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The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel

We’re just back from France, where we had a wonderful just-under-a-month trip, soaking up all the benefits of off-peak travel (along with our body weight in pastry, cheese and wine). How we chose our destination was even in the New York Times yesterday. And I wrote about it here.

If you want the full rundown on our eventful trip (nationwide protests! World War I centenary with world leaders! So many incredible sights in Provence!), make sure you’re signed up for the e-newsletter before it goes out this weekend.

We’d do the trip again in a heartbeat (I may have teared up a bit while getting on the plane back, because I was not ready to leave), but being mostly in November, it was the very epitome of off-peak travel, and with that come some important downsides worth noting.

Reminder to New Yorkers! Join me tonight at 7 PM at Reichenbach Hall at 5 W 37th St., between 5th and 6th Aves. We’ll have a big table, so look for the person who looks like my pics in this post. ;-)

The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel // Our Next Life, early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, retire early, work optional

We love traveling off-peak. It’s how we got plentiful powder in Japan all to ourselves (we went in late February instead of “Japanuary”), saw very few other white people in Taiwan once we got outside Taipei (in January), and on this trip, it’s how we got pics like this in Nice:

Beach in Nice, France // The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel // Our Next Life, early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, retire early, work optional

That would be the most famous beach in all of France, virtually empty.

Sure, it wasn’t exactly beach weather, but we’re not really sunbathers anyway. (:::cough::: 55 degree house :::cough:::) For us, it was perfect, and infinitely better than sharing it with the peak season crowds.

And though Physician on FIRE would disagree with our decision not to pay to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, we enjoyed actually looking at the tower without all the summer crowds.

Eiffel Tower // The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel // Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, FIRE movement, retire early, work optional

But in exchange for the smaller crowds, we endured two major downsides, three if you count the political climate.

Related post: Don’t Just Travel Off-Peak, Be Opportunistic on Location

Off-Peak Weather Is Generally Worse

No point in sugar-coating this: it rained a bit on our trip. Not every day, and not enough to be intrusive (with one notable exception), but it certainly affected the beauty of some key places.

Here are the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, a usually verdant and relaxing path. But our experience was more one of dodging puddles than of marveling at the greenery.

Puddle-Riddled Tuileries Gardens // The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel // Our Next Life, early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, retire early, work optional

And the day we went to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the World War I armistice with leaders from all over the world, we had to stand in the chilly rain to do so. (Mark took the rain as an invitation to jump off everything and do heel clicks. Because that’s what being retired means, apparently.)

The notable moment when the weather really did affect us was when driving from Aix-en-Provence to St. Tropez during a flooding event. We had to try multiple windy roads in before we could finally get into the city, defying the Gendarmerie’s “recommendation” not to head into the area. (It was all fine. But there was a lot of backtracking when we came upon places where cars were submerged up to their door handles. No joke.)


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Learn to Say “Closed” in the Local Language

in France, there’s a great tradition of some restaurants closing for the whole month of November. And in more resort-oriented towns, lots and lots of stuff closes during the winter. So we got used to seeing signs like this one:

The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel // Our Next Life // early retirement, financial independence, FIRE movement, retire early, work optional

We also saw our share of papered-up windows for the season, signs of breaks and — most heartbreakingly — closed macaron shops.

And then there were the places that we wished were closed: the multitudes of stores that have adopted the American “Black Friday” sale tradition (which is say, nearly all of them). Not that we’re opposed to sales, but it’s disheartening to see our most rampant consumerist habits spread across the globe.

We knew things would be closed while we were there, so it didn’t seriously spoil any plans. We confirmed ahead of time that the things we really wanted to do would be open (except for that little museum above in St. Tropez. That was a bummer.). But don’t assume that everything will be open every time of year in every place.

