If you do a quick Google search for Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park, you’ll get endless results of a natural wonder. Empty pathways snake over emerald waters, surrounded by rambling foliage. The occasional photo shows a traveler or three lingering by the lakes, enjoying the place practically to themselves.
In 2010, I was not that traveler enjoying the place to myself. I was smashed in line with so many other tourists that it felt like a Croatian cattle call. We stayed on a packed tourist conveyor belt through the park, taking photos that attempted to crop out other people and signs with messages like “Do not touch the water.” Once my family reached the other side of the park, we wondered whether the experience had been worth it.
No one wants to spend their hard-earned vacation stuck in a tourist assembly line, but there are many ways to end up there. One minute you’re excited to be visiting an iconic point of interest, and the next you’re stuck staring at the commemorative T-shirt on the tourist in front of you, wondering why you came at all.
It’s easy to have a terrible summer vacation. Here’s exactly how.
Book a trip through the most hectic airports in the country and show up late
Summertime travel madness begins at the airport. Although airline travel is up because airlines are adding more seats, those extra seats aren’t necessarily leading to longer wait times at the airport, according to Michael Boyd, president and co-founder of Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting and research firm. The main factor that may slow down the line at airport security is who is in the queue. The big difference around holiday travel and regular travel is that you’re dealing with different flying clientele.
“There are fewer business travelers and more leisure travelers,” Boyd says. “You get the, ‘What do you mean, I can’t bring my Swiss Army knife on the airplane?’ people. That gums things up.”
With line-expediting systems like TSA PreCheck and Clear, lines do tend to move along more quickly than they did in years past. But Boyd still plans his travel with caution.
“If I’m going to Bangor [in Maine] or I’m going to Beijing, I’m going [to the airport] two and a half hours early. That’s because something can always happen.”
Boyd notes that two airports in particular might be more congested than others during summer travel periods: Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson international airport (ATL) and Orlando’s (MCO). Atlanta’s gets clogged because of its layout, as well as the huge number of flights running through daily, while Orlando’s can be swarmed by Disney tourists.
“In Orlando, it’s kids. And it’s people who don’t travel a lot because they’re down there to see Mickey Mouse,” Boyd says. “That does slow things down.”
Pick the most popular time of the year to experience Disney World
So what about when you get out of the Orlando airport and head to Disney World? Is summer the worst time to go to the park?
“Late summer is generally better than early summer,” says Disney expert Laura Begley Bloom, chief content officer of FamilyTraveller.com. “There can be times in the summer when it is quieter. Early August is usually a good time.”
She suggests looking at hotel and plane ticket prices to determine when crowding will hit. To fill empty beds and seats in slower periods, companies will drop room and ticket fares to incentivize travelers to book at off-peak times. The lower the price, the fewer people jockeying for places in line at the Matterhorn.
This year will be particularly busy thanks to the arrival of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, now open at Disneyland and opening at Walt Disney World, in Orlando, in August. Bloom’s move is to use FastPass+ strategically. Know that lines to enter the parks and lines for the rides will be the shortest in the early part of the day.
You can also break up your visit into shifts. “Another smart idea is to get there early, leave the parks during the middle of the day for a break back at your resort, then come back in the late afternoon or early evening,” Bloom says. “The only caveat is that if you are there during a time of extreme overcrowding, you might have a hard time getting back in until much later.”
Sometimes that extreme overcrowding can lead to the parks closing temporarily. Bloom says that Disney has procedures to close the parks in phases when attendance gets near capacity.
“The Magic Kingdom is the most popular and typically the first to close,” Bloom says. “Once it does, the other parks are usually not far behind, though Epcot closes less frequently than Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Disney’s two water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon, have also been known to reach capacity.”
Don’t panic if this happens. The closings shouldn’t last all day. Bloom says that as guests leave the park, more are allowed to enter. To avoid a full-family-freakout, buy a park-hopper ticket at Walt Disney World so that you have the option of going to a less-crowded park should one (or more) temporarily close.
Opt for obvious attractions in famous cities
Lines aren’t only a Disney problem. You’ll run into them if you head to Paris, too.
Paris is a popular travel destination year-round, but it truly sees a surge in tourism during the summer months. And while Parisians tend to leave town during this time for their own vacations, it doesn’t result in a perfect balance. The Louvre — the world’s most popular museum — has become so overwhelmed that its employees went on strike.
