Imagine walking in a winter wonderland … during the hottest months of summer.
But instead of snowcapped mountain views, long days of skiing and frosty nights of sipping hot chocolate by the fire, there are lush, green mountain vistas, long days of hiking and golf and breezy nights of dining outside on the terrace.
As the travel industry continues to boom, wintry vacation spots are summerizing and summery destinations are winterizing in order to extend their seasons and lure even more visitors, who in turn benefit from reduced prices.
“You see it most often with ski resorts,” said Brad Tuttle, senior editor at Budget Travel magazine. “They have this incredible infrastructure with hotels and mountains. Why leave it empty or a quarter full in summertime? They’re trying to become, if not year-round destinations, at least two-season destinations."
The winter-summer reversal is happening in ski resort towns like Killington, Vt. (search), and Aspen (search) and Vail (search), both in Colorado. It's also increasingly common in the Caribbean and Florida, normally places that cold-weary travelers seek out in winter.
Spending a winter holiday at a typical summer destination isn't done as frequently, but it's happening in Europe and even at some U.S. national parks.
The off-season trend is on the rise, said Richard Copland, past president of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) (search), because the “insatiable appetite for travel continues to grow” in this country.
The benefits? Thinner throngs of tourists and phenomenal bargains.
"I tend to do that because I can't stand those crowds," said Cristina Barden of Queens, N.Y., a retail-planning manager who has gone to France and Spain in November, England in April and Disney World in September and October. "A lot of people do it to get better rates."
Winter resorts offer discounts of up to 40 percent in the summertime, said Copland, and in Florida and the Caribbean islands, the price cuts can go as high as 50 percent.
Those who wait until the last minute to book a trip might find even better value, he said.
Airfares to the Caribbean and other vacation spots that are popular during the winter months aren’t necessarily all that different in the summertime. But the costs of packages and accommodations are significantly reduced.
“The deals are absolutely out there,” Tuttle said. “If what you want is the beach and to relax, the Caribbean is fantastic, and you’ll pay 50 percent of what you’d pay in February or March.”
As for those willing to tour Europe in the colder weather, they’ll see the discounts mainly in plane ticket prices — which can hover around the $800 mark or above during high season in the summer but can dip below $200 in cooler months.
“Airfare deals to Europe are ridiculous in the winter,” Tuttle said.
Ski resort destinations, for their part, try to entice summertime visitors with special promotions, packages and festivals.
In Aspen, the Chamber of Commerce is offering $50 worth of free gasoline for those who book at least a two-night stay through a particular agency.
“Our major effort is to just encourage [people to explore] all that Aspen has to offer in summer," said Warren Klug, general manager at the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel.
Among those Aspen-in-summertime perks: the weather, which is in the 70s and 80s with low humidity; activities including biking, hiking, tennis, golf, kayaking, gondola rides up the mountain, white water rafting and spa treatments; and music and theater festivals.
Klug said there’s a $100 difference between summer and winter rates at his hotel. A fireplace studio goes for $319 in winter but only $219 in summer.
Farther east and north, in Killington, the summer season looks similar. The town holds mountain wine and cheese and renaissance festivals, and visitors can golf, fly fish, play tennis, hike, mountain bike and kayak.
Guy Rossi, director of sales at the Cortina Inn and Resort (search) in Killington, said the ski-resort business is very different than it was when he started 20 years ago at a smaller hotel.
“As soon as Easter weekend passed, we closed the doors and didn’t open again until Thanksgiving,” Rossi said. “Things have really changed since those early years of the ski industry. You used to be able to make a living staying closed from April through November. But skier days are down from their heyday in the early 1980s.”
The summer clientele is different from those who travel to Killington for winter skiing, he said, with more tour bus groups descending on the town in the warmer months, as well as those coming for conferences, weddings and family reunions.
Winter rates at Rossi's hotel are about 15 to 20 percent more than those offered during the summer, with a room that goes for $179 on a winter weekend night offered for $139 in the summer.
And perhaps partly due to these friendlier rates, his inn is nearly as busy when it’s sunny and warm outside as it is when it’s cold and snowy.
“All of these resorts are putting together things that will attract people when your biggest attraction, skiing, is not there,” said Copland, of Hillside Travel in New York City.
But it’s hard to tell whether most vacationers really are interested in visiting places off-season.
The extraordinary cold-weather airfare deals to Europe, for instance, don’t seem to be luring travelers in droves, said travel agent Sandra Campbell of Premier Travel in Philadelphia.
“My clientele isn’t motivated to go to a destination just because of price,” she said. “They want to go when it’s nice out.”
Frequently, according to Tuttle, it’s couples without children, families with very young kids and retirees who take advantage of the season-reversal deals. That's because parents whose kids are in school only have the two months when their children are off to plan a family vacation.
In any case, seasoned off-season travelers swear by the practice. Barden said her experience visiting Europe in early spring and fall was "fabulous."
"It was nice not to have to wait hours in crowds and sticky weather," she said. "It was much more pleasant."