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 right now: Just after the summer. Or maybe shortly before.
It's called shoulder season, and it's one of the best ways to save on travel. Instead of booking a trip a summer trip in July – when everyone, their mom, and their grandmother is trying to fly – aim for May or early June – or maybe September or early October, instead. With that small shift, you can pay half the price of peak summer airfare.
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 and big crowds at airports or attractions, and you'll 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 over in Europe, the busy summer travel period runs roughly from June all the way through mid-August. March (thanks to spring break) and December (because of Christmas and the winter holidays) are also peak travel times. That means shoulder season runs from April into May and again from early to mid-September into 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
If you followed the news over the last year, you saw relentless flight delays and cancellations from peak summer through the holidays. That trend continues today.
We have great tips to protect yourself against delays and cancellations and how to deal with them if they do happen to you. Fortunately, most airlines have gotten their act together … but not before millions of Americans were impacted by flight disruptions.
And in Europe, things were horrendous last year 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. Things weren't perfect in 2023, but certainly much better. And the current fall shoulder season is looking much cleaner, logistically.
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 in April, May, 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 and year out all across Europe. Iceland, for example, 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 last 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 smoother 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: Instead of deciding on the dates of your trip first, plan your trip around the cheapest flight prices you can find.
Booking flights in the shoulder season is perhaps the best example of why this works. By shifting your dates of travel by a month here or there, you could spend less than half what you would by flying peak season. This is especially true in sought-after destinations like Italy.
This flight deal we sent Thrifty Traveler Premium members to Rome (FCO), Milan (MXP), Venice (VCE), and more – including tons of examples of shoulder season savings.
Here's one of the searches from this deal, which included availability from Boston (BOS). If you want to fly in June or July – the peak season in much of Europe – you're going to pay a pretty penny. Here's a look at what you'd see searching through Google Flights.
Turn the calendar back just a few months, and you can find flights at roughly half the price by taking that same trip to Italy in late April or May!
While shoulder season is most obvious in Europe, this rule applies to destinations like Costa Rica, too.
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This flight deal flying to both Liberia (LIR) and San Jose (SJO), Costa Rica has peak season availability in it during those December, January, and February months.
But for those looking to avoid crowds and get the lowest rates, booking a trip during the fall month of October can save you $300 to $400 per ticket. That money goes a long way in Costa Rica and can help you spruce up your vacation while you're there.
Finally, in the southern hemisphere, shoulder season works a little differently. Their summer is our winter, and vice versa, so shoulder season is effectively just the opposite of ours. Lately, we've been seeing some amazingly cheap one-stop fares to Santiago (SCL) in Chile from airports all over the U.S.
These fares are some of the lowest we've seen, giving travelers a shot at crossing Patagonia off their bucket lists. But the deal does not include peak summer in Patagonia, as you can see from the calendar below.
This search, from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Santiago has fares in the $700s, $800s, $900s, and even $1,000s for peak season travel.
But travel over the shoulder season of April and May (Chile's fall), and you can get there for $659 roundtrip!
We're not saying you should travel in Chile's winter months of June and July, either. This is the fall we're talking about here. The weather is still fantastic, but the crowds have dissipated. That's the beauty of shoulder season.
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 instead.
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 a smoother travel experience with fewer crowds, and it's time to rethink your travel schedule.