Tips for avoiding the crowds during summer travel

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“A lot 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 trip defensively.

So how do you avoid the mass of humanity at the height of the busiest summer travel season in a generation? Let’s start with the obvious pro tip for finding some space on vacation: Go where there are no crowds.

“Plan your trip outside of peak hours,” says Caldwell. “Visit attractions during off-peak times.”

What does this mean for summer travelers?

“Beaches are the most popular type of summer destination,” says Alison Kwong, a spokeswoman for vacation rental site Vrbo. “Demand for beach vacation homes in the Northeast and Southeast is high, so an unexpected alternative might be heading to a mountain destination like Breckenridge or Park City when it’s not ski season.”

But 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 host at the airport to speed up check-in and customs lines. At a place like Global Airport Concierge, you can book an airport meet-and-greet service starting at $75.

Sylvia Lebovitch, a luxury travel consultant at the Ovation Network, also recommends a private airport suite available at Los Angeles International Airport. “There are separate security areas and checkpoints, so you don’t have to mingle with other travelers,” she says. “It’s the closest thing to private flying.”

Also, many luxury hotels now offer advance check-in to avoid a long line in the lobby. Or you can work with your travel advisor to handle check-in details before you arrive. Your agent will send you your credit card and passport information beforehand so all you have to do is pick up your room keys.

What about crowds at major attractions like historic sites, museums, and theme parks?

One strategy is to book a private tour in advance. Larissa Lowthorp, a film producer from Los Angeles, likes to find a tour on sites like “A tour guide has private deals with places or after-hours tour arrangements,” she says. This allows her to avoid long lines and crowds.

But nothing prepares you for the wave of summer crowds like a Walt Disney World Annual Pass. As a resident of Florida for 12 years, most of them spent in Orlando, I quickly learned that you can avoid the long lines by showing up before the park opens.

While the tourists were sleeping or enjoying their all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, I pulled my toddlers out of bed early and made it to the Magic Kingdom gates as they swung open.

The reward: No lines and no crowds, even on the busiest days. By the time most of the visitors were arriving, my family and I headed through the turnstiles and back to the parking lot.

Does joining a loyalty program help? It can, says Craig Strickler, managing director for Valor Hospitality Partners, a hotel management company. “Joining the frequent flyer program for the airline you fly, the hotel you stay at, or even the rental car company you use gives you benefits you can’t get otherwise,” he says.

They include upgrading to a better seat or hotel room if available or using a preferred – and sometimes shorter – check-in line.

But there is a catch. You must participate in the program to reap the benefits, which means spending money with the company. You may pay more for your trip over time. Also, you will receive many unsolicited offers from the company and its partners.

“Just remember, there’s always the unsubscribe option at the bottom of the email,” says Strickler.

Sometimes the best way to avoid the crowds is to defy conventional wisdom. That’s the advice of blues guitarist Michael “Big Mike” Aguirre, who moved from St. Louis in 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 seasons run from June to November. Yes, it’s a bit risky, but nothing a good travel insurance policy will cover.

“A less traveled destination offers a more relaxed pace and a deeper experience,” says Aguirre.

There is a final option, which is not to travel at all. Instead, postpone your vacation until the kids go back to school. This might be my favorite strategy for avoiding the crowd. You can go anywhere in early September, and it won’t matter. Everyone will be gone by then. Prices will drop and the travelers you meet along the way will be relaxed again.

Isn’t this how travel should always be?

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Travel health advisory information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisory website.

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