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The fall shoulder season is changing – here’s how

by Lacey Pfalz
Last updated: 5:00 p.m. ET, Thu September 21, 2023

Fall is often the time of year when we go back to work, when our children return to school and sports, and when we forget, at least until the holidays, to take a vacation.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the case this year. At a time when travel advisors often notice a lull in business, travel advisors across the country are noticing more last-minute fall trips and more trips booked for next fall than they realize have ever seen, even if airfares remain high. Some have even noted record bookings and sales figures.

So what’s driving this new trend? We asked trusted travel advisors what they’re seeing this fall.

A changing shoulder season

Travel advisors agree that shoulder season, for better or worse, just isn’t the same as years past.

“At Elite Travel, we’ve always prided ourselves on understanding the nuances of the travel industry, and one phenomenon we’ve observed closely is the evolution of ‘shoulder season,'” began Tammy Levent, president of Elite Travel. “For years, I have personally recommended shoulder season to my clients as the golden window for travel, offering both fewer crowds and attractive prices. It was our little secret so that our guests could experience world-class destinations without the hustle and bustle and high prices of peak seasons.

“However, starting around 2022, we started to notice a change,” Levent continued. “With an increase in international travelers heading to destinations throughout the year, the distinctive advantage of shoulder season fares has become more elusive. Although the concept of shoulder travel remains, the significant financial benefits we once leveraged for our customers have begun to diminish…”

Airfares remain high, prompting more and more people to choose cruises over other modes of travel, particularly in Europe. And travelers are more interested in booking further into the future — from spring 2024 to fall 2025 — than they have been in recent years, giving advisors plenty to work on as the school year begins across the country.

Trails at Elk Lake Lodge, Adirondacks

Trails at Elk Lake Lodge, Adirondacks (Photo by Lauren Breedlove)

Last minute fall trips

Advisors are seeing two major trends this fall: last-minute bookings and far-away bookings.

“We are seeing two very different trends this year: 1) we are seeing a lot of last minute bookings, typically bookings to travel within 21 days of payment, or 2) later, in summer-fall 2024, the last “Minute reservations are keeping us very busy,” said Mark Hennigan, of Dreamers Travel in Hampstead, Maryland. Its activity is 43% higher this fall than it has ever been in its 17 years in business.

Sara Jane Stroupe, travel advisor at Cupcake Castles Travel Company, agrees with the last-minute trend: “Many customers are taking last-minute trips due to airline constraints, natural disasters (they have to deviate from initial plans) or budgetary constraints.

“I’ve had several last-minute requests — with the trip starting in two months or less — which is pretty unusual most of the time,” said Kara Brown, owner of Experience Culture Travel. “October seems to have surprised many people. »

More bookings in 2024 and 2025

Travel advisors have also noticed an increased willingness to plan ahead for 2024 and 2025, a trend that hasn’t really been a big trend in the past couple of years, stemming from the end of the pandemic and the rush to going out and traveling after several years without it.

“I’ve had several customers book fall trips over the past few weeks, not only for this year, but also for fall 2024 and 2025,” said Jeremy Hall, operations, sales and marketing for Cruise Vacations International at Aspire Associates Group. “Europe, Asia and Egypt were at the top of the list, with a particular focus on river cruises for these three countries. I notice my clients are starting to plan further in advance than they were in the last couple of years. Egypt cruises with Uniworld and African Wildlife with AmaWaterways tend to sell out quickly, so we are currently working on Fall 2025 for those.

“At Elite Travel, this year and last have consistently shown dynamic demand in the travel industry,” Levent said. “Even though we didn’t necessarily see a big increase, the steady pace kept us on our toes. However, one interesting trend we are seeing is increased interest in spring travel for the coming year. Reservations and inquiries for spring destinations are coming in at a faster pace than usual.

People are excited to start planning again – worry about another COVID-19 resurgence is an old fear, one that no longer stops travelers from planning their next trip, even two years from now.

Cruising reigns supreme in autumn

Cruise ship sailing off the coast

Cruise ship sailing off the coast. (Photo credit: UnSplash)

Travel advisors agree that cruising is one of the most popular travel methods this fall, as well as in fall 2024 and 2025. This could be due to the new popularity of cruising following the pandemic, the increase in expedition-style cruises, which tend to attract both high-value and younger travelers, but another factor could also be driving this trend.

High prices of plane tickets.

“My European cruisers this fall are focused on the Mediterranean,” Hall said. “This was done because they wanted to avoid the exorbitant air travel prices we saw during peak season this year. The expedition cruise trend isn’t slowing down, either. With new expedition cruise lines and ships heading to sea, we are seeing a boom in Antarctica and the Arctic.

“The shoulder season, traditionally marked by spring and fall, has always been a great place for travelers looking for a balanced mix of fewer crowds and moderate prices,” Levent added. “However, if airlines were to reconsider and reduce their fares during peak seasons, it could revolutionize the travel industry. Such a change would make travel more accessible and convenient for everyone, allowing more travelers to experience peak destinations at optimal times without the burden of inflated costs.

The fall shoulder season isn’t much of a shoulder season this year, and it likely won’t be in 2024 and 2025 as travelers begin planning their next trips further in advance again.

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