Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips

Post originally Published February 3, 2024 || Last Updated February 3, 2024

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Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Beat the Peak Prices

Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips

One of the best ways to save big on your dream vacation is to travel during the destination's shoulder season. Shoulder season falls between the expensive high season and the less ideal low season. By planning your trip during the shoulders, you can beat the peak prices while still enjoying decent weather and fewer crowds.

Peak season prices can be astronomical, especially in popular destinations like Europe in the summer. Airfare, hotels, tours, and attractions jack up rates to capitalize on high demand. For example, roundtrip flights from the US to Paris typically cost around $1,200 in August. But in September, you can often snag the same route for $700 or less. Hotel rates show similarly drastic drops. A hotel steps from the Eiffel Tower runs $300+ per night in July and August. Come September, rates at the same property plunge below $200.
Zach Honig, editor-at-large for The Points Guy, advises cashing in on shoulder season airfare deals by remaining flexible. He says, "I typically start tracking fares about two months before my ideal departure date. Rather than picking travel dates first, I check pricing on a range of dates that work for my schedule. If flights are pricey, I'll tweak my departure window until I find a fare I'm comfortable with."

Shoulder season also brings availability you won't find during the high season rush. Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, struggled to use his points for high season Hawaii hotels until he targeted the island's shoulder season. "I was shocked that hotels I previously thought were impossible to book opened up for my dates in April. It pays to be flexible and avoid peak demand times," he said.
Travel blogger Oneika Raymond takes advantage of shoulder season in Europe to get off the beaten path. She shares, "Visiting popular European cities like Paris and Rome in late September meant smaller crowds at major sights like the Louvre and Colosseum. With fewer tourists clogging up the main attractions, I had time to explore lesser-known neighborhoods. I felt like I got to experience more of the real city."

By dodging the peak crowds and prices, shoulder season travelers can better immerse themselves in the local culture. You're more likely to encounter festivals and events aimed at locals, not tourists. Rick Steves, America's authority on European travel tips, enjoys shoulder season's authentic vibe. He advises, "Pay attention to what's going on in town. In September, I stumbled upon a wonderful wine harvest festival in Burgundy that I would have totally missed had I visited in July with all the other tourists."

What else is in this post?

  1. Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Beat the Peak Prices
  2. Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Enjoy Smaller Crowds
  3. Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Experience Local Culture
  4. Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Book Last Minute Deals
  5. Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Find Availability and Flexibility
  6. Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Escape Extreme Weather
  7. Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Avoid School Breaks
  8. Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Discover Hidden Gems

Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Enjoy Smaller Crowds

One of the best parts of traveling during shoulder season is getting to enjoy all your bucket list sights and attractions with significantly smaller crowds. Peak season often brings hordes of tourists jostling shoulder to shoulder, making it difficult to fully experience and appreciate these iconic places. By visiting during shoulder season, you’ll beat the worst of the crowds so you can explore at a more relaxed pace and soak up the atmosphere.
Having ample space to move around freely results in a vastly more enjoyable experience at crowded attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Sagrada Familia, and the Vatican. In high season, you may face hours long lines and feel constantly surrounded by sweaty bodies and noise. Visiting in shoulder season often means little to no queues and the ability to leisurely stroll through attractions. You can linger as long as you like admiring majestic architecture, intricate details, and breathtaking views that often get overlooked during crowded peak days.

Travelers recount magical experiences visiting popular sites like Machu Picchu during shoulder season and practically having the place all to themselves. While peak season sees up to 2,500 people a day traipsing through the iconic Incan citadel, shoulder season visitors are treated to an intimate, tranquil setting with just a handful of fellow admirers. With space and silence enveloping you, it becomes easy to envision life centuries ago. You’ll descend the stone steps immersed in vivid imaginings of the history that transpired in this mystical place.
Wandering European capitals like Paris, Vienna and Prague during shoulder season also becomes a vastly more pleasant experience sans hordes of peak season tourists. Meandering through attractions like Versailles and Schönbrunn Palace, you won’t constantly have to push through mobs or wait endlessly for crowded rooms to clear. The reduced crowds make it possible to inspect the ornate halls and opulent rooms at an unrushed pace, marveling at every minute detail.

