Over on a recent post, we asked readers to tell us the worst tourist traps to avoid while travelling in America — and we learned several important things. For one, don’t visit the “overrated” Space Needle. Second, don’t go to Georgetown Cupcakes because there are better dessert options elsewhere in Washington. And lastly, don’t visit the Mall of America because it’s only another shopping centre.
We also learned that no matter where you go, crowds of tourists at many popular attractions are unavoidable. That’s the typical experience at many tourist traps. They lure you with the promise of an unforgettable cultural experience (which they absolutely can be), but fail to prepare you for crowds of people and long lines to get to, say, the top of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty.
Worse, you can’t always trust reviews on popular travel websites like TripAdvisor. If you want to avoid crowds of slow-moving tourists with selfie-sticks, here’s our advice: Push them out of the way. (Kidding.) Just do a little bit of research before your trip, cast a critical eye on those “reliable” reviews, and avoid major landmarks if you can. And always talk to the actual locals for useful advice.
Do your research and look out for red flags
Before any holiday, do your research online — but carefully examine reviews of highly-rated attractions on websites like TripAdvisor. Look out for any mention of lines, “skip the line” passes, VIP tickets, time slots, package deals or reservations. Chances are that if these words are repeated again and again in reviews, it might be a tourist trap worth running from. Always filter for more critical reviews to get a better sense of what to expect.
You should use community forums on websites like TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet or even local city or country subreddits to find which attractions to avoid at all costs. You’ll also find recommendations on how to find less popular, but equally worthy attractions or a better way to view a busy one. (Instead of visiting the Statue of Liberty and waiting through long lines, for example, you can view the Statue of Liberty for free from the Staten Island Ferry, as u/Rav99 wrote on this Reddit thread about avoiding crowds at popular attractions.)
Amusement parks are completely fascinating to me. I’m not sure whether it’s my lack of exposure as a child, their weird, dark underbellies, or the fact that so many of them go out of business and leave rotting, decaying husks on the surface of the Earth.
And talk to friends who’ve been to your destination, research blogs or guides written by actual locals or ask strangers you come across — like hotel and restaurant staff or friendly bartenders — if they have any tips on where locals go.
Don’t book a hotel in tourist areas
The easiest way to avoid tourist traps is to avoid booking a hotel in bustling, crowded areas. “Most city and beach destinations that depend on tourism have a hotel zone or popular neighbourhood filled with affordable chain hotels (think Midtown in Manhattan or the Hotel Zone in Cancun),” Megan Wood writes for Oyster.com. “So it makes sense that the restaurants and shops around the hotels cater heavily to tourists with chain stores, fast food restaurants, and hawkers selling tours.”
Again, do your research and find a breakdown of your destination that describes where you might like to book a hotel stay. Find the area that’s referred to as “quieter” or away from “main areas” — assuming public transportation isn’t a problem, these are the areas you might want to book a room in.
This might also mean avoiding larger chain hotels in favour of smaller, boutique ones or even renting an Airbnb property. (Obviously, you should weigh the costs and carefully vet each before booking.) If you’re booking an Airbnb, look at reviews that mention the surrounding area and any mention of noise or proximity to crowded areas.
And the same goes for restaurants, too. As GoJourney recommends, you should avoid restaurants with old plated food on display and those with hosts hounding you to eat there — both common tale-tell signs of tourist restaurants that’ll probably charge you more than you’d like. Also, avoid eating near major landmarks.
Instead, before you travel, research local specialty dishes using websites like TasteAtlas and restaurant favourites using city guides from places like the New York Times, Bon Appetit or Eater if you're travelling within the U.S.. And don’t be shy about asking locals about their favourite spots.
“Ask where to try a certain type of food,” the Times’ Rebecca Holland writes. “[...]Discuss your price range and the atmosphere you’re looking for, and convince them you really, truly do want to try local dishes, regardless of ingredients.” As the Times also recommends, don’t be afraid of street food or even signing up for a food tour — led by a local, of course.
Carefully vet tours before booking
Always reconsider booking a group tour if you want to avoid crowds. It’s likely some part of the itinerary will include a stop (or several stops) to tourist-ridden attractions. Depending on the type of tour you booked, again, consult reviews. Ask your guide what to expect concerning crowds and for a detailed itinerary.
And if you want to view these sights in spite of our advice, go at it alone, you can visit during off hours so you can enjoy them with relatively few tourists around. Or just book your trip during the shoulder, off-peak season or during certain holidays, depending on your destination. And as we’ve written before, research some common scams at your destinations to avoid getting caught in a racket played on tourists.
If you still can’t escape the throngs, avoiding booking a trip at tourist hot spots altogether — find a city close to your destination and book a stay there, for instance, and take advantage of the peace and quiet you long for.