How ‘shoulder season’ became the new popular time for tourists

<span>The Acropolis was closed for five hours on 12 June due to a heatwave of 39C in Athens and higher in central Greece.</span><span>Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP</span>
The Acropolis was closed for five hours on 12 June due to a heatwave of 39C in Athens and higher in central Greece.Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

It will be a familiar scene for many in the next few weeks: a busy airport packed with people setting off on their summer break. But tourists may find peak travel periods are no longer so predictable now that more people are going away during shoulder season – the time between a region’s most popular months and the offseason.

Travel companies are reporting an increase in demand between March and early May, and September to October, as holidaymakers try to avoid heatwaves and overtourism.

Small group-adventure travel company Intrepid Travel said last year it saw a 61% increase in shoulder-­season bookings to western Europe. It reported a 29% increase to southern Europe. In response, this year Intrepid has increased the number of departures to Spain, Italy, Portugal and France by 47% in April and 27% in October.

Intrepid said the shift in interest from holiday-goers is due to soaring temperatures across Europe. The company no longer offers hiking trips in Spain and Portugal in July and August, and only has one departure of its active Greece trip in early July. It then doesn’t resume until September.

Greece recorded its earliest-ever heatwave in June this year as temperatures reached 38C (100F) for more than three days in a row. Temperatures in Turkey went above 40C last week, with 66 million people exposed to extreme heat for days, according to independent climate science group Climate Central.

Raph Giacardi, chief editor for the UK at the website HolidayPirates, said people are “not willing to travel while a heatwave is raging in Europe”. He added: “To avoid extreme heat, we may see more holidaymakers take advantage of travelling to European destinations during shoulder season in September and October, when temperatures are still warm but more comfortable and there are much better deals on flights, hotels and package holidays. Not to mention that crowds are usually much smaller too.”

The Travel Trends report by Mastercard Economics Institute noted a shift to shoulder-season travel last month. The report, based on aggregated and anonymised transaction data, said the share of overnight stays in the European Union during shoulder season has increased by 1.8 percentage points over the last decade.

The countries with the biggest shift away from peak summer months include Mediterranean hotspots such as Croatia. However, countries like Sweden have seen similar shifts.

“This suggests it’s more than just hotter summers driving this change,” the report authors noted. “Two major demographic shifts are likely also at play: more retirees who are free from work obligations, and more households without children that are free from school calendars.”

Colum McLornan, managing director of Friendship Travel, which caters for solo travellers, said they are actively increasing the number of off-season trips due to customer demand.

“Last year we saw a number of customers request trips outside peak season, in particular to Mallorca, when the island had quietened down and there were fewer crowds. As a result, we have added further trips in October to Mallorca and will look to expand this offering to other popular destinations if required,” he said.

“A large proportion of Friendship Travel customers are over 40 and, as with the rest of the travel industry, we have noticed that this age demographic has the freedom and flexibility to travel outside peak season and chooses to do so to avoid busy crowds and peak season prices. As they are no longer fixed to school holidays, travelling outside this time is a luxury they can afford.”

Concern has also been raised recently about overtourism in certain popular destinations. A new tourist fee has been introduced in Bali since February. There are also higher hotel taxes in Amsterdam and Paris, and stricter rules on public drinking in Milan and Mallorca.

Related: Be a better tourist! 28 ways to have a fantastic holiday – without infuriating the locals

In some areas of Milan, city leaders have banned outdoor seating after 12.30am during the week and 1.30am on the weekend in response to resident complaints. They have also limited the late-night sale of takeaway food and drinks.

Kelly Jackson, managing director of the travel company The Travel Corporation, said: “We have been promoting off-season travel, also known as shoulder-season or low-season travel, which is visiting popular destinations during times when tourist activity is lower than peak periods. This approach offers numerous benefits for both travellers and the destinations they visit – for example, fewer crowds, lower costs and year-round support for local economies.”

Hazel McGuire, general manager for the UK and Europe at Intrepid Travel, said: “The reality is that having too much tourism in one destination isn’t good for local people or the environment. Travelling offseason is another great way to avoid the crowds and ease the impact on busy spots.”