In many ways, traveling in 2021 was more difficult than it was in 2020. And while the demand for travel returned, there were often not enough hospitality staff, resulting in long waits at airports and hotel check-in desks. and restaurants.
Most of the eye-catching travel deals seen in 2020, have fizzled out, giving way to price increases, such as soaring car rental prices. Despite social distancing recommendations, travelers often found themselves in ever larger crowds. The mobs yelling about airline customer service counters to rebook canceled flights left people barely 6 inches – not to mention 6 feet.
This year may bring similar challenges for travelers, but here’s a good way to avoid most of them: travel during “shoulder season.”
The definition of shoulder season varies with destination, but it usually means the period of time between an area’s peak season and out of season. This time range can only last months or weeks. For example, if somewhere the peak season is summer and winter is outside of winter, then the shoulder season will be spring and fall. Alternatively, a place may see peak travel during the weekend, but demand will fall on the weekend before or after – these times can also be considered shoulder season.
Here are five reasons why shoulder season is the best time to travel, especially during a pandemic.
1. Expect to pay lower prices compared to peak seasonal travel
Average airfares were 23% cheaper when booking for shoulder season versus high season travel. That’s according to a December 2021 NerdWallet analysis of more than 100 flights taken on the most popular routes in the United States across eight major airlines.
The same routes were compared for trips booked on peak days versus shoulder season, with peak season trips being those booked for the Monday before or after a major holiday. In contrast, the shoulder season trips were those made two weeks before or after that date.
The difference was even more pronounced over the Christmas period: average airfares were 50% cheaper when booking for Monday, January 10, versus Monday, December 27.
2. You won’t be competing too much for covered reservations
These higher flight prices usually stem from supply and demand – which means that demand is higher during peak season.
The increased interest leads to more competition across the board, whether for a hotel room at the price you want or the opportunity to get tickets for that concert. And that’s just scratching the surface. Restaurants are more likely to fill up, planes fly with fewer empty seats and longer waits, and free upgrades are less likely.
Book during shoulder season and you’ll be competing with fewer people for the best experiences.
3. You won’t see many external closings
While the demand is high during the high season, sometimes the demand falls so low during the holiday season that the places you want to visit are not open. Boat tour operators may board for the winter, and the charming ski town’s cafes can close for the summer.
For example, the average number of visitors to Zion National Park in Utah is about 16% of the number of visitors who come during the high season in July, and most tourists will have a rough patch. Snow forces certain routes to be closed, some roads become unavailable to drivers, and the museum and services such as shuttle buses are unavailable.
Alternatively, consider a trip during September’s shoulder season, when crowds are only about 85% of the park’s peak but most amenities are available. Plus, you’ll benefit from mild weather and the appearance of fall colors.
All over the world, hotels often take the time to do renovations, so the pool may become no-go. Airlines usually cut their routes, so you’ll have less flexibility in deciding the day or time you can travel.
But the shoulder season is unlikely to involve such challenges. Travel before the summer crowds arrive and you may be pleasantly surprised by a newly renovated hotel room. Head into the mountains right after the winter break to take advantage of the slopes that are still snowy without many skiers on them.
4. The weather is generally good
Shoulder season likely won’t bring the extreme heat or storms that come with out of the area. And in some cases, the weather during the shoulder season is better than during the high season.
Summers at Florida theme parks are often wet and humid—and that’s before you add in crowds of out-of-school kids. During shoulder season, you might forgo the sunny summer days at the beach, but you’ll usually get mild weather.
Shoulder season in the Rockies may not involve the romance of white snow surrounding a cozy cabin. But, you can pack the light and leave the jacket at home.
5. You are likely to have a unique local experience
Tourist hotspots usually want crowds all year round, so they often host events, concerts, and other celebrations that don’t happen at times when crowds are big anyway.
Food festivals in theme parks are among the most popular shoulder season delights. Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in Southern California hosts its annual Blackberry Festival from March through April. Hawaii comes alive in fall with festivals spanning several islands, including the annual Waikik i Ho’olaule’a, a giant block party on Oahu, and Kauai Mokihana, a week-long celebration of Hawaiian culture.