Shoulder season is one of those travel terms that you may have heard seasoned travelers bandy about – but when does shoulder season actually happen? The short answer is: it depends on where and when you’re traveling.
Join host Nisreene Atassi for this episode of Out Travel the System to learn some of the best-kept secrets for taking full advantage of shoulder season deals, including why going against the flow of traffic could be your best bet. She is joined in this episode by Christie Hudson, Senior PR Manager for Expedia, and Katherine Fan, Senior Travel Features Reporter for The Points Guy. Katherine takes us through some of the epic shoulder season deals she’s scored before, including this trip to New Zealand.
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Shoulder Season Super Savings
Nisreene Atassi: So when I first started traveling as a young adult I didn’t really know what peak travel season was or low travel season, let alone shoulder season. My first big trip abroad was a trip to Spain that I went with a really good friend of mine. And at that point, when we were searching for flights, we were just looking for the best airfare and the best price. Timing was something that was just sort of random. We decided to go to Europe in the first part of the year. And when we were looking for flights we found that a trip to Spain in February was only going to cost us, round trip from Chicago, around $350. So we went ahead and booked it and off we were to Spain where we stayed in a variety of accommodations, a mix of hostels and low budget hotels. But overall, our week long trip throughout the entirety of Spain really cost us probably less than $2,000.
Now I look back and I realize the reason why the cost was so low was because we were traveling during shoulder season, which means a low peak travel time. Often between holidays. Oftentimes it comes when the weather may not be the best, but that means that you’re still going to get some really great fares. Shoulder season is one of those travel related terms that you may have heard before without knowing exactly what it means. We’re going to get you fully looped in so you can maximize your savings, whether you’re planning to travel now or sometime in the future.
I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel the System. As with many good travel stories. This journey is better with a friend. Here with me as Christie Hudson, senior public relations manager for Expedia. I’m sure you all remember Christie who co- hosted with me last season. Hi, Christie. Welcome back to the show.
Christie Hudson: Hi, I’m so excited to be back
Nisreene Atassi: All right Christie, so let’s dive right in. I originally thought that asking you to help explain shoulder season would be relatively simple, but it turns out that shoulder season can actually mean a lot of different things depending on where and when you’re traveling. So how do you want to sort of break this down for us? Is it geographical or is it by time of year?
Christie Hudson: In my mind shoulder season most commonly refers to a certain time of year, so the short window of time between peak travel periods. So if you think about the busy travel periods, those would typically be spring break, summer, and the holidays, so then you can figure out where shoulder season might be. That means September through early November is a shoulder season because it falls right after summer and right before the holidays. There’s also a short shoulder season at the beginning of the year during January and February. And then again in April to May before summer travel really kicks off.
But to your point, we can also think about shoulder season on a destination basis by looking at the high and low tourism seasons. High seasons usually have the best weather and they also have the highest prices. Low seasons, on the other side of the spectrum, are usually the cheapest times to go. But there’s a reason why it’s cheap. You might catch cold weather or it’s the rainy season, for example. And that’s why shoulder season, which falls in between, is really the sweet spot. And it can vary depending on where you’re going.
Nisreene Atassi: So can you give me some examples of shoulder season timing for some of the sunny warm weather destination?
Christie Hudson: Yes. So let me take you around the world a little bit. We can start in Southeast Asia, so Thailand or Bali. Much of Southeast Asia is going to have a spring and a fall shoulder season, so you can go from mid April to May or from October to early November. If we’re looking closer to home, Florida and the Caribbean have pretty similar shoulder seasons and the best bets for those destinations are usually May and November. You can try your luck and go when prices are really cheap during the month of September and early October, but that’s also hurricane season for these places. So there’s a little bit of a risk and a reward element to weigh.
And on that kind of note about finding the sweet spot, another good example is Hawaii. So the cheapest rates are typically in January and early February for a lot of the Hawaiian islands, but the weather isn’t as nice. I went in January last year and it rained more than half the time. So going during shoulder season, which is September and October, you’re going to get the best of both worlds, good deals and decent weather. If we’re looking a little further South at Belize or Central America, you can go during May and November to take advantage of the shoulder season.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, so what about Europe? I obviously managed to sort of find that sweet spot when I went to Spain in February. What are some general tips for shoulder season in Europe?
