Want a great travel deal? Then you need to focus on your timing.
While everyone is moaning about high holiday fares, I’m going to let you in on a secret: Smack in the middle of what’s typically the most expensive time of year to travel lies the CHEAPEST time of year to travel.
How’s that? Well, let’s take a walk thru the calendar and I’ll show you when to pounce on deals—and when you should be prepared for sticker shock. It’s a bumpy ride of highs and lows, so stick with me and you’ll eventually find a perfectly timed deal that works for you.
Travel prices are relatively cheap in the early part of November but spike around Thanksgiving. However, travel patterns have been changing lately. Traditionally, the one of the busiest days of Thanksgiving holiday is the Wednesday before. But in recent years, the FRIDAY before Thanksgiving has emerged as one of the two busiest days at most major airports. The other busiest day is of course the Sunday after.
While it’s likely too late to find many deals during Thanksgiving week, keep an eye out for some last-minute deals on Thursday, Friday and Saturday– the slowest days. You’ll also find good downtown hotel rates in many cities this week since business travelers are home- your relatives will thank you 😉
Another silver lining for bargain hunters? An early Thanksgiving (Nov 23) means that the so-called “dead weeks” will begin earlier. These typically begin during the first week of December, but this year they’ll start around Tuesday, November 28. This holds true nearly everywhere except in NYC when prices begin to soar in December due to holiday shopping frenzy that grips Manhattan- airfares rise slightly, but hotel rates, especially on weekends in December, spike. (Good luck finding anything decent for less than $500.)
This is also a great time to consider one of those super-popular European river cruises which frequently sell out months or even years in advance. For example, a November week-long sailing on the Danube in Viking River Cruises starts at $1,999 per person – which is approximately 45 percent less than a peak summer, which starts at $3,649 per person. (I’ll be sailing the Danube on Viking this December so stay tuned for a Trip Report!)
When everyone goes home after New Years, travel demand plummets and we fall into another short period of “Dead weeks” — the slowest (and cheapest) time of year for bargain hunters.
Early January through the early March is a great time to find excellent last-minute deals. Exceptions to this would be long weekends like Martin Luther King (Jan 13-15, 2018) Valentines/Presidents Day (Feb 14-19, 2018).
If you are between jobs, retired with no kids in school and have the flexibility to travel during these weeks, you’ll see jaw dropping low prices….and also lots of good last-minute deals on sites like Hotwire.com or LastMinuteTravel.com or apps like Hotel Tonight.
New York and San Francisco hotels have become freakishly expensive this year, but you’ll find some good deals if you go during January. (See New York Hotel Week for some good ideas.) If you’ve been priced out of these cities, January would be a great time for cost-conscious business travelers to set up meeting with prospects and clients.
Winter is also a very nice time to visit California Wine Country, especially if the sun is out. And the region could definitely use your help this winter- you’ll find a broad welcome mat and cheaper hotel rates, too. See The 29 Napa for ideas. I’ll be there in March to watch the beautiful mustard bloom yellow across the valleys!
This is spring break and you need to be on alert for high prices and surprise crowds at airports, especially if you live in or near a college town OR if you are headed to a warm weather destination like Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean. Find out when the university nearest you has spring break (see calendar by school here) and stay home that weekend!
Late March is usually the busiest time of year for collegiate Spring break, and April is more popular with families traveling around Easter. But in 2018, Easter is early (April 1) so the last week in March will be crazy with both family and collegiate spring breakers hitting the roads and skies and bumping up airfares, hotels and rental car rates.
If you feel priced out of skiing this winter, consider taking a trip in early April (after Easter) when you’ll find cheaper fares, deals on lift tickets, and lots of end-of-season fun and festivities. (One day lift tickets at Vail this year are $164. At Squaw Valley: $158. Ouch) And if it’s like last year was in the West, you’ll find some of the best ski conditions of the year (but don’t count on it!).
There’s a silver lining to an early Easter, though, which is a much longer “shoulder season” when demand dips along with prices. Shoulder season in 2018 will run almost 10 weeks from early April until mid-June when peak summer pricing and crowds kick in. (Except of course Memorial Day weekend, May 26-28, 2018).
Shoulder season is not as cheap as the dead weeks, but it’s not anywhere near the peak of what you’ll pay during July or August. This is probably the very best time of year to travel to Europe because the weather is getting warmer and summer crowds have not arrived. This is when new low fare carriers like Norwegian and WOW Air offer super low fares which are frequent matched by the majors. Hotels are cheaper, too. And there are flowers blooming!
It’s also a very nice time to see Mexico– especially Mexico City- here’s my take on the magnificent Mexican megalopolis!
The peak of the peak summer season does not start until mid-June, so you’ll find significantly lower prices in early June compared to later in the month. Prices soar after that, especially on and around July the 4th and stay high mid August when kids go back to school. The also spike for Labor Day.
Keep in mind that late August is still technically summer so if you can time your vacation then, you’ll save a bundle. Keep an eye out for summer fare sales that roll out in the spring that offer the best deals to those willing to travel before about June 15 and after about August 15.
What’s best about shoulder season is that there are TWO of them! The second one starts in September and lasts all the way to Thanksgiving.
Fall is a slow (and very cheap) time for cruising because kids are back in school and people are fearful of hurricanes. But the reality is that modern cruise ships are fast enough to navigate around storms.
Leisure travelers should keep in mind that this is convention season in many major US cities, so mid-week rates at big city hotels can soar to freakish levels, and then crash on weekends when conventioneers leave town.
Last year Marriott created a helpful infographic with some great ideas for taking advantage of the off-season.
When do you find the best travel deals? Do you have the flexibility to travel during the slower shoulder season or dead weeks? Please leave your comments below.