Going on vacation during the summer can be tough. Hotels are full, beaches are packed, traffic’s a nightmare and it’s not always easy to get the relaxing trip you crave.
Shoulder season is the time between a destination’s high season and low season — between the times everyone’s visiting, and the period when all the restaurants shut down.
When is Shoulder Season?
Every region or town has a different shoulder season, and it may not be when you’d expect it to be. You’ll need to look up the right times for your preferred destinations.
For example, I live in Jackson, Wyoming, a town that sees upwards of three million visitors each summer. Typically, people stop in town on their way to Yellowstone National Park.
After Labor Day rolls around, visitors often flock to town thinking they’ll find great shoulder season travel deals. But that’s not the case.
Coming to Jackson in September typically won’t be any cheaper than visiting in July. Why? After family summer vacations end and school bells ring, many couples decide to travel. Also, a huge art festival draws tons of visitors each September.
However, if you come to Jackson in mid-to-late October, you may be able to save quite a bit. Fall is typically gorgeous, though the weather’s a bit of a gamble.
Each area will have its own unique shoulder season, and it’s hard to guess. One great way to get an idea of potential shoulder seasons is to simply call local hotels and ask them when their prices will drop after peak times.
Typical Shoulder Seasons
Have a particular destination in mind? Here are some good times to visit these popular destinations, according to Budget Travel.
Mexico and the Caribbean
You don’t want to be around during hurricane season, and the holidays bring huge crowds. But sneak to this region in between those times and you can find some great deals.
Hit the beaches of Mexico and the Caribbean in November and early December.
You can save up to 43% during fall shoulder season in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, says Yahoo Travel.
Be wary of heading to any hurricane-prone destination during peak storm season, though — and be sure to buy travel insurance.
March is often a good time to take advantage of nice early spring weather while traipsing around capital cities. Another good window is between Labor Day and late October.
Skip the holidays and peak seasons to avoid the crowds. Either come in early December, when snow coverage may be low, or opt for late March and April, though snow may be slushy, for lower prices and fewer crowds.
For more ideas, check out this post on travel blog BootsnAll.
Keep in mind the unpredictability of shoulder season weather — there’s a reason this isn’t high season.
Be prepared for adverse conditions, and have a backup plan if you’re planning outdoor adventures. Flexibility is key to enjoying shoulder season travel.
Also consider buying travel insurance so you’re prepared if an unseasonable blizzard or unexpected hurricane interrupts your plans. Be sure to check all the terms of your policy to make sure it covers weather interruptions.
Save on Transportation
When peak tourist season is ending in a popular location, many car rental companies let people drive one-way out of the area for dirt cheap. For example, many Florida car rental companies let people drive north inexpensively during the spring when they’re trying to relocate their fleet.
Also, keep an eye out for cheap airfare specials during shoulder seasons. Be sure to browse in private mode or clear your computer’s cookies and cache between searches, though, since sites often raise rates if they know you’re particularly interested in a destination.
Save on Hotels
During shoulder season, many hotels scramble to fill their beds. This is a great time to attempt to negotiate your room rate. Ask for a discount, especially if you’re staying for three or more nights.
If you can’t get a reduced rate, see if you can get the clerk to throw in a few extras, like free breakfast at the hotel restaurant or a spa service. Also be sure to take advantage of any deals you can get with memberships such as AAA or AARP.
Save on Activities
From whitewater rafting to horseback riding, you can probably find deals during shoulder season. When fewer visitors are in town, businesses still want paying customers to enjoy their activities, and they may be willing to offer reduced rates.
Ask about off-season discounts, group deals and other ways to save if you have a particular activity in mind. Check Groupon for off-season discounts as well.
The shoulder season might not be the perfect time to visit your destination, but if it means you save a bundle on your trip — or your vacation savings account hits your target this year instead of next year — you might decide it’s worth it.
Want travel hacking tips to help make the most of your vacation, or even pay for your trip with points? Check out the Travel Hacking Cartel, a community of travel experts.
Your Turn: Have you taken advantage of shoulder season? Where did you go, and how much did you save?
Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!
Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.