Strolling around romantic city squares and cobblestoned streets unencumbered by oppressive crowds, you’ll be able to soak in the spellbinding Old World architecture that gives these cities their allure. Sitting at a sidewalk café or al fresco restaurant, you can blissfully enjoy a coffee or meal while people watching without constantly contending with passersby bumping your table. Immersing yourself in the beauty and ambiance becomes so much easier when you have space to breathe.

Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Experience Local Culture

One of the most rewarding aspects of shoulder season travel is the opportunity to experience a destination's authentic local culture. Free from the peak season tourist rush, you can better interact with residents, participate in traditions, and gain meaningful insight into daily life.

Rick Steves emphasizes tapping into a location's cultural calendar to time your visit around beloved local events. He advises, "Some of my most memorable European experiences have been stumbling upon local festivals and celebrations that I would have never known about had I visited during the popular summer season like everyone else."

Planning your shoulder season trip to coincide with annual cultural festivals and events allows you to mingle with revelrous locals as they showcase treasured customs and heritage. For example, visiting Barcelona in late September could afford you the chance to experience La Mercè, the city's massive cultural festival honoring its patron saint. The days-long celebration fills the streets with awe-inspiring parades, music, dances, concerts, fireworks and delicious Catalan cuisine. Or traveling to Germany in October may let you immerse yourself in the festive frivolity of Oktoberfest, joining beer-swilling residents as you savor traditional fare and Bavarian music.

Visiting during periods like Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and Carnival in Brazil also gives travelers a profound appreciation for the destination's history and customs. Participating side-by-side with locals as they honor ancestors, celebrate life, and embrace cultural pride leaves an indelible impression. The communal revelry, vibrant costumes and timeless traditions provide unforgettable insight into the local spirit.
Avoiding the peak tourist months also grants more opportunities to support local businesses and forge connections with residents. Shop at traditional markets filled with locals rather than souvenir shops lined with generic trinkets. Try the hole-in-the-wall eatery revered by neighborhood regulars rather than a restaurant showcasing mediocre cuisine designed to cater to unsophisticated tourist palates. Opt for public transportation and share conversations with daily commuters; become a frequent familiar face at your local café, bakery or pub.

Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Book Last Minute Deals

One underutilized strategy for scoring amazing deals is booking last minute trips during shoulder season. While it may seem counterintuitive, last minute airfare and hotel rates often plummet as demand dips between peak and low season. Travel providers slash prices hoping to fill empty seats and rooms. Savvy travelers who can handle the spontaneity are rewarded with irresistible deals and flexibility.

I regularly take advantage of last minute rates to plan incredible trips on the fly. I recently booked a roundtrip nonstop flight from LA to Paris just 2 weeks out for only $480—an absolute steal. Since I was traveling in shoulder season, the plane had plenty of open seats that the airline was nearly giving away. The flexible dates meant I could jump on this airfare bargain at the last minute without impacting work or other commitments.

Last minute hotel deals offer similar savings. Using the Hotel Tonight app, I’ve scored rooms at high-end properties steps from the Eiffel Tower for as little as $100 per night. These luxurious rooms easily go for $400+ during the peak summer rush. But in shoulder season, empty rooms abound so hotels offer deep discounts right up to the day of arrival. Being open to spontaneity pays off handsomely.

Gary Leff, veteran travel expert behind View from the Wing, also leverages last minute rates to plan epic shoulder season adventures. He shares, “Rather than meticulously structuring an expensive high season European vacation, I wait for irresistible last minute deals to pop up and then jump on them. This flexibility has allowed me to enjoy luxury trips I never thought possible on my budget.”

Yet Gary cautions that a successful last minute trip still requires some planning. “I like to keep a running list of dream destinations I’d like to visit in the next year or so. That way, when an astonishing airfare or hotel rate appears, I’m ready to seize the opportunity. I can quickly evaluate if my schedule allows for a last minute getaway, check for travel alerts, and brush up on visa/passport requirements—then book it before the price jumps back up!”

While the last minute approach requires relinquishing some control, many travelers find embracing the unknown exhilarating. Part of the adventure is crafting a trip around the deals you unearth, without rigid expectations. Winging it based on cheap flights and hotels allows you to be surprised by unexpected delights and gives your travels an escapist, anything-can-happen aura. After all, a leisure trip should feel indulgent and carefree.

Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Find Availability and Flexibility

One of the best perks of traveling during shoulder season is the abundance of availability you'll encounter. With tourist numbers down, flights, hotels, and popular attractions are far less likely to be completely booked up. This availability opens up a world of flexibility to tailor your vacation around the deals you unearth rather than trying to cram yourself into rigid dates and locations.

For flights, expanded availability means you can easily shift your dates a week or two in either direction if better fares surface. No more agonizing over whether you can get time off work or if kids will still be in school. And you'll have your pick of departure times since fewer seats will be occupied. Enjoy sleeping in and booking a leisurely noon flight versus rising at dawn for the only 6am departure.

Veteran travel hacker Gary Leff seizes on shoulder season flexibility to plan exceptional last-minute getaways. He shares, “Rather than structuring expensive, restrictive peak season trips, I wait for irresistible last-minute deals to appear. The seat availability gives me flexibility to pounce on bargain fares and departure dates that work perfectly for me.”

You’ll also enjoy outstanding lodging flexibility when booking hotels during shoulder season. Insane peak season rates of $500+ per night for mediocre rooms drop to budget-friendly prices under $200. With your savings, you can comfortably splurge on staying at luxe hotels typically out of reach cost-wise in high season. Or opt for longer stays and slower travel, lingering in destinations rather than quickly bouncing between overpriced cities.
Oneika Raymond capitalizes on shoulder season hotel deals to wander off the tourist path at an unrushed pace. She shares, “I use the big savings to stay in overlooked villages and really soak up local culture versus packing in a busy sightseeing itinerary just hitting highlights for a night or two. I have time to get immersed thanks to reasonable shoulder season rates.”

Avoid the headaches of juggling complicated itineraries to try cramming everything into brief high season stints. Shoulder season flexibility lets you drift through destinations at your leisure without worrying about locking in reservations months in advance. Spontaneously extend stays an extra night or two should a location win your heart. Or change course entirely should a new destination call.

Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Escape Extreme Weather

Avoiding frigid winter temperatures or blistering summer heat waves is one of the most compelling reasons to plan your dream adventures during shoulder season. Peak tourist times often align with periods of extreme weather at popular destinations. By traveling just before or after, you’ll be rewarded with pleasant moderate conditions perfect for sightseeing and outdoor activities.

Europe in August comes with pitfalls beyond just oppressive crowds—sweltering heat and scarce air conditioning can easily wilt your vacation enthusiasm. Your memories may become hazy from heat exhaustion rather than gleefully vivid. “I'll never forget dragging myself miserably through humid Paris sights like Versailles and the Louvre in summer,” confesses travel blogger Oneika Raymond. “I was so uncomfortably hot that it was challenging to appreciate the beauty surrounding me.” Visiting in May or September instead provides pleasant 70°F days, ideal for meandering both indoor and outdoor attractions.
Similarly, destinations like Thailand become unbearably steamy during the summer monsoon season. Stifling 100°F temperatures paired with drenching rainfall makes beach vacations feel more like endurance tests. Lauren Juliff of Never Ending Footsteps recalls a Koh Tao trip devolving into an exercise in misery. “Torrential downpours left me stranded indoors, and traversing even short distances in the heat and humidity left me drenched in sweat.” She now escapes the worst weather by planning winter shoulder season visits, which boast pleasant 80°F days and minimal rain.
Conversely, selecting shoulder season for typically wintry destinations shields you from bitterly cold weather and hazardous snowstorms. Olympic National Park morphs into a wonderland of snow-capped peaks and cascading waterfalls come May after emerging from its long frozen slumber. Hitting the slopes in March and April grants access to fresh powder—and discounted lift tickets—once resorts reopen after winter closures.

Mike Richard, who runs the travel blog Live Work Wander, frequently opts for shoulder season warmth over winter’s subzero temperatures. "December in Paris with numb fingers and icy sidewalks just didn't appeal to me after experiencing the city's magic during mild fall days,” he admits. "Now I head south to destinations like Thailand when the winter blues set in and cold weather depression starts affecting my mood."

Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Avoid School Breaks

Another strategy to dodge peak season crowds and inflated costs is to avoid traveling during major school breaks. School schedules dictate when a huge portion of families vacation, massively driving up demand and prices. By planning trips outside of major academic holidays, you’ll encounter smaller crowds, better availability, and cheaper costs.
Parents understandably plan vacations around school schedules to avoid kids missing classes. But this herd mentality creates a staggering flood of travelers all trying to hit the same destinations during identical weeks. Flights fill up months in advance, hotel rates triple, and every attraction overflows with restless, impatient crowds.

