As vacation season kicks off, Americans who’ve been cooped up with COVID for two years are eager to once again hit the road and take to the skies.
Many families are looking forward to their first trip since the start of the pandemic, with six in 10 Americans planning a summer excursion, the U.S. Travel Association reports. Among those who did travel last year, more than a third plan to go on even more trips this summer.
But the combination of pent-up demand, labor shortages and surging prices on everything from fuel to food means summertime travel won’t be any kind of bargain this year.
Compared with a year ago, air fares are up 33%, rental cars rates increased by 10%, hotel rooms cost 23% more, gasoline has surged by 44% and restaurant meals cost 9% more.
While Americans are adjusting their travel plans because of prices, the increased cost won’t keep them trapped at home, analysts say.
“Based on our projections, summer travel isn’t just heating up, it will be on fire,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “People are overdue for a vacation and they are looking to catch up on some much-needed R&R in the coming months.”
If you’re planning to venture forth this summer, here are 10 ways you can maximize your experiences while minimizing your expenses.
1. Move fast
One thing summer travelers have going for them is that the pandemic pushed airlines, tour operators and others to create better cancellation policies for consumers.
With that in mind, the best move could be to lock in tickets and reservations now, before prices and availability get even worse, then cancel or reschedule if a more affordable option becomes available.
Make sure to thoroughly review cancellation policies and call to confirm those rules if they’re not crystal clear. Also be aware that cheaper “no frills” tickets and reservations often have different, stricter policies on cancellations, refunds and rebooking.
2. Work backward
In the before-times, people tended to identify where they wanted to go and when they wanted to go there, then looked for reservations and prices.
The strategy now is to reverse-engineer your travel.
Identify the most affordable locations and times to travel, then plan your trip around the attractions and events in that region.
3. Consider discount destinations
A week or two in California wine country or the wineries around Lake Michigan in Traverse City can substitute for a pricey food-and-wine tour of Tuscany.
Other stand-ins for expensive, distant locales recommended by travel experts include substituting Charleston, South Carolina for London or skipping Okinawa, Japan and heading to Oahu, Hawaii.
Las Vegas can stand in for Dubai, while New Mexico is a good domestic alternative to exploring the sands of Morocco.
4. Try a “work-cation”
For contract employees, freelancers, gig workers and others who don’t get paid vacation benefits, time off from work is a major cost of traveling.
In the post-pandemic world of remote work, however, a traveler can simply relocate for a while to work during the day and enjoy a new destination during their off hours.
An extended stay in a new locale also means you’ll be able to negotiate discounts through Airbnb and other property rental services.
5. Embrace weekday flights
In addition to soaring oil prices pushing up the cost of aviation fuel, airlines also are facing a shortage of pilots and crews.
Because airlines haven’t been able to restore all the flights that were cut in the early days of the pandemic, tickets aren’t only expensive, but they’re hard to find.
That makes flexibility the key to finding affordable tickets, including dates, destinations and airports.
Online price-monitoring services, such as Google Flights and the Google Flights Explore Map, can identify the least expensive travel dates, which typically involve flying on weekdays rather than weekends.
For example, a flight from Chicago to Las Vegas in late July varies by $235 — ranging from $254 for a Saturday flight with a Thursday return, to $489 for a 11-day Thursday to Sunday itinerary.
6. Focus on flight hubs
Look at rates to and from airline hubs, such as Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia and Miami, where flights are more frequent, and consider booking flights that take off early in the morning or late at night.
If you can pack light, consider the bargain airlines that offer low basic fares but tack on extra charges for bags and other extras. Also check out the low-fare calendar for Southwest Airlines, since that airline doesn’t always show up in flight search engines.
For overseas travel, look at flying into the least expensive airport you can find, then booking a low-cost local foreign flight or train trip to your desired destination. Because prices and availability change from hour to hour, conduct your ticket searches on different days at different times.
