How to Avoid Lines and Crowds

By booking ahead online, smart travelers can head right up, high above the poor planners waiting in the ticket line.

Landmarks, monuments, churches, palaces are the reasons you go to a place. They’re also the reason millions of other tourists go. Nothing kills a sightseeing buzz like waiting in line for hours to get into a popular sight, or being shoulder to shoulder in front of a masterpiece painting. But if you plan ahead, the sights you dreamed of seeing won’t disappoint.

Crowds are a genuine nuisance at top attractions, and too many people spend big chunks of their vacation time queuing up in long ticket-buying lines at popular sights. Smart tourists do whatever they can to minimize hassles and maximize their experience.

Reservations and Advance Tickets

More and more travelers are taking the 21st-century version of a Grand Tour, bringing especially heavy crowds to major destinations. Certain sights — especially those that weren’t built to accommodate mass tourism — are almost always jammed, all day long, most of the year. And some sell out early in the day, leaving those who arrive late disappointed.

To deal with lines, many popular sights sell advance tickets that guarantee admission at a certain time (often with a small booking fee that’s well worth it). Many museums offer convenient mobile ticketing. Simply buy your ticket online and send it to your phone, eliminating the need for a paper ticket.

 

Timing Is Everything

In many cities, a number of sights tend to be closed on the same day of the week (usually Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday). It follows that, in high season, any major sight that’s open when everything else is closed is guaranteed to be crowded.

Many museums are free one day a month — a great deal for locals. But for visitors, it’s generally worth paying the entrance fee on a different day to avoid the hordes on a museum’s free day.

At popular sights, it can help to arrive early or go late. This is especially true at places popular with cruise excursions and big-bus tour groups. At 8 in the morning, a Castle is cool and easy, with relaxed guides and no crowds; come an hour later without a ticket and you’ll either wait a long time, find that tickets are sold out, or both. A good guidebook will offer tips on the best times to visit a sight.

Many sights are open late one or two nights a week — another pleasant time to visit. Very late in the day — when most tourists are long gone, searching for dinner or lying exhausted in their rooms — I linger alone, taking artistic liberties with some of the greatest works in empty galleries.

Shortcuts

Even at the most packed sights, there’s often a strategy or shortcut that can break you out of the herd, whether it’s a side entrance with a shorter wait, a guided tour that includes last-minute reservations, a better place in town to pick up your ticket, or a pass with line-skipping privileges.

Sometimes getting in more easily is just a matter of picking the right door. Grand as the Louvre’s main entrance is, that glass pyramid stops looking impressive as you wait — and wait — to get through security. You can’t bypass security checks, but you’ll encounter shorter lines if you use the less crowded underground entrance.

A pricier option for skipping lines at a sight is to take a guided tour. At the Vatican Museums, joining a guided tour gets you right in.

Sightseeing Passes and Combo-Tickets

Many tourist destinations offer a citywide sightseeing pass (or “tourist card”), which includes free or discounted entrance to many or most sights for a certain amount of time (usually intervals of 24 hours). Many of these deals also include free use of public transit, a brief explanatory booklet, and a map.

In some places, passes can save you serious time and money; in others, you’d have to sightsee nonstop to barely break even. Do the math: Compare the price of the pass to the total of what you’d pay for individual admissions. But remember: Time is money. These passes are almost always worthwhile if they allow you to bypass long admission lines. The Card may not save you a lot of money, but it can help you avoid high-season lines at the places. Plus, with a pass, you can spontaneously visit minor sights you otherwise wouldn’t pay to enter.

Combo-tickets combine admission to a larger sight with entry to a lesser sight or two that few people would pay to see. The bad news: You have to pay for multiple sights to visit one. The good news: You can bypass the line at the congested sight by buying your ticket at a less-popular sister sight. You can wait up to an hour to get into a place — or buy a combo-ticket (at another participating yet less-crowded sight) and scoot inside.

Whether you have a combo-ticket or pass, never wait at the back of the line if there’s any chance you can skip it. Don’t be shy: March straight to the front and wave your pass or ticket. If you really do have to wait with everyone else, they’ll let you know.