When I started to write this post, I was planning to put together a guide of which American tourist traps were actually worth visiting. After going through many websites listing overrated places, I realized it was not that simple of a question. I found whether or not I thought going somewhere was worthwhile was all based on circumstances. So instead I decided to list recommendations on how to see popular attractions.
Go at the Best Time
Going in an off peak season or on an off peak day makes a noticeable difference. Getting an early start is also an effective strategy. I really enjoyed my visit to Walt Disney World, but this was partly because there were not many people. As a result, I did not have to wait too long in any lines and I was able to get a reasonable hotel room. If I had been there when it was packed, I would have had a completely different experience.
Avoid the Surroundings
In the case of many popular points of interest, you don't have to look too far to find chain restaurants and stores selling junk. Niagara Falls is a prime example of that, but the falls themselves are an incredible sight. See the sights themselves and don't waste your time on gimmicky side attractions.
Choose the Right Location
Sometimes you can avoid the masses by viewing the same attraction from a different location. An example of this is the Grand Canyon. Just 10% of visitors go to the North Rim, rather than the more convenient South Rim. This has nothing to do with the view, which is just as spectacular at the North Rim.
Check for Alternative Transportation
Similarly it is smart to consider multiple transportation options. At the Statue of Liberty you can avoid some of the crowd by taking a different ferry to Liberty Island. The Liberty State Park Ferry from New Jersey has far fewer passengers than the boat from Manhattan's Battery Park. Another option is the free Staten Island Ferry, which offers good views from the Harbor, but does not stop.
I personally like to plan a number of stops when traveling. That way if any of them disappoint, it does not ruin the trip as a whole. Times Square is the epitome of a tourist trap. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that you shouldn't see it. One solution is to pass by while you are already in New York as opposed to planning a whole trip around it. There are so many other attractions nearby that you can just move on quickly if you are not enjoying Times Square.
The closest I have come to a let down from a well known attraction is the Mall of America (near Minneapolis). I'm not sure what I was expecting, but at the end of the day it was a mall, just bigger. Instead of one Starbucks, they have three. Luckily, I was just passing nearby on a road trip so it was not a big deal. If you enjoy shopping then it might be something to do if you are already in the area, but nothing more.
Buy Tickets in Advance
When possible buy tickets in advance for popular points of interest. In some cases, such as the Colosseum in Rome, there may be a small fee (2 Euros as of May 2018) but it is worth not waiting in lines that can be hours long. Some places can sell out weeks or months in advance and do not offer day of tickets. To avoid being in this situation, I recommend looking into tickets in the early stages of planning a trip to make sure they are available for your desired dates.
If planned appropriately, you can include popular attractions as part of your next trip. Just do your research (feel free to reach out to me with questions on any of the places mentioned in this post or other well known tourist attractions), know the relevant information and then make the decision for yourself on whether or not to go. While the name "tourist trap" has a negative stigma, there are some amazing places with this label. If you really want to see the Statue of Liberty, don't let someone including it on an "overrated list" stop you. There is a reason so many people want to go there. Comment with your favorite or least favorite popular attractions.