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Where to Travel Now: Alternatives to Crowded, Pricey Hot Spots

by Staff

Italy is probably the hottest travel destination in the world right now. 

Admittedly, I don’t have hard data to back up that claim, but post-pandemic, it has felt like it’s where just about every traveler is headed. And looking ahead, Italy continues to top lists of trending destinations booked by travel advisors, including the 2024 Virtuoso Luxe Report and a recent travel agent survey from American Marketing Group, Inc. A spring trends report from travel insurance platform Squaremouth also lists it as the No. 1 destination for the season. 

Of course, it’s not just Italy that has been experiencing this astronomical demand. Destinations throughout Western and Southern Europe that have long been favorites among American travelers — including Greece, France and Spain — have also been consistently high on clients’ wish lists over the past few years. 

And while that kind of buzz can be a blessing, it has its downsides, too. Many such trendsetters are now facing overcrowding, soaring prices and limited-to-nonexistent availability in peak travel seasons — especially during the summer, when soaring temperatures caused by climate change create an additional challenge for the visitor experience. 

“I think one of the great responsibilities and opportunities for us in the travel industry is to let people know how things have changed since COVID-19, and to educate them on the places that are going through great popularity,” said Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of Indagare, a membership-based travel agency that focuses on sustainable travel. “I don’t think people who were booking Capri and Mykonos for last summer understood that it was going to be jam-packed with Americans and twice as expensive as two years before. And that can play out as a not-great experience for clients.” 

Liam Dunch, Europe product manager for luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), adds that being the hottest ticket in town can put a strain on destinations, as well.

“Not everyone can be in Venice or Dubrovnik at the same time,” he said. “I’m not saying don’t go to Venice and see St. Mark’s Square, but that’s definitely a place you want to go off-season now. It’s about spreading the demand out, and not just because of the guest experience — it’s what’s good for the destination, as well as what’s good for the visitor.”

It’s about spreading the demand out, and not just because of the guest experience — it’s what’s good for the destination, as well as what’s good for the visitor.

Many clients are starting to see the ramifications of the current demand, too.

“I feel like people are going [to these destinations] and seeing how crowded it is, and sharing that,” said Theresa Chu-Bermudez, travel advisor and founder of Get Out! Custom Travels. “And maybe they’re saying, ‘This is not the best time for me to go — I’ll go a little later and check out some other destinations now instead.’”

Here’s how travel advisors can help clients beat the heat (both literally and figuratively), including suggestions for under-the-radar destinations with cooler climes and exciting, up-and-coming vibes.

Seek Out New European Horizons

Travel advisors have an important role to play in easing the strain on too-popular destinations, according to Ignacio Maza, executive vice president at Signature Travel Network

“I think so often as advisors, we tend to fall into what we know,” he said. “But part of our job is to challenge clients and surprise them with new ways of seeing the world — not just the same places they have heard about 100 times. I think the message right now is that we have to be more creative, and we have to have a wider lens as we look at the world and plan itineraries for our clients.” 

The message right now is that we have to be more creative, and we have to have a wider lens as we look at the world and plan itineraries for our clients.

Chu-Bermudez, who is seeing more clients struggle with the current pricing in Europe, has a strategy for starting the conversation about alternative destination options. 

“Whenever I am chatting with clients about their trip, I’m qualifying what they’re saying,” she said. “‘Why are you choosing this destination in Europe? Is it because everyone else is going? What parts of it really appeal to you?’ If they’re open, I will suggest other destinations that might hit those same marks they are looking for, just not the exact country they had initially thought they wanted to go to.” 

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Biggs Bradley is taking a similar approach, recommending under-the-radar countries such as Albania, Romania and Slovenia (a particular favorite for her). 

“If you love Italy — particularly areas like the Dolomites — Slovenia is absolutely beautiful from a natural perspective,” she explained. “There’s great hiking, rafting and biking; incredible food; and wonderful people. And it has not caught up in popularity [to places such as] Croatia, for instance.”

