Winding, narrow village streets in the Luberon Region of France, with old stone houses and flower boxes.

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Shoulder Season, The Secret To Travel Savings

The post is the first in a series on how to save money on travel and still experience the top destinations around the world.

Shoulder season is one of the best secrets to finding travel savings. This lesser-known period, sandwiched between peak seasons, allows for significant cost reductions and the opportunity to explore the world’s top destinations without the hustle and bustle.

So What Is Shoulder Season?

Shoulder season in travel refers to the period between the peak and off-peak seasons. It’s characterized by fewer crowds, moderate weather, and often lower prices for accommodations and attractions than peak times. In most destinations, the summer months are considered high season. 

For example, in many European destinations, the shoulder season typically falls during spring (April and May) and autumn (September and October), between the busy summer tourist season and the quieter winter months. Similarly, shoulder season in tropical destinations often occurs during the transitional periods between the rainy and dry seasons.

During shoulder season, travelers can enjoy the benefits of both peak and off-peak seasons. They can experience popular attractions with fewer crowds, enjoy more comfortable temperatures, and take advantage of discounted rates on accommodations, flights, and tours. Making shoulder season an attractive option for those seeking to save money while still enjoying favorable travel conditions.

I once heard someone on the New Jersey Shore say that the weeks after Labor Day are “local summer” because it’s the best time of year and there are no tourists.

View point of the California coast in Point Lobos State Park with the waves crashing against the rocks.

Does Travel During Shoulder Season Have Any Down Sides?

Like everything in life, shoulder season can be a compromise. In some locations, you might experience closed restaurants and shops during shoulder season. Fewer tourists mean less business, and some places can’t afford to stay open. Also, it often means fewer seasonal employees and a smaller available workforce.

Often, the weather during the shoulder season is less predictable. It might be colder or wetter than peak season. But it might also be perfect. That’s the gamble of shoulder season travel. 

When Is Shoulder Season?

When a destination’s shoulder season occurs really depends. Peak season usually coincides with the summer months in most locations and almost always occurs during the ideal weather in that location. Timing is everything, and the shoulder season in a particular destination or region will occur just before or after significant events or seasonal spikes in travel. 

An easy example is when do most people want to go to Florida? When snow falls in the northeast in February and March, the sun shines on a Florida beach. They don’t want to go to Florida in June and July when the humidity is high, it rains every afternoon, and the bugs will eat you alive. They also don’t want to visit from August to October, when hurricane season is in full swing. So, shoulder season in Florida is April, May, and November. 

Here is a general guide to shoulder season around the globe:

Asia

The off-season in Japan is typically the winter months, with the shoulder season occurring during the spring and fall. However, one exception is around cherry blossom season (late March to early April) and Golden Week (a series of holidays). 

The shoulder season in Southeast Asia starts in April after the dry season and again in September and October after the rainy season. However, this varies by region and country.

Africa

In northern Africa, the shoulder season tends to fall in October and November. This is definitely true in Morocco, where the fall temperatures are ideal for visitors. Southern Africa is best visited in April or September for better prices and fewer crowds.

Caribbean

When exploring the Caribbean, you want to avoid peak season, which is January through March, and hurricane season from July to October. The best time to find shoulder season is either late April, May, or November. The one exception is the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao), which are outside the hurricane zone, so September and October are great months to explore during an extended fall shoulder season. 

Europe

For most of Europe, March to early May and September to October are considered shoulder seasons. In southern Europe, add November for destinations such as Croatia, Greece, Italy, and Spain.

North America

The Northeast US shoulder season tends to be early spring, April, and May, and late fall, October, and November (except during leaf season in New England, when October is peak season). In the Southeastern part of the country, the shoulder season is April, May, October, and November. You will find great prices in Florida after the snowbirds leave and before family vacations start. 

Southwest shoulder season coincides with the temperatures. You will find better prices in May and June before the temperatures soar and again in the fall months of October and November. Head to the Pacific Northwest in late spring and early fall for great weather and reduced prices. 

Hawaii actually has a shoulder season, which starts in September and goes through December. Although you might still risk a hurricane in September, prices are much lower in the fall. 

South America

The southern hemisphere offers a seasonal flip. Much of South America experiences fall in March and April and spring in October, when shoulder-season travel is at its best. 

Oceania

Again, the seasons are reversed here compared to the northern hemisphere. So, for the in-between season, look to March, April, May, and November. 

One big exception to these general guidelines is religious holidays and regional events. Think NYC on New Year’s Eve and Rio during carnival. 

View of the beach at Grote Knip in Curacao, one of the best beaches on the island.

Top Ways You Can Save During Shoulder Season Travel

Cheaper Flights

One of the most significant expenses while traveling is flying. And with packed planes during the peak travel season, it is hard to find a bargain. But outside of peak travel times, you can find some deals. On a recent search of flights to Honolulu from my hometown of Pittsburgh, the cheapest flight for a February trip to Hawaii was $737 on a one-stop flight. The same flights on the same airline in September were a steal at $600, a savings of nearly 20%. I found similar savings on flights to Paris, in July $1,004 and in September $828. 

These savings also extend to using points and miles. I have always found that the sweet spot for many destinations when using points is late August and early September. It’s back-to-school time, and travel is generally quiet this time of year, so you can book with fewer points. 

