Everyone wants to travel during peak summer or over the holidays … and airlines know it. That's why savvy travelers avoid the busiest travel times and save hundreds by instead traveling just before – or just after.
It's called shoulder season, and it's one of the best ways to save on travel. Instead of booking a summer trip for July – when everyone, their mothers, and grandmothers are trying to fly – you book a trip for early June or maybe September instead. With that small shift, you can pay half of the peak summer airfare prices.
The savings go beyond flights, as hotels and accommodations are almost always cheaper when you avoid the busiest travel periods. And it's not just about dollar signs, either: When you travel in shoulder season, you're less likely to encounter longer lines, big crowds at airports or attractions, and miss the worst of the worst when it comes to flight delays and cancellations.
When is Shoulder Season?
It depends on where you're going, but it's right before – or just after – the peak travel season.
Here in the states or for a trip over to Europe, the busy summer travel period runs from June all the way through August – maybe into early September. March (thanks to spring break) and December (because of Christmas and the winter holidays) are also peak season travel times. That means shoulder season runs from April into May and again from September through November.
Time it right, and you can still get excellent weather and fewer crowds at your destination for a fraction of the cost.
Of course, shoulder season is, by definition, not the very best season to travel. The school year calendar makes it easiest for most people to travel during the summer months. And by the time you make it into October, the weather over in Europe is cooler than what you'll find in July – though that's not necessarily a bad thing. The same goes for April and May.
But with that comes way fewer crowds and drastically reduced prices. It's one of the easiest ways to make your next trip cheaper and easier.
Fewer Crowds & Less Hassle
Have you been following the news this summer? Flight delays and cancellations at the start of the peak summer were relentless.
We have great tips to protect yourself against delays and cancellations and how to deal with them if they do happen to you. Fortunately, airlines have gotten their act together recently … but not before millions of Americans were impacted by flight disruptions.
And in Europe, things were horrendous in hubs like Amsterdam (AMS), Dublin (DUB), Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG), and especially London-Heathrow (LHR) with long lines and even bigger piles of lost luggage. That's still the case today.
Luckily, the upcoming shoulder season should be much cleaner logistically. The delays and cancelations to start this summer were due to short-staffed airlines and huge travel demand. Travel demand has already begun to plateau heading into fall, meaning airport lines won't be as long as they were in June and July. And while it takes a long time to onboard airline pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, and agents, the airlines are working relentlessly to onboard new employees. That means staffing levels should be better when you take to the skies this fall.
And once you get to your destination, shoulder season crowds await. That's a good thing.
Just like the season itself, the crowds at the most popular travel sites always peak in June, July, and August. So by September, October, and November, you've got a better shot at feeling like you've got the place to yourself.
We see it year in, year out all across Europe. For example, Iceland is extremely popular – especially in the summer. It's not unusual to be among hundreds of tourists at some of the most popular spots. But when I went in April, I found relatively good weather … and empty parking lots all over the even country's most famous attractions.
I don't care how nice the weather is: I HATE waiting in lines. Nothing ruins a mood like waiting an hour during my travels. Shoulder season alleviates that concern. Restaurant reservations? No problem. Museum tickets? Come on in!
If you can get a few days away from school or some time off work during the fall, winter, or spring, you're going to find a much more smooth travel experience and way fewer crowds.
Cheaper Flights During Shoulder Season
At Thrifty Traveler, we're huge proponents of what we call the Flight First Rule. It's exactly what it sounds like: Rather than taking time off first, it means you should plan your travel around the cheapest flight prices you can find.
Booking flights in the shoulder season proves it – for both domestic and international travel. While airfare shot up this summer, we're seeing flight prices drop (a lot!) as travelers increasingly look to the fall. Even during the worst of it, the late summer and early fall were a prime source of flight deals. The same is true for late spring 2023, like this cheap fare we recently found straight into Madrid (MAD) for next year.
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Just one month later in early June, peak summer travel is officially on. And that means the exact same flight clocks in at nearly $1,000 – more than double the price!
Peak summer fares over to Reykjavik (KEF) from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) next year are currently running between $690 and $1,000-plus roundtrip. Ouch…
But if you look at April and May, you can fly to Iceland for just $548. It can get even cheaper: We've previously sent Thrifty Traveler Premium members flight deals from Minneapolis to Iceland for just $400 or less roundtrip for a late spring or early fall trip.
Trust me, you're gonna need that extra cash in Iceland.
The same trend plays out with domestic flights, too. Let's look at this calendar of roundtrip flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Chicago (ORD, MDW) this summer and fall.
Peak season would be August. Shoulder season is September, when the weather is still incredible in the Windy City, but flight prices start to plummet. Google Flights highlights the best fares in green, which are almost $200 cheaper than others. If you can save $200 on a flight that barely scratches an hour, you'd better do it!
Read all our tips on how to find cheap flights!
Everyone wants to fly during the peak travel seasons … and that's why you're going to save hundreds of dollars by moving your trip to the shoulder season.
April through May and September through October are all shoulder season for some of the best destinations all across the Northern Hemisphere. Traveling during those months rather than July or over the holidays could get you half-off (or more!) peak season airfare.
Add in the fact you'll have a smoother travel experience with fewer crowds, and it's time to rethink your travel schedule.