Travel is back — complete with sardine-packed airports and stuffed seats, despite the masking and COVID-19 testing requirements for international travelers. At least, that’s what I thought when I took a trip to Spain via Chicago this March.
Nearly a month later, the picture of what travel looks like for the rest of 2022 snaps into sharper focus. The immediate future of travel is expensive. At least in the US, the mask mandate is essentially no more — but airline cancellations and delays are skyrocketing, along with fuel costs. Those rising prices will affect road trips as well as flights. In fact, airfare costs rose by 10.7% in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The rebound in travel comes at a time when inflation has reached its highest point since 1981. Climbing gas prices the world over are exacerbated by the ongoing war in Ukraine. Food costs are also higher (some warn of a global wheat shortage as a result of the conflict), and global economies remain short-staffed as a result of the pandemic.
Yet 85% of Americans expect to travel this summer, according to the US Travel Association. If you’re one of them, you’ll want to use every tool you have to cut costs, whether you’re hopping into a car, boat or plane. Here’s how to save on travel despite the climbing costs.
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Take advantage of COVID-era booking flexibility
Many COVID-related changes for airlines and hotels are here to stay. “Airlines have mostly removed the punitive change fees that had been a long-standing frustration with travelers,” said Scott Mayerowitz, executive editor at CNET’s sister site The Points Guy.
Now, most major airlines will allow you to change a flight without incurring fees for most domestic, Caribbean and Mexican destinations. Change fees, however, will still largely apply to international flights, Mayerowitz said, so keep this in mind if you’re planning to travel farther abroad.
The same applies to flights booked using miles. Airlines used to charge a mile redeposit fee, Mayerowitz said. Now, you can book a flight directly with an airline using points and cancel with no penalty.
This mass elimination of change fees can be an opportunity to save money, said longtime globetrotter Stephanie Zito in an email. “Book early when tickets are cheaper,” she said. “Then change or cancel if your plans change. If there happens to be a price decrease on what you booked, you can still cancel and rebook” at a lower price.
Basic economy is cheaper, but think twice before booking
While regular flights are getting easier to change or cancel due to COVID, basic economy tickets are becoming more restrictive. Basic economy tickets usually offer the lowest upfront prices, but they lack flexibility — you can’t reschedule or cancel at all — and they charge extra fees for almost everything from bringing a carry-on to choosing a seat. And you’ll most likely be one of the last passengers to board the plane.
It’s important to keep this in mind because most booking portals, including those from airlines and credit card loyalty programs, will show you basic economy options first, stealthily sometimes. You might think you’re getting a great deal, but if you read the fine print on that fare — as you always should with any travel booking — you’ll realize you’re painting yourself into an option that could cost more than you bargained for in the end.
A quick search for flights from Austin, Texas, to Amsterdam in April on Kayak and Expedia showed me round-trip options between $560 and $612, which sounded pretty good for that route. But it was only after I selected the tickets that all the restrictions came to light. When I picked the standard economy option, the same trip’s cost jumped up hundreds of dollars to $842 on both sites.
Travelers need to do their research first and be comfortable with restrictions they agree to. If you need to be flexible with your dates and can afford the extra cost of standard tickets, it may be a better value in the long run.
Pack strategically to save money (yes, really)
Can the way you pack your bags save you money? Absolutely, though it depends on the situation.
If you’re flying on an airline where you’re not a loyalty member, packing everything you need into a carry-on bag could save you up to $30 per traveler for each leg of the trip. If you do check bags, doubling up so one large suitcase holds two people’s clothing (particularly if you’re a part of a family group) can halve your total costs in that department.
While some airlines, like Delta, are experimenting with removing baggage fees to reduce delays, low-cost airline Frontier airline lowered its weight limit for checked bags to 40 pounds from 50 pounds — the industry standard. In this case, packing less could save you more.
(Remember, many airline credit cards offer at least one free checked bag, plus priority boarding, as part of their benefits.)
Keep in mind when you check bags that you run the risk dealing with unexpected delays and lost luggage — and in the worst case scenario, a night without your suitcase.
You might want to bring more snacks, extra days’ worth of medication and a spare change of clothes in your hand luggage, Mayerowitz suggested, in case your flight gets canceled or plans change.
“Airlines are doing very big schedule changes to this day” and restaurants are not fully staffed in many places yet, he said: “As a traveler, you just need to be prepared for all sorts of scenarios.” While some airlines will reimburse you for basic needs in certain circumstances, you’ll largely be on your own for food, toiletries and additional comforts.
Redeem those points you’ve been sitting on
Thousands of travelers haven’t gone on a trip since the pandemic started. If you’re one of them, dipping into the reserves now is an easy way to save cash.
“There’s just a massive stockpile of unused points and miles out there,” Mayerowitz said. How many? Travelers accumulated over 27 billion unused miles by the end of 2020, according to a ValuePenguin study.
“I think the cost of flights in cash is rebounding a bit faster than the cost in points,” said Emily Sherman, senior managing editor at education site Optimal and a self-proclaimed points and miles travel fanatic. “The cost of a flight in points is often more affordable than in cash, and you won’t feel the sting of the charge hitting your account,” Sherman said in an email.
Not all points structures are the same, and the longer the flight, generally the more points it costs. Still, dipping into your points reserve could help reduce the overall cost of travel while you save up for your next trip.
Join your favorite hotel’s membership club
Signing up for a hotel loyalty program — such as Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors or World of Hyatt — can save you money in the long run in several key ways. Remember, these are bonuses that add up. I’m not talking about room upgrades, although those are always nice. Benefits like free faster Wi-Fi, complimentary breakfast, late checkout and additional bonus points have equivalent monetary value.
Taking the family on a five-day trip now can help you earn toward a free night later in the year. And a room that gives you a 4 p.m. checkout instead of the usual 12 p.m. might save you money by using the hotel amenities longer before a late flight, compared to finding other activities to fill your time before heading to the airport.
Joining hotel loyalty programs is free and they usually offer discounted rates or guaranteed lowest prices to their members, but you’ll have to book directly with the hotel to reap the rewards. Using a branded hotel credit card when booking directly with a hotel can help advance your rewards and savings even further.
Just keep in mind that benefits can vary by the hotel chain and individual property, so you’re not guaranteed all benefits every time you travel.
Say yes to alternative destinations — and low season
While millions of travelers stayed put during the first two years of the pandemic, many popular destinations that were sinking under the weight of tourism overcrowding — also known as overtourism — had the chance to rethink their approach to visitors. Cruise ships have now been formally banned from Venice’s historic city center in Italy. Barcelona, Spain, has forbidden short-term private room rentals. Amsterdam, Netherlands, has banned new hotels and souvenir shops in the city center. Other places like Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Machu Picchu, Peru, are taking similar measures in response to the potential massive return of tourists.
Choosing alternate destinations, traveling domestically and taking trips during the so-called shoulder season — the time between peak and off seasons — is a time-tested way to reduce the outflow of cash while you explore or relax.
Tools like Hopper and Google Flights can help home in on good deals at unexpected destinations, said Sherman, the avid points collector. “It’s amazing how much you can save by traveling outside the normal tourist season,” she said, “And there is usually still plenty to do at your destination.”
Whether you travel domestically or plan to branch out further, make sure you stay updated on travel restrictions to avoid unexpected obstacles. If you’re worried about uncertainty when planning a trip, you may consider travel insurance, which you can buy as a stand-alone policy or get through a travel credit card. This may give you some peace of mind while protecting you financially.