And remember, travelers with good credit scores can consider opening a credit card rewards account, which can get you a big initial pile of bonus points — sometimes tens of thousands of miles — if you spend a minimum amount in the first few months after opening the account.
7. Look at alternatives to hotels and resorts
Rooms fall into the same category as airline tickets: more expensive and harder to find. Besides looking for cheaper, less crowded destinations and being flexible about dates, travelers can consider skipping a hotel or resort and renting a private home or condo.
Vacation rental homes and apartments have been a staple in places such as Orlando and London for decades — long before Airbnb showed up.
A residential rental allows travelers to save on expensive hotel meals and parking charges, while a home with amenities allows visitors to spend a day relaxing poolside or playing video games while skipping the cost of a day at a theme-park.
Other alternatives include home-swapping services that allow you to trade homes with another vacationing family, as well as reliable classics such as hostels (which can include some private rooms) and camping in locations with cabins and other amenities.
Travel experts also recommend that, once you’ve scoured travel search engines, call the hotel’s front desk to see if a better rate is available.
As with airfares, look at credit-card deals that will award bonus points for opening an account. If you’re flying, look at package deals on airfares and hotels and rental cars. Some hotels also offer details if you’re willing to pre-pay for your stay.
Finally, if you can postpone a trip until after Labor Day, rental rates in many of the most popular summer locations drop significantly in the fall “shoulder season,” before heading back up at holiday time.
8. Get around high gas and rental car prices
Gas prices go up every summer, but they’re really up this summer, hitting a national average of $4.59 at the end of May, according to AAA.
The savings strategies here seem obvious: Plan shorter trips, pack light to use a vehicle with good mileage or borrow one from a friend or relative, and use apps such as GasBuddy to find the lowest pump prices near you.
With rental cars, look for agencies located outside of an airport so that you won’t pay the onerous fees and taxes that get tacked on by local airport authorities. Like hotels, some car rental outfits offer a discount if you’ll pre-pay your rental. Again, flexibility is a factor, and it’s the smaller, more basic vehicles that are the most affordable.
Consider the option to pre-pay for your gas by comparing what the rental company charges versus the rate at the local pumps, using an app such as GasBuddy.
Look for package deals with airfares or hotels, and don’t forget to ask about discounts for any of your affiliations, such as AARP, AAA, military service, Costco membership or others.
Check with your own insurance company to see if you’re covered in a rental car, so that you can decline daily insurance charges and avoid other extras, such as satellite radio or GPS service.
9. Hit the road without renting a car
Don’t rule out the idea of skipping a car rental altogether. Check out hotel shuttles (even if you’re not staying in that particular hotel) as well as on-site transportation at resorts.
If you’ll need a car for just the occasional trip, check out the service on ride-sharing apps, although rides can be hard to find in locales that are off the beaten track. If you’ll need a car for just part of your trip, take a look at car-sharing services such as Zipcar, Turo and Getaround, where you can pay to temporarily borrow another driver’s car.
And if you’re flexible, delivering a car or even a motor home for a driveaway service is a real alternative. Typically, you’ll get a fuel allowance and a deadline to deliver the vehicle, with fuel for any extra miles coming out of your own pocket, but you may have to pay a deposit on the car.
10. Be creative with food
Part of the fun of traveling is getting out of the kitchen and sampling the local fare at your destination, whether that’s seafood on Cape Cod or the classic steakhouses of Chicago.
But eating out can eat up your budget, especially since food prices have risen along with everything else.
Ways to save include packing your own snacks and meals when you can, as well as cooking some meals for yourself, if you’re staying somewhere with a microwave, refrigerator or larger kitchen facilities.
In terms of restaurants, consider moving your big meal of the day to lunchtime, when menu prices can be lower and when you’re less likely to indulge in more than one drink.
Another option is to avoid take-out and fast casual chains by hitting the salad bars and ready-to-go offerings from supermarkets and larger gourmet stores.
Finally, consider taking in the local farmer’s market for the makings of a fresh, locally sourced picnic.
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This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.