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Off-season travel beats crowds

With off-season travel, smart consumers know that they can beat the crowds by visiting Alaska in January, Aspen in July and Bermuda in September.

"There's no such thing as an off-season anymore," laments Kelvin Houchin, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Forte hotels. "Travel prices are like the weather _ unpredictable.

"A few years ago people would say, "No one will go to Nassau in October or November, or to the English countryside in winter.' But they're going. In fact, we're forecasting more U.S. visitors to the English countryside this winter than we had in the summer."

Still, rates decline around most of the northern hemisphere in fall and winter. For instance, Inter-Continental Hotels are offering Winter Option packages, from Nov. 19-March 28, that have significant savings off standard room rates _ a double-occupancy room at the Forum Hotel Chicago starts at $99, $70 less than the regular room rate.

And a double occupancy room at the Hotel Inter-Continental New Orleans will be $129 under the winter package, also $70 less than the regular rates for a similar room.

In North America and the Caribbean, there are great off-season deals. And, if you can't go this year, keep these deals (and phone numbers) handy. Chances are they'll be repeated:

Collette Tours, (800) 832-4656, offers a variety of package tours within America that allow a substantial off-season saving:

The $799 nine-day tour, titled "Heritage of America," which covers historic cities and areas on the East Coast, offers $200 savings for specific trips in March and November. The $749 eight-day Georgia and Carolina tour is available for $200 less in February and November. An 11-day trip through the Canadian Rockies is $250 less for departures in May and October. And finally, the 13-day Alaska Southbound tour, normally $2,399, was $500 cheaper this year for the May 12 departure.

At certain destinations, when the temperature goes up the prices go down. In Palm Springs, Calif., check the Villa Royale, (619) 327-2314: Between June and October a room costs as little as $49 a night.

The off-season deals in Mexico happen in the summer months and early fall. The Hotel Twin Dolphin, (800) 421-8925, an exclusive hideaway in Cabo San Lucas, has been offering a free air-fare special over the last few summers. Also for the first time, the hotel is offering a European Plan through October _ $155 for two guests. This does not include meals, unlike the more expensive American plans.

In fall, the temperature falls slightly in Mexico, but tour prices remain low. Mexico Travel Advisors, (800) 876-4682, regularly offers an array of deals for summer and fall.

In Mexico City, through December, MTA offers three nights at the Maria Isabel Sheraton for just $163.

What about Hawaii? Most people in the Hawaii travel business will tell you 1992 in itself was an off-season for the 50th state. Visitor numbers dropped, and so did room rates and tour deals. Now, after Hurricane Iniki devastated the island of Kauai, there are even more deals.

For example, the Aston in Waikiki has dropped its normal $160 per night rates to just $99, through Dec. 20.

The best bet is to call the hotels and resorts directly and (with the exception of the Christmas period) negotiate a deal yourself.

In Colorado, unless it's snowing, the bargains are also virtually everywhere. The Doral Telluride Resort and Spa (800) 44-DORAL, a ski/spa that offers golf in warm weather, has three week-long vacation plans from May through October that cost $1,000 less than in the winter months.

But is there an off-season ski deal? Sure. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., (303) 879-6111, situated 157 miles northwest of Denver, has off-season rates for skiing vacations before and after the peak season. Nov. 26 to Dec. 11 and April 5-11. During these weeks, accommodations are 20 to 40 percent cheaper, and ski passes, which cost about $39 per day in peak season, cost $5 or $6 less per day.

In Keystone, Colo., rooms drop to $59 per person between Oct. 30 and Thanksgiving.

And, don't forget the train. Amtrak (800) USA-RAIL, is getting into the off-season act, with lower rates from September to May.

Check out Amtrak's All Aboard America fares: Under this scheme, the country is divided up into three regions: Eastern, Western and Central. You can stop over along the way at up to three places, chalk out a flexible route and take up to 45 days to complete the trip. The most expensive fall train fare under this plan is just $259 (for all three regions).

Meanwhile, December to March are the peak months in the Caribbean, but after March, the hordes of tourists leave and the prices dip.

A word of caution: While hotels become cheaper in April, air fares often remain high through summer, because this is peak travel time for the locals. But in the fall, both hotel rooms and air fares are low.

Peak season rates (Dec. 15-April 14) at Casablanca Resorts in Anguilla's Rendezvous Bay, (800) 231-1945, range from $300 for Tropical Terrace guest room to $900 for villas. But Aug. 15-Dec. 14, the rates are $235 to $600.

_ Los Angeles Times Syndicate