Regardless of what you may have heard about May flowers, the blooms that draw the most visitors to Washington, D.C. arrive in late March.
This year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival began on Saturday and runs through April 11. The more than 3,700 cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin and other sites in the capitol are forecast to hit their peak bloom date on Thursday or Friday. Peak bloom for these famous trees, originally a gift from Japan in 1912, translates to peak tourism season for the city where they grow. Bloom chasers would be wise to time their spring trips this year with that in mind – and maybe even consider some other destinations.
Hotel occupancy nationwide is forecast to be slightly higher this year than it was in 2009 but still “near record lows,” says Bjorn Hanson, a professor at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management, “so availability remains very favorable for travelers.” However, finding a good deal could be more difficult than usual because room rates are likely to vary widely from city to city and even from hotel to hotel, Hanson says.
During peak travel times this year, consumers may see double-digit increases in room rates, but off-peak travel will still present bargains, Hanson says. The best strategy in this environment is simply to do your research, Hanson says. Call multiple hotels, and be persistent in asking for the best possible rate. “I think that people are just embarrassed to keep asking, and these days the second or third request may not get the best rate – it may be the fourth request,” Hanson says. If you’re willing to take the risk, waiting until the day of your arrival could also help you find hotels that are desperate to fill their rooms, he says.
Persistence is the key to finding good air fares as well, industry analysts say. Airlines have been cutting capacity to deal with the downturn, allowing them to hold up prices even though demand is low, says Basili Alukos, an airline industry analyst for Morningstar. Airlines are planning slight capacity increases on routes to Europe and Asia, but “they’re trying to hold a certain floor on pricing,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research. “You really just are going to have to spend some time shopping” to find bargains, Harteveldt says.
Cherry blossom fans can find some travel and hotel deals through the festival’s web site, but bargain-hunters might find better rates after the festival is over on April 11. For those looking for an off-peak alternative to the D.C. event, here are some ideas:
The Brooklyn Botanical Garden boasts a collection of cherry trees, and they hit their peak a little later than Washington’s blossoms. The Garden’s Sakura Matsuri festival celebrating Japanese culture is scheduled for May 1-2. Admission is $8 for adults, and it’s closed on Mondays. Staying in Brooklyn, as opposed to Manhattan, could save travelers some money on a trip to New York, too – the Brooklyn Marriott currently has a promotional deal running through June for rooms as low as $199 a night, while a similar promotion at the Times Square Marriott offers rooms as low as $239 a night.
The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is celebrated in San Francisco on April 10-11 and April 17-18. If you miss the cherry blossoms, Golden Gate Park’s Rose Garden should be in bloom from mid-May through July. The Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park is also free and open daily.
Beyond Cherry Blossoms
Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania isn’t known for its cherry trees, but spring visitors should see flowering dogwoods, hyacinths, tulips, and columbines. The garden is located 30 miles outside of Philadelphia – or 12 miles from Wilmington, Del. Admission is $16 for adults, and visitors should be prepared for a couple of hours of walking to see the indoor and outdoor gardens.
Wildflower lovers can check out the Garden in the Woods in Massachusetts, a 40-minute drive from Boston. The garden opens for the season on April 15 and is closed on Mondays. Admission for adults is $8 – but free on Earth Day, which is April 24. More adventurous travelers might take a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, sometimes known as “Wildflower National Park.” Admission to the park is free. Overnight camping there costs $14 to $23 a night – or nearby towns like Gatlinburg offer national hotel chains like Best Westerns and Comfort Inns as well as locally-owned options.
The euro has been falling steadily against the dollar for months giving Americans more buying power in Europe. But getting there is still costly. “The era of $99 fares from New York to London is over,” Harteveldt says. Travelers to Europe should look at package hotel-plus-airfare deals, and consider working with travel agents who may have access to unadvertised promotional rates, he says. When British Airways resolves its current labor dispute, it may run offer deals to regain some business, and other airlines may respond with promotions of their own, so consumers should watch for discounted rates over the next couple of weeks, he says.
Several airlines have recently been adding capacity to Asia, so this could be a good year to check out the cherry blossoms in Japan. Most of Japan’s cherry blossoms bloom in March and April, but those in Hokkaido peak in early May.