American vacations often center around open roads, national parks, big cities or coastal settings, but the particulars within each of these categories can make or break a trip. So we wondered, how can we avoid wasting precious travel time on overrated attractions?
To help, we turned to some trusted U.S. travel experts. While we’ve put together a list of their best tips, it’s worth noting that their reasons for recommending one attraction over another, rather than the attractions themselves, are perhaps most important. In other words, even if you’re not planning a trip to one of the spots included here, you can find out why a place excites or disappoints the experts and consider them in terms of your own vacation.
For example, is a charming city a great place to live but underwhelming for visitors? Or, could your mode of transportation completely change your experience of a place?
Regardless of where you end up or how you get around when you’re there, talking to locals is a great way to avoid over-hyped spots. Tyler Dillon of Butterfield and Robinson, a company that designs luxury walking and cycling trips, has experience living and working around the world, from Myanmar to Brooklyn. He follows a general rule of thumb when visiting new places and scouting out attractions: be wary of heavy-handed cultural displays. For example, “when you arrive in the Ring of Kerry in Ireland and there are people dressed up in traditional Irish sweaters for tourism, that’s the first sign of inauthenticity,” Dillon says. For more expert advice, read on.
1. MOLOKINI CRATER IN MAUI
While this snorkeling spot off the coast of Maui is undoubtedly special (it’s among just three volcanic calderas in the world, after all), it’s not without some serious pitfalls. According to Dani R. Johnson, president of Frances Grace Events for Coastline Travel and California and Hawaii travel expert, one of its downfalls is the fact that it’s a magnet for snorkelers and divers from across the globe.
“Everybody wants to go to Molokini, but in all honesty it’s very busy and packed,” says Johnson. “When I snorkel, I don’t want to be snorkeling with 100 people.” Instead, she recommends heading out on a smaller catamaran to a protected reserve like Turtle Point, which is a great spot for seeing sponges, corals, and green sea turtles.
2. NATIONAL PARKS IN THE SUMMER
Before you throw your hands in the air, hear us out on this one. A visit to the U.S. national parks is a must.But we also think that folks should be aware of how to make the most of their time in these increasingly crowded natural gems. To put things in perspective, 2015 saw record-breaking attendance of 307 million people and those numbers surged again this past summer with the parks’ 100-year anniversary.
“The busiest places lately are the national parks, yet one couldn’t say that Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier National Park, and Grand Canyon are overrated,” says Caroline Bach Wood, an independent travel advisor at Travel Experts/Virtuoso who specializes in the American West. “They are, however, being loved to death.”
Still, Bach Wood encourages travelers to experience the parks system. “I think people need to go to these special places, but look outside the box for ways to do it differently,” she says. When it comes to summer in the Grand Canyon, Bach Wood advises skipping the South Rim in favor of the many trails that lead away from the crowds. She also suggests heading out on a raft, which is her personal favorite way to experience the park.
Similarly, to avoid the July masses in Yellowstone, Bach Wood recommends a horse pack trip or backpacking excursion. Or, head there in the winter, when park roads close to cars, but not snowmobiles. Fewer crowds mean more peaceful cross-country skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing, and wildlife viewing.
3. ALASKA CRUISES
Plenty of Alaska travelers settle on cruises – and understandably so, given that the onboard views of wildlife and scenery are typically incredible. “But there’s so much more than that if you want to get a bit more creative,” says Katie Losey, director of marketing for luxury travel company Absolute Travel. When Losey headed there last month, she skipped the cruise circuit in favor of the Alaskan interior. “It’s the wild and so many times felt even wilder than African safaris,” she said. Losey started the trip along the Alaskan Railroad, heading south to Seward before catching a small boat to Orca Island Cabins in Resurrection Bay. There, she caught glimpses of bald eagles and harbor seals from the seat of a kayak in Humpy Cove.
4. FOOD ON BOURBON STREET IN NEW ORLEANS
Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, has one of the most contradictory food scenes in the country, according to Dillon. “You can get some really bad gumbos in New Orleans and some really good ones, too,” he says. Finding the tastiest dishes in any city takes a little time and research. Before you arrive, learn about what grows there, what’s caught there and what’s hunted there plus where it all happens, Dillon suggests. Seafood might be the most obvious example. Head further down the Mississippi for the freshest and most flavorful seafood dishes, which can be almost unrecognizable by the time they’re served up on Bourbon Street.
Another tip: Think about international immigration patterns. “In New Orleans, you can get some of the best Vietnamese pho outside of Saigon because the vast majority of the people who are doing the shrimping are Vietnamese,” says Dillon. Lastly, head to the neighborhoods where chefs live – not necessarily where they work. “None of the chefs with big hotels and restaurants live in the French Quarter – they live in the Faubourg Marigny,” says Dillon, who’s also a former chef. “Go to those neighborhoods and you'll find some interesting things.”
Nothing quite compares to a road trip along California’s Pacific Coast Highway and some of the best scenery is found on the Central Coast. “That drive, going either way through Monterey, is gorgeous,” says Johnson. The small city of Carmel, which is situated just south of Monterey, has all the hallmarks of a worthwhile stop: a dog-friendly beach, easy-to-navigate downtown area, historic sights, and oceanside walking path. But your time might be better spent elsewhere.
“Carmel is one of those places that’s great for people who own homes there, but it’s a little too touristy,” says Johnson. Instead, she advises lingering in Big Sur. Her favorite stops include Nepenthe Restaurant for burgers and incredible views and the adult-only property Post Ranch Inn. “It’s so beautiful and quiet,” she says. As for when to go? September and October for sunny weather, fewer crowds and more quiet.
6. MOUNT RUSHMORE
Maybe Mount Rushmore is too much to take in or perhaps it’s too drummed up by history teachers. Or maybe we’ve seen those enormous faces too many times in films and photos to feel moved once we’re actually there. Whatever the reason, a visit to this national memorial in South Dakota just seems to fall flat in comparison to the incredible Black Hills scenery surrounding it. Instead, save more time for the space-like rock formations at nearby Badlands National Park or drive along the beautiful Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, an area favored by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s.
Another option? Head about nine hours north to the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, where the eponymous non-profit organization is creating the biggest nature reserve in the continental U.S. It’s currently about 350,000 acres with an ultimate goal of 500,000 acres. “Grasslands have always been ignored,” says Losey of Absolute Travel, which arranges visits to the reserve. “This place puts it on the map.”
Less than two percent of the world’s prairies are protected by permanent conservation efforts like this one, where plowed lands, streams, and crucial prescribed fires are being restored and rewilded. Visitors can also look forward to revived populations of at-risk animals such as bison, cougars, and prairie dogs.
7. FANEUIL HALL IN BOSTON
Faneuil Hall has been around since 1742, serving as a marketplace and meeting hall for Boston. With a central location near the waterfront, the stately brick building sees plenty of tourist traffic. Visitors flock to the Hall’s three annexes – North, South and Quincy Market – for shopping and dining. But there’s a more modern alternative just a few minutes away.
At Boston Public Market, travelers can get a thorough taste of the local food and drink scene. Opened in 2015, the market hosts 40 vendors that sell everything from ice cream to craft beer (all produced or originating in New England) as well as features free tastings and drop-in classes on floral arrangements, knife sharpening, and more. Local and regional farmers, fishermen, bakers, and artisan food producers are all represented here. “It provides a fresh spin on the long history of open-air markets in downtown Boston,” says Paul Bennett, co-founder of Context, which leads Beacon Hill tours that delve into the Boston Brahmins (the city’s elite) and abolitionism.