Is the Off Season Getting More Expensive?

As a traveler who prefers the off-season for its more affordable prices and fewer visitors, I try not to fly in July and August, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. I wait until fall when rates for flights and hotels normally plunge and crowds shrink.

Or they used to.

This year, hotels in Florence, Italy, in September were charging close to summer highs. I was priced out of Key West, Fla., in November, a historically slow month. Considering the eco-friendly resort Playa Viva near Zihuatanejo, Mexico, for the first week of December — long a bargain time to travel — I could find only one night available at rates below $500.

What, I wondered, happened to the off-season?

“September is the new August,” said Jack Ezon, the founder of Embark Beyond, a high-end travel agency based in New York City, explaining that the frenzy for European travel stretched the calendar. Nearly a third of his clients who regularly travel to the Mediterranean in July and August rescheduled for June, September or October.

“People are making choices to avoid the crowds and the heat,” said Virgi Schiffino Kennedy, the founder of Lux Voyage, a travel agency based in Philadelphia.

“I’m seeing summer rates creeping into shoulder season,” she added, noting that destinations like Santorini and Mykonos in Greece, which peak in July and August, “are now impossible to book in September.”

School calendars still largely dictate the biggest peaks in travel annually, but the dips are not as dramatic — in numbers and in rates.

“I think we’re at the beginning of a change,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst who runs the firm Atmosphere Research Group based in San Francisco, crediting flexible work schedules for the trend. “Summer will always be peak season, but I think we’ll see more off-peak travel in fall, winter and spring so those valleys may be less deep.”

Travel is most certainly back — the World Travel & Tourism Council said the industry will recover 95 percent of 2019 activity this year — but it’s not a replica of prepandemic patterns.

Compared to 2019, global leisure stays were up 12 percent in spring 2023 at more than 230 Sofitel and MGallery hotels. Fall 2022 bookings were up 7 percent for leisure guests compared to the same period prepandemic.

“The high season used to be Easter to October, but this year Rome started to be slammed a full month earlier and my calendar is nearly full through the end of December already, which is very rare,” Ms. Parla said.

In a recent travel forecast from Expedia, 70 percent of fall travelers are adults without children.

“We have the flexibility to get the cheapest flights and hotels and not wait in line at the Vatican, sweating with the summer crowds,” said Riana Ang-Canning, 31, of Vancouver, Canada, who works in social media and travels off-season with her husband extensively.

Resolving to avoid summer’s high prices and heavy traffic is easier said than done for families with school-age children, but some parents are considering workarounds.

Before the pandemic, Jennifer Glaisek Ferguson, a mother of two children ages 5 and 8 in Weston, Conn., and her family took a midsummer trip to France when it was sweltering, which they vowed not to repeat. The importance of school attendance and keeping up with the curriculum has deterred the family from skipping much school for travel, but she’s open to missing a few days.

“When there’s an opportunity to see something new and different where they can learn, I’m willing to take the hit,” Ms. Ferguson, 53, said.

Ms. Schiffino Kennedy of Lux Voyage said her family clients tend to add a day or two onto long weekends.

“My love of off-season travel is rooted in being frugal, but I also cannot do the heat and would rather see the mountains when it’s 30 or 40 degrees rather than 80 or 90,” said Heather Bien, 38, a writer, blogger and marketer based in Washington, D.C., who is planning to stay in a glamping tent in North Carolina in December.

For folks without that kind of fortitude, it’s time to stop thinking about seasons as months and instead as weeks or even days. These micro-shoulders still exist in many places in November — excluding Thanksgiving week — the first few weeks in December and, outside of ski destinations, in January and February.

For best results, go off-peak Monday through Thursday. At Four Sisters Inns, a collection of 17 boutique hotels in California, the lowest rates are available midweek during winter and early spring.

“The new shoulder season in Europe is winter,” said Jonathan Alder, the founder of Jonathan’s Travels, an agency based in Winter Park, Fla. “To be there when its 30 to 50 percent cheaper and no crowds, go to Rome in January.”

On Lake Como in Northern Italy, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo touts October as an ideal time to visit, when the weather is fair, the crowds disperse and rates are less than half of high season (starting at $825 a night compared to $1,870 in summer). But it’s a short window. The hotel closes for the 2023 season on Nov. 5.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.

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