If you're fortunate enough that you can travel when you want -- instead of when your employer or school wants -- fall is a great time to get going. Weather is pretty good in most popular tourist areas, the summer crowds are gone, and the snowbirds haven't started their southern migrations yet. In fact, in most areas, the period between Labor Day and the mid-December start of the year-end festivities is generally the slowest time of the year in travel -- always excluding the short-trip spike around Thanksgiving. Here are a few suggestions.
Major family tourist areas: If you have a hankering to revert to your childhood, fall is a good time to visit any major family venue -- Disney World, national parks, Six Flags, whatever. Once school starts again, family travel generally dries up until summer, with a few spikes at Thanksgiving, the end of the year, "ski week," spring break and Easter. Hotel rates are generally down, usually with a bunch of various promotions.
Beach areas: Water temperatures generally lag weather changes, so beach destinations are still pretty good for swimming during at least the early part of fall. My colleagues at SmarterTravel.com nominated four beach areas -- Nantucket, the Florida Keys, Bali and Barbados -- among the year's "Top Five Off-Peak Destinations." And they could well have mentioned many of the other dozens of major beach areas around the world. The reasons should be obvious: Fewer crowds, plus great off-season hotel and resort rates.
Golf meccas: The fall season can't promise you lower scores, but it can promise lower hotel/resort rates. And fall (and spring) are also by far the best times to visit southern venues from Augusta to Scottsdale, where the climate tempers from almost uninhabitable in midsummer to ideal in the fall.
Big North American cities: Although programs oriented to summer tourists may be over, real-world activities re-emerge from their short summer vacations in major cities. That means music, theater, exhibitions and all the other stuff that makes cities so attractive. You probably won't find many great off-season hotel deals in the cities that host lots of business travel -- Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Toronto -- but you can still arrange great rates through Hotwire or Priceline. And steamy summer climates give way to crisp fall days. Also consider:
*Las Vegas: Your hotel dollars still go further in Vegas than anyplace else in the world.
*New Orleans: Help the city celebrate its rebirth five years after Katrina.
*San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, and Vancouver: West Coast perennials offer great year-round climates.
Big European cities: Like their North American counterparts, London, Paris, Rome and the others come to life in fall, along with far more attractive weather. And those hordes of world tourists have gone back to wherever they came from. Airfares to Europe are down maybe 30 percent to 40 percent below summer peaks: I found some round-trip airfares from either coast under $800 for October, and you can probably beat those figures when you spot an inevitable airfare sale.
Cruises: The Alaska season is about over, but you can find some good itineraries in the Mediterranean through most of the fall. And the cooler fall weather is most welcome. Of course, the mass-market cruising areas of the Caribbean and Mexico run all year. I see no end to the great last-minute cruise prices we've seen for the last several years.
Vacation rentals: Rates at most vacation rentals drop sharply from the usual summer peaks in almost all areas except for the big cities. If I were planning a vacation for this fall, I'd book a cottage in Normandy or Tuscany for a week or two, at really great off-season rates and no worries about lack of air-conditioning. But you don't have to go that far -- fall rates are good almost anywhere you'd like to visit.Your choice. Decide where you want to vacation, then get online or call your travel agent and go. You'll love it.