Christie Hudson: Yeah. For much of Europe the high seasons are going to be summertime and the month of December because a lot of people like to go for Christmas. So if you want the biggest bargains you’ll probably be heading to European destinations like Germany or France or London in January and February, which means you’re probably going to be dealing with some pretty cold weather. It’s going to be very gray. Even for those of us from Chicago and Seattle it might not be ideal. So to get the best of both worlds, mild temperatures and the decent prices, I would recommend going during May or during September through October.
Nisreene Atassi: I think you bring up a really good point though because you talked about December, which obviously December in Europe is still going to be cold and there could be snow and there could be a lot of rain. So while the weather isn’t ideal, because of the holidays, it actually still makes it a peak time. So I think that’s why it’s important to actually look at both the seasonality and the weather, but also sort of the holidays and the schedules for that specific destination. Is that right?
Christie Hudson: That’s exactly right. I mean, people want to go to Paris around Christmas time or around New Years. So the prices are actually really high in a lot of places during the month of December.
Nisreene Atassi: So talking about sort of prices and savings, what can somebody potentially expect to see in terms of significant savings for travel during shoulder season?
Christie Hudson: We’ve looked at shoulder season savings pretty extensively the last couple of years and savings on flights and hotel can really range anywhere from 5% cheaper to 35 or 40% cheaper than average. So that can be pretty significant. We’ve been doing this analysis around shoulder season for a couple of years, and sometimes it can mean saving hundreds of dollars per night on a hotel, especially if you’re going somewhere that tends to be pricier or like a bucket list destination like Bali or a major European city.
Nisreene Atassi: Wow. That’s pretty significant because, I guess if you’re going internationally and you’re able to save 35%, that could be pretty good and saving hundreds of dollars means that you can sort of reallocate that budget towards perhaps, maybe staying longer in your trip or adding in a few activities and things like that to help sort of round out your vacation a little bit more, which is really great.
Christie Hudson: That’s how I travel. If I have money allocated and I’m saving it, it’s going right back into spa treatment, shopping, dinners.
Nisreene Atassi: Absolutely. Oh, dinners. Definitely dinners for me. Throwing a very fancy dinner in there. I’ll take it. Okay. So this all sounds amazing and no matter where you go it sounds like shoulder season tends to be either when travel hasn’t fully ramped up yet for that destination or when peak season is winding down. So what are some of the drawbacks that might be associated with traveling during shoulder season?
Christie Hudson: Yeah. You mentioned some of them. Going during shoulder season means weather is a little bit more iffy than it would be during the peak travel periods. So if there’s a longer than normal rainy season happening you might be catching the tail end of that or it might not be quite as warm as you hoped. Another thing to keep in mind is if there’s a certain attraction or a point of interest that you’re looking forward to, it might not be open. So a good example is if you really wanted to go whale watching in Hawaii, you have to go between November and March. But shoulder season for Hawaii is usually September and October, so you wouldn’t be able to catch any whales. Even a place like Las Vegas, which is a destination that’s popular year round and you might not think of it as having a shoulder season, you can find great rates in the fall. But the other thing to consider is most of the pools are closed. So if that’s the experience you wanted, you wouldn’t be getting it. So it’s important to kind of think about you want out of your trip and whether the timing works.
Nisreene Atassi: You bring up a really good point regarding closures because I think if you’re going to perhaps like a seaside town on the East Coast, a lot of those places are actually only open like Memorial Day to Labor Day. So if you went perhaps after labor Day, sometime in September, which would be shoulder season, a lot of restaurants maybe, or attractions might actually be closed, which might impact your trip. That’s not to say that you won’t still have a great time, but they’re really important things to keep into consideration. So how do you recommend travelers really deal with some of these things or how can they actually prepare it?
Christie Hudson: Research and planning is going to be really key, which is terrible news for people like you, Nissy who like to book things at the last minute spontaneously.
