COVID-19 Changed Shoulder Season Travel — but Here's How to Keep Finding Those Deals
In 2020, international tourist arrivals declined by 74% year over year, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported. An astonishing 1 billion fewer people traveled that year compared to 2019. And understandably so. The tourism industry was no match for COVID-19, which the UNWTO said led to an estimated loss of $1.3 trillion in export revenues. It's shaken an industry that employs an estimated 319 million people around the globe. Though there are signs of hope (and signs of a booming return to travel to come), exactly when people travel — and when they can find deals — may be altered forever.
While the average traveler plans a trip whenever it's convenient for them, savvy and experienced jet-setters will often try to visit a destination during its shoulder season, AKA the time just before or after a major tourism rush. It's the time when travelers can find bargains galore, and when more space may be available due to fewer fellow travelers making the trek.
However, some are theorizing the pandemic may have altered the shoulder seasons of popular destinations for good due to the ability of many to work from anywhere, at any time, and because many people are hoping to travel to places with fewer crowds to minimize their health risks. The New York Times even said the number of travelers to Montauk over the winter months drove its off-season "nearly to extinction."
But hang on, there still may be hope for a budget-friendly, off-season getaway yet.
"The pandemic has had some impacts on certain types of deals that have historically been available, but this idea that shoulder seasons deals are no more is absolutely not true," Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights and author of "Take More Vacations," told Travel + Leisure.
The main reason shoulder seasons may be here to stay despite the massive shift to digital offices? School calendars. Many children still need to attend school in person, or at least online during regular hours, which restricts when families are willing or able to travel, which will continue to play a significant role in vacation planning.
"The reason why shoulder seasons are a good deal is because the prices are relative to peak season prices," Keyes added. "Europe is never really cheap in July. It's always one of the most difficult times to find a deal. And May and September traditionally tend to be half the price, if not lower."
Gabe Saglie, senior communications manager for Travelzoo, also suggested shoulder season bargains aren't going the way of the dinosaur. Instead, you just may be able to find deals all year long, rather than in a few rigidly defined weeks, which is most certainly a little good news travelers could all use.
"A year or two ago, the seasons were more defined, but now there are more aggressive prices all year long and the seasonal window is wide open," Saglie said.
In other words, there are still bargains to be had when traveling outside of high-demand vacation weeks and months, a fact that Tennessee resident and traveler Amelia Edelman — a fellow Dotdash Meredith editor — recently experienced with her off-season visit to Greece.
According to Edelman, she paid $512 per coach airline ticket for an off-season visit to Athens and the Greek islands with her husband and child in January 2022. In contrast, during Greece's high season, which typically falls between early July and the end of August, the cost of an airline ticket can flex up to 16% higher than the average yearly flight price, according to SkyScanner.
And the deals didn't end there for Edelman. Nightly accommodation rates throughout Edelman's trip, including VRBO stays and hotels, were in many cases about $40 per night, with one property (their splurge, which included a private outdoor hot tub and courtyard) costing $120 per night, far below its high-season nightly rate.
The budget prices Edelman scored were merely one reason her family enjoyed the off-season getaway. Being one of the few visitors in town paid dividends by way of getting to spend plenty of quality time with the people who call Santorini home. On one tour in particular, with the Symposion Cultural Center on the island of Santorini, Edelman and her family took part in a presentation of ancient Greek instruments and a workshop during which Edelman's son was able to make a pan flute. And, as the only family there, they got one-on-one time they'd never get in the high season.
"We went to a cultural center on Santorini, and the couple who runs the center invited us in and offered us some food. We had the same experience going to an ouzo distillery and a winery," Edelman said. "When you are the only ones there, rather than being one of the masses, it's a far different experience."
Of course, Edelman added, there were a few downsides to visiting the gorgeous islands surrounded by crystalline waters in the cooler months.
"Certainly, there was no swimming while we were there," Edelman said. "And if you really want to go to the Greek islands for swimming and laying on the beach, you're out of luck."
The bottom line is that there are still plenty of deals, but at least for the immediate future, you may have to look slightly beyond what used to be the end of popular travel periods. You may need to be flexible about your dream destination to get the best shoulder season deals, too.
"There is certainly more interest in off-peak times of travel," Keyes said. "I don't dispute that there are changes at the margins, but the idea that there is no more shoulder season? I just don't see it."