A guide to the best credit cards for shoulder season travel


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The Bank of America content in this post was last updated on 03.03.2020

Summer vacation and holiday getaways are great, but sometimes the best way to score a deal is by taking vacation time during the off-season.

“There are two times a year when flights are at their most affordable: the start of the year (January and February) and what is known colloquially as ‘shoulder season’ (September and October) because kids go back to school and families have less flexibility to travel,” says Kelly Soderlund, a representative for travel aggregator site Hipmunk.

“Those who are able to shift their summer travel to September and October can still take advantage of warmer temperatures in those warm destinations, while also snagging some great deals on flights and hotels.”

Whether you’re looking for a last-minute fall trip or planning ahead for a winter getaway, here are some tips on scoring the best prices and the cards you can use to save even more.

Where to go for shoulder season

“Shoulder season is the best time for a Hawaii vacation,” Soderland says. “Flights to Hawaii through the end of shoulder season will save you up to 20 percent compared to summer travel.”

And don’t worry about missing out on any top tourist spots, she adds. “The islands are just as beautiful in October — and you’ll be seeing them with more to spend on experiences while you’re there.”

Domestic flight prices in general are down 9 percent compared to peak summer prices, according to data from Hipmunk. Look for popular summer travel destinations for great deals, like beaches and large cities.

You can also score some of the best savings you’ll find all year on international travel. “Shoulder season is the optimum time to snag a good flight deal for travel abroad,” Soderland says. “On average, international flight booking prices drop 18 percent in shoulder season when compared to the summer.”

Hipmunk’s data shows a 37 percent drop from summer in booking prices to Venice, 34 percent to Milan and 33 percent to Prague. Asian cities are also a good choice, with price differences ranging from 34 percent savings to Hong Kong, 32 percent to Shanghai and 33 percent to Beijing.

Choosing the right card

Shoulder season is already a great time to score big savings on travel, but a rewards credit card can help you save even more on your off-season vacation if you choose wisely.

For domestic travels, especially by car, an airline card or a premium travel card with no foreign transaction fee may not be as important for you. But those who want to take advantage of deals to European or Asian cities may find no foreign transaction fees and boosted airline miles can add the most value. Similarly, rewards on hotels or travel reimbursements may not be as beneficial on a trip to visit family as much as a card with restaurant or grocery rewards.

Think about where you’re traveling during shoulder season and how you usually travel during more expensive times of year before choosing a card, so you can determine which categories will help you most.

Great sign-up bonus

A card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which offers a 80,000-point sign-up bonus, can be a great way to use the money you spend booking shoulder season travel to fund a future vacation. Taking this card as an example, those 80,000 bonus points (after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening) are redeemable for up to $1,000 towards travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

Open a card with a great sign-up bonus and travel rewards like this to pay for your discounted shoulder season travel, and earn rewards that can lower your out-of-pocket payment for more costly vacations during the peak summer and holiday travel seasons.

Annual fee vs. no annual fee

A card with an annual fee may cost you in the short-term, but often adds value to your travels that more than makes up the cost.

Do you plan to take advantage of international shoulder season deals? Or do you travel a lot during the year? For frequent flyers, a more premium travel card with a high fee like the American Express® Gold Card (which charges $250 annually) is worth its price with benefits like no foreign transaction fees, up to $100 airline fee credit (New and existing Gold Card members will only be able to continue to utilize the credit through December 31, 2021 ) and 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with the airline or amextravel.com, especially if you regularly spend on other high-earning categories like restaurants worldwide.

If you don’t travel often, though, a no annual fee travel card is likely more valuable. With the no annual fee Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card, for example, you’ll earn 1.5 points per dollar on any purchase, which can be redeemed for statement credits towards flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars and baggage fees. You can earn your points on everyday spending, then redeem them when you do decide to travel, without worrying about expired points.

Premium perks and benefits

In addition to the money you’ll save by booking during shoulder season, the right credit card can help you save on extras that will make your vacation that much more stress-free.

A premium card like The Platinum Card® from American Express, while charging a pricey $550 annual fee, comes with numerous perks that can more than outweigh the cost if you actually use them. You’ll be eligible for Uber VIP status with up to $200 in annual Uber credits, access to airport lounges through the Global Lounge Collection, up to $200 annual airline fee credit, up to $200 in baggage fees and up to $100 in annual credits at Saks Fifth Avenue, among more perks and benefits.

If you take full advantage of these extra rewards, you’ll easily make up the annual fee. And if you want to prioritize luxury in your travels, this is a great way to do so without spending big bucks each time.

Dining and entertainment rewards

If you’re already saving on your travel costs by vacationing off-peak season, you may instead choose a card with rewards to help save on the activities you’ll be enjoying on your trip.

Consider a card designed for entertainment, like the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card. For a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), it offers 4 percent cash back on dining and entertainment, 2 percent back at grocery stores, 1 percent on everything else and, until May 2020, 8 percent cash back on tickets from Vivid Seats.

For even more simplicity on your purchases while traveling, a general cash back card like the Chase Freedom Unlimited®, which rewards at least 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase, is a simple way to add value no matter what type of travel you’re planning.

Regardless of where your travels take you, it’s important to evaluate your spending habits (both while on vacation and at home) to decide what costs you’re willing to take on and which benefits will add value to save you the most money.

To learn more about saving on travel with credit cards, read Bankrate’s guide to the Best Travel Rewards Cards for 2019.