Have you ever bought a calendar on Jan. 2 or a dozen roses on Feb. 15? If so, you probably paid half what buyers did a week or even a day earlier for the exact same item. It's a similar story in the tourism business, where "shoulder season" can mean a fire-sale discount on perfectly good rooms and flights.
When it comes to airfare, hotel rooms or rental homes, timing is everything. The most dramatic annual price hikes occur in places where everyone is headed at once: ski resorts in February, tropical beaches in the spring, U.S. lakes and seasides in the summer, and New England "leaf-viewing" towns in the autumn. You'll pay top dollar to join the crowds, as my family just did buying airplane tickets to Mexico the week before Easter.
Low season is often no picnic, however. Prices are at their lowest for a good reason. This is when hurricanes blow around the Caribbean and Florida, when the lakes are too cold for swimming, when clouds hide the Andes, or when the weather is too miserable for walking around the historic centers of Europe. "Green season" in Central America really translates to "rainy every day" season.
That brings us to "shoulder season," that stretch of weeks or months between high season and low season. Shoulder season offers the chance to score a bargain while the getting is still good, when you get quality time at a better value. Those $850 tickets we just purchased? They're $450 in May.
Rates for lodging, airfare and tours often drop at this time of year for reasons of demand, not weather or intrinsic value. Europe is still quite nice in the fall, but all the college kids and family vacationers have returned home to school. Spring skiing is fantastic at many resorts and prices drop by half, but people are tired of winter by then, so they don't go. The Caribbean and Mexico still have great weather from April through June, but prices fall because Spring Break is over and it's warming up at home.
Here are five tips for finding a shoulder-season deal.
1. Most guidebooks and country-specific Web sites have a "When to Go" section that describes the ideal time to visit an area, as well as the worst time. Between those two seasons, you'll get the best bang for your travel buck.
2. Airfare prediction sites (such as FareCompare.com and Farecast.com) can give you a rough idea of how flight prices fluctuate and will also show you the best deals from your own airport in any given month.
3. Most rental homes and villas clearly list prices by season. Just moving your planned vacation two weeks in one direction or another can save you a bundle. Moving it a month or two can cut the price in half.
4. Travel sites that move unsold inventory can present fantastic shoulder-season deals when hotels struggle to fill rooms. Try Hotwire.com, Priceline.com and SkyAuction.com — or just pick a place and call direct to start bargaining. If it's a last-minute trip, try LastMinuteTravel.com to get a cheap package deal.
5. Consider where the crowds are going, then plot a different course. You can ski in Chile or Argentina in July, for instance, or visit the tulip fields of Holland or the green hills of Ireland in the spring — before much-higher summer airfares kick in. Spend the busy summer break in a U.S. destination that's off the tourist radar, or in a lesser-known part of a nearby country like Canada, Mexico or Guatemala. Or, take an African safari — June to August is actually the shoulder season in Kenya and Tanzania.
Any vacation has two big variables: timing and destination. If you can't change one, then change the other. And remember, it's always shoulder season somewhere.
Tim Leffel is author of the books "" and "". He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine .