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. ;-)
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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:
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.
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.
And how we saw the unbelievable Gorges of the Ardeche with no crowds (on a weekend!), enjoying one of our most memorable sunsets.
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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Categories: we've learned