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.

“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.

How do you vacation?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • $16635417

    Like the old advice from my dad, when out on the road, do you eat at the truck stop with no trucks in the lot…or the one with the lot crowded with trucks? He never needed yelp.

  • MarkKelling

    That works if you are looking for truck stop type food. :-)

    I never really cared for that type food.

  • $16635417

    We usually didn’t have many choices in fine dining establishments on the interstate back then.

  • MarkKelling

    I prefer to go places in what I have heard referred to as shoulder season – not the off season and not during the peak of the season for that area. Most restaurants, hotels, and attractions are open, but the crowds are not excessive. Of course with changes in modern society and when people take their vacations, exactly what is the shoulder seems to be changing so that going in September/October or April/May may have you overwhelmed by other people who had the same idea.

    I have actually had some of my best vacations going to a ski resort in July. It was sunny, not too warm, and I had miles of trails to hike. I don’t particularly care for cold and snow anyway. There were also enough people out there that I didn’t feel like I was trespassing or had to worry if I would fall an injure myself no one would find me.

    Guess it just depends on what makes you happiest. I, and most of the people I know and have traveled with, tend to prefer the less crowded options.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, I remember those family summer vacation drives well. Miles and miles and miles of not much until you reached your destination.

  • Carchar

    I love Panama during the “green” season (May through Sept.) That is their wet season, which means few tourists, lower prices, and it rains on some afternoons for about an hour and a half. I can take a day tour transiting the Panama Canal and have half the boat at my disposal, instead of having to scramble to reserve my seat. The restaurants have your pick of views and the local kids are in school. Very relaxing, if one is looking for beauty and quiet.

  • larry bradley

    You must have not grown up before the Interstate highway system was built. For me, it was miles and miles and miles of some very interesting towns with a lot to see.

  • Mary

    How come we can’t view the “vote” results?? It’s not working!!!

  • Mary

    We like to go to the Smokies in the fall and of course everyone else was there too. Roads are crowded as are all the parks. It’s difficult to find a motel that hasn’t raised their rates sky high. Why do places and business’s raise their rates so high, especially if there is some event (Nascar Races) that makes it impossible to attend these events when you live out of town?? By the time you spend money on gas, motels and food, you can’t afford the tickets for the event in most cases. It’s so unfair to the general public for whoever to line their pocketbooks. We have quit going to the races for that reason. You see more on TV anyway. And we went to Disney in the in April .We figured kids in school-should be a piece of cake. OMG, it was so crowded, you could hardly move. Had to wait in line for almost everything. Every parent must’ve taken their kids out of school this past April. LOL So, we won’t do that again.

  • bodega3

    There is the old saying, ‘You make hay when the sun shines’. Those high season prices help the hotels stay open through the slow season.
    As for Disney in April….think spring break.

  • bodega3

    When you are a kid, interesting towns are for the adults. All you want to do as a kid is get to your destination.

  • bodega3

    There is a reason many destinations are so popular at certain times of the year and if you don’t have any other option to visit at another time, you just bite the bullet and go regardless of the crowds.

  • Stephen0118

    When you think about it, though, in certain destinations, there may not be an off-season. Take Disneyland, for example. I’m a season ticket holder and, no matter when I go (even during the week in late October), there will always be a two plus hour wait for the Radiator Springs Racers ride, unless you happen to be a single-rider or you stay at one of the hotels where you can go in an hour earlier.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I totally agree about Florida. If you’re not by the ocean (or Gulf), Florida is pretty miserable in the summer. Stifling humidity, and you can almost set your watch by what time it rains every day.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Are we there, yet? Are we there, yet? Are we there, yet?

  • bodega3

    Ha! Some things stay the same from generation to generation.

  • Mary

    This was after spring break-and yes, I remember that saying.

  • MarkKelling

    In the days before Interstate highways, there were many interesting towns to see, traffic lights to stop at, and diners to stop at every few hours. I barely remember that. The Interstate highways got rid of a lot of sights by bypassing all the small towns. At least in Texas where I grew up it was that way. I remember each summer when we went west (don’t know why, but we always went on a vacation west of where we lived) getting to watch the construction of I-10 from Junction to Fort Stockton. Lots of dynamite blowing up rocky outcroppings.

  • MarkKelling

    First time I went to the FL Keys was in late summer. I though I would be miserable from the heat and humidity. I was completely surprised by how comfortable it was outside, as long as I stayed in relatively shady spots, with the breezes blowing. I still needed my air conditioning at night in the hotel room though. ;-)

  • brianguy

    apparently Elliott is wrong 96 to 4%. but hey better to be wrong I guess, and spending all your money to *possibly* have a good time and *probably* be miserable, than spending half your money to *probably* have a good time and not be miserable.

  • brianguy

    yelp is just the digital equivalent…. except it’s sending you to the hipster joints instead of the truck stops. I avoid half the “best” places on yelp too, because they’re all hype and no satisfaction.

  • brianguy

    exactly… I’ve made a habit of vacationing in the fall and/or spring every year and have never really had a bad experience. and this goes back to when my wife and I were merely dating. traveling in the peak of summer? prepare to pay more, be sweating your ass off, and standing in lines all day every day. good luck with that…

    same goes for holiday travels. thanks but no thanks, why bother? my favorite months to travel are late Sept – mid Nov and early March-early April (just late enough to avoid the harshness of winter, early enough to avoid spring breakers). it just works.

  • brianguy

    sounds fantastic. great tip

  • brianguy

    yes, but some of that is just the newness also. during the peak season, the Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland line used to be roughly 3 hours. the Toy Story amusement ride used to be 2.5 hours about half the time.

  • bodega3

    Spring break is a LONG season in the US. It can run from February through April.

  • Cat

    I recall my Dad threatening the life of the next person who uttered that question. LOL

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Supply and demand. It goes both ways. When the vacation spot is empty in the off season and the hotel rates are rock bottom, I doubt if anyone is offering to pay a penny more than the market rate.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    It seems to me that you can’t possibly have a serious discussion without first knowing what you want to do on vacation.

    On one vacation I wanted to see and do everything. I went skiing at Mammoth Lakes in California. Packed full of people and it was fun. And very expensive.

    Another time, I had just gotten out of a grueling trial. I decided to go relax in Palm Desert, California in August. It was 100+ during the day, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to lounge around like third base. During the day, I sat by the pool, read books, watched television, basically let my mind empty. I went out at night because the heat would break around 8. I stayed at a four star hotel, the Renaissance Esmeralda. Because of the heat, the rates were dirt cheap and the hotel relatively empty. $45.00 per night and they upgraded me to a $800 square foot Jacuzzi suite while apologizing that the 1000sf suite had plumbing problems. Great vacation.

  • Miami510

    Just before my first trip to Rome I was given the advice on how to choose a restaurant. Pick one that has nuns eating. It is usually good food and at good value. The advice has never failed.

    On the subject of `following the crowd:` When there are school age kids in the house, one is forced to vacation on their schedule. Afterward, the shoulder seasons are wonderful for their lack of crowds and the better prices. Sometimes, last minute arrangements will result in amazing value.

  • MarkKelling

    Thanks for the tip on Rome. I am going to be there in a couple months and will have many opportunities to find good and affordable places to eat.

  • bodega3

    We have a similar way of choosing a good Mexican restaurant when traveling. If you see Hispanics eating there, you will have a good meal.