Why the travel crowd is smarter than you — or me

Go on, follow everyone to the beach this weekend.

Turns out that avoiding the crowds — which the world’s so-called travel “experts” recommend this time of year — isn’t just a yawner of a cliche. It can be flat-out wrong, too.

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“People visit the same place at the same time for a reason,” says Michael Gehrisch, president of the Destination Marketing Association International, a trade group for destination marketing organizations. “Because it makes sense.”

Reality check: When you head to the Jersey shore with the rest of the herd, you’ll pay more for your summer vacation. You might have a little trouble finding a choice spot in the sand to stake your umbrella. Looking for a table at your favorite restaurant? Fuhgeddaboudit.

To some, it’s a maddening and senseless ritual repeated every year.

But on another level, it makes perfect sense, says Gehrisch.

“The kids are out of school,” he says. “Some companies close their offices so their employees can enjoy vacation time.”

During high season, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors outnumber locals by nine to one in Cape May County, N.J., where you’ll find popular beach destinations from Ocean City to Cape May Point. They flock to the shore for large events such as the Cape May Music Festival in late May and early June. But mostly, they go because everyone else is there. This month, Cape May expects a crush of 4 million beach-goers, about one-third of its total annual visits.

Across the country in San Diego, it’s the same story: Last July was its busiest month of the year, with 4.3 million visitors coming to town for big events such as Comic-Con. But even without major festivals, the area lured a respectable 3.6 million visitors in August, its second-best month of the year.

“They come for our beaches, attractions and great weather,” says San Diego Tourism Authority spokesman Joe Timko.

Oh, and don’t forget the triple-digit temperatures in Arizona and other parts of California, which drive tourists toward the Pacific Coast like nothing else.

But when you see the throngs of tourists at the shore, it makes conventional wisdom easy to believe. Instead of going with the flow, some travel experts advise you to book a vacation somewhere no one would think of visiting during the summer, such as the Caribbean, or a ski resort. Hotel rates there are significantly lower, and the crowds are gone. Since I’ve been guilty of dispensing such advice during my career as a travel “expert,” let me be the first to say, I was wrong.

You don’t have to be a meteorologist to know that advice is flawed.

Summer is hurricane season in the Caribbean, and it tends to rain a lot; and the ski resorts are empty for a reason: no snow. True, you won’t find lines at the best restaurants, but then again, they may closed for the season.

Also, having an entire resort to yourself is lovely if you’re a solitary person. But for many of us, vacation is a social event. We go to the beach because our friends are there, and we’re willing to pay extra for the privilege.

You can follow the flock, but not off a cliff, for heaven’s sake. Some destinations are best avoided in August.

Readers repeatedly warned me about Venice, Italy, for example. An estimated 20 million tourists visit Venice every year, all seemingly at the same time. A combination of oppressive heat and crowds makes August an unbearable time to see the city, according to survivors. “The narrow little streets were just crammed with people going in both directions,” says Justine Gower, a human resources worker for the federal government in Baltimore. “St. Mark’s Square was basically a corral.”

Theme parks also merit an honorable mention. “Disney World was the most crowded place I’ve ever vacationed with my five children,” says J. Glenn Dockery, who works for a risk management consulting company in Marietta, Ga. “Suffice it to say, it was a brutal and expensive experience.” As a resident of Orlando, I’ll second that. Summer isn’t just ridiculously hot, but many visitors seem to believe it’s low season, so they come by the planeload, only to discover everyone else had the same idea. (Low season starts in September, in case you were wondering.)

Dockery’s advice to steer clear of theme parks during high season makes sense. He returned to the Magic Kingdom for an event called Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, and found no lines and comfortable temperatures. That’s also when I like to take my family to their favorite theme park.

I’ll promise you this: I’m done advising you to stay away from the beach, or any other popular place. My family spent a week in Ocean City, Md., last summer, and we liked it a lot more than this contrarian travel “expert” ever imagined we would. My kids happily consumed pizza and ice cream on a busy boardwalk, took long walks on the beach at sunset, and made friends with other kids.

Would we go back? Absolutely. You know, the travel crowd is sometimes a lot smarter than the travel experts.

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