Nisreene Atassi: So true.
Christie Hudson: I generally don’t advise booking a big trip just based on seeing rock bottom prices alone without doing the research, unless it’s somewhere you’ve been before and you know what to expect. Similar to the East Coast cities you were mentioning, I was researching the cheapest times to go to Europe last year. And I saw that prices for Greece are dirt cheap in February. And I knew the weather wouldn’t be great, but I’m from Seattle. I’m not scared of a little rain or cold. And then I realized that actually the towns you would want to go to are completely shuttered and ghost towns until late spring. It’s one of those things you definitely are going to benefit from doing the research before making any solid plans. And then once you do book, my advice would be pack with a little bit more forethought. So bring clothes for a few different weather scenarios. You might have to plan for 30% of your trip to be a little rainier. But other than that, just prepare to enjoy the amazing experience of traveling with way less crowds and having a few extra dollars to splurge.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that. I think the idea of traveling when there are less crowds is a really big selling point, almost maybe even more so than just the price alone, because we talked about Hawaii, and my husband and I went to Maui when it was a shoulder season time. Just for context, we went just after the December and sort of January holidays and right before spring break. And one thing people told us beforehand was that, Oh, you need to be really careful if you’re going to book any sort of excursions or activities, you have to book those sometimes a month out. And for you listeners who don’t know, I book my travel at most maybe two or three weeks out. So the idea of booking an excursion somewhere a month out is obviously not something that I’m going to do. So I got really panicked and really nervous, but then I realized that we were traveling during a low period when it wasn’t actually going to be that busy, so we were able to book a lot of our activities almost like the day before. But I was not prepared and didn’t research that. So obviously we really lucked out, but these are just some things I think that we need to all sort of remember and keep in mind.
All right, so Christie talk to us. What is your next shoulder season adventure?
Christie Hudson: Well, as I mentioned earlier, we did go to Hawaii this year in January. And while it was very fun and we did get a really, really good deal on hotel and airfare it also rained a lot. So we went to Hawaii do over. I think we’re going to play it safer and go to Maui during September or October of next year if we’re able to.
Nisreene Atassi: Oh, well you are absolutely in luck because our next episode is actually all about Hawaii and we had some amazing guests on to sort of deep dive into all of the tips and tricks for experiencing the best that Hawaii has to offer. So make sure you listen because they’ve got some really good tips there.
Christie Hudson: Ooh, can’t wait.
Nisreene Atassi: Thank you Christie for joining us on Out Travel the System.
Christie Hudson: You’re welcome. Thanks so much.
Nisreene Atassi: Christie Hudson is a senior PR manager for Expedia. I’m going to get the details from our other guests on some epic shoulder season travel bragging rights right after this, so please stick around.
You’re listening to Out Travel the System. I’m Nisreene Atassi, your host. This season we want to take you out of your comfort zone by talking about all things travel as well as fall and winter road tripping and we’re also going to touch on things like food memories and how they can bring the taste of travel into your own kitchen. We want to also help you plan ahead for your future bucket list trips and as always, we’ll have your budget in mind and we’re going to be harnessing the power of Expedia’s data to make sure you’re getting the best information possible. Make sure you like and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so that you won’t miss some of our upcoming episodes. Talk to us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. We’re at Expedia and happy to answer any of your questions or suggestions.
We’re back on Out Travel the System and with me now I’ve got Katherine Fan, Senior Travel Features Reporter with The Points Guy. Before the break, Katherine, Christie was talking us through some of the many possibilities involved with shoulder season travel. Katherine, I know that in normal times you have the ability to potentially travel whenever you like, but how do you go about planning shoulder season trips? And how do you personally define shoulder season?
Katherine Fan: That’s a fun question. I was actually homeschooled through high school, so my mom constantly told me that one of the best things about being homeschooled is the ability to travel when other people aren’t. So for me, shoulder season has always been immediately before everybody else got out of school or right after they all went back to school and tourists dropped off for the season. Usually after, I would say, between the months of June and August, my family tried not to travel during those times, if at all possible. And instead we would do a lot of our fun and necessary travel maybe in February through May, possibly September through November. We would try to avoid the holiday season in the winter as well.
