricane was crashing their honeymoon.

At first they expected the storm to blow over in a few hours. It didn’t. The rain and wind intensified, penetrating the room’s door and windows. Fearing the worst, the soggy newlyweds ventured down to the front desk, half expecting emergency instructions.

The staff simply shrugged.

“It’s October in Costa Rica,” the employees said. “Nothing unusual.”

Welcome to Costa Rica’s rainy season — also known as the cheap season.

It doesn’t take a travel expert to tell you that many tourists avoid Costa Rica during the rainy season. But take it from the Gerhardts: The rain won’t make you melt, and you’ll get some great deals on hotel rooms and day trips. As the rain fell, the couple discovered, their bargaining power with street vendors and shop owners rose accordingly.

Traveling at off-peak times — or the shoulder season, as the period immediately before or after the busy season is known — provides the perfect getaway for the budget-conscious traveler. So maybe getting soaked by an afternoon downpour in Costa Rica isn’t your thing. There are plenty of other travel destinations with slow seasons. Most ski resorts are open in July. You won’t find snow on the ground, but you’ll find hot resort deals and mountains of other activities. And speaking of hot, it’s a good bet that Las Vegas will offer a deal or two in July or August. Even perennial favorites such as the Caribbean and Europe have their off-peak seasons.

“People really want the business so they’re likely to discount the airfare, discount the hotel,” says Kari Swartz, a spokeswoman for online travel site Expedia.com. “You just have to be prepared for less-than-perfect weather.”

It’s the Real Deal

Although some vacationers see poor weather as a downside, others see it as an opportunity to experience a locale without its makeup on. Yes, it rains in Costa Rica. So bring a raincoat.

“The rain doesn’t seem to bother the locals at all,” says honeymooner Geoff Gerhardt, who works at the Congressional Budget Office. “You see them riding bicycles or doing whatever they were doing regardless of the weather. As a visitor you just sort of follow suit and keep going, too.”

Many travel agents recommend Central American destinations as a more affordable alternative to Caribbean islands. Costa Rica, Honduras and Belize, for example, offer similar amenities — you’ve got the beach, the natural beauty and the adventure opportunities — with fewer tourists and lower rates.

In the wet season — May through November — hotel rooms are up to 20 percent off.

If you’re looking for a Washington connection in Costa Rica, try the La Mansion Inn, about three hours south of the capital, San Jose. The hotel is owned by Harry Bodaan, former president of the National Press Club. Check out the wall of photos featuring famous guests, from D.C. insiders to Hollywood stars.

A standard room from May to November will run you about $125 a night for two people, compared with nearly $200 in the high season and nearly $300 around Christmas and New Year’s.

The hotel runs a special for September and October: Stay four nights, pay for three.

Forget the Beach

Summer vacation. Were there ever two kinder words put together?

Ah, the freedom. The sun. The beaches.

The crowds.

Everyone in Washington knows the place to be come July and August is the beach, right? Case in point: Just hop on Route 50 toward the Bay Bridge any Friday evening and you’ll be joined by thousands of others.

Or you can try something different: Head west. Virginia and West Virginia are home to dozens of ski resorts you may have patronized in February. But they are doing more and more to be known as “four-season resorts.”

Snowshoe Mountain in Snowshoe, W.Va., attracts between 250,000 and 300,000 visitors every summer, down from the 450,000 who go for the snowy slopes in the winter. Rates at its lodges drop by about 35 percent in the summer. And the elevation usually prevents the mercury from creeping above 80 degrees.

“When it’s ungodly humid and hot in the nation’s capital, you can go to the mountains of West Virginia and experience a cool weekend of temperatures and adventure,” says resort spokesman Joe Stevens.

OK, so there’s no snow on the ground. What’s there to do? Try canoeing, mountain biking and hiking. For those looking to take in the view, the lifts are open on the weekends until July, when they operate daily through Labor Day. Then it’s back to weekends only.

At some destinations, you can take your mountain bike on the lift or enjoy the growing popularity of alpine sliding. At Bryce Resort, just two hours from the Beltway in the Shenandoah Valley, you can try mountain boarding and grass skiing, complete with lessons.

Looking for adventure a little farther from home? At least 300 of the National Ski Areas Association’s 380 members offer some summer activities.

“It’s definitely something that’s been growing over the last five or 10 years,” says spokeswoman Laura Menozzi.

As you plan your itinerary, check with the resort to determine its off-peak lift schedule, the association advises. Many ski resorts dedicate part of their Web sites to summer activities. And Expedia.com features a skiing section year-round.

When to Go

Even the world’s most popular tourist destinations have slow — well, at least slower — seasons.

• Caribbean. Summer used to be a good time to get Caribbean cruise deals, but that craze has boosted summer fares.

“They’re not as low as they used to be,” says Susie Kofler, manager of Jet Travel on the Hill. “Families are taking their children down there when they’re not in school.”

So travel agents say April and May are the best times to snag discounted fares for cruises and island getaways. Another low season arrives in the fall and lasts through Dec. 15, though don’t count on low rates during Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s. Off-peak cruise fares are up to several hundred dollars less than during the busy season.

The good thing about the Caribbean, says Stuart Carroll of Carroll Travel on Massachusetts Avenue Northeast, is you’re not exactly going to get bad weather in the low or shoulder seasons.

“The weather’s going to be pretty much the same in early December,” he says, though packages can be up to half off.

• Europe. It’s no secret that summer in Europe is akin to Washington during cherry blossom season. Everywhere you go, you’ll find yourself with a few thousand fellow travelers.

Shoulder season is probably your best bet when traveling to Europe, thanks to the combination of fewer crowds and weather that’s improving in the spring and hasn’t deteriorated yet in the fall. Airfares don’t go up until June and come down as early as September and October.

But for even bigger airfare and hotel savings, plan your trip in January or February. Just don’t forget your coat and umbrella.

• Las Vegas. July and August can be the cheapest months to go to Sin City, experts say. Why? Two words: the desert.

“It’s brutal,” says Carroll, the Hill travel agent.

But casinos are air conditioned, and besides, it’s a dry heat, isn’t it?

Another tip when doing Vegas: Travel midweek. Hotel rates on the Strip climb a couple hundred dollars on the weekend.

Low Season, Low Maintenance

Traveling during low or shoulder season — or the rainy season, as in the case of the Gerhardts’ honeymoon to Costa Rica — requires adjusting to changing conditions and, if you’re really looking to save, being open to a little uncertainty.

The Gerhardts found that fewer tourists meant they could drive to a town without a hotel reservation and land a better deal than if they had booked in advance. Travel experts say you can do the same thing in Europe in the winter, especially in small tourist villages.

And the Gerhardts also adjusted their vacation routine to fit the climate. The weather was nice during the mornings and early afternoons, so they got up early and hit the beaches. When the rains came about 3 p.m., they took cover, enjoying a drink and relaxing before dinner.

Most importantly, they say, don’t let the weather keep you from enjoying the experience. After touring a rainforest canopy one morning, the Gerhardts decided to slide down a series of zip lines in the afternoon.

“While on the zip lines it started raining,” Gerhardt said, “so we just broke out the ponchos and kept going.”

Now that’s what you call going with the flow.

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