Tips for Traveling with Young Children in the Off-Season and Shoulder Season

Mother and children standing in the main square of Krakow, Poland 2016
Visiting Krakow, Poland in February 2016.

It’s the middle of the summer, aka peak travel season. Many airports in the U.S. are “already back to or are exceeding pre-pandemic passenger traffic levels.” As the country struggles with COVID fatigue and vaccines are readily available for those 12 and up, families are eager to travel.

While most summer bookings on VRBO peak in April, this year demand spiked in February, vacationers hoping to go to the beach and booking late into the season will be disappointed. The market is saturated, and what rentals and resorts are available are much higher in cost than usual.

Is your family hoping to take a last minute summer vacation? Or are you experiencing FOMO as you see friends and family share their pictures?

Our family is not. I will share with you our secret to a less stressful and more cost effective way to vacation: traveling in the off-season and shoulder season. 

Our family discovered the joys of traveling in the off-season when we were stationed abroad in Naples, Italy. The off-season looks different overseas. It’s important to note that holidays in other countries are different, too. We took advantage of traveling during American holiday weekends.

On the flip side, while living stateside for the past five years, we have enjoyed both traveling in the off-season and the shoulder season. This is the travel period between the peak season and off season. Our annual beach trip always takes place in the shoulder season. Now that we have school aged kids, we have done several trips during season specific breaks such as fall break and Mardi Gras break (OK, I know this only exists in New Orleans). 

I hope the experiences I share about European travel, beach trips, and travel with young children will motivate you to try traveling in the off-season or shoulder season. 

European Travel in the Off-Season

When stationed OCONUS, our family quickly discovered that traveling during the off-season could be very enjoyable.

Flights and hotels were inexpensive, and the cities that we visited were full of locals and not just tourists. As long as you don’t mind the colder weather and pack accordingly, you can maximize the dollar and visit highly sought destinations during less crowded and cheaper times.

The only negative that I must share is sometimes everything isn’t open. Several shops and other small tourist attractions could be closed during the slow season. While some might be disappointed with these closures, it gave our family time to enjoy the other parts of the cities we visited. And let’s be honest: if you have small children, it can be overwhelming and unrealistic to visit every landmark or museum anyway.

Closures are unlikely in major cities like Paris, Berlin, Barcelona…etc. This is still something you should research before visiting smaller regions and cities.

Our favorite family tradition we embraced when traveling Europe in the off-season was to go somewhere new every year during Thanksgiving. Fish and chips became our annual Thanksgiving dinner as we explored England and Ireland. 

Other desirable times to travel in Europe can be long American holiday weekends like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July…etc. Many commands make these weekends four day weekends, and it can be relatively easy and cost effective to travel from one European country to another during this time.

Another piece of advice with European travel is to learn your host country’s holidays and be cautious about traveling during that time.

Many Italians take their summer holiday in August. You may show up to an Italian city with many of the shops closed, or it could be packed to the brim with tourists from around the globe and Italy. Additionally, Italy and much of Europe is predominantly Catholic, and planned travel around holidays like Christmas and Easter can be disappointing as many stores and restaurants can be closed. As it’s not easy to eat out on these holidays either, I suggest you plan to stay at a vacation rental vs. a hotel if you travel during that time so you have the option to prepare your own food. 

Beach Trips in Shoulder Season

As a native Floridian, visiting the beach is something I want to share with my children. The funny part is that my husband and I aren’t really “beach people.” However, we have found a way to make this experience possible for everyone and at a reasonable price.

When going to the beach, we travel during the shoulder season. 

We always book our beach trips before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Waters are still warm; hotels, resorts, and rentals generally have more availability for a reduced cost. My husband’s birthday is in mid-May, and we often take a beach trip the weekend before Memorial Day. We have stayed at both hotels and vacation rentals, and the experience in the shoulder season is much more pleasurable in my opinion. Besides the lower cost during this time, the beaches aren’t nearly as crowded. 

By traveling in the shoulder season, you also have warmer weather compared to the off-season.

I will caution readers not to travel too early in the season if you are visiting places where the waters may not be warm yet. One lesson we learned is that the beaches on the southeast coast of Italy were not warm enough around Memorial Day to swim when we visited, and we were sorely disappointed. 

In the US, waters may also be too cool to swim in the early spring in areas like the Florida Panhandle or East Coast beaches like Myrtle Beach. There is nothing more disappointing than being at a beach when the ocean is too cold to swim.

For beach trips in the cooler or uncertain months, I suggest the beaches where I grew up between Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County. Check out the local school calendars in the county you would like to visit, and try not to plan it during their spring break to avoid crowded beaches. Shoulder season in September just after Labor Day can also be a wonderful time to go to the beach. 

While stationed in New Orleans, our family has greatly enjoyed visiting the nearby Florida Panhandle beaches. We have visited Pensacola Beach a number of times and most recently we stayed near Alys Beach off of 30A. Next May we hope to visit Gulf Shores, Alabama for something new. By traveling during the shoulder months, visitors still have warm weather, but beat the crowds and peak season prices. 

Travel with Young Children

Planning travel overseas and stateside is exciting and overwhelming, much like being a new parent! Take advantage of traveling when your children are young. In my opinion it is one of the best times to travel as a family. When kids are under the age of two, they fly for free as a lap child. Additionally, young children can often share meals with their parents, reducing the cost of dining out.

One of my most favorite parts of traveling when my own children were little was not worrying about the school calendar.

Once children enter kindergarten, you are restricted from travel during the majority of the academic year. This can make traveling during the off-season and shoulder season challenging. Take advantage of having pre-elementary age children and plan travel year round. 

Another reason why I loved traveling with our son and daughter when they were under five was that everything was so much simpler.

Our kids were both early risers, and we planned our museum visits first thing in the morning when they tended to be better behaved. Following our morning museum visits, we would try to visit a park or playground if there was one nearby. A three year old is easily entertained by running around a beautiful garden, while a nine year old probably won’t be.

Lunch was a great time to explore and enjoy restaurants, especially in Europe when dinner times might start past the bedtime of a young American child. After we finished lunch, we were fortunate that both of our kids would easily nap in a stroller.

I should note that sometimes we made it through the entire museum we visited or tour we took, and other times we had to leave early. That is the reality of traveling with kids and I recommend that you set realistic goals for travel. Aim for visiting museums or going on tours during the time of day when your children are the most calm and well behaved and know that you might not be able to see and do everything – so prioritize your “must sees” first. 

Lastly, I highly recommended two items for travel with young ones. First, a solid baby carrier is a must. I loved my ErgoBaby Carrier and LílléBaby Complete Airflow. I also suggest a lightweight high-quality stroller. My favorite brands have been Peg Perego and Maclaren. 

I hope you will be able to enjoy the benefits of off-season and shoulder season trips. Safe travels!