Nisreene Atassi: Oh, so you’ve been a shoulder season traveler basically your whole life, even before you really started to get into sort of working in the travel industry?
Katherine Fan: Yeah, that’s right. I would say maybe my upbringing made me more prepared for quarantine than I would have thought.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously your parents were big shoulder season travelers, what are some of the tips that have stuck with you or things that you learned from them as they were planning your family trips?
Katherine Fan: I would say the number one tip I have is if you’ve got the flexibility, or you have some way to create flexibility for yourself, always take it. So for instance, with my parents, they would try to rearrange our school year so that we weren’t necessarily missing out on anything. And if you’ve got the schedule flexibility to choose your own hours of work or your own days of the week that you work, I highly recommend looking at historical data for travel. You’ll typically see that flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays tend to have lower prices than especially Fridays and Sundays, for example, because everybody has to rush back home at the end of Sunday night in order to be in the office for Monday. And everybody wants to get that full workday in, so Friday evening flights are always really booked and therefore more expensive a lot of the times.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think we’ve seen that a lot too with our data, especially when we are looking at sort of peak seasonal times like Thanksgiving and that type of stuff. I’m curious, how far in advance do you personally book your shoulder season trips or how far in advance did your family start planning their trips?
Katherine Fan: Well, I came from the kind of family where my parents’ idea of vacation was taking us to see our grandparents in Taiwan. So that was a very specific way of booking. And for them, my parents are the types of people who like to plan well in advance. I do enjoy a good last minute trip. I enjoy the spontaneity of being able to find a good deal or needing to get away last minute and just booking it, which is kind of what led me to my job here at The Points Guy because points and miles make it so easy to find great deals. But I would say as a general rule, probably somewhere right in the middle. I like a good two weeks to six week lead. Not too much time for me to overthink a trip, but not so little time that I can’t get whatever I need for it.
I think there are some places where you go maybe not necessarily for cultural experience, but just to get away. So for instance, my senior year of college, I randomly discovered a $10 one- way flight from Austin, Texas down to Cancun. And I got seven of my friends to book with me and we skipped a week of classes and I don’t think any of us have any guilt over it. So flexibility again is number one when you’re talking about a place where you just need a break and you found a really great deal. I always recommend that travelers leave space in their lives and their budgets for those last minute deals and shoulder season is seriously, the best time of year, on both end, to find those great deals and perfect weather and just great food and experiences.
Nisreene Atassi: It sounds like you’re pretty good at finding these sort of amazing deals and bargains. What have been some of the most epic shoulder season deals that you’ve scored? I heard that you had an amazing trip to New Zealand where you got some unbelievable deals because you traveled during shoulder season.
Katherine Fan: I was going to New Zealand for a friend’s wedding and I had never been to that part of the world before. So my points were kind of scattered all over multiple airlines. I didn’t have a whole lot of cash available at the time, so I just started piecing together different sections of my trip.
So I flew from Austin, Texas, where I live into LA and then I rented a Mustang convertible for the fun of it and drove up from LA to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway and just made a little road trip out of it. And my favorite part of that road trip was the fact that my rental, for what’s usually considered a luxury rental, it was just a dollar a day because most people want to drive the Pacific Coast Highway South from Northern California down to Southern California, so that they’re right up against the ocean. However, if you’re willing to go one lane over and drive North, that alone will save you a couple hundred dollars just because most people are driving North to South, so they have an excess number of cars in the Southern rental lots. And if you help them not have to ship those cars back North, they give you fantastic deals. You can even do this with RVs as well. So if you’re thinking of taking the family and hitting the road and you don’t want to spend a lot of money, we’ve got a couple of different websites that we know of that allow you to rent RVs for a dollar a day, or sometimes they’ll even pay you a little bit to cover your gas.
