Sometimes a good vacation is all in the timing. Here’s how to sneak into popular travel destinations ahead of the crowds — and make the best of things when you can’t.
Sometimes when you’re traveling, your timing is terrific. Sometimes, it’s just lucky.
On our trip to South Dakota last week, we were just lucky. Temperatures in the mid-70s. Almost no visitors. Matt Plank, the assistant curator of reptiles of the Reptile Gardens, a private collection of alligators, snakes, and turtles just outside Rapid City, described the mayhem of tourist season to me: It’s hot and overcrowded. Tour buses are stacked several rows deep in the parking lot. On the busiest days, some of the exhibits are hard to access.
“Aren’t you glad you’re here now?” he asked.
Yes. And I wish I could say I planned it that way, but South Dakota just happened to be on the itinerary in May. I don’t want you to rely on luck this summer. It’s still not too late to hit some popular destinations before they overflow with vacationers. There are ways to know without guessing. And even if you happen to go during a crazy time, I can tell you how to cope.
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Travel now — it’s not too late
There’s still time to experience a destination in relative peace. Even though Memorial Day marks the official beginning of the summer travel season, things don’t start to get really busy until around the Fourth of July. In South Dakota, for example, early June is still a decent time to visit, with great weather and light crowds. But as summer kicks into high gear, you no longer have the monuments, museums, and parks to yourself.
For mountain resorts, the schedule is a little different. Early January is a quiet time, but the pace starts to pick up with the Martin Luther King holiday; and if the snow is good, it stays busy until well after spring break. The summer season isn’t as structured, so you might find a quiet time even at the peak of the vacation season.
One of my favorite off-season destinations is Alabama’s Gulf Coast. We were there last April and the beaches were practically abandoned. But the weather was perfect — tropical, without the oppressive heat and humidity. Wait a few more weeks, and the temperatures rise, and the crowds swell.
How to know if you’re too late
No one wants to tell you not to come to a place, so they try to hide their seasonality. They can’t. Resorts often publish their rates online, clearly marking them “season,” “off season,” and “shoulder season.” You can do the math.
My favorite trick involves Disney World’s annual pass. If you want to know when to plan your theme park vacation, the Blockout Calendar is essential. You can’t use certain less expensive passes on blockout days. Which is just as well. As a former Disney passholder, I can tell you that you don’t want to be there on those days, anyway. They’re impossibly crowded, and you have to wait hours to access your favorite attractions.
Disney doesn’t let its “silver” passholders use their cards for most of June and July, for example. Dec. 20 to 31 is off-limits, too. You can use these dates as a rough guide and block out visiting the mouse at this time.
Coping strategies for crowded destinations
Reality check: Sometimes, you can’t travel in late spring. The kids have school. You can’t get the time off from work. It happens. But even if you can’t plan a last-minute getaway before the crush of summer tourists, there’s still hope.
I learned this important lesson on a visit to San Diego during the summer. The beaches were so ridiculously crowded that you almost couldn’t see the sand. Everyone was there. But for some reason, the bike paths weren’t congested at all. My brother and daughter hit the trails on a tandem and left the masses behind at the shore.
I’ve written about the zig-when-everyone-else-zags strategy before. If you miss the small window of terrific weather and reasonable hotel rates just before the throngs of tourists arrive, you can easily employ this tactic to have a saner, safer vacation.