Does off-season travel exist anymore?

It might be an impossible task to find a traveler who loves crowds and long lines. However, they’re part of the price that most tourists have to pay to visit some of the world’s most famous attractions, especially during peak times.

It used to be that someone looking for a bargain could count on traveling in the shoulder or low season – for example, Italy was once more affordable in the fall, while Hong Kong was cheaper in the boiling-hot summer months.

But the pandemic threw a lot of this conventional travel wisdom out the window. Many offices and schools switched to online-only, which provided people a rare opportunity to spend long periods away from home. Some companies kept those remote working policies after the pandemic ended, providing their workers with more opportunities to explore the world while still drawing a paycheck.

All that tourism, though, comes with consequences.

Practically every day there’s a new headline about efforts to combat overtourism, such as new hotel bans in Amsterdam, photo-blocking barricades in Japan and mass protests in the Canary Islands. According to the United Nations, global travel will return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024 – and could go higher.

That, in turn, begs a question: Is there such a thing as an off-season anymore?

“On the one hand, global travel is getting busier and busier,” explains Olivier Ponti, a director at ForwardKeys, a Spain-based travel data and analysis company.

“There are still some peak seasons and those peak seasons remain really busy, but the low seasons are getting busier and busier as well.”

Recently, ForwardKeys crunched some numbers in three of the world’s most popular beach destinations: Thailand, Hawaii and the Maldives. Here’s the math: take the total number of tourists in a year and divide that figure by 12, which works out to an average of 8% per month. Then, you can plot a graph to see which months are higher and lower than that total to determine when the peak season is.

“In Thailand, low season typically spans from April to September with April and May being really hot,” says Ponti. “During this low season the tourist volumes each month constitute more than 7% of the annual total. That means very, very little seasonality.”

In other words? “There is no off-season anymore in a place like that.”

The climate change effect

Athens has had to close its most famous attraction, the Parthenon, due to extreme heat on several occasions. - Angelos Tzortzinis/dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images
Athens has had to close its most famous attraction, the Parthenon, due to extreme heat on several occasions. - Angelos Tzortzinis/dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images

Arguably the biggest single factor affecting what we know as “peak season” travel is weather.

“A lot of people tend to assume that the low season is defined as the time of the year when the weather is the crappiest,” says Ged Brown, owner of the aptly-named tour company Low Season Traveller.

But climate change is redefining what that “crappiest” weather might be.

A 2023 survey from the European Travel Commission reported that European travelers cited weather as their number-one factor in deciding where to go on vacation, with 8% of respondents saying they were concerned about extreme weather in European destinations.

Heat waves in southern European countries like Italy, Spain and Greece caused a crisis last summer, with the trend only continuing upward. Multiple foreign tourists have gone missing or died amid extreme heat in Greece so far this season.

More than 62,000 people died heat-related deaths in Europe in 2022, the continent’s hottest summer on record. Following the devastating headlines, ForwardKeys’ data shows an immediate spike in searches for summertime flights to northern European destinations like Denmark and Sweden.

Mikey Sadowski, head of communications at tour organizer Intrepid Travel, says that the company has had to drop or reschedule some of its popular trips due to climate change.

In Nepal, he says, there’s an “increase of the monsoon season now. Snow is melting faster, the glaciers are melting faster, the water is running faster and routes that we normally could access before are no longer accessible. So we’re actually having to shorten the [travel] seasons to avoid heavy monsoon time.”

Intrepid’s own CEO canceled an Italian cruise with his mother because of hot weather concerns, Sadowski says.

Beyond the thermostat

"Bucket list" trips like South African safaris have been filled to capacity as travelers return post-pandemic. - David Silverman/Getty Images
"Bucket list" trips like South African safaris have been filled to capacity as travelers return post-pandemic. - David Silverman/Getty Images

Climate may be an important factor in booking a holiday, but it’s not the only one.

ForwardKeys’ Ponti, himself a father of two, notes that many travelers have to plan their trips at the same time because they are working around school schedules.

Some families choose to homeschool their children as a way to experience other parts of the world without being beholden to a schedule.

The parents who opt to “worldschool” can travel during off-peak times – while also teaching their kids about different cultures.

But every family’s situation is different. For those whose kids are grown and out of the house or who don’t have kids at all, there are more opportunities to be flexible when booking travel.

Ann Woodward, a childfree American who has been living in Mexico for the past three years, makes a point of learning school schedules in her area so that she can plan around them.

“I am generally trying to not move, to not be on a plane, to not be on a bus, to not go to touristic attractions during those periods. I actually call it hiding,” she laughs.

Woodward, who has a pension from her last job in the US, can afford to travel for months at a time, preferring to choose one destination and rent an apartment rather than hop from place to place. For her, it’s not just about saving money – it’s about knowing her physical and emotional limits.

“I think that things that were acceptable and fun, even in my 20s and 30s, I can’t handle anymore,” she says.

“For me, part of the past five years, I’ve become much more focused on healing my nervous system. And I will say that I think I ignored it when I was living in New York, to be quite honest. I was ignoring a lot of cues from my body when I was living there when I was younger. So, whereas maybe an average person would be like, ‘Wow, this park is really busy today,’ or, ‘Oh, there’s lots of people in my photos,’ I would just get there and turn around and leave. I just won’t even engage.”

Still, Woodward acknowledges that she is in a privileged position. She spent much of her youth traveling and has already “checked off” many of the big bucket list places that attract the most crowds, which means that she can now go to smaller towns and other less busy areas in addition to visiting during off-peak times.

However, there are benefits from traveling during high seasons, especially when it comes to infrastructure. Some flights and train routes run more frequently – or only – during peak season. Travelers who go to less busy regions may find that shops and restaurants have more limited hours or close entirely when the flocks of visitors leave.

Those without flexible schedules shouldn’t feel like their future holds nothing but long, sweltering lines in overcrowded cities.

Brown of Low Season Traveller puts together itineraries for adventurous travelers who are looking for a destination their friends haven’t been to already – or those looking to get a less hectic experience at an old classic.

“If your main purpose for travel is the most perfect weather, then yeah, you’re going to pay a premium for that. And another premium that you’re going to pay is the fact that it’s going to be crowded and you’re going to have to have queues and lines everywhere and find it difficult to get reservations and all of that kind of stuff,” Brown says.

“For me, the challenge is about finding the joy in those low seasons, finding those nuggets of gold.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at