The Political Climate Could Impact Your Trip, Too

As visitors in a place, we merely dip a toe in the experience of living there. We’re generally insulated from the concerns of locals, and may or may not ever get a sense of what people are concerned about. Well that was not true for us on this trip. You may have heard about recent riots in Paris over a fuel tax hike. Unfortunately, it was not a one-time thing. That riot sprung out of a massive, countrywide grassroots protest by a group calling themselves the “yellow vests” (every driver in France is required to carry a yellow safety vest in the car) that’s still ongoing, and we felt it big time throughout our travels.

Gilets-Jaunes-Tollbooth

There were the interstate highway tollbooth takeovers that choked traffic down to a single lane. There were the traffic slowdowns on even the smallest country roads. And there were the total road blockages that forced us to take massive detour after massive detour, and that delayed deliveries, leading to signs like this all over the country. (It says that, because of the protests, they are low on inventory on many items, which was absolutely true.)

One day our two-hour drive took us six hours, and forced us into some fairly frightening twisty roads. Another day, we had to take four detours to get to our destination. We learned to say “Why are you punishing your fellow citizens?!” in French, and used it often when forced to talk to the protesters at road blocks, which was often.

Obviously traveling off-peak doesn’t mean you’re going to run into something like this — we just happened to be in France during its worst ever peacetime unrest — but the protests were apparently timed not to disrupt too much tourism. So if you’re in a place when it’s not tourist season, you may find folks holding back a whole lot less than they would when more outside eyes are on them.


Are we complaining? Absolutely not. Traveling when there were cooler temps and a few clouds in the sky is how we got to see the iconic landmark the Pont du Gard with zero other people around, along with tons of other sights that I’ll share in the newsletter.

Pont du Gard, France // The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel // Our Next Life, early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, retire early, work optional

And how we saw the unbelievable Gorges of the Ardeche with no crowds (on a weekend!), enjoying one of our most memorable sunsets.

The Downsides of Off-Peak Travel // Our Next Life, early retirement, financial independence, FIRE, retire early, work optional

Not the actual view into the gorge. Just Mark looking it. ;-)

Not to mention that going off-peak made it possible to cram a third international trip into this year’s budget, and a fairly long trip in an expensive country like France at that. (Hello, $5 tiny coffee everywhere.)

So we remain huge fans of off-peak travel. But like all things in life, I believe it’s important to know the full picture — the good and the bad — before you get yourself into something.

What Do You Think?

Are you a fan of off-peak travel despite the downsides? Any epic downside stories you can share, of things that wouldn’t have happened if you’d traveled with the crowds?

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29 replies »

  1. Certain places lend themselves better to offpeak travel, especially if you’re interested in architecture, monuments, parks, etc. that don’t really close. I’m with PoF on the Eiffel Tower, though. The view was absolutely amazing, and I still remember looking out over the entire city.

  2. We typically travel in May, October and November for exactly the benefits you documented. Also, nothing better as a working person than taking the week of Labor Day off the extend summer one more week as everyone else seems to be herding kids back to school and not on vacations. Although, some coworkers tend to hate on DINK life as they do FIRE life ;)

  3. We love traveling off-season or in the “shoulder seasons” between the off-season and peak. Before FinCon this year, we hit up Disney World during one of the slowest weeks of the year (mid-September just after the start of school). We went to both waterparks all four major parks, and we never waited more than 30 minutes in a line. 5 to 10 minutes was normal.

    About 18 months earlier we traveled as a family to Paris in March. It was a great shoulder season trip (https://www.physicianonfire.com/paris/), and yes, we did go to the top of the Eiffel Tower — a top highlight of the trip, which is saying a lot given that we also took our boys (then 7 & 9) to Disneyland Paris.

    If heights and crowds are not your thing, I’ve got no qualms with anyone skipping it. My objection was to the way the NYT article made it sound like the Frugalwoods got all the way to the Tower but didn’t enjoy the views from the iconic structure because “they balked at paying 25 euros (about $28) each to ride the elevator up.” As if the only thing standing between them and the 360-degree views of the city was $56, but a picnic near the bottom was a sufficient substitute that they could afford.

