8 Destinations That Are Better (and Cheaper) During Shoulder Season
Travel has rebounded in a big way this year but finding room in the budget for that dream vacation is more challenging than ever.
A report from Visa indicates U.S. domestic travel is booming, but some travel expenses have increased by nearly 50% since 2020.
Making your travel dollars stretch to that trendy, Instagram-worthy destination is tricky, but there are ways to cut travel costs significantly.
Whether you plan to visit Europe or the next state over, the best bet to snag travel deals and save money is to plan your trip during shoulder season.
Wait, What Is Shoulder Season?
Shoulder season may sound strange, but it has nothing to do with clothing and collarbones. The tourism industry has three primary seasons: peak, shoulder and low or off season.
- Peak or high season is when a destination is the most crowded, usually for a few weeks or months.
- Off or low season is when the tourists empty out, and the locals hunker down, usually due to seasonal changes that make it too hot or cold to visit comfortably.
- Shoulder seasons are that sweet spot in between when the crowds part and lower prices prevail.
When Is Shoulder Season?
The timing of shoulder seasons depends on which part of the world you visit. Generally, there are two shoulder seasons: early spring and fall. Because seasons are opposite in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, the weather concerns are slightly different, but the shoulder season remains the same.
There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule. For instance, leaf peepers shift New England’s shoulder season toward November after trees hit peak foliage.
On the Pacific Coast, the shoulder season keeps sliding earlier into the spring as intense heat waves become more common.
So do your research before you spend those vacation days on shoulder season travel.
8 Popular Destinations Where Shoulder Season Is Just Right
Certainly, not every shoulder season is created equal. While it’s cheaper to go to the beach in March, you’ll miss out on the coveted sunshine you’ve been saving for.
Here are eight destinations where traveling during shoulder season pays off without costing you any vacation goals.
- U.S. National Parks (September & October)
- The Pacific Northwest (October)
- Europe (October & November)
- New York City (November)
- Los Angeles (March & April)
- The Caribbean (April & May)
- New England (June)
- Hawaii (September)
1. U.S. National Parks
When to go: September & October
National parks, especially those in the West, fill up in the summer and empty when school begins. This makes fall a perfect time to hit a few when cooler temps prevail and before snowfall forces road closures.
Pro tip: There are also two free park days in the fall when entrance fees are waived: Sept. 24, National Public Lands Day, and Nov. 11, Veterans Day. For more details, visit the National Park Service online.
2. The Pacific Northwest
When to go: October
Hit metros like Portland and Seattle ahead of the winter holidays, when peak summer tourism has faded. October is the perfect time to throw on some plaid and Doc Martens and grab a cheap flight.
While there are more overcast days in the fall, you’ll miss the rainy season that starts in November.
Pro tip: Pondering a drive down the Pacific coast? Use our budget road trip tips.
When to go: October & November
Skip the summer backpackers riding the Eurail and visit Europe in the late fall. You’ll enjoy cooler temperatures that’ll make even the dusty heat of Rome bearable and get to take in peak foliage and fall festivals throughout the continent.
Pro tip: So organizing a European tour yourself isn’t your thing, book an affordable travel tour instead.
4. New York City
When to go: November
While visiting New York City in January and February is cheaper, winter temperatures can make it less than enjoyable.
Instead, choose to hit the calm before the Christmas holiday storm. Book your trip to the Big Apple in November when room rates ease and flights are cheaper.
Pro tip: Plan your trip on a budget with our recommendations for 20 free things to do in NYC.
5. Los Angeles
When to go: March & April
While you should avoid spring break travel when you book, the city of Angels is temperate and welcoming in the early spring. And the spring shoulder season is a better bet for travelers as the early fall months risk seasonal wildfires.
Pro tip: Check out travel freebies and deals in Los Angeles.