Slovenia offers many of Europe’s classic charms, with far fewer crowds.
Credit: 2024 Tryfonov/stock.adobe.com

Maza agrees that Slovenia and Romania are two largely untapped European gems, and calls out the Romanian region of Transylvania, in particular — especially for clients in search of a good deal.

“It has a fantastic countryside with wonderful places to stay, around $200-250 per night,” he said. “You’ve still got the history and castles of Europe, and all the active adventures.”

At A&K, where Dunch says Europe demand has been “through the roof,” the luxury tour operator is taking this opportunity to debut new products that will spread the wealth to less visited areas, including a new program in Slovenia. New routing has also been introduced in Switzerland, where A&K is seeing increased demand for the Alps in the summer, thanks to fantastic weather and fewer crowds.

And for travelers who have their minds set on high-demand countries, the company is leaning heavily into extended shoulder seasons, while also adding offerings that go beyond traditional hot spots.

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“Spain and Portugal have been super hot since COVID-19,” Dunch said. “So, we’ve pushed beyond mainland Portugal and out into the islands in the Atlantic with a new Azores and Madeira program for 2024, which is selling really well for us. And in Greece, we’ve introduced a new itinerary that includes some of the less visited islands, like Paros and Naxos.”

Head North

Summer heat is another factor changing the game for Europe-bound travelers. According to Booking.com’s 2024 Travel Predictions, rising temperatures are driving 56% of the study’s 27,000 respondents to vacation in cooler destinations; Virtuoso also recently found that 75% of its advisors are seeing clients select destinations where weather conditions are less extreme. And the Adventure Travel Trade Association reports that this trend toward cooler climes is leading to a rise in the popularity of countries such as Iceland, Finland, Scotland and Latvia.

“We’ve been sending more people to Scandinavia in the last year than we ever have before,” Indagare’s Biggs Bradley said. “Norway, Finland, Sweden and even the Faroe Islands. And part of that is the climate issue.”

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Indeed, the region is seeing an uptick in American interest, according to Torunn Tronsvang, founder of local tour operator Up Norway

“Climate change is driving people from Southern Europe to Northern Europe; there’s no doubt that we have increased interest from the United States for this reason, along with many others,” she said. “Right now, 65% of all our clients are Americans.” 

Tronsvang says the company has seen growing interest not just for Norway’s “beautiful, mild summers,” but also for the autumn shoulder season, when there’s still good weather for outdoor activities, with the added benefit of fewer crowds, stunning fall colors and chances to see the Northern Lights. (Pro tip: A peak in solar activity is expected in 2025, causing an uptick in Northern Lights activity that has already begun.) She hopes that spring will soon catch on, as well, a time of year she considers to be exceptional in Norway. 

Northern Lights activity in Norway is increasing ahead of a peak in solar activity in 2025.
Northern Lights activity in Norway is increasing ahead of a peak in solar activity in 2025.
Credit: 2024 Hattvika Lodge

“We have this phenomenon called ‘varyrhet,’ which is a feeling that you get having gone through the long, cold, dark winter, and everyone opens up and is happy,” Tronsvang said. “You have this huge contrast between the snow in the mountains and the blooming fjords. It’s a great time to come.” 

Another Northern Europe destination gaining traction is Scotland. Data from VisitScotland indicates that U.S. travelers accounted for 21% of all overseas trips to the country in 2022. And while full 2023 figures are still to come, the latest quarterly numbers for July to September of last year show that Scotland was the only region in the United Kingdom to record an increase in visitors from North America. 

What’s more, travelers are staying longer and spending more, according to Gwen Raez, global senior market development manager at VisitScotland.

“Whereas previously visitors might have done England, Ireland and Scotland in one trip, they may now just be doing Ireland and Scotland, or even just Scotland,” she explained. 

Spending more time in the country is also encouraging clients to go beyond the traditional highlights, especially during the peak summer season. She notes that when travelers learn about the many options around the country, they usually prove very open to alternative experiences.

