Top US Vacation Spots
Whether you're the type of traveler who loves to plan ahead or someone who prefers more spontaneous adventures, knowing when to visit some of America's most iconic destinations is almost as important as where -- especially if you'd like to get the most for your money.
Simply going in the offseason isn't good enough, especially if you want to enjoy the major highlights that make a city or national park enjoyable, says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. For example, while rates for New England's beaches are lower in the winter, many of the crab and fish shacks will be closed, she says -- so no lobster roll for you.
"You want to be able to do all the things you want to do and still get a good deal," she says. "You have to find that right combination."
Read on to get some expert tips about the best times to visit some of the country's top tourist attractions without splurging too much.
Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
When to go: Late May/early June
Why visit: Lighthouses, saltwater taffy and fresh sea air: When it comes to finding the perfect stretch of shoreline, it's hard to beat Massachusetts, either on Cape Cod or one of the nearby islands. Travel expert John DiScala, of JohnnyJet.com and host of the Travel Channel's "Hot Spots 2012," visits Nantucket in the early summer, before the masses arrive. "There're no traffic jams, you can get reservations at restaurants, (and) there are discounts on B&Bs and house rentals," he says.
Banas agrees: "Martha's Vineyard has great deals in May and June. Maybe the kids aren't quite out of school yet, but it can be the best time to go and have some awesome weather -- without the horrible crowds." Prices are particularly friendly before Memorial Day. If you visit during the school year, go for stays during the week instead of over the weekend.
When to go: Late spring/early fall
Why visit: On a cold winter day, who doesn't dream of the swaying palm trees, ocean beaches and a local "Aloha" that make the islands special? The price of paradise is often punishing, however. "Hawaii doesn't have a true offseason," Banas says, noting that the winter draws sun-seekers while the summer attracts honeymooners and families. "But there is a softer season." April and May, as well as September, October and November, are generally less expensive (but make sure to depart before the holidays begin).
Another tip from Banas: Instead of cramming a bunch of islands into your trip, pick just one or two, so you can "sink in and enjoy everything." On Oahu, she recommends making the drive to the North Shore. "That's where the great surfers are. It's quintessential Hawaii."
When to go: Early to mid-January
Why visit: From funky art galleries in Key West and the "river of grass" that makes up the Everglades to the art deco architecture of Miami, South Florida offers "something for everyone," DiScala says.
He says that second week of January is traditionally a "dead week" for travel, and people can save big on airfare and hotels while beating the snowbird rush. "It's still freezing cold in the Northeast and Midwest. But during dead week, the hotels are cheaper. You can get reservations at restaurants."
For those who have travel fatigue after the holidays, plan a trip in late March, April or early May, when the temperatures are still pleasant and hotels drop their rates after spring break.
Grand Canyon (Arizona)
When to go: Late summer/early fall
Why visit: An item on many a bucket list, the Grand Canyon -- accessible in Arizona -- shines when the throngs of summer tourists have departed, Banas says. "That's a great time for the scenery without tons of people."
If you're really looking to soak in natural beauty in relative quiet and save money, try the North Rim instead of the South Rim, she says. "You can pair it with a trip to Las Vegas," which traditionally has lower airfares than other airports in the west. "That way, you're doing two big destinations at the same time."
A plus for families: Mule rides are cheaper and easier to book on the North Rim than the South (offered mid-May through mid-October). If you're holding out for the South Rim and don't mind packing layers for unpredictable temperatures, think about visiting in late March, April or May.
New York City
When to go: Winter/summer
Why visit: Nothing is more American than bustling New York City -- or more expensive. Timing a budget-conscious visit to the Big Apple depends on what you want to do. Culture vultures come in January and February, when theaters are in season and it's easier to get tickets. "It's when we run many of our value programs," says Chris Heywood, spokesman for NYC & Company, the city's tourism arm.
Foodies should come in July and August when summer restaurant week takes place, he says.
Walkers, be warned: Summer in New York can also be unbearably sticky. While everyone loves the NYC weather in the spring and fall, you won't find many deals, and the sparkly holiday season is when rates are the highest.
Yellowstone National Park
When to go: Late summer/winter
Why visit: With "bubbling mud pots, massive waterfalls, rainbow-hued hot springs and erupting geysers," Yellowstone makes a perfect playground for parents and kids alike, says family travel expert Kara Williams of TheVacationGals.com. This national park is accessible from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Because snow can fall early in this part of the country, Williams recommends a late-summer visit to avoid the thick of the crowds; save money by camping in a tent or RV (just make sure you make your campsite reservations far in advance, as some spots fill up a year ahead of time).
Alternately, try going to the park in the winter, when you can "admire winter wildlife via snowcoach, snowmobile, cross-country skis or snowshoes," she says. Just check to make sure that you can get to the locations that you want to go, as some roads are closed.
When to go: Mid- to late October
Why visit: Memphis is a must-see for history buffs and music lovers (not to mention those in search of perfect barbecue). But while Beale Street can be a pleasant stop to hear a blues band, the bar strip gets outrageously crowded when the town's NBA team, the Grizzlies, plays, says Larry Bleiberg, co-author of "The 100 Best Affordable Vacations."
He says another time to avoid Memphis is "death week" -- the time around Aug. 16 when Elvis lovers flock to Graceland to memorialize the King. Fall offers pleasant weather (meaning less humidity!) and while there still are some festivals to enjoy (such as RiverArtsFest during the last week of October), hotels are not nearly as packed as they are in party-hearty spring (with corresponding lower rates).
When to go: Check the school calendar
Why visit: Washington, D.C., is "field trip city," says Bleiberg, and school children flood the Smithsonian in the spring and fall. Summers can be equally crowded, plus the District's heat is nothing to mess with (the city was originally built on a swamp). The solution? "It's worth taking your kids out of school," Bleiberg says, though prices usually go up around three-day weekends such as Veterans Day.
Cherry blossom season aside (usually late March through mid-April), the spring can be a gorgeous time to visit, he says -- take a look at the first few weeks in May. If you're really looking for a deal, the only time that hotel prices really deflate is the heart of winter. But if you travel at this time, prepare for frigid temperatures and possible traffic snafus (D.C. closes down at the hint of snow).