Forget Summer. This Is Travel’s New “It” Season.
More affordable flights, lower hotel rates, and less congestion have always defined travel insiders’ favorite time of year. But with summer becoming unbearably crowded and hot, is shoulder season the rising star of travel?
Shoulder season is generally considered to be the period of travel between the peak summer and low winter seasons—and it is rapidly becoming one of the most attractive times to travel. That is due in part to the fact that surging crowds and increasing weather woes are making summer and winter travel, well, kind of miserable. Add to the allure the fact that airfares and hotel rates are typically lower with better availability during the fall and spring shoulder seasons, and this in-between travel period is now more enticing than it has ever been before.
“We’re seeing that the ideas of ‘shoulder season’ and ‘off-season’ are changing postpandemic due to pent-up travel demand, which has not slowed down,” says Michael Schottey, spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA). “Obviously, there will be a decrease compared to peak travel season as children go back to school and summer vacations come to a close, but all of our information points toward popular destinations and suppliers continuing to be very busy right through what used to be considered a ‘slow time’ of the year.”
The number of Americans traveling to Europe surged this summer in a postpandemic fervor for international adventures, and the demand pushed transatlantic airfares to the highest they had been in more than five years, according to travel booking site Hopper’s 2023 Summer Travel to Europe report. Round-trip flights from the U.S to Europe averaged more than $1,200 this summer, or about $300 above 2022 prices (and 23 percent higher than in 2019). And once U.S. travelers arrived in Europe having forked over for those sky-high airfares, they were greeted by record-breaking heatwaves across much of southern Europe in destinations such as Spain, Italy, and Greece, as climate change brings with it the humbling realities of a summer season now defined by stifling temperatures and increasingly unpredictable—sometimes dangerous—weather patterns.
When it comes to travelers looking more toward the shoulder season, “Sadly, weather will soon be [more of] a deciding factor. Just look at Europe these past two summers with record heat,” says Tania Swasbrook, vice president of Travelworld International Group, a luxury Virtuoso travel agency. Swasbrook notes that for the high-end, discerning travelers she works with, the crowds have become one of the biggest deterrents of peak-season travel, with more attractive pricing and greater availability of accommodations and services also motivating clients to “think more ‘outside the box’” in terms of where they go and when.
Enter shoulder season: “Travelers with flexibility can save as much as $500 by shifting travel dates to early fall,” Hopper reports, adding that round-trip flights to Europe from the United States in September and October are averaging about $700 per ticket, or 33 percent below this year’s average summer fares.
“Shoulder season has always been my favorite time to travel or have clients traveling. You get the change of seasons and often can take great advantage of things like wine or agricultural harvest periods when local areas, in my opinion, really shine,” says William Kiburz, vice president of Coronet Travel Ltd. and a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council.
Here’s everything you need to know about shoulder season, including some of the best shoulder season destinations.
What is shoulder season and when is it?
Shoulder season is the period of travel that lands squarely between the high season of travel, also known as the traditional summer months of June through August (for the Northern Hemisphere), and the low season, which is usually the dead of winter (January through early March, in the Northern Hemisphere). The exact dates and time frames for shoulder season vary by destination, but more generally shoulder season typically falls into the seasons of autumn and spring, excluding popular holiday weekends like Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends, and school vacations like Thanksgiving week and spring break.
“To put it simply, shoulder season is the time of year less people travel due to kids and school, holidays, or weather preferences,” says Swasbrook. “This of course depends on the destination. As a rule of thumb though, usually spring and fall.”
These are the approximate shoulder season windows for travel, according to Swasbrook:
- April (or just after Easter) to the beginning of June
- September (once school starts) to the beginning of November
- Slower periods in between like February or November and December just before Thanksgiving or the festive season
“‘Shoulder seasons have become shorter, more so because ‘peak seasons’ have become longer due to weather,” she says, noting that climate change is prolonging traditional warmer periods later into the year.
The benefits of traveling during shoulder season
There are numerous benefits to traveling during shoulder season, but the main ones include fewer crowds (at least for now), more affordable airfares, better hotel deals, greater availability (as in more airplane seats and hotel rooms to choose from), and more moderate weather.
“It’s the time of year when average prices drop and availability opens up,” states Melanie Fish, head of Expedia Group public relations in a Fall Travel Forecast released by Expedia last week.