Nisreene Atassi: I mean, Katherine, you have properly blown my mind on this rental car tip that you just shared. I want to recap that one really quickly because I think it’s very important, but also I had never heard of it before. So we were talking earlier about avoiding really busy travel days, avoiding leaving on a Friday and coming back on a Sunday or Monday because that’s when everyone does it. And it sounds like you’re using that same concept with rental car bookings?
Katherine Fan: Very much so. I believe Nissy, at the beginning you and Christie were talking about is shoulder season geographical, is it a time of year, and I would say that it really is very location dependent. So it literally is just going to come down to what do business owners need and how can you fulfill that need. So if they’re getting all of their cars shipped down South by drivers and they need to get them back up North, then the best way to find your deals is to think of what everyone else is doing and do the opposite of it. So the same sort of thing, if everybody’s traveling, again, to Europe during May through August, then your best bet is that couple of weeks beforehand and that couple of weeks right after.
One other tip I really love as well is if you’ve been hankering to go overseas, look at holidays that are just American holidays, so Labor Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving. My colleagues in the UK don’t have any of those days off and they typically cover for us when we’re on holiday here in the US. So if you’re looking for something great to do in November over Thanksgiving, you’re going to skip turkey with the family this year and all go somewhere instead, that is a really good time to look for an international shoulder season deal.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that tip. That’s a big one. I mean, I love Thanksgiving and I absolutely adore spending it with my family, but there are definitely a lot of times where I think about perhaps, a week in Mexico would be just as nice as stuffing my face with turkey. So I think it’s a great one for those who maybe want to take a break from family holidays. I absolutely believe in that one. Katherine those were some really amazing tips.
Okay. So Katherine, it sounds like you are no stranger to getting some amazing deals. Tell me about some of the most epic shoulder season deals that you’ve scored recently.
Katherine Fan: The second time around, I happened to be in Japan with a group of friends who were also fellow photographers and travel hackers. And I remember we were at a pretty nice dinner when one person goes, stop, hold up everything, there’s a flight sale for New Zealand and it was a $250 round trip flight from LA. So we all paused in the middle of this nice dinner in Japan, where we had already gotten a great deal on a round trip flight there, and we all booked trips to New Zealand. And I was able to go from New Zealand over to Australia on a separate flight that only cost me, I think under a hundred dollars each way. One of the best, fairly last minute ways I could’ve spent my money. I could’ve bought a nice pair of shoes or a jacket or a handbag, but I got a trip to Australia and New Zealand for not that much more than a nice pair of sneakers.
Nisreene Atassi: Wow, that’s amazing. It’s funny that you booked that trip while you were actually already on another trip because there’s research out there that says that people actually start thinking about their next vacation at the tail end of their current vacation. So I like this notion of starting to search for the deals wherever it may be.
Katherine Fan: I love that. And I think that makes a lot of sense. If there’s ever been a year that’s made us think I kind of want to escape or get away or change my perspective or scenery, this has been the year. And I think moving forward we’ll all be so much more appreciative of travel habits or behaviors or trends that we might have taken for granted, no matter how much we love it.
Nisreene Atassi: I want to talk to you a little bit about, obviously your bread and butter, which is the points. When it comes to shoulder season, and if somebody is going to either travel on points or redeem their points or whether they’re collecting points, does the point value change at all? Does it correspond with the peak travel times?
Katherine Fan: Sometimes. So it’s a little bit of a loaded question. We have an evaluation system. That kind of gives you a ballpark of what each airlines points or miles are worth. And the usual rule of thumb I would say is look up what the average price point is for your trip. So for instance, the time I went to New Zealand for a wedding, I didn’t have any flexibility in my dates. So my points were a much better value for my cash. But for a $250 round trip flight it doesn’t make sense to use my points to pay for those flights.
So as a general rule I tell most people just think about it this way. If it’s a flight you would have budgeted cash for anyway, if you’re going because the dates are fixed or maybe work is sending you and you can tack on some personal travel afterwards, go ahead and pay for that with cash. But points are especially valuable for last minute trips, anytime you can’t get out of a specific date, if you’re going for a wedding or to meet your new niece or nephew, and you just need to be there. Points can help you save your cash when you’re not planning on dropping $600 just to fly up to Chicago or $1,500 to go to New Zealand.
