New Report: This Is the No. 1 Tourist Trap in America (Hint: It’s Not the Empire State Building)
This info will ensure that your next vacation goes off without a hitch
We’ve all been sucked into tourist traps at some point during our travels. It usually happens by accident, of course, and with the best intentions. Maybe your uncle recommended it as a “must-visit” attraction. Or you’d seen countless photos of a famous destination and felt like you had to see it in person. All too often, though, these spots end up not being the highlight of our trips: The tourist-heavy restaurant doesn’t have very good food, or a popular destination has long lines, endless visitors and inflated prices.
Of course, the key to avoiding tourist traps is knowing what they are in the first place, and two new studies can help with that. Vacation-rental and property-management company Casago and USA Today Blueprint each identified some of the most overhyped and overrated destinations so you can enjoy every part of your next vacation.
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How did these studies identify the biggest tourist traps?
Two different studies, two different methodologies. And before we get to the details, we should note that they looked at tourist traps around the world, but we’re focusing on the United States for this article.
The first study, from Casago, relied on tourist feedback from TripAdvisor. Its analysts searched for the number of times the words tourist trap were mentioned in a TripAdvisor review of a particular sight. They also made sure that each destination had at least five of these mentions and that the phrase “not a tourist trap” didn’t count toward this number. It’s also worth noting that four of the biggest tourist traps in the world are located in the United States, according to Casago’s analysis.
The July 2023 USA Today Blueprint study, on the other hand, was based on 23.2 million Google reviews for the world’s 500 most popular tourist attractions, which spanned 65 countries. This analysis took into account the frequency of words including tourist trap, overrated and expensive, and measured the relative frequency of those mentions compared with the total number of reviews for a particular attraction.
What are the worst tourist traps in the United States?
The two studies by Casago and USA Today Blueprint each produced different results, though one hot spot does appear on both lists. (More on that later, but how’s that for a dubious distinction?) And the “winners” are …
Casago’s study identified Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco as the biggest tourist trap in the United States—and the world. Its analysis found 1,049 Trip Advisor reviews with the words tourist trap for the California city’s iconic waterfront business district that sees around 12 million visitors annually.
To be fair, there are some cool things to see here, such as sea lions sunbathing near the shores of the San Francisco Bay and two cable car lines to ride. But you can get that California-coastline experience elsewhere in San Fran, and the “world-class dining, shopping, hotels and endless entertainment opportunities” touted by the city’s tourism board aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be, according to TripAdvisor reviewers. The issue? If you’re looking for an authentic San Francisco experience—and one without overpriced tourist trinkets—you probably won’t find it here, according to Steve from North Carolina. Another reviewer, Bert, called it a “mini Vegas” for its many mediocre restaurants and T-shirt shops.
Still feel like you need to visit Fisherman’s Wharf? By all means, stop by, says San Francisco–based travel agent Andrey Zakharenko … but then quickly move on to another site. “If you want to go to Alcatraz, it does depart from Pier 39, so you’re close to the Fisherman’s Wharf area,” he points out. “And just a little to the left of it, you’ve got Ghirardelli Square in Fort Mason, where there are more local vendors and more interesting places to visit.”
Four Corners Monument
The Four Corners Monument—located right at the intersection of Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico—topped USA Today‘s list. Situated in Navajo Tribal Park, it certainly has some intrigue, since it’s the only place in the United States where four states meet. If you’re on a quest to visit every state in the country, you can stand right on the spot and check off four!
But it’s hours from other big vacation destinations, so between that and its $8-per-person entry fee, many tourists didn’t feel it was worth the effort or expense. “It’s been on my bucket list since I was a kid,” Loana Grado acknowledged in a Google Review, adding she was glad she visited but that it “wasn’t a big whoop.” She adds: “I’d do it once in your lifetime, and that’s enough.”
Reviewer Joel Kermis likewise called it “a fun spot to visit if you’re already in the area … but it has little additional value beyond the novelty of being in four states at the same time.” Translation: It’s a great quick stop on a road trip or a possible must-see if you’re a geography nut, but it probably shouldn’t be your sole destination.
Other top tourist traps
So, what else should you avoid? Here are the other spots that rounded out Casago’s top 10 for the U.S. portion of its list:
- Dole Plantation (a historic pineapple plantation in Wahiawa, Hawaii)
- Times Square in New York City
- Café Du Monde in New Orleans
- Navy Pier in Chicago
- Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas
- Hyman’s Seafood in Charleston, South Carolina
- San Antonio River Walk in San Antonio, Texas
- Cannery Row, a waterfront district in Monterey, California
- The Hollywood Walk of Fame in California
Meanwhile, USA Today‘s analysis called out these popular destinations:
- The Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts
- Calico Ghost Town in San Bernardino, California
- Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer County, South Dakota
- International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico
- Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, Oregon
- Pike Place Market in Seattle
- Navy Pier in Chicago
- Preservation Hall in New Orleans
Should you visit anyway?
Maybe. After all, you might really want to get a photo at Chicago’s Navy Pier—which was, by the way, the only attraction that appeared in both Casago and USA Today‘s top 10. You also might want a beignet and a cup of coffee from Café Du Monde in New Orleans. (Those beignets really are delicious!) It’s just that you should adjust your expectations and plan your visit strategically.
Zakharenko frequently works with clients who want to experience local culture when visiting a new place but might also want to throw in a popular tourist spot or two along the way. “If they want to see the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and stuff like that, then I say, ‘Let’s see if there’s a better date to do it when it may be less crowded,'” he says.
After all, planning a trip with a mix of photo-worthy spots and cool hidden gems can often make for the best trip. It all boils down to what you’re looking for. “It’s always good to ask why you’re doing it,” Zakharenko says. “Is it because someone told you or because you’re actually interested in the destination?”
About the expert
- Andrey Zakharenko is a travel agent based in San Francisco.