In many ways, travelling in 2021 was more challenging worldwide than it was in 2020. While demand for travel returned, global travel surveys showed that sufficient hospitality staffing often did not, leading to long waits at airports, hotel check-in desks and restaurants.
The eye-catching travel deals seen in 2020 mostly faded away, making way for price increases, like soaring rental car prices. This year might bring similar challenges for travellers worldwide, but here's a good way to skirt most of them: Travel during ‘shoulder season’.
The definition of shoulder season varies by destination and country, but it typically means the period of time between a region's peak season and offseason. This timespan can last months or just weeks. For instance, if a place's peak season is summer and its offseason is winter, then the ‘shoulder season’ would be the period just before or soon after those seasons.
Alternatively, a place may experience peak travel during a holiday weekend, but demand will drop off the weekend before or after – these times can also be considered shoulder season.
Here are six reasons why shoulder season is the best time to travel, especially during the pandemic.
1. Expect to pay lower prices than for peak season travel
Airfares averaged 23 per cent cheaper when booked for shoulder season versus peak season travel. That's according to an analysis conducted in December 2021 of more than 100 airfares taken from the most popular routes across eight major airlines.
The same routes were compared for flights booked for peak versus shoulder season days, where peak season flights were those booked for the Monday before or after a major holiday. In contrast, the shoulder season flights were those taken two weeks before or after that date.
The difference was starkest around Christmas of 2021: Flights averaged 50 per cent cheaper when booked for Monday, January 10 versus Monday, December 27.
2. You won't compete as much for coveted reservations
Those higher flight prices typically stem from supply and demand – which means demand is higher during peak season.
Increased interest leads to more competition across the board, whether for a hotel room at the price point you want or the chance to nab tickets to that concert. And that's only scratching the surface. Restaurants are more likely to get filled, airplanes to fly with fewer empty seats and wait times to get longer, and the likelihood of a complimentary upgrade diminishes.
Book during shoulder season and you'll vie with fewer travellers for your top experiences.
3. You won't see as many service closures in offseason
While demand is high during peak season, sometimes demand drops so low during offseason that the places you want to visit aren't even open. Boat tour operators might board up for the winter, and charming ski town cafes could close for the summer.
For example, in January national parks globally average about 16 per cent of the number of visitors that come during peak season in July, surveys show, and most tourists will have a rough go. This is because ice forces certain trails to close, some roads become inaccessible to drivers, and the museum and services like shuttle buses aren't available.
Instead, consider a trip during the September shoulder season, when crowds are at only about 85 per cent of the parks' peak but most amenities are available. Plus, you'll benefit from mild weather and the emergence of fall colours.
Around the world, hotels often take the offseason to do renovations, so the pool might become off-limits. Airlines typically cut back routes, so you'll have less flexibility on what day or time you can fly.
But the shoulder season is less likely to entail such challenges. Travel before summer crowds arrive and you might be pleasantly surprised with a newly renovated hotel room. Head to the mountains just after the winter holidays to take advantage of still-snowy slopes without as many skiers on them.
4. Weather is generally pretty good in non-peak seasons
The shoulder season likely won't bring the sweltering heat or storms that come with a region's offseason. And in some cases, the weather during shoulder season is actually better than peak season.
Summer at the world’s largest theme parks is often humid and muggy – and that's before you add in the crowds of out-of-school kids.
During shoulder season, you might forgo sunny summer days on the beach, but you'll typically get temperate weather, not to mention a less sweaty smile in that photo with your favourite character.
5. You could more likely experience unique, local events
Tourist hot spots in most countries typically want year-round crowds, so they often host events, concerts and other festivities that don't occur at times when crowds would be large anyway.
Theme park food festivals are among the most common shoulder season delights. Some countries hosts festivals from March to April, whereas certain small nations come alive just before the winter season with festivals spanning multiple islands.
6. Get better rental car options during offseason travel
A rental car might be overbooked for the first week of the peak travel season like July, but could be available in the weeks before or after the season at a good deal.
Experts also recommend another hack: Reserving a rental car for longer than you actually need it. Rental car companies might not show cars as available to people trying to book short trips, even if there are cars on the lot.
If you’re desperate and don’t mind paying extra for days you don’t need a car, then paying for a longer rental could be better than having no wheels at all. And sometimes, rental companies will even give you a credit for returning the car early, matter experts opine.
Here’s another money-saving tip: Rental car companies are commonly attached to airports, but don’t overlook rental locations attached to hotels or elsewhere in the city. The airport location could be sold out, but other nearby locations may have cars available.
In that case, you might be able to take the free hotel shuttle or a taxi from the airport to the offsite location. Even with the cab fare, you might save money if the offsite locations are cheaper.