I hate crowds, don't you? Especially when I'm traveling to special places as there is nothing better than having them all to your self or sharing with just a few others, so one can truly take in the essence of a place. How can anyone really enjoy a place when you are in wall to wall people in a mass of humanity? That is not the way I want to experience the world.
Everyone knows that high season is the worst time to travel, but sometimes that can't be avoided. We have been traveling non stop since 2006 and we do travel off season and shoulder season as much as we can, but we also have gained great experience on the tricks of how to avoid crowds even in the highest of seasons in the most popular places. People often ask us how we manage to have photos and videos of popular touristy areas without crowds in them.
We visited Mykonos when the whole island was booked in August and four huge cruise ships waited in the harbor, yet enjoyed the peace and bliss of a deserted gorgeous beach and walked tiny Mykonos Town totally alone. When we visited world renown Ephesus, Turkey in high season, we had it totally to ourselves for the first thirty minutes which was thrilling. We spent a month in Dubrovnik in August, it's highest season, yet spent the whole time enjoying it without crowds.
How did we manage to do these things? We are not magicians and found that it is easier than most people think. Slow travel certainly is an advantage, but most of the tricks can be used with any type of travel. Here are our top tips:
1) Make it a priority to avoid crowds
Bus loads of folks from the expensive river cruise boats touring the crowded, high cost way
2) Talk to Locals
The locals know the inside information, so talk to them or others who have spent a lot of time in an area. Travel forums like Fodors, Bootsnall, Lonely Planet, Slow Talk, etc can be a big help. We have used all of them and find them a great source while planning a trip.
Once you get there, talk to the locals! Start with the people at your hotel, pension or campsite and tourist information, but don't be afraid to just ask anyone. Learn how to say hello in the local language, then ask if they speak English ( or any other languages that you speak) and ask away. You would be amazed at how helpful the grocer, gas station attendant, man on the street, person sitting next to you in a cafe, etc can be.
Even if they have limited English, most people enjoy helping travelers and can give you the basics like what day a place is least crowded. People make travel special, so it is just another way to make your experience more enriching and sometimes you will make special connections by going out of your comfort zone and asking for what you need.
3) Find out when cruise ships & buses come and avoid them
There seems to always be days that none come, so that it when you want to be there! Otherwise you will feel like a piece of food that is engulfed by a swam of ants. Not only can you not see anything, you will not be able to get a meal, taxi, a bus seat or anything. Trust me, you will be hot, miserable and squashed, so avoid at all costs.
5) Be first or last
We do not tend to be early risers ( I can be, but my dear ones who travel with me are sleepy heads that tend to move very slow in the morning). Sometimes though, it really pays off to get up and out very early. Sometimes very early. Note that at Ephesus , Melk Abbey and Mykonos Town mentioned above, we were up early and the very first ones to arrive. That was absolute key in having those places to ourselves in high season ( Ephesus and Melk were also on non-cruise ship days).
Late in the day is another way to avoid the crowds. Why not hang out at the pool all day relaxing, then hit the key sites an hour or two before closing? Usually the cruise ship folks have gone back to the boat and other daytrippers have faded from fatigue or off for a beer, wine or early supper.
Sometimes we do both for a place, which is really easy to do with slow travel and gives one many advantages. With the Melk Abbey, we went late in the day on a cruise day. We saw a lot without paying the fee ( even part of the church) and got a real sense of the place and how it worked. It is always a good feeling to be walking to a well known place as you pass all the hoards leaving. (Late in the day is also a good time to talk to the people who work there and get more information.)
We also went back on a non-cruise day and were the first ones there. We had it totally to ourselves, including renown library and church for over an hour! We ended up getting both afternoon sun photos ( from our first visit) as well as the morning ones. Then we also added the English tour with a small group of people as the abbey filled up with more people ( but not over crowded as it gets on cruise days).
We really got to enjoy Melk and the other gems that we saw in high season, because we had the time, space, quiet and ease to take it all in with time to relax and reflect. No rushing, no crowds.
Enjoying a whole peaceful park to ourselves in Melk right on the Danube for less than 20 euros a day next to the expensive cruise boats & we did a day cruise plus our bikes for a pittance.
6) Stay in peaceful oasis
I think it is always important to stay in a peaceful oasis, but even more so in high season. One needs time to relax, refresh and rejuvenate while traveling. Time spent just reading, hanging out, playing in a pool or jacuzzi or doing nothing is important and we tend to enjoy these more in beautiful, peaceful, uncrowded surroundings.
Some places are harder than others to avoid the crowds, so where you stay is key. If we had stayed in Mykonos Town in August, it probably would have been harder to find a peaceful place at a good price as that is the main area where the cruise ship folks take over.
At Ephesus it is Kusadasi that is over run with tourists and cruise ships. Thus, these are the kind of areas we avoid staying. We don't usually book ahead, but keep our eyes open ( usually before hand relying on locals through forums, Tripadvisor or crowdsourcing through Twitter or Facebook) for a small, peaceful, authentic, family friendly place.
In Mykonos we stayed far from the maddening crowd because it was high season and a lovely traditional place in Selcuk very near Ephesus and the important museum and sites to avoid the crowds. Since my priority is to skip the crowds and have as authentic experience as possible, I research each place to analyze what would best serve this purpose.
I don't have endless time to research every place we stay, so a certain amount is just instinct, luck and common sense. I always try to find the best hotel, pension, hostel, B&B, or campsite at the best price. I know what we like and appreciate and tend to be able to hone onto them quickly. What are your tricks and tips to avoid the crowds in high season?