Welcome to one of the best seasons, shoulder season — that moment when minimal tourists occupy your favorite spot.
Of course, you’re quite often the tourist, as well. But it doesn’t matter. You’ve been to that choice location often enough that you feel like a local.
But how do you know when it’s shoulder season and does it differ according to location?
Let’s take a look!
What Is Shoulder Season?
We’ve all heard of the four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter.
But what is this shoulder season thing? Peak season is the high season, usually summer for most people, unless it’s winter sports. Then areas of Colorado, for example, have their high season during the winter. The off-season is when people don’t usually visit a place.
Shoulder season, then, is the time in between the high season and off-season.
For campers, shoulder season is usually early to mid spring and mid-autumn.
Why Is It Called Shoulder Season?
Generally, shoulder season takes place in the spring or fall. And during those time periods, the weather can be a bit cooler. This might require a jacket or a scarf or something that covers your shoulders. Get it?
Coined in the 1960s, nobody really knows if this is what was meant for the reasoning behind it.
It could have been called shoulder season because spring and fall are shouldering summer and winter. Sometimes referred to as mud season. Whatever you call it, it’s one of the best times to travel.
Benefits of Traveling During Shoulder Season
So you might miss a few fellow travelers, meaning a lot of them, when heading to a place during shoulder season. But that’s a benefit. Fewer people means more space for you. And that’s not the only benefit of shoulder season.
Prices decrease, people decrease, and the weather is quite often ideal (most times.)
One of the biggest benefits of shoulder season is that things generally cost less. Big things like airline tickets at a 10% to 15% decrease in price. Other big things like accommodations, including discounted daily, weekly, and monthly campground rates.
It’s easier to book travel packages at discounted rates. You can save an average of over $200 when booking airline tickets, a hotel, and a car rental together. Many companies offer free amenities such as increased legroom on flights or free breakfast with hotel stays. There are bigger bargains in shops and local retailers because owners need to sell their current season’s wares and clothing to prepare for next season.
Bargains are more prevalent throughout shoulder season compared to the high summer season. Vendors need you there as much as you want to be there.
Another advantage to shoulder season is fewer people. This means shorter lines for the most popular attractions, easier reservations at your favorite restaurant, and less time waiting for all the things you want to do.
Because tourists are scarce, reservations are easier to make. Not just in restaurants or hotel rooms, but especially for the most popular National Parks and State Campgrounds.
And fewer tourists means the locals are more visible. You’ll get an authentic experience of a place. Not one overrun with tourists, but true to the local flavor of the culture.
Pro Tip: We strongly recommend the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone during the shoulder season. Here are our favorite free campsites at Grand Canyon and here are our favorite free campsites at Yellowstone.
Great (Yet Sometimes Unpredictable) Weather
Many people don’t travel during shoulder season because they’re wary of the weather. And while you should prepare for its unpredictability, remember that the weather is uncertain no matter the season.
Shoulder season most often has quite pleasant weather. It’s not as hot as Florida in the summer, nor as cold as Montana in the winter. If the weather holds steady, you’ll experience mild temperatures while enjoying the spring wildflowers or the fall colors you won’t get in the summer.
Weather is never guaranteed, so prepare for any weather, and go where you want to go. You might end up with better weather than you could ever get, even in the summer.
Keep in mind: Tools like RV Trip Wizard can help you route around bad weather and rough roads.
Popular Shoulder Season Locations in the US
While there may be fewer people during shoulder season, more and more travelers are starting to figure out that it’s the perfect time to visit a few places. From Florida to New England to the Desert Southwest, shoulder season is becoming quite popular in these areas.
Florida attracts over 100 million tourists every year. And if you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of all those people, it’s best to visit Florida when others are not. Granted, Florida is popular all year long, but you’ll have fewer people, better bargains, fewer lines, and more beach space if you visit in the shoulder season.
For southeastern cities such as Miami, Orlando, Palm Beach, and Tampa, the best times to visit are in April and May and then again in September, October, and November. You’ll find wonderful weather to enjoy the beaches and the theme parks. On the other hand, the summer months in Miami are hot, humid, and rainy. If you can put up with that, you’ll find even fewer crowds and greater discounts on just about everything. Orlando, however, has its off-season in winter, except for the holidays.
Wherever you choose to travel in Florida, with its many tourist and cultural attractions along with its pristine beaches, the state won’t disappoint. And it’s always better when a hundred million other people are somewhere else.
We Recommend: Try booking a campsite at Tomoka State Park near Daytona Beach.
New England is known for its vibrant fall colors and quaint New England towns. Lakes are everywhere. Trees are abundant. And life seems to slow down. Also known for its cooler temperatures, summer is quite the popular time to visit here.
May and June and then again in September and October are the best times, the shoulder season times. It’s during these months that you’ll get the best pricing and the best chance at viewing those vibrant fall colors.
Careful, though. Unlike Florida, if you visit New England during the off-season, many places may actually be closed. So, when planning to check out the easternmost town of Lubec, Maine, or cozying up in a cabin on Cape Cod, be sure to do so before Indigenous Peoples’ Day (formerly known as Columbus Day) in mid-October.
If you need some complete alone time, go for it. But you may not even see any locals out. And sometimes, that’s the best part of travel.
The Desert Southwest
With thousands of Saguaros dotting the landscape, shoulder season in the Desert Southwest is almost otherworldly. Plus, wherever you just came from, it’s probably cold, and now it’s not.
Making peak season here in the dead of winter. However, it’s also quite pleasant in April and May and then again in September through December during the Southwest’s shoulder season.
With sunny, blue skies, and moderate temperatures, millions of snowbirds flock south for the winter, starting in the fall and staying well into the spring. Only leaving when the temperatures start to climb into the 90s in late spring.
Whether you’re visiting the deserts of New Mexico, the cactus-covered lands of Arizona, the spectacular National Parks in Utah, or any other desert state, doing so in the spring or fall is the best time. You’ll be able to hike through the snow-covered natural towers of Zion National Park without everyone else.
You can wander the glitzy streets of Vegas for a fraction of the normal cost to stay there. And the best deal? The beauty of the desert without the sweltering heat.
Pro Tip: Try one of these best boondocking spots in Arizona.
The Shoulder Season is Just Right
Wherever your travel plans take you, be sure they take you there during shoulder season. Like the popular fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the peak season is too busy. The low season is too cold. But shoulder season is just right!
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