Think of fall as the pause after peak, the break after busy, the time to travel when you'll find great deals on airfare and hotels -- and still take advantage of all that the best destinations have to offer, only without the crowds.
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This time of year, the kids are back in school and most people tend to have their minds set on autumn activities, not necessarily full-fledged vacations. This leaves some of the best travel destinations vacant -- and on sale. With fewer tourists to drive business, you can save 15% to 50% off peak-season rates. So while everyone else is clogging roads to fall foliage sites and swarming pumpkin patches, you can have a much better adventure -- with plenty of elbow room -- somewhere else.
Below, we steer you toward the best locales and the best deals for fall travel. Plus, we put together a slide show of a dozen fabulous fall destinations that may not be obvious to the masses, but will net you a great experience and a great deal.
Leaving the leaves behind
Beach towns up and down the U.S. coasts empty out after Labor Day as beachcombers and vacation home owners head back to the big cities. You can snag a primo ocean-view suite or a private beach house right on the sand at a much more affordable price. The weather may be a tad cooler, but you could still take advantage of fishing in North Carolina's Outer Banks or sailing in the Hamptons, for example.
Or if you have your heart set on sunbathing, head to Hawaii, Aruba, Puerto Vallarta or even Costa Rica. These destinations have year-round summer-like weather, but they experience the same autumn lull in tourism -- meaning you can get a great tan for a great price. Choosing a tropical destination on the Pacific Ocean instead of the Caribbean in the fall can lessen your risk of having to cancel your trip because of hurricanes.
Cooler destinations in the north can also afford you a great experience for a bargain. Canada, Alaska and Northern Europe welcome many of their visitors in the summer. After Labor Day, tourists flee for fear of a little chill. But going against the current can pay off big. You can watch the wildlife prepare for winter in Alaska's Denali National Park, enjoy Canada's best museums in solitude, or catch the northern lights show in Scandinavia -- all for a fraction of the summer price.
Some locales actually see better weather in the fall than in the peak seasons, yet tourists are still scarce. Millions of tourists to national parks in America's Southwest, for example, swelter in 100-degree heat in summer time. Come fall, the temperatures drop to more bearable levels, and you won't get stuck in traffic while driving to the best vantage points. Plus, you'll get a better sense of peace and quiet while hiking the landscape without feeling like you're on a human cattle drive.
In Europe, fall generally ushers in damp, chilly weather. Airfares to that part of the world, however, can be downright hot. What's doing across the pond come autumn? For starters, opera season kicks off across the Continent. Wine harvests in France and Italy start in September and extend into November. You can even catch Christmas in Europe before higher prices kick in. Sweden, Denmark and Germany deck the town squares for the holidays starting in late November.
For more inspirational ideas, check out our slide show for a dozen of our favorite off-season fall destinations.
One caveat: Finding yourself alone on the Appian Way won't be much comfort if the other sights you want to visit are closed or curtailed. Although many big European museums stay open all year, they usually cut back their hours in the fall; some less-traveled venues close up altogether. So make sure your favorite activity is available before booking your trip, no matter where your travels take you.
You'd think you would be able to spot shoulder discounts well in advance and plan accordingly. But that's not how the travel industry works. "Airlines won't come out in July and tell you it's $500 cheaper to go in September. If they did, people would change their plans," says Tom Parsons, of Bestfares.com.
Last-minute planning is the way to go. That's good news because even though it's after Labor Day already, you can still book your fall getaway. Try looking for vacation packages that bundle your airfare and hotel together to save money. Or search for deals through Web sites that specialize in spur-of-the-moment, including Site59.com for flights, hotels and rental cars, and Moments-Notice.com for cruises. See our list of our 25 favorite travel sites for more links to help you make your plans.
For late-year travel, count on breaks ending by mid- December, when many airlines make like Scrooge, although you can sometimes grab a fall airfare sale that applies to travel through December.