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What is shoulder season for travel? Often considered the ideal time to take a vacation, the shoulder season is when the crowds have gone home after peak travel season, but the off season hasn’t just yet begun. Prices are lower, hotels are emptier and all around, things have calmed down.
There are many things to love about shoulder season, so let’s take a look at five different ways to maximize these not-quite-off season vacation deals.
1. Search for off-peak award flights
Award flights can be an excellent way to save money on a vacation and shoulder season can be an especially cheap time to fly. Many airlines have moved to an at least semi-dynamic award system, which means costs vary based on demand.
The European shoulder season, for example, occurs in the spring and the fall. Most European vacations tend to happen in the summer, when children are out of school, or in the winter, when Christmas markets pop up around the continent.
A one-way American Airlines award flight from New York-JFK to Paris-CDG in the summer can cost 36,000 miles in economy.
A flight on the same route a few months later, at the beginning of November, drops down to 22,500 miles.
You’ll find this to be true with other airlines, so it always pays to poke around if your travel dates are flexible.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
2. Set up a price tracker
Price trackers are helpful for just about everybody but can be especially useful during the shoulder season when prices for flights can drop dramatically.
Capital One Travel has price drop protection that will advise you when to buy and refund you if the price of your flight drops by a certain amount after purchase.
Google Flights has a handy feature that’ll show you whether the price for your flight is decent, like in this example from Los Angeles to Sydney in May, a month in Australia’s shoulder season.
If prices are high, you can opt to turn on the flight tracker directly within the search bar.
With this switched on, you’ll be sent an email notification when prices fall.
3. Take advantage of dynamic pricing
Like airlines, many hotels have dropped standard pricing for reward stays in favor of pricing that more closely aligns with demand. While this generally means an increase in cost during peak season, it can also mean much cheaper rooms other times.
For example, the Clement Monterey hotel in Monterey, California, can cost 101,000 points per night during peak travel season. While it’s a nice hotel, paying more than 100,000 points per night for most rooms is outrageous.
Meanwhile, the cost during shoulder season in mid-September comes down to 65,000 points per night. That’s a 35% drop in the number of reward points you’ll need for the same hotel based simply on dates of travel.
Hilton is another big offender when it comes to dynamic pricing. But unlike IHG, Hilton does have a somewhat standardized point redemption level when it comes to its saver level rooms.
Generally speaking, you won’t find standard room rewards costing more than 150,000 points per night — and those are the costliest locations such as the Maldives and Bora Bora.
However, when demand is high, Hilton offers premium room rewards. These rooms have no caps and can often exceed one million points per night.
You can always watch rooms like a hawk and hope that you’ll find standard room rewards during peak periods. For example, we found some reward nights at 150,000 points at the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi in the first months of the Maldives peak season.
However, traveling during the shoulder season means there’s less demand, which translates to better availability when looking for these rooms.
» Learn more: The best way to use points for travel?
4. Get travel insurance
Why do shoulder seasons exist? One reason is school schedules, as many families are limited to traveling within breaks. Another reason is nature — in Japan, shoulder season exists outside of cherry blossom time, as well as other festivals. But sometimes nature can be a hindrance, especially in tropical areas subject to plenty of rain.
In Hawaii, for example, hurricane season is from June 1 to Nov. 30. During this time, you may be at risk of travel interruptions and even cancellations if things go awry. While there’s no one-size-fits-all shoulder season chart, doing research on your destination can quickly inform you about potential weather events.
If you’re looking to travel during the shoulder season — especially to somewhere with weather events that can affect your trip — consider purchasing a travel insurance policy that will cover you if something happens.
» Learn more: Credit cards that provide travel insurance
5. Book group tours
Tours can be a fantastic way to get out and explore the area, especially if you’re staying somewhere with a lot to do. If you’re looking to meet new people, they can also serve as an excellent introduction to other travelers. However, sometimes group tours aren’t what you’re looking for. Whether you’re searching for a little privacy or you’re traveling with your own large group of people, you may instead want to opt for a private tour.
Although private tours cater exclusively to you, there’s usually a much higher cost associated with this luxury. But traveling during the shoulder season, when there are fewer tourists, means that the odds of your public group tour turning into an impromptu private tour go up drastically. Why not enjoy a little luxury while saving some money?
Forget off season vacations: Consider shoulder season
Traveling during the shoulder season can be a joy, especially when you’re making the most of your vacation. Although you may miss out on some time-sensitive experiences by traveling during off-peak periods, the time, money and crowds you’ll skip can more than make up for the loss. Use these tips to maximize your travel and wave goodbye to vacation frustration.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card