Your summer vacation Plan B: Where to go if your first-choice destination is sold out

Christopher Elliott
Special to USA TODAY
Unless you booked your summer vacation well in advance, you might need a Plan B this busy summer. Here's how to make an alternative destination work.

Don't go there, go here.

That's the travel industry's message during the summer travel boom. When everything's sold out, you can still have a great vacation.

Experts predict a record summer for travel, with full hotels and flights and no available rental cars. More than three-quarters of Americans intend to take a summer vacation, according to a Harris Poll commissioned by Let’s Go There, a travel industry coalition. That's a stunning 48% rise from a year ago. Unless you booked your summer vacation well in advance, you might need a Plan B.

How do you avoid the crowds? How do you find a suitable alternative? And most important, how do you know if your alternate destination will work for you? 

 Have vaccine, will travel:  These countries are open to vaccinated Americans 

How to avoid the crowds this summer

To steer clear of the record crowds, you have to plan your trip as soon as possible. Don't worry, there's time. The vacation rental site Vrbo is seeing record demand this summer, but spokeswoman Alison Kwong says some areas are still available.  

"We continue to see pent-up demand for Vrbo vacation homes in top Northeast and Southeast beach destinations, such as the Jersey Shore, Cape Cod, the Outer Banks and Hilton Head," she says. "In some locales, less than 10% of Vrbo vacation homes are still available for July, and demand continues to be high through August."

Vacasa reports that many top vacation destinations have twice the reservations as normal for this summer on the books. "Guests who haven’t already secured their lodging may need to be flexible on location," advises Natalia Sutin, Vacasa's vice president of revenue management.

But how? For beach vacation rentals, you can swap out Hilton Head for Cape Canaveral or Sanibel Island in Florida or Tybee Island, Georgia, according to Vrbo. In the Northeast, popular alternate destinations include Fairfield and New London, Connecticut, and Deep Creek Lake, Maryland.

10 unique post-pandemic Florida destinations:  Key West, Islamorada, Rosemary Beach, more

Strategies for finding an alternative destination

How do you find an alternative place to take a vacation? It requires some research, flexibility – and unconventional thinking.

The hidden gem Plan B: "Hidden gem" is travel industry-speak for a lesser-known destination that checks the boxes of a more popular destination. Mississippi's Gulf Coast can offer many of the cultural and culinary experiences of nearby New Orleans. "There's an incredible amount to do, see and experience across coastal Mississippi," says Anna Roy, a spokeswoman for Mississippi's Gulf Coast. That includes some things you won't find in the big city, such as kayaking, boating, fishing and hiking.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast can be a good substitute for popular beach destinations.

The contrarian Plan B: You can always go to a destination no one else wants to visit during the summer. "Vegas, baby!" says Karen Aronian, an educational consultant from New York. Seriously. "There is something for everyone in Vegas," she says. That includes Sin City's scorching weather (average high of 107 degrees in July). If you want to cool off, you can head over to nearby Lake Mead or tour the Hoover Dam, where the guided dam tour is a great opportunity to get out of the heat.

If you can handle the heat, you may find Las Vegas less crowded in summer than at other points of the year.

The off-the-beaten-path Plan B: If you're headed to the mountains this summer, you might find that well-known resorts such as Vail or Breckenridge are operating close to capacity. The off-the-beaten-path plan makes you drive a little longer for a similar experience. For example, instead of heading to Colorado's crowded mountain resorts, consider the Royal Gorge region, two hours south of Denver. "People love to visit the Royal Gorge Region for all sorts of reasons," says Lindsay Diamond, a consultant with VistaWorks, a destination management company representing the region. "It has incredible trail systems, the famous Royal Gorge Bridge and Park and the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.” 

Looking for a secluded mountain retreat? Consider Royal Gorge, Colorado.

The let's-try-something-new Plan B: Don't even try to replace one place with another like it. Go for something completely different. You can't compete with Orlando's theme parks, but you can find a different experience on Florida's Space Coast. It has things that Orlando doesn't, such as the Kennedy Space Center, regular rocket launches and the Brevard Zoo, which offers visitors the unique option of kayaking around the exhibits. As a bonus, the Space Coast is more affordable than Orlando, so you get more bang for your buck.

Florida's Space Coast has something Orlando doesn't: the opportunity to watch a NASA launch in person.

What if you have to be there?

Reality check: Sometimes, you have to vacation near a popular destination. Maybe your family plans to meet up in the Hamptons or Catalina Island, and you can't avoid it. How do you find a place to stay? 

"My first instinct is to work outwards from my first destination," says Katy Kassian, a frequent traveler and consultant from Sacramento, California. "Usually, within 25 miles, there are rooms, events and access to the main attraction at the first destination for just the trade-off of a short drive."

Knowing where to go when everything is sold out this summer isn't hard. I've found plenty of availability by doing what Kassian does: getting out of town. You can also use any of the other Plan Bs I mentioned, from finding a hidden gem to looking for a completely different experience.

But my favorite Plan B is to simply wait. In a few weeks, when school is in session again, the crowds will be gone. And you can have the summer vacation you deserve. 

 Thailand offers vaccinated visitors an interesting option:  An entire island to themselves

Insider tips for finding a better Plan B

Hire a pro. "Finding a reputable travel adviser can be incredibly instrumental if your go-to vacation spot is already booked or you’re looking for a less-crowded alternative," says Daniel Durazo, a spokesman for Allianz Travel. "Travel advisers are skilled at finding a Plan B hidden gem that has all of the characteristics of what you’re looking for."

Don't be afraid to ask questions.  That's what Brandon Barron did when he rented an Airbnb in rural South Carolina. "Dig deeper," he says. Instead of just reading the listing, he contacted the owner directly to find out more about the property. The owner agreed to give his kids a tour of her farm during their stay. Barron, a frequent traveler who works for the timeshare exit company Linx Legal, says it resulted in a better visit. Incidentally, you can reach out to owners to negotiate almost anything, including a lower rate.

Think outside the borders. While people are still nervous about international travel, this may be the perfect summer to go abroad, says Ilana Silverman, a luxury travel adviser with IMS Travel. She spotted a round-trip business class flight to Rome for $1,850. "Greece was one of the first countries in Europe to announce it will be open to Americans this summer," she says.