Foliage. Apple and pumpkin picking. Corn mazes. Covered bridges. Maple trees. Maple syrup. Maple doughnuts.
It all sounds so innocent. But autumn in New England is serious business.
"It's huge," said Ian Aldrich, senior editor at Yankee magazine. "It's a huge boon to the economy. They do a big portion of their business this time of year," he said, referring to the inns and hotels of New England. Nearly 8 million people will spend a combined $1 billion in New Hampshire alone this fall, according to Lori Harnois, director of the state's Division of Travel and Tourism.
And that's precisely why prices can seem astronomically high when shopping for a fall-foliage getaway. Rates at B&Bs routinely start at $150 and up per night for a midweek trip. And with some areas of New England – Vermont in particular – looking to make up losses from a slow ski season last year and less-than-stellar business during the 2011 foliage season because of the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, this year might seem more expensive than years past.
That's not to say a leaf-peeping vacation is out of reach. Experts say a combination of timing, picking the right location and taking advantage of packages and last-minute deals can all bring down the cost of a fall vacation in New England.
A bit of good news: There's no one peak week or weekend. "It's a myth," Aldrich said. "Over several weeks it [the color] makes its way south." But this year, the color is coming about a week earlier than usual. New England didn't experience the drought much of the country did, and spring came a little earlier than usual – both indicators of brilliant color to come on the early side.
But while there may be no one peak time, there are certainly peak places that people on a budget may want to avoid. "Everyone wants to stay in Woodstock, Vt.," he said. "But there are more affordable lodging options nearby in Bridgewater and Chester, and it's the same foliage."
He also pointed to Kent, Conn., the winner of the magazine's 2010 winner for top foliage town in New England as being a bit under the radar. "It was a bit of a surprise to everyone," he said. "Even us maybe. But the town just really brings it all together. Village greens, galleries, restaurants, trails, everything." And because of its relatively southern location, there's a later "peak" for foliage.
Beth Steucek, CEO of the New England Inns and Resorts Association, agrees that staying outside the most popular traditional foliage destinations is a money-saver. She pointed to the coastal towns in general and coastal Maine in particular as having great deals. "They're looking to keep people coming after the summer rush," she said.
Steucek recommends would-be visitors take advantage of the so-called "value adds" and packages available from inns and hotels. She said there's almost 50 running on her site alone. They range from lobster boat rides to free meals to moose tours to bike and picnic packages.
The motivation from the hotel and inn proprietors, she said, is to make repeat customers out of first-time visitors. "It helps the traveler experience the area, leave with a better experience. It's positive reinforcement for the future."
Aldrich said to look to camping as a way to save money on lodging. For those who aren't outdoorsy, he recommended private homes. Vermont's Chamber of Commerce keeps a list of people with rooms in their homes they're willing to rent out. "Depending on the home, it can be cheaper than a traditional bed and breakfast."
In addition to foliage maps and approximate timetables for the best color by state, the New England Inns and Resorts Association site also offers a twice-monthly email newsletter -- called the Inn Crowd -- highlighting last-minute deals. On offer now: 69 percent off on a two-night stay at the Mountain Club at Loon in Lincoln, N.H. It includes accommodations for two nights, a $50 dinner certificate, a $25 spa certificate, two-for-one breakfasts and a third night free. There's also a deal at the West Dover Inn in West Dover, Vt.: 31 percent off the Fall Suite Package, which includes two nights in a fireplace suite, breakfast each morning, a picnic lunch for two and 50 percent off bike, canoe and kayak rentals.
It's not just hotels and inns making it easier for leaf-peepers to get away: Amtrak is offering a 20 percent "Visit Vermont" for travel to any Vermont station. The offer must be accessed via www.Amtrak.com/VisitVermont, it can't be accessed from the Amtrak homepage. The includes the "Vermonter" and "Ethan Allen Express" for travel through Oct. 28.