One way animals can counter the effects of climatic extremes is via physiological acclimation, but acclimating to one extreme might decrease performance under different conditions. Here, we use field releases of Drosophila melanogaster on two continents across a range of temperatures to test for costs and benefits of developmental or adult cold acclimation. Both types of cold acclimation had enormous benefits at low temperatures in the field; in the coldest releases only cold-acclimated flies were able to find a resource. However, this advantage came at a huge cost; flies that had not been cold-acclimated were up to 36 times more likely to find food than the cold-acclimated flies when temperatures were warm. Such costs and strong benefits were not evident in laboratory tests where we found no reduction in heat survival of the cold-acclimated flies. Field release studies, therefore, reveal costs of cold acclimation that standard laboratory assays do not detect. Thus, although physiological acclimation may dramatically improve fitness over a narrow set of thermal conditions, it may have the opposite effect once conditions extend outside this range, an increasingly likely scenario as temperature variability increases under global climate change.