Timing can make or break a vacation. Travel during the high season, and you’re fighting the crowds for a spot on the beach. Go during the low season, and you risk lousy weather and the closure of local attractions.
Luckily, there’s a window of time for most destinations known as the shoulder season, when the prices and crowds are low, but the weather is still nearly perfect. If you travel during this time, you’ll not only save money, but you’ll probably also mix it up more with local residents at festivals and events that rarely appear in glossy travel magazines.
Read on to discover the places you should go — when fewer tourists are there.
1. Tuscany, Italy
When to Go: Spring
Why: Many Romans retreat to the countryside around Easter, but after those festivities die down, there’s no better time to visit Tuscany’s hill towns. Usually packed with tourists during the summer high season, the plazas of Siena and San Gimignano are charming and easily navigable in the spring. And you’ll be surprised how green this region gets before the summer sun browns the terrain (bring an umbrella, though, as showers are more prevalent this time of year).
2. Machu Picchu, Peru
When to Go: Fall
Why: Unlike much of North America, the Andes region of South America has two seasons — dry and wet. The latter begins in November, so if you’re looking to hike the Inca Trail, or just want to marvel at the ruins in this part of Peru, you’ll want to go before the rains fall but after the busy summer months (June through August). Another tip for hikers who are doing either the Inca Trail or the alternative Salkantay Trek: Time your visit with the full moons for an outdoor adventure you’ll never forget.
3. Hawaii, U.S.A.
When to Go: Fall
Why: No matter what time of year you visit, Hawaii seems to have perfect weather. Try to experience it in the fall, when families are done with their summer vacations and the snowbird rush from the West Coast has yet to begin. The Aloha Festivals — cultural celebrations held on each island that include parades, block parties and special events such as canoe races — run throughout September. This is one of the best times to enjoy Hawaii as a local, not a tourist.
4. South Africa
When to Go: Spring (fall in the Northern Hemisphere)
Why: Dreaming of an African safari? It’s never a cheap experience, but during September and October — South Africa‘s spring — prices and temperatures are a little lower and the foliage is less dense, making it easier to see animals. Bonus: You might see recently born baby animals up and walking around. Near Cape Town, the town of Hermanus, known as one of the world’s best land-based places to watch whales, has an annual Whale Festival in late September or early October, featuring music, crafts and cultural performances.
5. New Zealand
When to Go: Fall (spring in the Northern Hemisphere)
Why: The seasons are reversed Down Under, so travelers from the Northern Hemisphere can get a taste of autumn smack dab in the middle of their own spring season. Regions such as Hawkes Bay on the North Island and Central Otago on the South Island are known for their brilliant foliage. It’s also harvest time for New Zealand‘s well-regarded wine regions, including Marlborough, which grows some of the world’s most popular Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
6. Grand Canyon, U.S.A.
When to Go: Fall
Why: September and October are still warm in Arizona, but most of the summer crowds — usually families on vacation — have returned home. While this region rarely discounts, you won’t have as tough a time getting a lodge or rafting trip reservation, and many consider the hiking conditions ideal. Keep in mind that some facilities close in mid-October and that snow falls on the North Rim as early as mid-November.
7. St. Lucia
When to Go: Late spring
Why: After the spring break and Easter holiday crowds stop coming, the islands of the Caribbean usually drop their prices in preparation for the steamy, stormy summer months (hurricane season starts June 1). On St. Lucia, recognizable by its twin Pitons, the annual Jazz Festival takes place in early May, ensuring that the island will keep hopping for at least a little longer.
8. Prague, Czech Republic
When to Go: Spring
Why: The crowds don’t stream in until June, but the casks in Prague’s beer gardens start flowing in May. Coincidentally, that’s the month when the multi-week Czech Beer Festival begins. Beer not your thing? Starting in mid-May, the Prague Spring International Music Festival kicks off Europe’s slate of classical summer festivals, and draws many of the world’s top orchestras.
9. Riviera Maya, Mexico
When to Go: Late fall
Why: Before the winter holiday rush, the beaches in Mexico’s all-inclusive resorts empty out, and it’s easy to find deals. By November, the most dangerous period of the hurricane season has ended, and the humidity isn’t as bad (this is considered the dry season for this region of Mexico). Worth checking out is the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival, held in November.
10. Quebec, Canada
When to Go: Fall
Why: New England gets all the credit for fall foliage, but go a little farther north into Canada and you’ll see the same brilliant leaves, with much smaller crowds, cheaper prices and a French flavor. Go out into the Eastern Townships to taste the fruits of the burgeoning ice wine industry (autumn is also the apple and cranberry harvest season), check out migrating snow geese along the St. Lawrence River, or enjoy a romantic city break in Quebec City or Montreal.
When to Go: June
Why: By June, tourists are crowding into Europe, and the warm weather destinations that you craved in February have become too hot to handle. The solution? Look to Southeast Asia, where cities such as Bangkok are beginning to cool down in anticipation of the rainy season, which is at its wettest between August and October. If you’re looking for a beach vacation, check out the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, such as Koh Samui, Koh Tao or Koh Phangan.
When to Go: Early fall
Why: People tend to think of Switzerland during the summer, when the country’s green hills are at their lushest, or the winter, when ski resorts in the Alps such as St. Moritz and Gstaad draw the rich and famous to their slopes. But the weather is still perfect in September, particularly in the southern canton of Ticino, which offers a taste of Italy in its food, wine and even language (the locals speak Italian rather than French or German). Several Swiss towns throughout the country also conduct an Alpabzug, when farmers herd their cows, bedecked in flowers and ribbons, down from the mountain in a celebratory march through the village.