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Follow the crowd: 4 travel secrets of the herd

The conventional wisdom on traveling — which is not to do what everyone else is doing — is often wrong. By Christopher Elliott
Image: Vacationers crowd the beach of San Cristobal in Almunecar
Are you planning a winter trip to the beach, just so you avoid the busy summer crowds? Not so fast, columnist Christopher Elliott warns.Juan Manuel De Haro / EPA file

Follow the crowd.

That’s right, stand in that long line at the airport. Buy the same ticket everyone else does. Book the happenin’ hotel, the popular cruise. Go on, vacation with the masses.

The conventional wisdom on traveling — which is not to do what everyone else is doing — is often wrong.

Sometimes, the mob knows best.

I reached this unlikely conclusion after years of listening to my colleagues telling everyone to go against the grain. They sent us to ski resorts in the summer and to the beach during the winter. They told us to fly the red-eye and take the repositioning cruise. And I think they’re sending many of us down the wrong road.

Now, before I go any further, let me admit that I’ve done it, too. I never stopped to question the wisdom of being a contrarian and dispensed the same advice that I now think is utterly misguided. So, travel experts out there who want to flame me, save your keystrokes. I’ll do it for you.

Here are four times when you should go with the flow, and when the herd knows best:

When you’re visiting family for the holidays
Ask travel experts how to have a trouble-free trip around he holidays, and they’re quick to offer the following advice: schedule your flight on the actual holiday, like Christmas Day, when everyone is opening presents, or New Years Day, when half the world is hung over. The roads are quiet and the flights are flying practically empty.

Please! The reason the airports and roadways are so busy before and after the holidays is that everyone wants to be together on those special days — welcoming the new year or watching the Fourth of July fireworks. And you know what? It’s not as bad as you’d think. I recently traveled on some of the busiest air travel days of the year, the Friday, Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I breezed through the Transportation Security Administration line in Orlando in less than five minutes. The one in LaGuardia took slightly longer — 10 minutes. No kidding. Airports and airlines add staff and resources to accommodate all the extra travelers.

And really, do you want to miss the college bowl games because you have to catch a flight?

When you’re planning a seasonal vacation
Another popular tip is to vacation at a place during off-peak season. Go to Florida during the summer or Europe in winter, they say. Plenty of bargains there. Well, there’s a reason for that, and I’m speaking from personal experience. Florida during August is unbearable. Here in Central Florida, people lock themselves indoors and turn the air conditioning on “high.” And have you ever experienced a genuine, pre-global warming European winter? I endured 18 of them before I moved to Florida. It’s a pervasive, limb-numbing cold from which there’s no escape. You’ll feel cold weeks after you return from your trip. Just the thought of being in Europe will make you cold.

Point is, you can be so contrarian that it just ruins your whole vacation. Nothing wrong with avoiding peak travel periods — I mean, you’d be nuts to visit France during the month of August, for instance, because that’s when the entire country is on vacation (and they take their vacations very seriously in France). But how about a late fall or early spring ski trip, or an early summer beach getaway? It’s called “shoulder season” in the biz, and it’s a much better time to go.

When you’re traveling with little ones
Here’s a piece of advice that gets dispensed a lot: Avoid those popular morning flights, because they’re crowded and expensive. Take the red-eye instead. I’ve given that advice for years. Then I had kids. Have you ever tried to take an infant on an overnight flight? Let’s just say I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ll never forget the Virgin Atlantic flight from Newark to London with our then two-year-old son, Aren. He crawled up and down the aisle, fussing and crying. Like good parents, we administered a generous does of Benadryl, which is supposed to sedate a child but in some cases has been known to cause hyperactivity. We learned the hard way that Aren was a “some cases” kid. He climbed the walls. No one slept. When I say “no one” I mean no one on the plane.

Red-eye flights are wonderful for adults, and especially for time-starved business travelers. But families with young children should go with the flow and book tickets on that morning flight — the same one everyone else wants to be on.

When you want to see what everyone else is seeing
If you subscribe to a travel newsletter or magazine, you probably see recommendations about cut-rate repositioning cruises or have heard about discounted room rates for “soft openings” of hotels. But before you book, hear me out. Repositioning cruises, which are cheap cruises on ships that are changing itineraries — for instance, going from Alaska to Mexico — can be a great deal. But you won’t see any of the popular attractions. Chances are, you’ll spend days at sea visiting the all-you-can-eat buffet and watching TV in your cabin.

Likewise, cheaper rates for still unopened hotels (in travel industry lingo, they’re called “soft” openings) can be a find, but remember, the hotel isn’t officially open yet. A lot of things can go wrong, and they often do. If you’re interested in seeing things the way you’re meant to see them — the way everyone else does — then don’t cut corners. Buy the real thing, pay a fair price, have a good time.

The bottom line is, sometimes you should follow the crowd when you travel. Sometimes, literally. Mary Huff, a communications consultant from Atlanta, learned that on a recent visit to Paris.

While waiting for her Metro train to arrive, she noticed a woman approaching who seemed to be unstable. “Raving crazy,” is how she described her, actually. “And after living in New York for ten years, I learned not to stare at the mentally disturbed people who frequent the subway.”

Meanwhile, a crowd of people was running away from the unstable passenger. Huff didn’t follow, despite their warnings. Then she turned and saw the crazy lady charging her, wielding a stick.

She bolted. Seconds later, the train arrived, the woman was subdued, and Huff’s heart was pounding at the prospect of what might have happened if she hadn’t joined the crowd.

Now Huff thinks twice before listening to her inner contrarian. Which, I think, is something we should all do.