7 Ways to Take Advantage of Shoulder Season and Save Big on Your Vacation
Consider shoulder season the key to enjoying five-star experiences on a three-star budget.
By Lindsay Tigar @ Real Simple
Every afternoon, you might find yourself aimlessly thumbing through Instagram, double-tapping any and all photos of far-away places. Your wanderlust overflows, but sadly, your bank account does not. With flights ringing up in the hundreds (or, eep, thousands), plus hotel nightly fees, it’s easy to go over budget on vacation, fast. Luckily, there is a trick that many travel professionals, frequent fliers, and travel bloggers take advantage of for more affordable vacations and fewer crowds, without sacrificing good weather and activity opportunities: the shoulder season.
What is shoulder season?
Shoulder season is the period of time (a few weeks or a month) between a destination’s low and high seasons of tourism, says Victoria Zindell, a luxury travel advisor for Protravel. Planning your vacation during shoulder season comes with plenty of benefits: more desirable pricing, fewer people, better access to attractions, and beyond.
“Traveling during this ‘in-between’ period typically affords a greater value, so it really does provide for a more optimal travel experience,” Zindell says.
So how can you make your hard-earned dollars go further once you’ve figured out how to save for a vacation? Try adopting these strategies for jet-setting during the shoulder season – your wallet and aversion to crowds will thank you.
1. Plan further in advance.
Sure, sometimes you can snag an amazing deal on a last-minute flight to the Caribbean. But generally speaking, travel blogger Janice Holly Booth says it’s better to book as early as possible for shoulder season dates. This time of year does attract fewer tourists than high season, but if you have your eye on a specific hotel or experience, you still need to be ahead of the pack.
“Shoulder season is becoming more and more attractive, especially for empty nesters, so don’t procrastinate,” she says. “Most of the time, you can always cancel if you decide to do something else. Plan ahead and pull the trigger early.”
2. Check flights.
Before you send a Doodle out to your friend group to plan a March shoulder season visit to Mexico, it’s probably smart to double-check flight options. Because shoulder season isn’t a popular time to visit, many airlines will decrease the amount of outgoing and incoming options they offer to save on costs, Zindell says. This means you can snag a great price for your flight, but you won’t have as many times or dates to choose between, which could be tricky when asking for time off or trying to find a common travel date for a group.
3. Be prepared for unpredictable weather.
One of the reasons shoulder season is less expensive is the weather. Many people aren’t fans of trekking to a beach when it’ll rain daily, but others don’t mind a 10-minute downpour and cloudy skies. Some folks may only want to visit a ski resort when there’s snow on the ground and forget about the outdoor adventures a mountain offers in the summer.
If you decide to take a weather risk and test out a shoulder season vacation, Tiffany Bowne, a luxury travel advisor and owner of Lounge Couture, says to make sure you are prepared for less than ideal weather. “There are no guarantees, even if you travel in peak season, that there aren’t weather issues, so you could end up with perfect weather during shoulder season. Go anyway!” she says.
4. Score big at a hard-to-get dinner reservation.
No matter how hard you try, it seems nearly impossible to get into the legendary Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark—one of the best dining experiences in the world. The same is true for many three-star Michelin experiences and behind-the-scenes tours of the Vatican in Rome. That’s when shoulder season will work in your favor, according to Eric Hrubant, president and owner of CIRE Travel. Because there are fewer people willing to venture to a destination when the weather isn’t perfect, you won’t have to fight as hard for a seat at the table. And, during shoulder season, more people (visitors or locals) cancel their reservations if a forecast is not favorable. Keep an eye out—and book the chance when it comes.
5. Experience a five-star property at a three-star rate.
You may have dreams of experiencing iconic hotels and resorts, especially if you follow the travelers of Instagram, but a $500 nightly rate might not be something you’re comfortable paying. For those with five-star visions but a three-star spending limit, the shoulder season can finally give you the opportunity to be bougie on a budget, according to Bowne. If you can swing the vacation days, she says many hotels will offer a perk for longer stays—typically longer than three days—to fill the unbooked inventory. Whether you receive a night for free, breakfast included, or other perks, it’s worth the research.
6. Research what’s open and closed.
Before finalizing your shoulder season trip, Hrubant encourages travelers to confirm the opening and closing dates of attractions and other travel activities. These include ports, restaurants, parks, and so on that are sometimes closed in the off-season. Even hotels and resorts may close during the off-season.
“Don’t be like the Griswold Family and drive across the country to find out that the amusement park is closed for the season,” Hrubant says. “Do your research to make sure that the places you want to see and the experiences you want to have will be open or available.”
If something isn’t available or you can’t see every last item on your list during the shoulder season, don’t give up. Instead, figure out what plan B might be or research how you can fill your time in other ways. As travel blogger Inma Gregorio says, sometimes you’ll find a hidden gem that you otherwise would have skipped or discounted.
7. Go where the party isn’t.
While some folks want to stay up until dawn drinking with locals when they’re traveling, others value the opportunity to disconnect and unwind. If you’re part of the latter group, going where the party isn’t will save you big, according to Bowne. In fact, any time you select a destination during the shoulder season, choosing a spot that’s more about scenery than scene will prove cost-effective.
“If you are looking to go to St. Tropez or Mykonos in March or April, it will be a different tourist crowd than it would be in July,” she says. “The energy and nightlife is much different, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a fabulous trip. Choose shoulder season not because of who else will be there but the destination itself.”
If you’re worried about becoming bored or disengaged on your trip, Booth encourages travelers to take the shoulder season as an opportunity to practice something few of us ever do: slowing down. “Take advantage of the fact that you might actually be the only person on the trail in the morning. Slow down, listen, notice, drink in the sounds of nature absent the ever-present noise from humans,” she says. “You’re traveling shoulder season for a reason. Make the most of it.” Your next staycation can wait.