Imagine this: You’ve saved up for your dream vacation to Europe for months. You spent weeks before your big trip daydreaming about that romantic gondola ride for two around the Venetian canals. Instead, your overpriced gondola gets stuck in a traffic jam next to other tourists who decide to play Katy Perry at an obscene volume, while your gondolier smokes while chatting on the phone. Not quite the romantic vacation you were dreaming of, right?
I travel exclusively in the off-season or shoulder season whenever possible and as a result, I’ve had a much better experience on my vacations. While there are some downsides, ranging from less-than-ideal weather to fewer accommodations or activities, the pros generally outweigh the cons.
You’ll Save $$$ on Hotels: This is definitely the area where I save the most money when I’m traveling off-season. I love staying at luxury hotels and resorts, without the luxury price-tag. The only way I’m able to afford a 5-star hotel, like 51 Buckingham Gate in London or the St. Regis in Bangkok, is by traveling off-season and saving at least 50% off the peak season rate.
Another bonus: Since the hotels are less crowded you may score an upgrade to an a huge suite that’s almost the size of your house.
You’ll Also Save on Airfare: A round-trip ticket on Norwegian Airlines from Los Angles to Paris is currently priced at $387 roundtrip in February. Changing the dates to July raises the price to $827 roundtrip. That $440 savings can buy a lot of croissants in Paris.
One of my favorite places to keep track of flight prices is Google flights, where you can type in the name of a continental, choose how long you want to travel and you’ll see a list of airfare prices by city.
If you’re using miles to purchase your flight, you may be able to take advantage of “saver” awards by booking during the off-season.
The Locals Are Usually Friendlier: Before my first trip to Paris, I was warned by friends and fellow travelers that while the city is lovely, the locals aren’t exactly friendly towards Americans. I went arrived on a damp, February morning and immediately headed to a local café, filled with locals, for some hot chocolate. Even though my French doesn’t really go beyond “Bonjour,” the hostess and the waitress were incredibly kind and wanted to chat about my travels. That same experience repeated itself inside restaurants, museums and shops. I imagine my experience would’ve been much different if my trip was in July, when the city is over-crowded at the height of the tourist season.
Surprising Experiences: Visiting a destination during the off-season means you’ll get to see a side of that location most tourists don’t get to see, like winter snow in Yellowstone or a snow-free ski resort. I visited Schweitzer Mountain Resort over the summer, a ski resort located just north of Sandpoint, Idaho. Even though most people think of Schweitzer as being a winter-time destination, visiting in the summer meant that I was able to go on a horseback ride, hike through lush greenery and enjoy a chill-free gondola ride to the top of the mountain for epic views.
Smaller Crowds & Shorter Lines: I’m not always the most patient person in the world so you’ll definitely never catch me in a 3-hour line for a tourist attraction. And I don’t deal all that well with huge crowds.
When I planned a trip to Rome a few years ago, I read horror stories about 3+ hour waits to enter St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum. Thankfully, the wait to enter both sites was only 25 minutes in the middle of February, freeing up valuable time to eat more gelato and pasta.
I also visited Zion National Park in mid-November and had most of the incredibly popular Angel’s Landing hike to myself (although I did get an early morning start). Try doing this hike in the summer and you’ll find hordes of people on this beautiful hike.
Related: How to avoid crowds in U.S. national parks
Here’s what to consider before booking a shoulder season or off-season vacation:
Is it Off-Season for a Reason? I’ve traveled to the Caribbean during August and September and saved a lot of money but the hurricanes forming in the ocean definitely added a level of stress. Before you book your tickets, check to see if there’s a likelihood of natural disasters during that time of year. If you want to take the risk, buy travel insurance as soon as you buy your plane tickets and make sure the policy covers things like hurricanes. I found out the hard way that you can’t buy travel insurance once a hurricane is named.
Will You Still Get to Enjoy What the Region Has to Offer? If you’ve been dreaming about seeing wild Atlantic puffins in Iceland but your trip is in October, you’re out of luck. There’s a fairly short window for Puffin-watching, which tends to stretch from May until August, also known as the high-season for Iceland. If seeing wild puffins is one of your top reasons for visiting Iceland, it’s probably worth dealing with the downsides of the high-season in order to avoid disappointment at your destination.
Will Restaurants & Hotels Be Open? This may not apply to you if you’re planning to camp and cook your own food. It’s an important consideration if you’re traveling to a destination where the entire town shuts down. On a recent trip to Capitol Reef National Park in November, all of the hotels and restaurants were closed for the season, leaving us with one option for lunch at the local gas station
Can You Deal With the Weather? My favorite time of year to visit Paris is February, when hotels are inexpensive, the locals are friendly and the city is fairly tourist-free. The winter weather in Paris can vary from brisk, sunny days to cold, constant drizzle. If I’m visiting a destination with less-than-ideal weather, I’ll pack appropriate clothing and gear so that I can enjoy myself. That said, if you know there’s no possible way you’ll enjoy 40-degree drizzle, you may want to think twice about visiting Paris in the winter.
Even with the potential downsides of off-reason travel, I’ve found that the monetary savings and fewer people are ultimately worth it.
Have you ever traveled during the off-season? What was your experience?
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