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What Is ‘Shoulder Season’ And Why Is It The Best Time To Travel?


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Travel can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are basic costs — transport, accommodation, food. Everything else is just cherries on top of the wanderlust cake. And getting the biggest, sweetest, juiciest cherry is the goal of a great adventure. Point being: Blowing all your cash on the three basic expenses doesn’t really make sense if you can’t enjoy yourself once you’re in-country.

To minimize the impact of those expenses you need to embrace a travel period called the ‘shoulder season’ — when tourism decreases and deals abound. Here’s how to take advantage and save cash:

What Is ‘Shoulder Season’ Anyway?

There are a lot of travel industry terms that get tossed into the common lexicon — shoulder season being the most common. High season is when tourism in a certain area is at its peak. Think Munich in mid to late September for Oktoberfest. Think the Caribbean between December and March. Think Paris, London, and Berlin from July to August and then again at Christmas.

Low season is when the weather is generally terrible and tourism is at its yearly low. Think Berlin in January when it’s icy and snowy. Think the Caribbean right now. Not much fun.

The shoulder season is that sweet spot between the high season and the low season. It’s when you might get lucky and find perfect conditions but the prices for flights and accommodation have already been set for the low season. It’s a skiing trip when the snow is still falling in April, but Spring Break is over and the slopes — and hotels — are almost empty. It’s hitting Thailand in June during the rainy season before the July/August rush and right after the heat waves of April and May. You may have to deal with a rain shower every day — otherwise, you’ll have paradise to yourself at a heavily discounted rate.

For the broadest of examples check out this grab from Dutch Airline KLM. You’ll see pretty average price across the board. There’s a definite spike in the summer months. But notice late summer and spring are the lowest. Late summer is too hot and people prefer beaches. The spring is rainy and generally inhospitable weather-wise. Those are the cheapest times to fly to Amsterdam — right in between the rushes.

Where Does It Apply?

Admittedly shoulder season sounds like a resort packaged vacation term. It hits the ear like something you can take advantage of at a Sandals or on a cruise ship and not on a shoestring or a jaunty weekend getaway somewhere cool. Disabuse yourself of that notion. Shoulder season affects the entire travel industry. Flights are straight up cheaper. And hotels can be had for a massive discount (more on that later). But you have to be aware and shop around. Think about where you want to go and the best time to be there. Then set up price alerts on your favorite travel aggregator for the dates just before and after prime time travel slots.

To do shoulder season right, you’ll have to be aware of wrinkles. Flying to, say, Berlin in February may seem like an intuitive time to hit the city. It’s deathly cold. Everything is under snow or ice. The beer gardens are closed. Lakes are iced over. But February is also when the Berlinale is held. Flight prices spike for the three weeks around the festival and hotels hit capacity. Same goes if you’re thinking about hitting Austin in March around SXSW. Let’s take a closer look.

Make It Work For You — Three Test Runs

1. Austin

So, let’s put our money where our mouth is and see the price difference in visiting Austin during their peak at SXSW compared to early November.

First, there’s the flight difference. In this case, a flight in November from Cleveland is going to run $225 roundtrip. That exact same flight during SXSW is $544. That’s a $319 difference just on the flight. That equates a lot of extra queso and Shiner Bock.

Now, where to stay is another matter. While hotels are probably close to being booked out already for an event like SXSW, Airbnb might be the best option. There are a few caveats using the sharing economy — your comfort level being the biggest. For this exercise, let’s just look at the landing page Airbnb shows us for the two different time frames.

In November the first options for an ‘entire place’ runs $58 to $98 — or an average of $78 per night for your own digs. Cut to March and the prices on first look are $72 to $146 — or an average of $109 per night. Based on that you’ll be saving $31 (on average) per night by avoiding Austin during one of its biggest peak travel seasons.

Overall, a savings of $319 for the flight and around $155 for five nights accommodation equals an extra $474 in our pocket to actually spend in Austin.

2. Whistler Ski Trip

Ski vacations are money drains. With a little planning ahead they don’t have to be. Whistler is famous for having late season snow in April and that’s the time to hit the slopes and resorts. Let’s look at the flights first.

In this case, we’re traveling from Portland (OR) to Vancouver in December over Christmas vacation. Flights run $321 round trip — which isn’t too bad. That same flight in early April is $235. That’s a saving of $86. Now, we hear you. It might not be worth the risk of there being no snow in April to save 80 bucks. But bear with us.

Now let’s look at hotel prices. Hilton has a gorgeous resort mountainside with everything you need to have a dope ski vacation in the Canadian wilderness. Prices over Christmas vacation are at their absolute peak. A standard room with a queen bed runs 1,172CAD or $966 USD — per night.

Take that exact same room in early April and the price plummets to 209CAD or $172 USD per night. That’s a saving of a staggering $794 per night or $3,970 for five nights. Saving four grand is no joke. Hell, at that point you may as well take that $86 you saved on the flight and use it to tip the person at the check in desk and see if you can snag a free upgrade.


3. Shoulder In Cancun

A trip to Mexico is always a good idea — any time of year. That said, tourists tend to flock to the area between December and March when the rainy seasons are ending, the jungles are lush, and weather is ideal (see how neatly that lines up with US Christmas, ski week, and spring break?). If you want to be lounging on a beach in Mexico during the peak season, you’re going to pay a premium.

For this case study, we’ll use Chicago as our base. Flights for early January are actually fairly cheap. They’ll set you back $254 roundtrip from the Windy City. The same flights in May when the weather is heating up and the beaches are emptying of tourists (but not the locales) is slightly cheaper at $210: a $44 savings. Again, that’s not something to write home about. But you know what’s coming next.

Let’s get a little luxurious and look at the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun. Which… it’s the Ritz. Of course, it’s rad. In January rooms start at $447 per night. Take that same room in May and you’re at $272 per night. That’s $175 per night in your pocket.

At five nights that’s an extra $919 (with the flight savings) to spend on tacos, cerveza, and good times. Or, you can take that extra grand and go on a whole second trip. Like that Austin trip above. You could spend $615 on the flight and an Airbnb and still have $304 left over to spend while you’re there just on the savings from going to Cancun in May instead of January. That’s two trips for the price of one by using the shoulder season to travel.

Takeaway

If you can get past the arcane-sounding industry buzz term, shoulder season has huge deals to offer. Just be a little flexible and you’ll be vagabonding while saving money in no time. And guess what? Shoulder season is right NOW for most of the planet, including Europe, Central and South America, Africa, and Australia. So pick a trip, ask for some vacay, and hit the road on the cheap!

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