Everyone loves a bargain, and when it comes to travel, most of us are always on the lookout for that sweet deal on lodging, an affordable cruise or a cheap flight.
Flexibility often is the key to finding deals. Much of travel to Europe is June through August, but if you can go in the off-season or in a shoulder season — the period just before or after peak season — the lower demand generally results in lower prices.
There can be trade-offs, however, when traveling off-peak.
"Cruising to a destination during its shoulder season allows you to really get the best value or lowest fares of the year, but weather can be a bit of a challenge," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com. For example, "Alaska's spring shoulder season could bring cool, rainy weather; the Caribbean's fall shoulder season falls during hurricane season."
Brown and other travel experts offer tips on how to find off-season deals.
"If you can plan ahead of time (nine months to a year out), you'll get the absolute best value on a shoulder-season cruise," Brown said. "Rates will be lower to reflect the season, and the further ahead you plan, the more extras that could be added on to your cruise in the form of onboard credit, free beverage packages, included airfare, etc.
"On the other hand, if you have extremely good last-minute flexibility (six weeks or less), you can still find some truly inexpensive deals during shoulder season. In addition to the shoulder-season rates, lines will also know what occupancy they have left to fill, which could lead to even more discounted rates."
Brown noted that a travel agent specializing in cruises is a good resource, as is signing up for cruise lines' emails. CruiseCritic also lists last-minute deals at tinyurl.com/anp6jf and dissects the question of when to go to popular cruise destinations at tinyurl.com/5okvtk.
Lissa Poirot, editor of FamilyVacation
Critic.com, said U.S. beach destinations and theme parks can be a good deal as the weather cools if families are able to work around school schedules.
"Fall can be a great time for families to visit — hotel rates go down, and crowds thin. And oftentimes there are some really great fall festivals to enjoy," she said. "Beach destinations that have cooler off-seasons, like those along the East Coast, usually offer pretty significant deals in their shoulder seasons and off-seasons."
Poirot suggested families also consider rental units rather than hotels. "Rental units can be a fantastic option for families any time of year, particularly for large or extended families needing more than one hotel room. But during shoulder season and off-season, rentals can be an even more cost-effective option, as rates drop dramatically."
She noted that rentals also may relax minimum night requirements, so weekend getaways are possible for destinations that may require longer stays in peak months.
Flipkey.com is a good resource to find rentals, she added.
If you're not afraid of being a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of traveler, waiting till you get to your destination to find lodging can be your best bet, according to the experts at Kayak.com, the site that compares prices on hotels, airfare, rental cars and more.
"We analyzed searches to popular domestic destinations New York City and Chicago and found that procrastinators actually win for the September-to-October shoulder season," Kayak experts said in a strategy statement. "The best time to book your hotel is the day of check-in. Both cities showed a 7 percent rate drop compared to the average."
But at Kayak, they advise planning ahead — about six months out — to get the best hotel prices for historically popular international destinations such as London.
If you prefer to book ahead, their research showed that the cheapest U.S. cities in the September-October period include Myrtle Beach, S.C. (averaging $101 a night); Tampa, Fla. ($115), Reno, Nev. ($122); Panama City Beach, Fla. ($133) and Orlando, Fla. ($134). "Hotel rates in these same cities dropped an average of 20 percent from the summer season," Kayak said.
If you want to go to Las Vegas, regardless of the season, "prices begin to fall within 30 days of check-in (as much as 16 percent below average), so book no earlier than a month out," they said.
The early/late booking strategy also applies to tours, according to the experts at G Adventures, a tour company that specializes in small-group adventure travel.
"Travel companies often bring out early booking incentives, and these can include shoulder-season departures," G Adventures experts said in a statement. "Not only will travelers benefit from a great discount, but they will secure their place on their chosen trip and get a better deal on flight costs, which can creep up the closer to departure you get."
But then, if you have the flexibility, waiting also pays. "Around two months out we look to see which trips have spaces left we'd like to fill. This is the opportunity to snap up a great late-availability deal," G Adventures said.
It's also important to understand the destination you are traveling to and how its seasons work. For instance, they said, shoulder season for India is typically March to May and September to November, with peak season coming November to February and the summer being very rainy, so off-season.
Central America is similar. Shoulder season is May to June and September to November, avoiding the wet "green" season and superhot season.
May and October are shoulder seasons in East Africa, while in China, late spring/early May will beat the crowds of summer.
If you're hoping to score plane tickets using your frequent-flier miles, shoulder seasons are prime time, according to Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of Independent
Traveler.com. "Shoulder season is a great time to use them, as there is less of a chance that it will fall within blackout dates," she said.
If you're buying tickets, she added, keep in mind that "the closer you travel to the peak period, the more you'll pay as compared to traveling right on the line between shoulder and off-season. Using Europe as an example, the highest fares are June-August, and the lowest are December-March, excluding holidays. So most Europe fares will be more expensive in mid-September than they will in early November."
Fares to the Caribbean can be a bargain in the fall shoulder season because the threat of hurricane season scares off many travelers. "If you're concerned," Schlichter said, "look for flights to the so-called ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), which are very rarely affected by hurricanes because they're so far south."
The deals are out there; don't shrug them off.