Deciphering "shoulder season" is one of travel's biggest mysteries.

I once met someone who was convinced it referred to "the season when it's too cold to go outside without coverings on one's shoulders."

I'm still not entirely convinced.

But the biggest rewards of understanding this odd 'travel-trade' term for the time peak and low season come from not just understanding what it is, but exactly when it is.

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"Not too hot" and "not too cold" - this period is the 'Goldilocks' of travel planning, with the added benefits of being "not too crowded" and "not too expensive."

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In the era of overtourism, who wouldn't want to know when to miss the crowds?

But getting it right can be tricky. There are all sorts of other factors which play into when it falls: an awareness of when the school holidays, seasonal weather, religious festivals fall can help you find the best value - and most restful - holiday on the ground.

It is the difference between having a cheap and cheerful trip to India and a week spent in monsoon downpours, shut out from the attractions.

Here's our guide to 'the Shoulder', where and when to find it.

Africa's Green Season


It's all too easy to see through the common safari euphemism. "Green Season" is the time of the year when the arid savanna sees the rains. The majestic Serengeti becomes one, big, waterlogged mud fight.

I miss the rains! The skies and scenery of Namibia is greatly enhanced by the arrival of clouds. Photo / Ravi Shekhar, Unsplash
I miss the rains! The skies and scenery of Namibia is greatly enhanced by the arrival of clouds. Photo / Ravi Shekhar, Unsplash

But don't let that put you off. Either side of the very wettest months (between April and May in Kenya and Tanzania, and January to March in Zimbabwe), you'll dodge most of the downpours.

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You'll also be witness to some of the more spectacular events of the wildlife calendar including calving season and the end of the migration.

Like the bridge from Toto's epic - rain is a moment the continent's grasslands wait all year for.

Better yet, most lodges will drop their rates to better than half price and you'll practically have the place to yourselves and the lions.

Tomb Raider: The moody rains have banished tourists from A Cambodian temple. Photo / Colton Jones, Unsplash
Tomb Raider: The moody rains have banished tourists from A Cambodian temple. Photo / Colton Jones, Unsplash

When to holiday in Cambodia

Rainy season has a bad reputation in Cambodia.

At its peak in June the reputation of the rains is enough to empty Angkor Watt and scare away all but the most hardy tourists from the Ta Prohm "Tomb Raider" temple.

However the reality is that showers are heavy but avoidable. Almost always falling in the mid to late afternoon, they are a small price to pay for something resembling monastic quiet in the ancient temples.

"Showers are predictable, and it's so quiet in Siem Reap that there's a real chance of having the temples to yourself," advises The Sunday Times' Chris Haslam, who is an advocate for Cambodia in the rainy season.

Then there are the actual savings, with some nearby hotels falling to almost a third of their peak season price.

Blue skies above the pink city of Jaipur. Photo / Hu Chen, Unsplash
Blue skies above the pink city of Jaipur. Photo / Hu Chen, Unsplash

Rajasthan after the rains

The Indian year is often defined by the monsoon. The normally arid Northern state of Rajasthan is also subjected to a rainy season that officially ends on the 30th of September. However, in reality this part of India is often bone dry and full of sunshine long before the rest of the subcontinent.

There's a period of around three weeks at the end of the month when hotel rates in Jaipur, Jodhpur and the coloured northern hubs are still at their lowest, while still offering near perfect weather.

Hog days: The 'off season' is a tough beast to understand in the Caribbean. Photo / Antonia Scantelebur, Unsplash
Hog days: The 'off season' is a tough beast to understand in the Caribbean. Photo / Antonia Scantelebur, Unsplash

A summer in the Caribbean

After a summer of disruption and real humanitarian disaster you would wonder if it's safe or even appropriate to visit the islands in summer. "Hurricane" season is a loaded term. However the high and low seasons are a bit more complicated than it would seem.
Although the season officially arrives with summer from July most storms arrive in late September onwards.

Of 140 hurricanes to hit the region since 2000, just 10 per cent have arrived between July and August according to the USOAA.

Hotels, cruises and attractions are at a fraction of their normal prices and beaches delightfully empty.

One minor note however is the arrival of Sargassum seaweed, particularly on the islands of Barbados and Puerto Rico. The seasonal bloom attracts flies and repulses tourists. Avoid.