Storm-proof Bonaire

A cruise ship nears Bonaire, which with Aruba and Curacao is less likely to be affected by hurricanes during the fall shoulder season. (Michel Porro, Getty Images)

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.

Cruising

"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.

Family travel

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.

Lodging

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.