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Avoiding lines: the long and the short of it

BY RICK STEVES Published: June 12, 2012

As far as I’m concerned, there are two IQs for travelers: those who queue...and those who don’t. If you plan ahead, you can avoid nearly every line that tourists suffer through (except for security checks).

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.

The Sistine Chapel feels more like the Sardine Chapel when it’s open and free on the last Sunday of the month.

At popular sights, it can help to arrive early or go late. At St. Peter’s Basilica at 7:00 a.m., it’s heavenly to see Michelangelo’s Pieta, free of the crowds vying for photos.

Near closing time, I’ve been alone in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, where kings and queens have preened.

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.

Grand as the Louvre's main entrance is, that glass pyramid stops looking impressive as you wait — and wait — to get through security. Lines are shorter if you go in through the less crowded underground entrance.

At St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, you can either snake slowly through an endless line, or go instead to a nearby church to check a large bag — then walk right to the front of the basilica's line, show your bag-claim tag, and head on in (go figure).

Fortunately, many popular sights sell reserved tickets with entry times (often with a small booking fee that's well worth it). A reservation system helps blockbuster sights handle a huge volume of visitors efficiently by spreading the crowds throughout the day.

For example, Granada’s Alhambra in Spain smoothly admits nearly 8,000 visitors daily. Some sights even require reservations, such as the Reichstag in Berlin, Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan, and the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

Reservations are especially helpful at places popular with cruise excursions and big-bus tour groups, such as Germany’s fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle. If you arrive without a reservation, you’ll wait in line, find that tickets are sold out, or both.

Those who've booked ahead can just show up at their reserved entry time and breeze right in. It's worth giving up some spontaneity in order to save time.

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