Good timing can get you a vacation with that sweet combo of perfect weather, smaller crowds and great discounts (Photo: Getty Images)
We know peak season, rainy season, and low season, but there’s one more season that travel industry insiders know about, which could help you score some major deals: the off-peak travel period known as “shoulder season.”
“Shoulder season is the period between high and low season in a destination,” says Eric Horndahl, VP of marketing for FlipKey. ”It’s often the perfect time to go: The weather is generally still good, but the crowds have decreased, things are still open, and the prices of hotels have dropped.”
Everywhere from Europe and Asia to the Caribbean and the northeastern U.S. has shoulder seasons during which you can see savings of up to half off. Here is your guide to navigating this hidden time period.
The United States
With summer coming to an end and blissful days on the beach becoming a distant memory, the fall shoulder season can keep those dog days going at the popular Northeast beaches. “In this particular case, we’re referring to the months of September, October, and November, when popular beach destinations are less expensive,” says Horndahl.
Early fall is a good time to hit Myrtle Beach, SC (Photo: Getty Images)
In addition to savings, the less crowded shoulder season means more access to popular restaurants, shorter lines to local attractions, and less packed beaches. Places like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina see savings of up to 43 percent, and the Hamptons see, on average, 30 percent. You’ll still get clear skies and warm weather, but for less money and smaller crowds.
If you go to Breckenridge at the right time, you’ll see plenty of snow but not a lot of crowds (Photo: Thinkstock)
But if the idea of any more warm weather is making you sick and skiing is more your forte, then forgo the peak-season months of January, February, and early March. “In places like Tahoe or Breckenridge, there’s still great conditions from late March into early April or prior to Christmas,” says Horndahl. You’ll often find great snowy conditions without the hassle of waiting in a long line for the ski lift.
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If you want to experience a little more ancient history in places like Europe and the Mediterranean, be sure to skip August if you want to skip the crowds. “Everyone heads to Europe in the summer, when school is out and the weather is great, so you want to avoid then if you can,” says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel. “The best time to travel is after Labor Day through October. There’s a lot more availability, choice, and deals.” A package to Paris on go-today costs $1,549 in June but only $1,349 in October. Wait until November, and the package drops to $1,099.”
Fall is a good, and cheap, time to visit Paris (Photo: Getty Images)
She adds, “If you’re someone who wants to go to museums, the theater, and restaurants, then you can wait even longer into the shoulder season when the weather is nice but starts to get risky. You can see prices dropping by $100 each month.” Not only are rates and flights cheaper, but also lines for popular sites are shorter, and you can see significant savings on some attractions.
As the cold sets in and you are back on the hunt for warm weather, popular beach destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean could be calling. Rates around the holidays can be sky-high, so head there in November and early December because that’s when hurricane season has passed but the prices haven’t yet peaked for winter. Even luxury hotels cut their rates almost in half during this time period.
Thanksgiving in Puerto Vallarta, perhaps? (Photo: Getty Images)
“If you are staying in a rental, you can actually negotiate with the property owner even more to see significant deals,” says Horndahl. “It’s all about supply and demand.”
The continent is so large that it encompasses a variety of climates, and therefore the shoulder seasons vary depending on the region. Some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have four seasons like the United States. But then there’s China, which is subtropical in the south and colder in the north. Places like India, Malaysia, and Thailand have dry and rainy seasons. “It’s all about finding that time between peak and off-peak where the conditions are still great to travel,” says Banas. “A little research in places like Asia, and you can find out where and when those seasons are.”
Once you’ve decided on a place, you can expect to see some significant savings if you’ve found the sweet spot. Thailand, for example, is relatively cool toward the end of May and doesn’t see as many crowds as during the holidays and summer. A package on Gate 1 Travel was $1,099 in January, whereas it was only $899 in May. China’s shoulder seasons are April to mid-June and mid-September to December, during which a similar $200 discount applies.
Thailand’s Sukhothai National Park. (Photo: Getty Images)
Wherever your adventures take you, if you have some flexibility with timing and do a little research, major savings could be in store. “Shoulder season is a great time to travel, and pretty much every location in the world has one,” says Banas. “Also, if you want to see even more discounts, try going during the middle of the week instead of weekends.” After a little planning, kicking back and relaxing on vacation will feel that much sweeter.