Cheaper Hotels

Finding better deals on hotels has become harder and harder lately. But shoulder season does offer a bit of a savings. In a recent comparison of Hawaii hotels, both 4- and 5-star options for traveling in September save you anywhere from 5% to 20% on the cost. And you will find the difference even more pronounced in the Caribbean; an Aruba hotel in February costs $663, while the same hotel in October costs $365 a night. That is nearly 50% off. Not only will you find cheaper prices, you will also find more availability than you will during peak season. 

My Top Shoulder Season Destinations

Below is a list of the top destinations to visit during their respective shoulder seasons. Based on potential savings and the overall quality of the experience. 

US National Parks

The worst thing in the travel world is visiting one of the major US National Parks during the peak summer travel season. Parks are overcrowded, lines are long, and the prices of nearby accommodations soar. For most major parks, such as Acadia, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Glacier, and Yellowstone National Park, the shoulder season occurs in May and late September through November. These are some great times to visit these parks. A good rule of thumb for National Parks is that a high season almost always coincides with the school calendar year, so prices spike when the kids are out of school. Acadia and Glacier might have some closures during the late spring and fall, but the experience will be much better overall. And nearby hotels are anywhere from 30-50% less during the shoulder season. The only time to avoid this area during the traditional shoulder season is fall foliage season, when prices once again spike. 

Headed to a National Park? Check out my post National Park Etiquette — Do’s And Don’t While Visiting.

Hawaii

The islands of Hawaii have two main high seasons for travel: winter and summer. Winter is filled with snowbirds and spring break getaways, while summer is family vacation time. The ideal time to visit Maui, Kauai, and Oahu is September-November. The weather is good, except for the possibility of hurricanes, and there are fewer people. Flights, hotel rates, and rental cars are cheaper, so it’s an excellent time to visit on a budget. I actually prefer Hawaii in the fall; it seems more authentic, and the weather and water are perfect.

Desert South West

The desert Southwest is most popular during the late winter months when temperatures are perfect, and there is ample sunshine. But outside of that prime season, you will find a few months when the weather is ideal and the prices are reasonable. You will find smaller crowds, moderate temperatures, and ample sunshine from May to early June and from early October to late November. Along with better prices, it’s the perfect time to visit. 

ABC Islands

Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao make up the ABC islands. While the shoulder season is a great time to visit most of the Caribbean, the ABCs are especially good due to their location outside the hurricane zone. The shoulder season is April-May and then again September-November. Prices drop, beaches are less crowded, and summer vacations are over. For more information and other islands to visit in September, check out the post The 5 Best Caribbean Islands to Visit in September.

Interlaken

Head to the Swiss Alps during the fall. You miss the ski season crowds and the summer tourists. And the weather can be perfect. The months of September and early October are the sweet spot. Towns in the Lauterbrunnen Valley start hibernating in late fall, waiting for ski season to start. But just before that time, you can find some great prices. 

Provence

Early spring and late fall are the best times to visit Provence. The weather is usually great, and the skies are clear blue, but the crowds haven’t arrived yet. It’s some of the best weather of the year. 

Mid-Atlantic Beaches

Summer is high season on all mid-Atlantic beaches. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, prices are at their peak, as are the crowds. Visit during the weeks after Labor Day, and you will find perfect weather and nearly empty beaches, especially on weekdays. And hotel rates are almost 50% less in some cases.

Pacific Northwest

The best time to visit Washington and Oregon is during the fall. There is a better chance of less rain and clouds, and there will be fewer crowds. Prices don’t drop much during the shoulder season, but if you look for them, you will find some savings over the summer. 

Northern California

Visiting San Franciso, Napa Valley, and Sonoma is always expensive. But you will find the best weather in the fall. You will also find smaller crowds and slightly cheaper prices. One thing to remember when you visit wine country is that autumn is harvest season, attracting many visitors, but mid-week stays are much more affordable in this region.

Vineyard with Mt Hood in background.

Shoulder Season Travel

Discovering the magic of shoulder season travel leads to substantial savings and the opportunity to experience top destinations worldwide without the crowds. It’s the golden window between peak seasons, offering moderate weather, fewer tourists, and discounted rates on accommodations and attractions. While there are compromises, such as the occasional closure of businesses and less predictable weather, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for many travelers.

Timing is crucial when planning a shoulder season adventure, as different regions experience their shoulder seasons at various times. 

Whether exploring the US National Parks, soaking up the sunshine on the beaches of the ABC Islands, or wandering the hillside villages of Provence, traveling during shoulder season offers a unique and unforgettable experience.

So, to maximize your travel savings and escape the crowds, consider traveling during shoulder season. It’s the ultimate secret to unlocking the world’s top destinations in a more relaxed and budget-friendly way.

Below are links and resources to help you plan The perfect trip

Travel Resources

  • HOTELS
    Booking.com and Expedia.com are great resources for accommodations around the world. Book almost any hotel directly from these links.
  • TOURS
    The best places to book tours and activities are Viator or Get Your Guide . From great food tours to guided hiking adventures to local walking tours, you will find great experiences to add to your travels here.
  • FOOD EXPERIENCES
    EatWith is a great resource for authentic culinary experiences with passionate locals worldwide. Connecting travelers with hosts in over 130 countries, providing unique, intimate, and immersive experiences in private homes and exclusive venues.
  • TRAINS
    Trainline is Europe’s leading train and coach app. They work with over 210 rail and coach companies to help their customers travel to thousands of destinations across 45 countries. 

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