6. The Caribbean
When to go: April & May
A late spring Caribbean vacation fits the bill if you’re dreaming of long stretches of sand. You’ll be early enough to avoid the summer rush and late enough to miss spring break chaos and hoards of college students. Temperatures are moderate, and you should miss hurricane season and other extreme weather that might throw a wrench in your travel plans.
Pro tip: Are you considering a cruise? Check out our money-saving cruise tips.
7. New England
When to go: June
It can be hard to avoid fall foliage crowds and the hum of the Christmas holidays, but a narrow window in early June is ideal for visiting New England. Enjoy all the pleasantries of summer without the hassle of July and August when even small coastal towns on the Cape swell to twice their size.
Pro tip: Worried you’ll have to build a car rental into your budget? Try a carless destination like Burlington or Boston.
When to go: September
Hawaii is a popular destination for spring break and summer vacations, so you’ll catch this tropical paradise at its best during the shoulder season in September. The weather is still incredible, and many islands hold Aloha festivals, which are like little local block parties with a big Polynesian personality.
Pro tip: Airfare to Hawaii can break the bank, so use our tips for booking with budget airlines.
How Much Money Can You Save Traveling During Shoulder Season?
Avoiding peak months and hitting shoulder season can earn you lower prices on some of the highest travel costs, including airfare and hotel accommodations. You may save around 15% to 20% or more on flights.
Hotels and other accommodations also have significantly reduced rates during shoulder season.
For instance, a hotel room in New York City that averages $350 per night in December falls to about half that rate in late January and February. Fall shoulder season in the Big Apple sees hotel room rates ease to $175 per night.
That brings hotel costs down 50% from $1,750 for a five-day trip during the peak season to a more affordable $875 for the same trip during the shoulder season.
5 Reasons Shoulder Season Travel Saves Money
1. Cheap Flights
One of the biggest travel expenses can be airfare, but it’s also the biggest opportunity to save on flights to popular destinations. Use an airfare price tracker to see seasonal shifts in ticket prices and sign up for alerts to shop sales from major airlines.
Be aware that the travel industry also offers deals on using points during shoulder seasons, so consider getting a travel credit card that racks up miles.
2. Cheaper Hotels
Some of the most significant price swings occur when you’re paying premium hotel rates during peak season. To maximize your savings, become a club member at a hotel chain you frequent and search for special member or shoulder season deals.
“For example, I might want to visit Savannah, Georgia, in the early spring, their usual shoulder season, but I would see that they have a huge St. Patrick’s Day celebration every year that I would need to plan around,” Beckford advises. “So, it might be better to go in the fall shoulder season.”
3. Fewer Crowds
Seeing a dream destination without the crowds — especially in your photos — is priceless. But it’s worth noting that fewer tourists can save more than a hassle. Fewer people mean less time in line at attractions and quicker service at restaurants, hotels and even the airport.
If you’ve opted not to rent a car, less people mean less congestion on the road and hopefully reduced fares in taxis, ride shares and other modes of transportation. That is, there’s less demand so prices drop.
4. More Choices
Not only is there less competition for seats with extra legroom on the flight, but there’s also less risk the sights you want to see will be closed. In the off-peak seasons, some attractions and businesses close temporarily due to weather or low demand.
However, the shoulder season still has enough tourist traffic to keep the popular spots open and mild weather should prevail long enough to check off your bucket list items.
5. Authentic Experiences
As the locals will tell you, all the authentic flavor of a destination happens when the tourists go home. Shoulder seasons are when you’re more likely to experience local events and festivals.
When the crowds thin out, you get a better view of iconic tourist spots and a slower pace that encourages visitors to savor opportunities for a deeper connection to a destination.
Consider Travel Insurance for Shoulder Season
Shoulder season and its savings come with a little more risk than peak season travel. Usually, these months are not ideal times to visit due to the weather.
So if you travel during shoulder season, consider travel insurance in case something goes awry. That way, you’ll salvage at least some of your vacation savings to put towards next year’s trip.
Kaz Weida is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.