Daniel Threlfall remembers his visit to Chichen Itza, Mexico, a destination billed as one of the wonders of the world. It isn’t a good memory.
Threlfall, an Internet consultant from Greenville, South Carolina, expected to be wowed by Mayan temples and natural beauty when he traveled to the Yucatan with his family last year. “Instead, we were met with sky-high prices, in-and-out access and an elbow-to-elbow confrontation with throngs of people from all over the planet,” he recalls.
That’s the thing about too-popular destinations. Once they’re “discovered,” they’re ruined for everyone else. But with the hectic summer travel season now at its peak, there are ways of avoiding these overexposed places, and, if you can’t plan around them, to make the best of being stuck in a “hot” destination with thousands of other visitors.
Finding the right place isn’t easy. Threlfall struggled to discover a more authentic Mexican experience, and, this year, he stumbled upon the perfect hideaway. “On our day-long adventure, we walked through a jaguar forest, climbed a jungle tower, toured ancient ruins, crossed two lagoons by boat, swam a kilometer through a 500-year-old Mayan canal, hiked the wetlands and ate a Mayan lunch,” he says.
Where? “I can’t tell you,” he says, “otherwise it might turn into the next Chichen Itza.”
Fair enough. But a review of Threlfall’s Instagram account suggests he was in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Sorry, Daniel.
Sometimes, when you think you’ve discovered an alternative to an oversaturated destination, you realize everyone else has, too. Lia Saunders, a business-systems analyst from San Francisco who recently spent a month in Mexico, thought she’d found the perfect “anti-Cancun.”
“It’s common knowledge that Cancun is overrun with tourists,” she says. But she heard that Tulum “serves up relaxing, tropical authentic Mexican luxury. Well, not so.”
Instead, she found a commercialized and overpriced destination. “It’s crowded, it’s a totally unauthentic Mexican experience, and if you aren’t willing to shell out an arm and a leg to be on the luxurious beach, there is not much to do in the town of Tulum itself,” she says.
Occasionally, the best destination is staring right at you. Earlier this summer, for example, I visited Yosemite National Park in Northern California. Most travel experts warn against visiting Yosemite in June, July and August because it’s too crowded. It is.
But Yosemite is enormous.
At 1,189 square miles, it’s about the same size as the state of Rhode Island. And, most visitors crowd into a small area near the iconic natural attractions, like El Capitan and Half Dome. I found a guide from the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that supports this national park, who took me to the less-trafficked areas of the park, including a grove with 1,000-year-old sequoia trees. And, staying in the park, we found a room at the new Rush Creek Inn, only about a mile from the park entrance.
If you know your Mexican geography, then you probably recognize Sian Ka’an as being in Tulum province. Essentially, Threlfall and Saunders went to the same place. But they didn’t. This strategy works anywhere, but particularly well with national parks. Take Glacier National Park, which logged 2.37 million visitors in 2015. Waterton Lakes National Park, just across the Canadian border, recorded only 417,000 visitors in the same period.
“Since the U.S. dollar is so strong versus the Canadian dollar, you get much more value for your money in Canada,” said Whitt Kelly, a spokesman for Travel Alberta.
Another strategy: Go elsewhere, but look for the qualities you like about an overrun destination.
“For example, if someone wants Hawaii, which is notoriously expensive, but they’re looking for natural beauty, beaches, volcanoes and fresh, tropical cuisine, I would steer them toward Costa Rica or Ecuador,” says Jacob Marek, the founder of IntroverTravels, a tour operator that specializes in out-of-the-way destinations.
Many European cities also have acceptable substitutes. Instead of Paris or Rome, he recommends Buenos Aires or Santiago. “Both cities have a European flair and style, and are great launching points to expansive wilderness for those looking for a thrilling experience in nature,” he says.
It’s not the same thing, of course, but it’s relatively close – sometimes close enough. If you have your sights set on a place like trendy Portland, Oregon, but you’re wary of summer crowds and the higher prices that go along with them, you might drive a few hours north to lower-profile Olympia, Washington, which also has an indie music scene, outstanding restaurants, craft breweries and boutique shopping. At least, that’s how the area’s tourism authorities are positioning the region.
In short: Avoid touristy destinations if you can. But, if you can’t, look carefully before you jump in. Chances are, there’s a way to sidestep the Instagramming masses.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.