    To me, ending the article that way seems like a cheap shot that makes the FIRE community seem, well… cheap.

    à votre santé
    -PoF

  4. Hey Dave where have you gone in March for Europe? Trying to make a push to travel to Italy in March with the wife, been there during that time?

    • We’ve done Verona and Lago di Garda in March and Rome and Puglia region in February. Rome is hopping all the time – it’s Rome. Puglia is a lovely summer tourist region so a lot was shut down in February. But that just made what was open all the more awesome. We were the only people in the only open restaurant in a village on the Adriatic. Conducted the entire menu and ordering thru google translate. Midway thru the meal, someone ran down to the shore and picked up a bag of sardines from a fisherman. Came back and in charades showed us the fresh fish, asking if we wanted some. We nodded yes and that’s how we ended up gnoshing on whole sardines dipped in batter and grilled – had probably been swimming in the sea an hour ago. Awesome fun.

    • We went to Italy and Greece in late March and had a wonderful time. Slightly chilly but we’re cold weather people and didn’t mind. No crowds, most things were open, and we were there about a week before Easter so there was a lot going on. Highly recommend Florence. We didn’t spend nearly enough time there but it was amazing and the bullet train ride from Rome was fun. I would go back in an instant.

  5. Love the pictures! I spent last winter in the UK, and I tried to travel every weekend. The recommendations of friends always went like this, “Oh! You should go to ______. But not now, wait til the summer.” Well, I didn’t have the summer! So I went to Bruges, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Sweden in Nov-Dec and though it was cold, beating the crowds was a huge perk. Besides, you get to see stuff like Christmas markets!

  6. Ha! I knew it! Early retirement isn’t all sunshine and rainbows now is it???? :)

    I’ll take a few inconveniences to avoid massive crowds and waits, I suspect total wait time was down even if you factor in all the other random waiting and odd choke points. Stinks that so many stores are closed for holiday though…

  7. Wonderful post! I just got back from Rome. Off peak 👍🏻: got to use my last (probably ever 🙁) global upgrade; most attractions all to myself; no line for gelato; easy dinner reservations; pleasantly cool weather; big savings on lodging. Off peak 👎🏻: Palatine / Colosseum tour rain out – my own fault for booking ahead in rainy season.

  8. I think there is a big difference between traveling shoulder season and traveling when no one is around. Why would being on an empty beach be fun? Sounds like a Twilight Zone episode. My mother once boasted that she traveled in Venice and saw no people. After that my husband and I would refer to her trips as neutron bomb trips – the buildings are still there but no life. Venice is of course easy to travel in – stay away from where the cruise ships come in and live in the neighborhoods. We saw the old men in the parks playing cards and the women walking arm in arm, the laundry hung up between buildings. God I love Venice but I also love the people of Venice. Just one example.

    • Uh, the people who live there will be around, you know, because they live there. The cultural stuff usually goes on in the off season – opera, theatre, dance, all start their seasons in October in Europe. Personally, I love an empty beach because I’m there for the scenery. Massive tourist crowds block the scenery.

      You imply you believe that there are literally no people and “no life” in these huge cities just because there aren’t thousands of other tourists, but then your “one example” is about the locals. If you love the people of Venice (or anywhere), you’ll have a better chance to connect with them when there are fewer other tourists around.

  9. Absolutely agree with downsides #1&2, but like you two, the upsides well outweigh them. Then again, this is coming from a family who will happily go camping in the PNW in January because it means places are totally EMPTY and awesome. And we spent our honeymoon in a cabin in the woods along a river and it downpoured the whole time. My husband doesn’t handle crowds well either, so emptish places are great. And places being closed means we spend less money on the trip 😉

  10. “Obviously traveling off-peak doesn’t mean you’re going to run into something like this — we just happened to be in France during its worst ever peacetime unrest — but the protests were apparently timed not to disrupt too much tourism. So if you’re in a place when it’s not tourist season, you may find folks holding back a whole lot less than they would when more outside eyes are on them.”