Nisreene Atassi: So obviously Katherine, we are currently involved in a global pandemic, which means the travel industry is looking a bit different these days. I’m curious, do you think the notion of shoulder season goes out the window when you’re in times like these or when the industry is really sort of shaken up the way it is now?
Katherine Fan: I do think we’ll see that impact for another year or two in random ways. It does mean that none of us will probably be running off to Spain anytime soon, but it does mean that we can plan for 2022 and we can look ahead. A lot of companies right now are offering fully refundable deals for well into 2021 and sometimes even into 2022. So if you’re really feeling that travel itch and you just have some cash burning a hole in your pocket, now is a really good time to look for travel that will be coming up a year or more from now.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. I think that’s a really good tip. How are you feeding your travel bug right now? Are you traveling at all? Are you doing road trips? How have you been trying to balance your passion for travel, but obviously wanting to stay safe during a pandemic?
Katherine Fan: My mom actually moved in with me for three and a half months during the pandemic, and she’s a little bit on the high- risk side, so I stayed very close to home. But there was one day where I just really missed traveling, so I used some of my points and booked myself a little staycation in my hometown.
Nisreene Atassi: Love that.
Katherine Fan: I don’t normally get to over pack my bags, I’m a carry on only kind of girl. So since I was driving myself to this hotel and it’s just 10 miles from my house, I stuffed in my hairdryer, my straightener, and my curling iron, and a few pairs of shoes I knew I wasn’t going to wear anyway and just really enjoyed the process of packing in a way that I hadn’t gotten to do in several months. And I think it really reminded me that whenever you get to any destination it’s very much the attitude and mindset that you take with you that makes it enjoyable. Or otherwise I’ve definitely been in some of the most beautiful places in the world and been struggling with something and my internal turmoil has spilled over into my experience on the outside. And then in exchange, just going down the street and staying on a Monday night at a Kimpton Hotel in Austin, Texas made me so happy. So I do think one great silver lining we’ll take away from 2020 is just our ability to re appreciate the small things all over again.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that. I think that’s so smart. And I think not just coming out of 2020, but in general, I think with travel, we oftentimes sort of lose sight at what we’re sort of dealing with and the stress and anxiety of everything can really impact the type of vacation that we’re going to have. So I think my sort of big closing point for everything on shoulder season is to note that it is going to be a bit of a different trip potentially. So going back to sort of Christie’s point about doing all your research and planning ahead of time I think is really key because the last thing anybody wants is to feel sort of stressed out about things maybe not necessarily going as they had planned or the way that they had expected. So it sounds like doing the research I think is really important, but going in with that positive attitude and really trying to sort of let go of any of the stressors that you have, I think is really key for enjoying your travel experience. So thank you for that reminder, Katherine.
So what’s next for you Katherine in terms of shoulder season travel? Do you have any places on your list that you’re thinking about planning for now?
Katherine Fan: Well, fairly early on in the pandemic I found another really good shoulder season deal for round trip flights between Mexico City and Cape Town, South Africa in business class. So $600 round trip for a business class to and from Mexico to South Africa. I’m not sure if I’ll actually take that trip just because we’ll see where their pandemic lands us at that time, but that was one of those really good deals that I said, I’ll book this and I’ll deal with whatever comes up next. So I’m looking forward to that very much with my fingers and toes crossed.
Nisreene Atassi: Thank you Katherine for spending time with us today on Out Travel the System. It’s been fabulous having you on again.
Katherine Fan: Thank you, Nisreene, I’ve had a great time and I hope to see you in the skies sometime soon.
Nisreene Atassi: Absolutely. Katherine Fan is a Senior Travel Features Reporter with The Points Guy. I am definitely going to use some of these tips and tricks to see if I can get some amazing savings on shoulder season travel whenever the time is right for me. I’m your host and this is Out Travel the System. Join us next time as we help you decide exactly where to go and what to do in Hawaii. Until then happy travels.