Off Season and Off the Beaten Path: Saving Money and Making Memories (Vámonos Vol. 12)

Steven Levitt, coauthor of “Freakonomics” has a theory on how to be happy. He suggests a person should try to do things other people don’t want to do. He asserts that success is harder to attain in a crowded field than in an open one. You might not get a chance to be the best quarterback at your college but, if you work at it, you have a pretty good shot at being the best amateur lepidopterist in the student body. If you’re successful at something, you’ll probably enjoy it more.

In travel, success has less to do with competition. If you’re looking to enjoy yourself, or to learn about a new place, you don’t necessarily have to beat anyone. But, the laws of supply and demand still exist. Some very popular commodities are finite and their cost is affected by how sought-after they are. In this instance, we are talking about “cost” in a few different senses: the cost of time, money and comfort.

A couple of weekends ago, my girlfriend and I visited the beaches in Evanston. It’s a trip I had been avoiding for a couple of reasons. First, I like the downtown beaches. They’re closer to my house, they offer great people watching and they are free. The idea of going to the suburbs to pay for a beach seemed silly to me, even if the cost was negligible. But this beach is near where my girlfriend went in high school, so it’s emotionally significant to her. I wasn’t going to deny the trip forever but I can openly admit that I wasn’t looking forward to it. But this past weekend was improbably beautiful for October and, because it’s the off-season, Evanston has stopped providing lifeguards and stopped charging for the beach. This was no problem for my girlfriend and I because we were not interested in swimming.

We enjoyed the day, in part because we visited when there weren’t a lot of other people there. On the small beach, we had plenty of room to spread out our picnic blanket. The only being that interrupted us from was a particularly persistent seagull.

As a traveler, I feel clever when I find myself in a destination that is normally slammed but, for whatever reason, is calm and empty during my visit. One summer during college, I worked at the John Hancock Observatory. Late afternoons during midsummer, this attraction was not only expensive, it was miserably crowded and you sometimes had to wait in line for an hour to get on an elevator. But early in the morning before the crowds came, you could find yourself at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world three minutes after buying your tickets. Once you were up there you had the place to yourself.

Some popular places deserve their fame, while some others deserve their anonymity. I’m not saying that you need to skip the Eiffel Tower when you visit Paris (though come to think of it, I skipped it when I was there on a day trip and still had a pretty great time). Some things can only be done at particular times of the year. You can’t go see the fall colors in spring.

But, I suspect, the parts of trips you remember best and enjoy most are not the ones that include a huge horde of people. Your favorite pictures aren’t the ones of the monuments that have been photographed a million times. And the memories that are important to you are the ones that are really your own, the ones that you don’t have to share with anyone but your friends and family.