Summer vacation may be coming to an end, but savvy travelers know that the best time of year to book and take a trip is starting. Shoulder season — the months just before and after peak summer travel time — is when you’ll find warm temperatures, smaller crowds and deals on flights, home rentals and more. Here’s a primer on how to take advantage:
What is shoulder season?
Many travelers may have heard of the term shoulder season, but don’t know exactly what it means.
“Shoulder season is a travel industry insider term that refers to the two times of year that ‘shoulder’ the summer months, especially May, September and October,” Kelly Soderlund, communications manager of the travel booking site Hipmunk, said. “The weather is still warm, and prices really start to decline.”
Travelers can expect lower prices as well as fewer crowds. And while they risk an increased chance of inclement weather, temperature drops are often minimal.
“At many U.S. beach destinations, the average temperature drops about 1 percent between August and September, while price drops are much more dramatic,” Melanie Fish, public relations director of VRBO, said.
Ms. Soderlund recommends approaching the Caribbean with caution, or at least keeping a careful eye on hurricane season.
How much can I save?
“The biggest price drops are in the most popular destinations,” Ms. Soderlund said. “And we see the biggest drop-off of visitors right after Labor Day.”
Data from Hipmunk, shows an average 18 percent decrease, compared to the summer months, in fares this fall for international flights departing from the United States.
According to Hipmunk, airfares for international flights departing from the United States are, on average, 18 percent less than they were this summer. Travelers looking to head to Nairobi, Venice or Shanghai could save 37 percent on flights, and a similar price drop — 34 percent — was seen for flights to Milan and Hong Kong. Domestic flights drop an average of 9 percent.
Hotel prices plunge as well, according to Hipmunk, with rates dropping around 50 percent in destinations ranging from Santorini, Greece, to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
VRBO data shows comparably significant price drops for home rentals. Last year, average nightly rates in Ocean City, N.J., dropped 29 percent between August and September, and 25 percent in Cape Cod. Travelers to Europe saw lower rental prices in Edinburgh (33 percent decrease), Nice, France, (24 percent) and Barcelona (21 percent).
Ali Killam, a consumer trends spokeswoman at Airbnb, recommends researching specific destinations to get the best deals.
“Prices tend to rise during local school breaks and holidays,” she said. “Since different destinations around the world observe different school breaks, take some time to learn more about the area’s academic and cultural calendar before booking.”
When should you book shoulder season travel?
Ms. Soderlund recommended booking international travel at least six weeks out on the busiest routes. Domestic flights tend to be cheapest about three months out.
The best way to capture these deals: Keep an eye out for fare sales and set price alerts for multiple airports. It’s worth researching new routes that may have opened up, like a new direct flight from San Jose, Calif., to London.
Whether booking flights, hotels or houses, Ms. Killam recommends making sure your trip falls firmly outside of high season.
“If you depart during high season but return in shoulder season, you likely won’t get the best price,” she said.
Where should you go?
Ms. Fish suggested travelers consider popular beach and mountain destinations throughout the United States, or places that are “typically associated with summer vacation.” And those always-popular international destinations, like London and Paris, have lower fares as well (though the price drops are not so stark).
[Here are eight destinations where you can stretch your summer beyond Labor Day.]
Of course, keep in mind that shoulder season months have their own spikes — typically around events or holidays.
In case of popular events, think about hitting a lesser-known destination, Ms. Killam recommended.
“One of our trending destinations for fall is Halle, Germany — a great alternative to Munich during Oktoberfest,” she said. “And Regina, Canada, which has some of the best and brightest fall foliage, is a great alternative to pricier New England foliage hot spots.”
Maintaining a degree of flexibility can be a boon in taking advantage of shoulder season travel, and, said Ms. Fish, is now easier than ever.
“Technology allows us to do jobs and stay connected even if ‘official’ lazy days of summer are over. Combine that with less-crowded destinations, even if it’s just for a weekend — it’s a delicious recipe for travel.”
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