Scotland is seeing an uptick in visitors from the U.S.
Scotland is seeing an uptick in visitors from the U.S.
Credit: 2024 VisitScotland

“What we’re finding is that people are exploring other parts of Scotland,” Raez said. “Skye isn’t the only island we have. There are Orkney and the Shetlands in the north, which are absolutely fabulous to visit during the summer [when there’s some pressure on Skye]. The Isle of Arran is known as ‘Scotland in miniature.’ You can do hill walking, whisky tasting, visit a castle and have that real Scotland island experience — with more availability and inventory.” 

Think Beyond Europe

As wonderful and varied as Europe is, some advisors feel that it’s time for other parts of the world to shine.

“I think it’s important for us to consider that there is an entire world out there outside of Europe,” Get Out! Custom Travel’s Chu-Bermudez said. “And one of the things that I really want to at least bring up with my clients is spreading the love to other destinations, because there are such beautiful cultures and such beautiful people. And a lot of times, clients just don’t think about them because they’re not getting hit over the head with that destination.”

I think it’s important for us to consider that there is an entire world out there outside of Europe.

Thankfully, that’s where travel advisors shine. Chu-Bermudez, who sees South America becoming more popular — thanks, in part, to great pricing — loves surprising Europe-interested clients with suggestions like Buenos Aires, Argentina. Not only is the city known as the “Paris of South America” due to its similar architectural style, but the country’s amazing wine scene is another selling point that overlaps nicely with Europe.

Buenos Aires' architecture has resulted in the city being called the “Paris of South America.”
Buenos Aires’ architecture has resulted in the city being called the “Paris of South America.”
Credit: 2024 Michelle/stock.adobe.com

Another great option for wine-loving clients is New Zealand, which is “at the top of the list” for Chu-Bermudez right now.

“A lot of people want to go to Europe because they want to try the wines,” she said. “Well, New Zealand has really amazing wines. They also have certain cities with a European feel, because they’re still considered a commonwealth of the U.K.” 

Other factors that make the destination a standout include a strong U.S. dollar that currently provides great value for Americans, beautiful landscapes, amazing cultural experiences centered around the Indigenous Maori people and the ease of visiting an English-speaking country.

In a similar fashion, Biggs Bradley has been recommending that clients thinking of the Mediterranean perhaps consider Indonesia instead, where they can boat around the islands as an alternative to yachting in the Med, or visit less touristed islands like Sumba as a trade for beachy hot spots such as Capri, Italy.

Today’s traveler is much more sophisticated and much more open.

Both Chu-Bermudez and Biggs Bradley are also seeing increased interest in South Korea, in part because booming business in Japan is limiting availability and forcing travelers to look elsewhere in the region.

“South Korea is a really good alternative to Japan,” Chu-Bermudez said. “And I’ve been getting more requests for it, especially with the influx of K-pop and K-culture in the U.S. Plus, you can get good value and great food, and have the experience of seeing temples and cultural sites.” 

South Korea is a good alternative to Japan, which is seeing high demand.
South Korea is a good alternative to Japan, which is seeing high demand.
Credit: 2024 Kampon/stock.adobe.com

Also in Asia (but a bit more under the radar) is Laos, a favorite spot for Signature’s Maza.

“I’m a very big fan of Laos, which a lot of people miss because they’re thinking of Thailand or a Mekong River cruise,” he said. “To me, it’s an undiscovered gem that should be on sophisticated travelers’ radars not only for Luang Prabang — the country’s kind of ‘premier’ destination for visitors — but also Vientiane, which is a very charming capital city with a lot of history.”

And while demand still hasn’t returned for China following the pandemic, it’s a destination that Maza thinks the industry should be ready to see make a comeback, citing its high-speed rail, culture and history, active adventure opportunities and a hotel product that he says “has never been better.”

The bottom line, according to Maza, is that advisors shouldn’t be afraid to push themselves — and their clients — a little outside of their comfort zones. 

“Today’s traveler is much more sophisticated and much more open,” he said. “We just have to understand the passion points of the client. Is it history? Is it shopping? Do they love adventure? Understanding what motivates them and finding that passion point in a new destination creates this sense of wonder with the customer — and, ultimately, the consumer will thank the advisor for it.”  

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