If you're looking for a way to save money on your next trip, you'll need to get creative in terms of timing. No matter your destination, if you visit during high season, you'll pay premium prices and encounter hordes of fellow travelers. However, by traveling during shoulder season - the periods just before and just after the main travel season - you'll enjoy lower prices on airfare, lodging and other amenities along with fewer crowds. Find out why shoulder season is every savvy traveler's best friend. (For more handy ways to save on your vacation, check out our Vacation Savings Tips Slide Show.)
When is Shoulder Season?
While summer is high season in many parts of the world thanks to warm weather and school being out, the timing of high season really depends on the amenities of the location. For example, if you're interested in skiing in Breckenridge, high season will be in winter. A good travel book can tell you when a destination's peak, shoulder and off-seasons are. Just as with a high-season vacation, though, keep in mind that the whims of any particular year's weather will affect what months are the best shoulder season months that year.
How Shoulder Season Saves You Money
Because shoulder season is a less popular time to travel than high season, the laws of supply and demand dictate that airlines, hotels and other travel-related businesses must lower their prices if they hope to continue attracting business. That's good news for you, because it means multiple opportunities to save. Here are some of the specific financial incentives you're likely to encounter:
- Get the quality of lodging you are accustomed to for less money, whether you tend to stay in one-star or four-star hotels.
- As an alternative, you can spend the same amount of money you normally would, but get a more luxurious trip than you could normally afford.
- Airfare can be drastically cheaper. It may be half price or less of the cost to travel during high season (of course, this can also depend on your planning and airfare tracking skills).
- With the money you've saved on airfare and lodging, you'll have more cash to spend at your destination if you so choose. You may be able to afford to eat out more, attend more shows, visit more attractions or even add an extra location to your itinerary.
- Traveling during shoulder season may allow you to visit a city you could not otherwise afford. Locations where the dollar is typically weak, such as London, may be less expensive.
- For those on tight budgets, traveling during shoulder season may allow you to take a modest trip when you otherwise couldn't afford to travel at all.
As if the financial benefits weren't enough, shoulder season also has at least two other major perks:
- You'll encounter fewer crowds. Spending half of your vacation waiting in line during high season is neither relaxing nor a good use of money.
- You may have better interactions with the locals. When they aren't harried by the massive influx of tourists, you may get more personalized attention and better travel tips from the locals whose paths you cross on your trip, enriching your overall travel experience.
The next section will explore some great shoulder season destinations and show you how to plan the perfect trip without breaking your budget.
Shoulder Season Destinations
Here are the best times to take advantage of shoulder season in a few popular travel destinations.
Washington, D.C. - October and November are the best times to visit. The weather is nice, not too hot, but not yet too cold. Schools are in session, but often school field trips haven't been planned yet, so you won't find throngs of students perusing the Smithsonian and the National Mall. Visit the sites in town during work hours, Monday through Thursday, to further avoid the crowds. Late at night, national monuments are still open and are beautifully lit, serene and nearly empty, with ample, convenient and free parking.
Los Angeles - While Los Angeles is popular in the summer, fall can be a better time to visit. Many coastal areas experience what is locally referred to as "June Gloom", or long stretches of chilly, overcast, gray days at the beach. Smog is also bad in the summer, limiting the area's many spectacular views that can be had on a clear fall day. And while LA does have a reputation for having superb weather year-round, popular tourist destinations like Universal Studios, the Warner Bros. studios and Hollywood do get very hot in the summer months and the ticket prices for some attractions rise with the thermometer.
Even in February, which would probably be considered off-season due to the possibility of rain, LA is still warmer than many cities, with highs in the 60s and 70s and lows in the 40s and 50s. Plus, the crowds are completely gone and the air is clean, allowing you to enjoy beautiful views of the ocean and mountains, particularly while on any of the area's many scenic hikes.
Dublin - It can be hard to predict when the good weather will occur. Summer weather could appear in April and the summer months could be gray and rainy. Of course, Ireland is known for being gray and rainy, so perhaps this is one case where tourists wouldn't mind such weather too much. That said, from September to November, or from April to May, are probably your best bets for shoulder season in Dublin. St. Patrick's Day should be avoided, as it's when the locals flee the city to enjoy the countryside while the city is overrun with American tourists.
Madrid - When thinking about a summer trip to Madrid, think about Spain's proximity to Africa, or consider whether you would want to visit Phoenix in July if Phoenix did not have air conditioning, and you'll get an idea of how hot Madrid is from June through September. Despite this, the crowds in Plaza del Sol start swelling by the time mid-May rolls around. April and October will give you pleasant weather combined with fewer crowds.
Planning Well Pays Off
When planning your shoulder season vacation, keep these additional tips in mind:
- Don't go overboard trying to save money. Low season is generally low season for a reason. Weather may be terrible and popular attractions may be closed. Don't stray too far from high season when planning your trip.
- Check the weather averages for your intended destination before booking your trip. One person's idea of a lovely shoulder season vacation (central Europe in early November, for example) might be your idea of freezing cold. Bad weather can ruin your trip, leading to a total waste of money - the exact opposite of what you were trying to accomplish.
- High season isn't just related to weather – you'll also want to avoid local holidays, like Easter in Catholic countries, as well as times when conventions are in town. Not only can airfare and accommodations be much pricier or even sold out, but you'll likely face large crowds and, in the case of holidays, many closed businesses.
- Don't make assumptions about high season at your travel destination. Look this information up using a reliable source. For example, while you might think August is high season in Europe, and it is indeed full of tourists, many Europeans are also on vacation in August, meaning that some of those charming local restaurants and boutique hotels you hoped to visit will be shuttered.
- Some places have multiple high seasons. Going back to the example of Breckenridge, Colorado, the high season is not only in winter when skiers swarm the slopes, it's also in summer, when outdoor enthusiasts flock to enjoy activities like hiking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting.
- If you aren't sure when the shoulder season is for the area you want to visit, hotel and hostel websites sometimes give it away by telling you when they're charging peak rates and when they aren't. If they don't list their rates outright, just search for a room on various dates and see what you learn. (For more tips, read Travel Smart By Planning How You'll Pay.)
There are situations, of course, where you'll just have to grin and bear it with the rest of the peak season crowd. If you're planning a trip to Vermont in search of vibrant foliage, you can't go in early August. Often, though, the reason prices are higher during peak season has more to do with supply and demand than with value. The price goes down when the bulk of tourists go home, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad time to visit. Even if you do have to sacrifice some things that are only available during the high season, like tour packages and longer hours at attractions, it may be worth it when you consider all the benefits that the shoulder season has to offer. Vacationing during shoulder season can really enrich your travels and help you get the most bang for your buck.