In many ways, travel was more challenging in 2021 than it was in 2020. While demand for travel returned, it was often understaffed in the hospitality industry, leading to long waits at airports, hotel check-in counters and restaurants.
The high profile travel deals seen in 2020 largely faded away and gave way to price increases, such as rising rental car prices. Despite social distancing recommendations, travelers often found themselves in larger crowds than ever. The mob clamored around airline customer service counters to rebook canceled flights, leaving people barely six inches apart – let alone six feet tall.
This year may present similar challenges to travelers, but here’s a good way to get around most of them: travel during “shoulder season.”
The definition of the shoulder season varies by destination, but it usually means the period between the high season and the low season in a region. This span of time can last for months or just weeks. For example, if the high season of a place is summer and the low season is winter, the mid-season would be spring and fall. Alternatively, a place may experience peak travel during a holiday weekend, but demand will decrease 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 the pandemic.
1. EXPECT PRICES TO PAY LOWER THAN FOR HIGH SEASON TRAVEL
Airfares were on average 23% cheaper when booked for mid-season versus high-season travel. That’s according to a NerdWallet analysis conducted in December 2021 of more than 100 airline tickets from the most popular routes in the US on eight major airlines.
The same routes were compared for flights booked for peak or mid-season days, with peak season flights being those booked for the Monday before or after a major holiday. In contrast, the flights in the shoulder season were those two weeks before or after that date.
The difference was greatest around Christmas: flights were on average 50% cheaper when booked for Monday 10 January versus Monday 27 December.
2. YOU WON’T GET SO MUCH COMPETITION FOR DESIRED RESERVATIONS
Those higher flight prices usually stem from supply and demand, meaning demand is higher during peak seasons.
Increased interest leads to more competition across the board, whether it’s for a hotel room at the price you want or the chance to get tickets to that concert. And that’s just scratching the surface. Restaurants fill up faster, planes fly with fewer empty seats and waiting times are longer, and the chance of a free upgrade decreases.
Book during the shoulder season and you’ll be competing with fewer people for your top experiences.
3. YOU DON’T SEE SO MUCH OFF SEASON CLOSURES
While the demand is high during the high season, sometimes the demand drops so low during the low season that the places you want to visit aren’t even open. Boat tour operators can board for the winter and charming cafes in ski towns can close in the summer.
For example, January at Zion National Park in Utah averages about 16% of the number of visitors who come during the peak season in July, and most tourists will have a hard time. The ice forces certain trails to be closed, some roads become inaccessible to drivers, and the museum and services such as shuttle buses are not available.
Instead, consider traveling during September shoulder season, when crowds are only about 85% of the park’s peak, but most amenities are available. You will also benefit from mild weather and the emergence of autumn colours.
All over the world, hotels often take the low season to do renovations, so the pool can become off-limits. Airlines typically reduce routes so you have less flexibility on what day or time you can fly.
But shoulder season is less likely to bring such challenges. Travel before the summer crowds arrive and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with a newly renovated hotel room. Head to the mountains just after the winter break to take advantage of still snowy slopes without too many skiers.
4. THE WEATHER IS OVERALL GOOD
Shoulder season probably won’t bring with it the blistering heat or storms that come with the off season in a region. And in some cases, the weather during the shoulder season is even better than the peak season.
Summer in Florida’s theme parks is often humid and muggy — and that’s before you add in the crowds of out-of-school kids. During shoulder season, you might miss sunny summer days at the beach, but you’ll usually get temperate weather, not to mention a less sweaty smile in that photo with your favorite character.
Rocky Mountain shoulder season may not bring with it the romance of powder white surrounding a cozy cabin. But you can pack light and leave the parka at home.
5. LIKELY EXPERIENCES UNIQUE, LOCAL EVENTS
Tourist hotspots usually want crowds all year round, so they often host events, concerts, and other festivities that don’t take place at times when the crowds would be big anyway.
Theme park food festivals are among the most common treats in the shoulder season. The Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in Southern California typically hosts its annual boysenberry festival from March through April. Hawaii comes alive in the fall with festivals across multiple islands, including the annual Waikik i Ho’olaule’a, a giant block party on Oahu, and the Kauai Mokihana Festival, a week-long celebration of Hawaiian culture.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Sally French is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SAFmedia.
NerdWallet: Start booking your trips backwards: Get your rental car first https://bit.ly/nerdwallet-start-booking-your-trips-backward
Sally French van Nerdwallet, The Associated Press