As exciting as it is to FINALLY be able to travel after the pandemic, there is one not-so-small downside: as the world hits the road en masse, travel-related costs are quickly escalating to pre-COVID levels (and beyond.)
Add the fact that quarantine walloped on our wallets and the economy, and it can feel like that well-deserved dream trip is out of financial reach. But it doesn’t have to! Although the cost of travel is on the rise, there are still plenty of ways to make it work.
So whether you’re heading home for the holidays or considering a more exotic adventure, here’s what to expect when it comes to travel expenses — and how to prepare for it so you can globe-trot regardless.
Getting Where You’re Going ✈️
Remember how, as you were baking your banana bread and binging Tiger King, the cost of airfare plummeted to absurd lows… because no one would (or could) get on an airplane?
Well, those days are definitely over (as is Tiger King, thank god). According to Hopper’s 2021 Consumer Airfare Index Report, domestic fares increased 12% from April to May, and they foresee a 10% rise as Fall begins and holiday travel looms.
Even for road trippers, things are getting costlier: the price of gasoline hasn’t been this high since 2014. It’s easy to feel hamstrung by these rising prices before your trip even starts.
How to Deal — and Find Deals 🚗
The good news when it comes to the costs of airfare and fuel: technology has made it possible to find the best deals from the comfort of your home.
If you’re flying, check out these excellent apps:
- Google Flights: As someone who once flew often enough to pay for Global Entry, Google Flights is always my first stop when shopping for fares. This browser app is super intuitive and makes it easy to compare fares for different travel dates and multiple airports. Plus, it offers filters for specific airlines, how many layovers you’re willing to weather, and more.
- Hopper: This app analyzes, tracks, and predicts the prices of flights (plus hotel rooms and rental cars, too) over time. Just input your travel data and sign up for notifications that’ll let you know when it’s likely cheapest to book.
- Skiplagged: A cheap-flight technology so powerful, airlines (unsuccessfully) tried to sue passengers who used it… but fortunately, the tactic the app uses is totally legal. Basically, the app works to find you cheaper fares through “hidden city” flights, where you get off at the layover rather than continuing on to the destination. This move can save a passenger hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of dollars, but does come with some limitations. For instance, you generally can’t check a bag on a hidden city flight, because it’ll end up in a different city!
Hitting the road? GasBuddy is a great app to save a bundle on gas by scouting for the cheapest pump prices ahead of time. If it seems a little extra to go a mile or five out of your way for the lowest fuel costs, just remember that prices can range by a quarter or more per gallon just due to location. Given how quickly those pump numbers stack up, it’s well worth a detour — after all, it’s as much about the journey as the destination, right?
Finding Temporary Digs 🏨
Getting to your destination? Important. Finding a place to sleep while you’re there? Arguably even more important… and in many cases, even more costly.
High demand and limited space is ratcheting hotel room prices up, both in far-flung beach getaway spots and destinations closer to home. Per numbers collected by CNBC, the average hotel rate in Cancun was $205 per night in early May 2021, from $45 (😱) in 2020 and $160 in pre-pandemic times. The trend is less pronounced but on the same trajectory in Orlando, where costs were $107 per night in early May, up from $62 in 2020 and quickly approaching 2019’s $133.
Other forms of lodging, too, are apt to follow the general pricing trends, though they may be less expensive on the whole. (We’re looking to you, campgrounds!)
Still, you can find a place to get your beauty sleep without totally busting your budget.
How to Deal — and Find Deals 🛏️
Let’s break down a few ways to stay the night:
- Peer-to-peer vacation rentals
Most travelers these days have already heard the good news about peer-to-peer vacation rentals à la Airbnb — although there are other options to consider, too, like Vrbo and HomeStay. Depending on the specifics of the digs you choose, however, these options may or may not be cheaper than hotels.
If you’re open to staying with strangers, Couchsurfing connects travelers with hosts who offer up their couches, yes, but sometimes also private rooms in their homes and other accommodation options. This arrangement is generally free, and the app does implement safety measures including a reference system… but, of course, it’s not without risk, and might be plain old uncomfortable for introverts.