    I love France but do not believe for one moment they keep their (frequent) unrest away from the tourists or tourist season. Have personally experienced flights cancelled due to French air traffic control strikes and blockades around Calais in summer holidays. Sure the current unrest is being called “worst ever” – isn’t it always? But unrest is the unofficial French national pastime and I do vaguely remember reading about the french revolution and I suspect that was a bit worse than the current unrest!

  11. Most of my trips abroad have been in the off season. I’m a huge fan of discounted flights and the off season is when I’ve gotten my best deals (like a round-trip from Mississippi to New Zealand for $450! Score!!) Also, there are fewer crowds and hotels tend to be less expensive. I think you can always have fun no matter the season. You just have to adjust your expectations a bit :)

  12. As soon as I read your title I thought, ‘oh no, everywhere /so many places close in winter in touristy parts of France!!’. I’ve had some experience of super off-peak travel – I spent a week in Mallorca in December years ago, with free accommodation. It was pouring with rain all week and most of the restaurants were closed! that was a learning experience.

    I’m in the UK, so I’ve been seeing the ‘maillots jaunes’ protests on the news, but gosh, you guys got really caught up in it! Glad to hear you mostly kept your good humour throughout (I would’ve been very cross at a 2-hr drive turning into 6…).

    Look forward to the newsletter ;-) and loving the Pond du Gard!

  13. We LOVE off peak travel! Mainly because crowds make me stabby.

    September/October or April/May tend to be our sweet spots for Europe and we’ve been fortunate to have pretty good weather! We did hit London in February one year (cool and rainy but that’s England) and we did Ireland in mid-June this year (randomly fabulous weather and not too busy). It’s all about making sure that your must do’s are open when you plan to go. Everything else can be worked around.

    I would love to get over to Europe for the famous Christmas markets one year. Did you get to any?

  14. Off peak traveling is something I really need to do more of! Despite the negatives, I think the ability to have a cheaper trip (and this take more of them and see more places) is a huge positive and outweighs the potential negatives!

    You bring up some great points to take into consideration though. It perhaps isn’t as glamorous as going during peak months, but the ability to avoid crowds is reason enough to go offseason!

  15. I’m a teacher, so my travel is limited to school holidays. However, in Australia we have Long Service Leave, where you get fully paid holidays if you work for the same company longer than 7 years. I saved mine up and 3 years ago I went to the UK and Europe for 9 weeks fully paid.
    I went during my winter (July/Aug) and their summer. Yes, there were crowds. But I was warm (most of the time.) England still has an insane amount of rain even in the middle of summer.
    However, when I retire?? I’m FOR SURE going off-peak. My summer-time trip cost me 30K. (Don’t regret a cent… though I’m not anxious to spend that much ever again. Trip of a lifetime.)
    By the way, I loved your Nice beach pic. I couldn’t believe all the pebbles!! How is that a premier beach? Imagine spreading a towel there and trying to lie down. Youch! I brought one pebble home as a souvenir and to remind myself about how lucky we have it here in OZ.
    I went to the second level of the Eiffel tower- saw Montmartre – then later that day stood at Montmartre and saw the Eiffel Tower. I loved the synchronicity. I think it’s all about balancing what’s on offer and what’s important to you.
    I don’t know about you, but I’d go back again in a heartbeat. In fact, that’s why I’m still at work. I could probably pull the pin now, but Europe calls.

  16. Long time lurker, first time commenter. Absolutely love your blog, and as a French person who lives in the US but was just there visiting family, I also got caught in the “gilets jaunes” blockades. Mega kudos to you for pointing out how it’s mainly other citizens who are impacted even though they don’t decide laws… In France there’s a strong belief in “solidarite” which means everyone has to suck it up when they’re inconvenienced by others’ riots, but many folks in the country are unsympathetic – especially those who aren’t retired and don’t have much flexibility in their day to get to work, pick up the kids at school, run errands, etc. It’s unbelievable to me how the country manages to function at times :)

    And your picture in Nice is beautiful. However I would say the most famous beach in the country is probably the one in Cannes, next door (because film festival). Unlike Nice, it has sand (but is tiny!). Glad you enjoyed your trip!

