A cautionary tale!
Don't get caught not knowing what to expect during shoulder season.
I was supposed to have lunch with a friend this week. I was looking forward to hearing all about her late October trip to South Florida, an area I visit every winter and love! She texted me that she had a great time, got a great deal on the resort and had the beaches all to herself and her beloved. But she needed to cancel lunch because she had been bitten by sand fleas at that lonely beach and needed to consult her health care provider about how to treat it. I'm not sure she would have canceled her trip south, but she sure would have loved knowing ahead of time that sand fleas could be an issue at that time of year so she could have brought along some repellent!
I am a big fan of shoulder seasons. I have taken many trips on shoulder seasons that would have been unaffordable, or overly crowded, had we not enjoyed the area at the edges of their tourist season. We did a week in luxury safari camps in Botswana by planning the whole week before July 1st, when rates doubled! We booked 2 rooms in South Beach Miami hotel in June for the same price as one we have booked at the same property in February. We stayed in a 4 room penthouse of the an eco lodge in Costa Rica in June for a mere $75 dollars more than a regular room. And we enjoyed a nearly empty Disney World in early September, for a fraction of the winter or summer prices.
So what could possibly be the downside? The safari camps? There was little difference in the quality of the game, or service at the camps, but we had to be very flexible to fit a week in between the end of school and July 1st. That South Beach hotel- beautiful, but Miami was steaming hot in mid June! Costa Rica in June? It's a rain forest, and it's the rainy season, we expected and we got- lots of rain, but a lady on our tour who might not have done as much research bemoaned the fact that it "raining again?!" every morning. That quiet amusement park in September? It got really, really quiet when a hurricane blew through and the park closed down for the day! In our case, we were well aware of the downsides, as well as the upsides, of traveling to the places we went during the shoulder seasons, but it can be a real disappointment if you haven't been prepared for it.
So how to avoid shoulder season surprises? The way I prepare is to do some research into the area before deciding when to go. I do some reading of both user generated reviews as well as asking my specialist travel agent (one who knows the area well) about what to expect. I also follow Wendy Perrin of Trip Advisor who does a feature each month about the best places to travel in the next month. (see her Where to Go in December here) She always suggests good "shoulder season" locations. In December she recommends traveling to St Martin in the first two weeks. We have often traveled there during this period, and found what she says to be true; hurricane season is really winding down, the holiday and winter crowds have not arrived yet, and it's a delightful and affordable time to visit! I like Wendy's advice because she talks to experts who can warn about what to avoid and when! Rather than encounter a nasty surprise, a little research or good advice from those "in the know" can really prepare you for what to expect!
Three things to consider with shoulder season travel:
1. Weather: I ask myself if I can still enjoy the destination if the weather is not ideal? In the case of the amusement park during the hurricane, if the park is closed, I really can't enjoy it! But if it's raining more in the rain forest, I might get wet, but it wont change the wildlife and scenery I might see, in fact it might even enhance it! If it doesn't enhance it, can I tolerate it? A visit to New York City in February meant my little kids didn't need to wait in lines, but being hardy New Englanders, they weren't bothered by the wintry weather either!
2. Wildlife and Natural Phenomena: It's great to get a good deal on a shoulder or off season trip, but if your purpose for going is to see a certain phenomena or animal, be sure you'll still be able to see it during the time you plan to go! We hope to travel to Churchill to see polar bears one day, but I know the polar bears are only there for a short time in the late fall before the ice forms. The area is still wild and wonderful at other times of the year, but if we hope to see polar bears, we will have to pay full price and go during "peak" season.
There are also wildlife and phenomena to avoid too! Knowing if the beach you want to visit has a jelly fish season, beach seaweed (or sandfleas!) or the park has a hunting season that might limit your use of the area, and it is important to know that.
3. Crowds and Open Services: Shoulder seasons can be great for avoiding crowds, but be aware of what will be open at your destination and what won't be. In the peak seasons, every restaurant is open (maybe with a waiting line!), while off season, you might find fewer places open. An amusement park or tourist sight might have reduced hours. It's a good idea to know ahead of time what you'll face so you can make plans.