Shoulder season is a term you often hear when shopping for cruises. Experienced cruisers will tell you that it equates to the "perfect season." But what is shoulder season? In general travel terms, it refers to the time frame that is not quite high season and not quite low season.

The beauty of cruising in the shoulder season is that you can often enjoy weather only slightly different from the peak season for any particular area, but without the crowds and the higher prices. Examples of this would be Mediterranean cruises and European river cruises in late September and October when temperatures are moderate, as are the crowds and cruise prices.

Various factors influence when the shoulder season takes place in different locations. Hurricane season from late summer to early fall in the Caribbean and in Hawaii is considered a shoulder season. While fall might be shoulder season in the Caribbean, it is peak leaf-peeping season in Canada and New England making it prime travel time. May and September bracket the short Alaskan cruise season with mini-shoulder seasons and slightly lower prices.

One secret to finding a shoulder season bargain is to look for repositioning cruises and book the weeks immediately before or after a ship repositions. If a ship is transitioning from Europe to the Caribbean in early November, look at cruises in late October in Europe and mid-November in the Caribbean for the best deals and the smallest crowds, both onboard and in the ports.