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Why Shoulder Season is the Best Time to Travel

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By Rachel Means

It’s that time of year again: The warm days are starting to outnumber the cold ones, and nature is slowly but surely making its miraculous comeback from hibernation. The ice and snow are melting, animals are stirring, and trees and flowers are budding. There’s a sense of optimism in the air as the warming weather helps us celebrate our bank accounts having finally recovered from last year’s holidays.

There is a downside to this time of year, though. Winter activities stopped being fun about a month ago, and cabin fever has set in something fierce. We’re all languishing in that seemingly unending void between January and May with no public holidays to break up the time. The answer: an affordable getaway! Splitting the difference between low winter prices and hot summer weather, shoulder season is the ideal time of year to travel. Temperatures are either just warming up or just cooling down and the crowds are temporarily at bay while everyone returns to work and school for a few months. But if you can wrangle a week or long weekend away, you can enjoy a 4-star vacation for a 2-star price.

Why is shoulder season so special? It’s the odd, in-between time when hotels and tours find themselves on the other side of the supply and demand equation. They aren’t charging outrageous rates and still turning away visitors because they’re fully booked 3 months ahead; they’re just trying to convince guests to show up.

To keep their revenue averages respectable, accommodations and tour companies often entice visitors with discounted rates. That oceanfront room with a balcony that goes for $450 per night at the peak of summer in July can be booked for $175 per night in March. You’ll need a jacket in the evenings in March, but the sun, sand, and beachy vibe are all the same. Plus, you stand a much better chance of getting into that popular restaurant at actual dinnertime without a reservation.

When is shoulder season? Generally, spring and fall are prime shoulder season for most destinations. It’s no longer “escaping (or embracing) the cold and ice” season, but it’s also not “sweating as soon as you step outside” season, either. Shoulder season encompasses those awkward, leftover months when the weather isn’t miserable or great, when there’s no convenient national holiday to break up the monotony or chaos of everyday life, and when there’s nothing specific to do, like an event or festival.

Spring and fall each have their respective popular activities, of course. Understand that leaf-peeping in New England in the fall or admiring cherry blossoms in Washington, DC in the spring are decidedly not cheap adventures.But other summertime hotspots, like the beaches or the national parks, have yet to be overrun with vacationers. If you’re willing to accommodate the finicky weather a bit, you can experience amazing locations without the annoying crowds and sky-high peak summer prices.

Spring is the perfect time of year for that beach vacation without the crowds or sweltering heat. It’s also wildflower season in the deserts and forests. If you’re lucky, you may even witness a superbloom, one of the desert’s most impressive displays, when the sudden influx of water from melting snow fuels a massive but brief explosion of blooming flowers. Taking a road trip around the Southwest is one of the best spring adventures you can do in the USA. Fall has ideal hiking and sightseeing temperatures. Book a camping trip to a state or national park before they close for the winter. Avoid the fall foliage seekers in the parks by timing your visit for pre- or post-peak fall color, or even better, choosing a park that doesn’t include a deciduous forest. More of an indoor than outdoor person? Opt for a city break and take in the museums and art galleries without competing for parking and breathing space.

Whether you plan your escape for spring or fall, shoulder season is sure to be your new favorite way to explore on a budget!

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