According to Expedia, while flight searches for fall travel are up 15 percent, and hotel searches increased 20 percent compared to fall 2022, prices remain attractive for shoulder season travel when compared to peak season.
Expedia reports that late October offers some of the biggest savings for fall shoulder season travel with average domestic airfares nearly 20 percent below their summer equivalents, and international flights about 15 percent lower than what they were during summer.
When it comes to accommodation, there are more options and better pricing for stays, too. Vacation rental platform Vrbo reports that travelers will pay on average 25 percent below what they would in summer for early fall shoulder season rentals in popular destinations, such as the Outer Banks in North Carolina, the Gulf Shores of Alabama, Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, Seattle, and San Diego.
The best shoulder season destinations
The fall and spring shoulder seasons are definitely growing in popularity, according to tour operator Intrepid Travel, which this month reported that it is seeing a 56 percent increase in fall shoulder season bookings to Europe compared to 2018, and a 70 percent increase in spring shoulder season travel to Europe compared to five years ago.
So, where are the best places to travel during shoulder season? Here’s what travel experts recommend.
Once the hordes of cruise ships that descend on America’s largest state throughout the summer start to wind down in numbers and frequency, shoulder season can be a prime time to explore Alaska with fewer crowds and before the dark and cold winter months take hold. Whether you’re hiking through Denali National Park or exploring Anchorage, visiting the Chugach National Forest or venturing north to Fairbanks, if you head to Alaska during shoulder season, you’ll benefit from flights to Juneau that are on average about 35 percent lower than what they are in summer, according to Expedia.
After residents and visitors in Greece suffered through a sweltering summer this year, AFAR’s cruise writer Fran Golden recommends sailing the Greek islands during the fall, when temperatures and crowds finally begin to subside.
“The Aegean Sea stays warm through October, so swimming remains an option, as does taking advantage of outdoor dining and sightseeing with light breezes,” she wrote in a recent story about the best season and ships for sailing the Greek islands.
“There are other advantages to Greece in fall. From mid-August to October you can catch the grape harvest on islands such as Santorini, Rhodes, and Crete,” she writes. Highland areas of the islands and mainland can experience some fall colors, and fall festivals are also common throughout Greece.
Summer is a very popular time to embrace frigid Nordic destinations, such as Iceland, which has been a travel hot spot for years now. But travelers can avoid the masses and embrace lower prices by visiting Iceland during shoulder season. Added bonus: Journey to Iceland in November when you’ll have a greater chance of viewing those beautiful swirling Northern Lights.
Kiburz of Coronet Travel highly recommends Italy during the shoulder season. “Take the Chianti Wine Festival in Greve in Chianti as an example,” he says, referring to an event held annually in mid-September in Italy. “One would think that [it would be] crowded with tourists, but it never is. It’s held in a charming, small Tuscan village . . . and you can really be present for the experience as compared with what many people do during the peak [summer season], which is check off a list of places that they must see—never really experiencing anything or anyone—because they are always off to the next place.”
After Japan fully reopened toward the end of 2022 following strict pandemic border closures, travelers can’t get enough and have been flocking back to the Asian island nation in droves. Spring, when the country’s beautiful cherry blossoms court travelers from around the world, is not a shoulder season in Japan. Fall, however, which can be just as colorful and scenic, is less popular. Travelers eager to roam the busy streets of Tokyo or get off the beaten path on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, relax in a ryokan, or marvel at shrines will be happy to know that, according to Expedia, airfares to Tokyo are 20 percent cheaper in the fall compared to summer.
The advantage of traveling to Portugal in the fall is that it tends to stay a bit warmer for longer when compared to European destinations further north. That means you can still expect ample sunshine in autumn while riding the trams in Lisbon, winetasting in and around Porto, and even at beaches during shoulder season.
Swasbrook highly recommends heading to the Southern California oasis of San Diego in October when “theme parks, beaches, and hotels are not nearly as full.” And the weather in sunny SoCal often remains, well, sunny and warm into late fall.
According to Intrepid, fall is a wonderful time to explore Türkiye, with the magenta bougainvillea in full bloom and coastal cities like Fethiye and their surrounding waters still warm. And the more moderate temperatures make for ideal hiking conditions through the country’s mountain landscapes.