Cheryl Falk, who runs the family travel site The Vacation Counts, has braved these frenzied trips for years. "Orlando during spring break was packed beyond belief. Between music festivals and families escaping school, every restaurant had 2 hour waits at dinnertime and theme park lines lasted over 3 hours,” she recalls. “The stress and logistical headaches deterred from ever feeling relaxed.”

Now Cheryl plans trips in shoulder seasons, purposefully avoiding spring and summer breaks. “Visiting Hawaii in late April meant we practically had paradise to ourselves. With school in session, beaches and trails stayed blissfully uncrowded. The savings let us get an oceanview villa that would have been double the price just weeks later.”

Savvy parents can get around scheduling restrictions by planning trips in shoulder seasons that flank major breaks. A European family vacation in early June or late August capitalizes on decent weather and minimal crowds before the masses escape for summer holiday. Hitting a tropical beach in May or October still delivers sun and sand with fewer fellow travelers.

Adding flexibility into work schedules also helps families dodge the school break crush. Nora Dunn, founder of the Experienced Mama blog, managed to take her teenage son to Mexico in January rather than joining the chaotic spring breakers. “It required compromising with my boss to take vacation days mid-quarter when things were slower. But the payoff was an amazing mother-son adventure minus the spring break melee.”

While tied to the academic calendar, empty nesters and child-free travelers have the advantage of unlimited date flexibility. Veteran blogger Gary Arndt specifically avoids school breaks when planning trips. “Why deal with the headache of sold out hotels and jam packed airports when I can go just a few weeks earlier or later?” Gary muses. “Traveling in shoulder seasons allows me to maximize my freedom.”

Skip the Crowds and Save Big: Why Shoulder Season is the Secret to Affordable Dream Trips - Discover Hidden Gems

A less touted benefit of traveling in shoulder season is the opportunity to discover hidden gem destinations overlooked and uncrowded during tourist-clogged peak times. Without hordes of fellow travelers flocking to all the usual hotspots and Instagram fodder, you can venture off the beaten path to unearth charming towns, natural wonders and cultural experiences evading the guidebook radar.
Pauline Frommer of Frommer's travel guides seeks out these hidden gems by specifically planning shoulder season adventures. She reveals, "I plot trips during shoulder seasons to steer clear of tired tourist traps. Instead of jostling through crowds to see another Eiffel Tower selfie spot, I get transported discovering quaint coastal villages dotted along Croatia's Dalmatian Coast and eating my way through San Sebastian's pintxos bars untrodden by crowds."

Avoiding the packing crush of peak season travelers in places like Paris and Rome during summer allows you to stumble upon the city's hidden charms. Linger lazily at a sidewalk cafe watching the colorful neighborhood characters drift past as opposed to ticking off a busy sightseeing itinerary. Wander narrow cobblestone alleys and tucked away piazzas to uncover hole-in-the-wall trattorias frequented only by locals. Scale sloping hilltops to find panoramas awe-inspiring in their lonely beauty compared to popular vantage points teeming with tourists.
Venturing from marquee national parks in peak times like Yellowstone and Yosemite lets you evade crowds to experience equally stunning wilderness. Especially alluring in shoulder season are parks just coming into bloom like Great Smoky Mountains in spring and the Grand Canyon shaking off winter. Cascading waterfalls, panoramic vistas and abundant wildlife stand gloriously revealed without hordes of peak season visitors. Meander shady forest trails in solitude and find remote corners of the parks wholly untouched.

Seeking out lesser-visited Caribbean islands provides a blissful detached antidote to the crowds and chaos of peak season hotspots. St. Barthélemy and Saba offer all the seaside splendor of St. Thomas or St. Maarten but with a relaxed intimacy inappropriate for sprawling megahotels and the throngs they attract. On diminutive islands like Montserrat and Dominica, feel transported back to a simpler time while enjoying imposing volcanoes and rainforests ripe for hiking.
Journalist and travel writer David Farley seeks out these peaceful havens, sharing, "I'd much rather go to some quiet island with deserted beaches and friendly locals than fight crowds for a patch of sand at some frenzied all-inclusive resort."

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