P.s. Don’t forget about old-school couchsurfing — the kind where you call up a friend or family member you know in your destination and ask if they’re amenable to multi-day houseguests!
- Camping, anyone?
It’s a time-honored way to stay for cheap or free, and sites like Campendium and freecampsites.net can help you find hidden gems across the country.
- A traditional hotel
Finally, if you really, really want the hotel experience, take advantage of comparison sites like Expedia and KAYAK (though if you book through them directly, be aware you may need to contact them rather than the hotel to make changes or address problems). HotelTonight is another great option for finding last-minute hotel deals.
Enjoying Feasts and Festivities 🍜
If you ask me (and many other travelers), eating is one of the most fulfilling — and filling — parts of the travel experience. Sampling the local cuisine is key, whether it’s paella in Spain or baked beans and lobsta-h rolls in Boston.
But living off restaurant meals alone can quickly eat away at your travel funds, pun totally intended. And let’s be real, most of us also want to wash down those local meals with a glass or three of sangria or a Boston Tea Party, which is apparently a thing (and a thing that would put a Long Island to shame, at that).
How to Deal — and Find Deals 🥤
- Eating in
One good thing about opting for a vacation rental rather than a hotel room is that you can cook a few of your own meals — which is almost always more economical than eating out.
That said, after over a year of lockdown, you may be understandably sick of DIYing your daily diet, and particularly craving the restaurant experience. (Lots of us spent lots of money on takeout over the pandemic.)
- Happy hour
Finding local happy hour specials can be a great way to enjoy the local food and beverage scene without totally blowing up your budget. Where helps you find the best nearby happy hours while also scoring extra discounts at certain places, but another great source of happy hour intel doesn’t require a download: just ask the locals!
- Dine out
Another idea worth trying out for you foodies after the fine dining experience: if there’s a pricey restaurant on your must-eat list, maybe head on down for lunch instead of dinner. You may be able to get the very same dishes — albeit in smaller portion sizes — for a fraction of the cost. And you’re on vacation, right? You’re supposed to be drinking wine at lunch!
No matter what you do, just be sure to budget enough to tip your waitstaff well! Goodness knows they had a time of it during the pandemic.
Playing Tourist 😎
You’re well slept, well-fed, and well-watered. Now what?!
Chances are there’s plenty more to see and do at your destination, even if COVID has changed the landscape a little (or a lot). Cultural attractions like museums and entertainment options like escape rooms took a serious hit from the pandemic if they survived at all — and now that it’s an option, they definitely want your tourist dollars.
But the cost of entry for these kinds of activities is often around $20 a pop, at a minimum. Stoked to finally see your first live concert since The Before Times? You may be out over $100 per ticket.
Still, there are lots of ways to keep yourself engaged and entertained on your trip without leaving totally empty-handed.
How to Deal — and find Deals 🌃
- Take to the great outdoors
Many cities have excellent hiking trails and other outdoor recreation opportunities right in their (extended) backyards, and unless a permit or state park pass is required, the activity could be totally free. Of course, it’s just as easy to spend beaucoup bucks on rental backpacking equipment or a guided whitewater rafting tour, so look for activities with lower barriers to entry.
- City experience
Committed to that city life? If you’re visiting during a temperate season, you may be treated to free concerts or movie screenings in public parks, low-cost local music festivals, and more. Running a google search for “free activities + [destination]” can yield surprising and exciting results. You may even find that certain museums offer free entry on specific days or during specific hours.
And although we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: if you want to best intel on low-cost but high-fun local activities to try out, ask someone who actually lives there. They’ve been looking for ways to fill their Saturdays without emptying their wallets for years now, so there’s a good chance they’ll have an idea or four for you.
Get Up and Go! 🗺️
After a year we’ve all described time and again as “unprecedented,” it makes sense that there’s an unprecedented urge to get up, get out, and go see the world. A year of cabin fever will do that to ya — and everyone else, as it turns out.
And although that increased demand translates to higher prices, it’s still totally possible to travel affordably this winter season and beyond. Go forth and explore, Chime readers!