  17. We like March/April. (Not much of a “spring” in most of Alaska, just a frosty, muddy transition between winter and summer, so a novelty for us to see flowers blooming, little lambies, etc.) Does sometimes require more research to plan an itinerary around seasonal openings or ‘winter hours’ for some destinations.

    The south of France sounds like a fine choice for November, but visiting a colder spot in Dec/Jan/Feb isn’t something I’d choose.

  18. Great Pictures!

    Off peak travel is usually awesome, but eventually you get caught in the downsides. We went to St. Marteen in October of 2008 and were greeted with almost every restaurant being closed and rode out a Category 3 hurricane that shut down the island part of the week. Some off travel is just minor weather nuisances, other places have an off season for a reason!

    • As someone who grew up in the Ft. Lauderdale area and remotely closed on their first home during Hurricane Wilma I completely agree. It is not a good idea to go to the islands (or even most of South Florida if it is for vacation) during Sept and Oct. The waters are at their hottest temperatures and this only adds fuel to the fires of any storm forming in the Atlantic. The infrastructures and emergency responses on the islands are not going to be what you would expect in the US, often through no fault of any particular government. If most of the power grid is wiped out you won’t be flying home any time soon if you make it through the actual storm unscathed. Puerto Rico is a US territory and it is only now getting its grid back up to speed. The linemen the company I worked for sent in during the months after the storm said they had never faced obstacles like what the encountered on the island. Restoration crews may have to find tools to cut through very dense tropical forests and string power lines over miles of hilly/mountainous terrain (and everything is imported so if the stores are destroyed/out of stick so are your supplies). This also means your chances of getting out of the country through the damage are even worse. Gas will be out for days/weeks. And on many islands the crime rate picks up substantially more than you may expect even in the US (it picks up post-storm in the US, too, but our executive branches at all levels are stronger at enforcement).

  19. I figured I’d add a comment here about how my friend and I tried to travel off-peak and it ended up not being off-peak at all. Hopefully this will help someone not make the same assumption we did. We took off with our car and tent to go visit the National Parks (Yosemite, Sequoia, Arches, Bryce, Zion, etc.) in mid-September last year. We figured that the kids and families were all back in school. Well, we were correct with that assumption. However, every retired person with an RV saw September as high-season so we ended up waiting in lines early in the morning to get a tent site at each place. On the plus side, it was nice going on hikes because there were few others on the trails, especially the ones over a few miles long. Downside was that once the sun went down early, it was freezing cold.

  20. Ha ha….had to laugh at RKD’s comment above because I have been noticing the same in the US. We have so many baby boomers retiring now and they are all traveling in September! I am afraid that I am one of them. Some places it can make it harder for public transport because there are not so many buses running in the non tourist season but it can mean good deals on hotel prices or only sharing the dorms with a few other people in hostels.

  21. I’m camping more this winter than I did in summer, and am on board with shoulder season travel generally. Then there are the places that have a peak season for a reason. After spending many cold New England winter days visiting my betrothed’s family over the last few years, I’m determined to someday get there for some leaf peeping in the early fall. There’s a reason it’s popular (and expensive), right? As with all things, there are times for both strategies.

  22. I think my first comment above was unnecessarily negative… the shoulder season is definitely where it’s at! we love travelling in May, June, September, for the best combination of good weather (in the EU), fewer crowds and lower prices. I outright refuse to take any holiday in August, as it’s madness (everyone wants to take holiday at the same time).
    We have no kids, so don’t need to be constrained by school holidays – it just doesn’t make sense to put ourselves through the expense and crowds of August!

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