“Lots of people want to do the same thing at the same time this summer,” says Stan Caldwell, who teaches transportation and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
If you’ve already been on vacation, you know he’s right. If you haven’t, there’s still time to plan your travel defensively.
So how do you avoid the mass of humanity at the peak of the busiest summer travel season in a generation? Let’s start with the obvious pro tip for finding a little space on vacation: Go where there are no crowds.
“Schedule travel outside of rush hour,” says Caldwell. “Visit attractions during unpopular times.”
What does that mean for summer travelers?
“Beaches are the most popular destination type in the summer,” says Alison Kwong, a spokesperson for the vacation rental site Vrbo. “Demand for beach vacation homes in the Northeast and the Southeast is high, so an unexpected alternative can be heading to a mountain destination, like Breckenridge or Park City when it’s not ski season.”
But the crowds are everywhere — at the airport, on the plane, in the hotel lobby. What about them?
If you can afford it, you can pay to skip the crowded check-in areas. You can hire a VIP greeter at the airport to expedite check-in and customs lines. At a site such as Global Airport Concierge, you can book a meet-and-greet service at the airport starting at $75.
Sylvia Lebovitch, a luxury travel adviser at Ovation Network, also recommends a private airport suite available at Los Angeles International Airport. “It has separate security areas and check-ins, so you never need to mingle with other travelers,” she says. “It’s the closest thing to flying private.”
Also, many luxury hotels now offer advance check-ins to avoid the look of a long line in the lobby. Or you can work with your travel adviser to handle the check-in details before you arrive. Your agent will send your credit card and passport information ahead, so that all you have to do is pick up the keys to your room.
How about the crowds at major attractions, such as historical sites, museums and theme parks?
One strategy is booking a private tour in advance. Larissa Lowthorp, a film producer from Los Angeles, likes to find a tour on sites like Viator. “A tour guide has private arrangements with venues or agreements for off-hours visits,” she says. That allows her to avoid long lines and crowds.
But nothing prepares you for the wave of summer crowds like an annual Walt Disney World pass. As a Florida resident for 12 years, most of them spent in Orlando, I quickly learned that you could avoid long lines by showing up before the park opens.
While tourists were sleeping in or enjoying their all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, I pulled my young kids out of bed early and made it to the gates of the Magic Kingdom as they swung open.
The reward: No lines and no crowds, even on the busiest days. By the time most visitors were arriving, my family and I were headed through the turnstiles and back to the parking lot.
Does joining a loyalty program help? It can, says Craig Strickler, a managing director for Valor Hospitality Partners, a hotel-management company. “Joining the frequent-traveler program for the airline you fly, the hotel you stay in, or even the rental-car company you use offers you perks that you may not receive otherwise,” he says.
Those include upgrading to a better seat or hotel room if available or using a preferred — and sometimes shorter — check-in line.
But there’s a catch. You have to participate in the program to reap the benefits, which means spending money with the company. You might pay more for your travel over time. Also, you’ll get a lot of unsolicited offers from the company and its partners.
“Just remember, there’s always the unsubscribe option at the bottom of the email,” Strickler says.
Sometimes the best way to avoid crowds is to defy conventional wisdom. That’s the advice of blues guitarist Michael “Big Mike” Aguirre, who relocated from St. Louis to Anguilla at the start of the pandemic. He says there are benefits to visiting the island at times when no one else wants to.
You won’t have to worry about long lines at a restaurant or crowded beaches this time of year. That’s because it’s low season in the Caribbean: It’s rainy and hot, and the region’s hurricane season runs from June through November. Yes, it’s a little risky, but nothing a good travel-insurance policy won’t cover.
“A less-traveled destination offers a more relaxed pace and a more immersive experience,” Aguirre says.
There’s a final option, which is to not travel at all. Instead, postpone your vacation until the kids are back in school. That may be my favorite crowd-avoiding strategy. You can go anywhere in early September, and it won’t matter. Everyone will be gone by then. Prices will fall, and the travelers you meet along the way will be relaxed again.
Isn’t that how travel should always be?