How to avoid crowds when you travel this summer

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Christopher Elliott

If you’ve always wanted to know how to avoid crowds when you travel, this probably is your least favorite time of the year.

Long lines greet you at the airport, in the hotel lobby, and at your favorite restaurant. The beach is so crowded that you can’t even find a place to drop a towel. Everyone’s on vacation.

This summer will be brutal. A new survey by MMGY Research found 65 percent of Americans plan to take a trip in the next six months. Most of them will happen in the next few weeks. Brace yourself.

But let’s be honest — you want to avoid the crowds, no matter when you’re traveling.

Can you really avoid crowds when you travel?

Yes, you can. The experts on how to avoid crowds when you travel — yes, there are experts on that — say that a little planning, a few shortcuts, and preparing for the inevitable can help you make it through.

How to avoid crowds when you travel? Go where no one else goes. Being a contrarian is one of my favorite travel strategies.

If you have to take a vacation during the frenetic vacation period, you can still choose less busy times to be out and about, which will help you avoid the worst of the lines. For example, if you’re trying to find a table at a favorite restaurant, try scheduling a late lunch or an early dinner. Same thing for your trip to the beach. Think early morning or sunset. You might also avoid a sunburn.

A little planning can prevent a lot of stress, according to Sanam Hafeez, a New York neuropsychologist and teaching faculty member at Columbia University.

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“It’s important to be very real with yourself and avoid putting yourself in situations where there will be crowds,” she says. “Timing is everything.”

For instance, if you’re headed to famously crowded Manhattan this summer, a little research can reveal the most efficient mass transit options for you. It’s better than languishing in a taxi, in the heat. Also, avoid rush hour when local commuters are hurrying to work.

“Instead, enjoy a nice breakfast and ease into the day between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m,” says Dr. Hafeez.

Look for shortcuts

Another way to stay away — or at least, ahead, of the mob — is to take a shortcut.

If you’re headed to a museum with your family, consider a membership, which will not only save you money but can sometimes offer early admission. That’s the advice of Louise Sattler, an education consultant and frequent traveler.

That strategy works with theme parks, too. When I lived in Orlando, one of my best investments was an annual pass to our world-famous theme parks. They allowed me to come and go whenever I wanted. Stay at one of the on-property hotels at Disney or Universal, and you get early admission, too.

My family enjoyed all of Orlando’s theme parks, even during peak periods. I’m talking Thanksgiving, Christmas and most of July. We arrived early when all of the other tourists were still asleep and left before 11 a.m., just as they were arriving. You’d be surprised by how many rides you can do in two hours.

For some attractions, you have to plan far ahead. Disney’s most popular restaurants, such as Cinderella’s Royal Table or Be Our Guest, can serve maybe 5 percent of the people who visit the Magic Kingdom on any given day, says Len Testa, an expert on Disney lines at the site

“The easiest way to get a reservation is to get up at 6 a.m. exactly 180 days before your trip, and book online,” says Testa, who wrote his master’s thesis on lines. (See, I told you there were experts.)

If you don’t know how to avoid crowds when you travel, try this

Getting stuck in a line is frustrating, but it can also be inevitable this summer. When you find yourself trapped in one, your mind plays tricks on you, says Jacob Kountz, a mental health blogger and therapist from Bakersfield, Calif.

His advice? Prepare yourself for the queue. Download apps on your phone that don’t use much data, since that will burn your phone’s battery while you’re waiting. Find games to play that both you and your friends enjoy.

“Time seems to go by faster,” he says. “Think about it, have you ever sat in your favorite comedy show that felt like forever? Heck no!”

To his advice, I’d add one more thing: Carry a deck of playing cards. It will keep your family entertained for hours. Magic tricks, anyone?

If you want to know how to avoid crowds when you travel this summer, follow the experts by planning and learning the little hacks that save a lot of time. But most of all, don’t lose your cool. It’s hot out there.

More ideas for how to avoid crowds when you travel

Steer clear of popular destinations

Some places are so predictably busy at this time of year that even the residents leave. “Venice and Paris should be visited in the offseason,” says Cherene Saradar, a frequent traveler from Miami who writes the Wandering Redhead blog. If you’re stuck on seeing Italy or France, do what the natives do, and get out of town.

Visit less affected areas

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon gets only a fraction of the visitors the South Rim does, says Jason Epperson, host of the RV Miles Podcast. “Hike instead of cave tours at Carlsbad Caverns, Wind Cave, and Mammoth Cave. Visit the Kolob Canyons area at Zion. Sometimes the best scenery is in the less popular locations,” he says. And fewer people.

Don’t over-plan

Having an overly ambitious schedule ratchets up the pressure and creates a “hurry-up-and-wait” situation. That’s the advice of Jacob Fu, who runs the travel blog “When we travel or explore locally, we do our best not to plan more than one activity a day,” he says. It also helps to plan those activities first thing in the morning, so you have the rest of the day to de-stress.

How are you avoiding the crowds this summer?

Are you visiting an off-season destination? Avoiding summer travel altogether? I’d love to know. Scroll down to leave a comment.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

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