When it comes to crowds, I’ve always been a grumpy traveler, and many of my travel habits evolved from my desire to ditch the pack.

Does the guidebook suggest the road that leads to the right? I turn left. Is everybody planning trips based on colorful memoirs 
about living in Venice and Provence? I head for little-known wine regions in Spain, to castles with difficult-to-pronounce names in Serbia. I compile lists of natural wonders that aren’t quite wonderful enough for UNESCO World Heritage designations. I go for cool-sounding second- or third-tier cities in China and South Korea.

Up until a few years ago, my road-less-traveled instincts served me well. I never had much trouble finding places I could enjoy without the headache of making hotel and museum reservations months in advance, and then standing in a long line, craning my neck over the heads of strangers to see the views.

But that was before wanderlust swept the planet. More than a billion people traveled for pleasure last year. Even worse: Many 
travelers aren’t keeping their secret places to themselves. Nowadays, to travel is to “share”—not just with family and friends but with your 5,000 Twitter followers. As travelers, we navigate a world that is getting smaller every day, bursting at the seams with others keen on exploring it too. This calls for new strategies.

I have one, and with a nod to the great New Orleans piano player Dr. John, I call it: “Wrong Place, Wrong Time.”

Decades ago, with more time than money for travel, I learned what budget travelers learn: It’s cheaper to go somewhere when nobody else is going there.

Of course there is usually a good reason why a particular season is “off,” as I discovered the first time I booked a discounted cottage for a September Caribbean vacation. Worrisome breezes welcomed me to the island, along with a shout from the hotel manager, perched on a ladder and nailing boards across the windows: “Hurricane comin’!”

All night the winds wailed. Palm fronds and coconuts tumbled to the ground as the storm passed (thankfully a hundred miles, give or take, out at sea). Huddled with the hotel staff and one other off-season guest at the hotel bar, I drank rum and shared stories until dawn to the flicker of emergency candles.

The next morning 
I woke up with a whopping hangover, and a revelation: When you travel against the calendar, the upside isn’t just economic. Thanks to my “bad” timing, I came home from my budget-friendly vacation with something much better: a traveler’s tale.

By choosing to visit the wrong place at the wrong time, not only do I lose the crowds; I almost always experience 
my surroundings, especially familiar 
ones, in an unexpected way. This is where dreaded jet lag can be a friend; 
it ensures that you’ll be awake and eager to roam the streets of, say, Hong Kong or London during the wee hours, when those restless cities slow to a crawl and seem to turn into a grainy black and white, like a silent movie.

Even when you’re not jumping across
time zones, shifting your travel activities to a “wrong” hour can mean having a place to yourself, leading to a feeling that you’re somewhere new without having left the same destination.

The California geyser that fizzes at midday to the applause of crowds turns, you discover, into a mighty, erupting dragon in moonlit solitude. The Mexican market town that honks with cars and pickup trucks all morning softens into a Gabriel Garcia Márquez short story during the dead hours of the afternoon siesta.

Traveling at the wrong time, against the clock and calendar, isn’t always the easiest or most comfortable ride. But the destination will be yours, and yours alone.

Daisann McLane is a regular contributor to National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her story on Twitter at @Daisann_McLane.

Comments

  1. Peggy Coonley/Serendipity Traveler
    Rockport, Ma.
    September 30, 2013, 2:20 pm

    Agree that when to travel is as important as where. I like the shoulder seasons around the world and off season for some places.

  2. SandeepaChetan
    Mumbai
    September 30, 2013, 2:29 pm

    Well said and so true!

  3. Sanibel Sam
    Sanibel Island, FL
    September 30, 2013, 9:54 pm

    Totally agree. The Fall on Sanibel has great weather and no lines anywhere. You meet lots of locals with time to tell you about their island.

    Rental prices, other than holidays, are low. What’s not to love.

  4. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, USA
    October 1, 2013, 9:06 pm

    So true! A few years ago we went to Scotland in February and had beautiful weather, with hardly any tourists at all. I’m thinking of trying Norway this March.

    Cheers,
    Ian Faulds
    ianfaulds.com

  5. Pearl
    Pompano beach. Fl
    October 2, 2013, 5:54 am

    Is the photo taken in Riga, Latvia?

  6. Amit
    India
    October 3, 2013, 4:23 am

    Its true if you want less crowd and peaceful holiday opt to visit anywhere in off season. Fact is thing get cheaper. expenses gets low..
    you could plan a luxury travel in budget price. in off season.
    http://www.visit2goa.com

  7. Qoc'avib
    Aurora, Illinois
    October 10, 2013, 1:40 pm

    I agree, ditch the crowds and the lines by all means. I always thought travel was personal enrichment, and then to share with social media those personal epiphanies? *sigh* SMH

    I do wonder though, do you ever find less services a available during the off season? Just curious

  8. Manav
    United Kingdom
    October 13, 2013, 6:27 pm

    “It’s cheaper to go somewhere when nobody else is going there.”

    i’m not too sure about that. i am about to travel through the guianas. from what i’ve read these countries are much less visited than others in south america yet still carry a high price tag for budget travellers. papua new guinea is also like this and so are other islands in the south pacific.

  9. Zarek
    London
    October 30, 2013, 10:07 am

    We visited Jordan in January which is totally off-season and it was absolutely incredible. Petra was pretty much empty which I’m sure is a rare sight, so I can’t agree with your advice more!

    http://www.25daysoff.com