Peak travel season translates to peak crowds. Long lines, scarce rental cars, sold-out museums and events, and frazzled service workers: There’s no breathing room in elbow-to-elbow travel.
Traditionally, the shoulder and off-seasons have been sweet spots for retired travelers, who typically have the flexibility to go where and when the crowds aren’t. After all, most retired people are not tethered to school and work schedules, which enables them both to plan to make the most of off-season visits, as well as seize last-minute deals as hotels and operators try to fill vacancies.
About 15% of travelers “deliberately avoid traveling during the peak season,” says Carol Turowska, community manager with the online travel services firm ePassportPhoto. And, 60% of U.S. travelers regret traveling in the peak season, whether because it was too hot or too cold, the firm’s research finds.
But the off-season isn’t what it used to be. Remote work and year-round school schedules have blurred the traditional traffic patterns. Memorial Day might signal the start of summer for out-of-towners but remote workers might establish themselves in short-term rentals by mid-May.
The upside to softening official “seasons” is better service and capacity, as operators plan to accommodate the change. But this new travel calendar also requires different planning and modes of flexibility.
The extra planning can keep your vacation on track: This year, travel has been crowded and expensive and is likely to get only more so. A survey conducted annually by insurer Allianz Partners USA found that travel volume has rebounded past 2019 levels, with 62% of Americans taking vacations this year, compared to 48% immediately before the pandemic. And the Global Travel Business Association reports that hotel rates rose 29.8% in the last year and are likely to edge forward 3.6% next year.
Some of the chaos is due to post-pandemic pent-up demand. But even as that ebbs, remote and hybrid work is now permanent for many. Still, there’s plenty of elbow room for seasoned travelers who know how to turn what remains of the travel seasons to their advantage. Here’s how to find your own sweet spot in the new travel calendar.
Here in the Northeast, the fall is a time for leaf peeping and enjoying the last vestiges of summer. Rather than join the hordes trying to do this now, you can find some real deals by looking at places not usually on the autumnal travel list.
Florida, for instance, can have some great autumn options. Some major destinations in Florida were unusually quiet this past summer — not exactly empty but much less jammed than usual. Hayley Condon, director of communications for the U.S. Travel Association, says that this past summer’s record-high temperatures thwarted the usual crowds — and likely will prompt summer-centric destinations to stay open this fall, making Florida a likely place to find some autumn deals.
Activities that depend on warm or cold weather, like ocean swimming or mountain skiing, are becoming less reliable as climate change upends long-standing weather patterns. This has two implications, say travel advisors. Tourists are now gravitating toward activities that are less climate-dependent, such as biking and hiking, which can be pursued most of the year round. And, visitors are simply heading for favored destinations and picking up activities currently available, regardless of seasonal expectations. For instance, the Lake Tahoe area saw a 14% rise in tourism this year in spring and summer, a trend that Condon predicts will continue this fall.
Businesses are responding accordingly with longer hours and fuller staffing close to year-round.
For winter vacations, people are often thinking about cold weather activities like skiing or, for those who hate the cold, warm southern climes and beaches. Finding winter deals is a case of thinking outside that box.
To find the best winter deals, Daniel D. Velez, spokesman for the New England region of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), recommends researching your destination to scope out the patterns unique to its permanent and college populations. “The school season is having an effect,” he says. “College students travel by themselves,” showing up in droves according to their schools’ unique event and exam calendars.
Those short, sharp spikes leave short, sharp valleys that flexible older travelers can make the most of. Look up the major events held by schools in areas you’re interested in visiting and then contact accommodations and destinations for the weeks before and after. That way you can visit when businesses are staffing up for crowds that aren’t yet expected to arrive. If college students aren’t scheduled to start classes until mid-January, the days after the New Year’s fizz has flattened are likely to be beautiful, quiet and inexpensive. Research the timing of spring break — which can start as early as mid-March — and plan your trip for the days when the kids are in Florida and the adults have lovely college towns all to themselves.
Spring can be a great time for getting the jump on places typically busy in the summer. One strategy is taking a look at states that host festivals.
Big happenings don’t get put together overnight. Localities staff up in advance, and that’s when you can slip in for the full experience without the crush.
April Murray, marketing lead with the city of Stratford, Ontario, famed for its annual Stratford Festival that runs July through October, says that the area is in dress rehearsal mode in spring. Restaurants and center-city accommodations usually have room for last-minute visitors, and shorter-run performances take center stage. Tracking calendar changes and last-minute special offers by following Stratford on social media and by signing up for its events newsletter will, she says, give you enough lead time to stitch together an itinerary that delivers the kind of cultural experience the city is famous for, at a sane pace.
The reversal of seasons means that summer actually is the off-season in the Southern Hemisphere — at least in terms of the weather. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best time to visit: Northern schedules typically dictate the busy season, says Fernando Diaz, marketing director with Quasar Expeditions, which runs tours and cruises in Patagonia and the Galapagos islands. Just because it’s winter in July doesn’t mean that cool-seeking Northerners will get a bargain to boot.
Instead, it’s spring and fall that offer great deals with just as much to see, says Diez. The best way to get on the short list of first-to-know about last-minute discounts is to actually call and talk with the tour operators, says Diez. Signing up for the operator’s newsletter is great, but potential customers are marked highest priority when they talk with a customer service rep who can add in details about the customer’s hopes for the trip and flag them in the system for certain seasons, conditions or price points.
And, destinations on or adjacent to the equator — such as the Galapagos Islands — have so little seasonal variation that there’s no material difference in experience, though a big difference in price, he says. “None of the animals migrate. The weather doesn’t change. The only difference is that the currents are stronger and it’s the most amazing snorkeling,” he says of the islands in fall and spring.
- Flag yourself as a hot prospect in the sales systems of cruise and tour operators by calling their sales reps and requesting first notification of last-minute deals that fit your needs and price point.
- Identify annual events (homecoming weekends at college towns, festivals at beach towns, and so on) and book accommodation and dining reservations for the week before or week after, when operations are fully staffed but crowds have ebbed.
- Traditional K-12 school years dictate demand especially around the holidays, say travel advisors. Capture great rates by heading out when kids are locked into school calendars. Two reliable, if short, off-seasons are the first two weeks of December and the first three weeks of January.
- If multigenerational family travel is on your bucket list, see what scheduling leeway schools can offer, especially for cultural and nature travel that potentially complements children’s curricula.
- TSA patterns indicate that air travel is less crowded on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as working travelers try to extend their weekends by traveling on Fridays and Mondays. Pair midweek travel with lower midweek fares at resorts.
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