“Waiting times and long lines are a nightmare and a real issue we — the tourism board, Paris City Hall and the cultural sites — want to avoid and to fight,” says Véronique Potelet, press and public relations manager at the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The city is working on promoting activities that are off the beaten path and developing hotels in outer arrondissements to guide visitors away from the center of the city. It’s an attempt to help travelers “discover a Paris less cliche and more authentic, the one that the Parisians have the chance to live in daily,” Potelet says.
New York City is working with a similar mind-set. Like in Paris, more locals leave the city during the summer, offering room for tourists. That may help with subway traffic, but you’re still going to run into trouble if you’re headed to the Empire State Building.
Approach New York’s attractions in a different way, suggests Chris Heywood, executive vice president of NYC & Company. Hot spots this summer will be the High Line, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vessel at Hudson Yards. You don’t have to skip them — just plan accordingly. Heywood recommends getting to the High Line early or late in the day to avoid most of its visitors and to the Empire State Building very late in the night (it’s open until 2 a.m.). He also recommends booking your ticket to Vessel well in advance. Try visiting the Met’s other sites, not only the museum on Fifth Avenue, as well.
And after you hit up your standard must-see spots, get out of the city center.
“Some people think of New York as Manhattan only, and that’s a shame,” Heywood says. His picks for alternative exploration include Little Italy in the Bronx, Chinatown in Flushing, Corona Park and Rockaway Beach, a surf spot just 50 minutes from Manhattan by train.
Escape into the wilderness — along with everyone else
For those looking to get out of Dodge, heading to America’s national parks is a natural choice — for millions of people. The most famous parks get hit hard during the summer months. Last year, the Grand Canyon saw 2.2 million recreational visitors between June and August. By contrast, only 892,000 visited during the winter. Grand Canyon National Park tries to warn the public of crowding concerns on its website.
Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, says that it’d be most helpful for people to visit parks in the offseason. If that’s not possible, start your visit early in the day. But, most important, consider under-the-radar parks for your trip.
“There are hundreds of places beyond the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite that’ll stop you in your tracks with their stunning landscapes and powerful history,” Shafroth says. “FindYourPark.com or EncuentraTuParque.com is a great place to start in finding incredible — and perhaps, lesser-known — parks in your own backyard.”
It also helps to be an intrepid hiker.
“Know that the further you go along a trail, generally the less crowded it’ll be,” he says. “The crowd tends to thin out after a quarter-mile or so on many trails.”
Head to the hottest destination on Instagram
Don’t beeline to a location that’s blowing up on social media — at least, not during the summer.
Travel journalist Matt Meltzer learned his lesson the hard way when he set a day trip to the highly Instagrammed Antelope Canyon during a recent visit to Arizona. Located in a Navajo tribal park, the otherworldly sandstone formations are often portrayed as mysterious, empty passageways on the Internet.
When he showed up for a tour he reserved, Meltzer discovered a setting much different from the photos. “It was like a Walmart parking lot outside the canyon. There were literally four or five rows of trucks just like ours all lined up,” Meltzer says.
The tour group was led into the canyon in a line that shuffled through slowly. Every once in a while, the guide would ask the group to move out of the way so that people could get the kind of photos that drew Meltzer to the site in the first place.
The reality did not match the expectation. “If you were there alone and you saw this light coming through these beautiful rock formations, it would be life-changing,” Meltzer says. “But because you have a family of four with selfie sticks in front of you, it’s way worse.”
The experience bummed Meltzer out. His advice for travelers interested in Antelope Canyon now:
“Just see it on your Windows screen saver.”
This rule of thumb expands to destinations beyond the great outdoors. Following hot Instagram posts will land you with other people following hot Instagram posts, for their own hot Instagram posts. I’ve made this mistake, adding to the problem. I huddled — iPhone in hand, elbow-to-elbow with other tourists — to photograph the sunrise at Uluru, a holy site and Instagram-magnet in Australia’s Red Center. It was so crowded that I didn’t even post my resulting shot.
To avoid the worst summer vacation, take advantage of appropriate loopholes. In most cases, flexibility with timing can alleviate a lot of the pressure and make all of the difference.
Don’t show up to the Eiffel Tower or Tate Modern at noon on a Saturday. Book the afternoon slot at Machu Picchu. Save super-visited destinations for off-peak parts of the year altogether if your schedule allows it. And above all else, get to the airport ahead of schedule — if only for the peace of mind.