Hotels instead of Airbnbs, big cities instead of beaches: 5 tricks to book bargain travel this year, according to experts

"If you're not getting a deal on your hotel this summer, you aren't looking hard enough."

Chicago, Illinois.

Right now, 45% of Americans say they feel comfortable traveling, according to data from Morning Consult. And as the vaccine rollout continues, that number will most likely grow. President Joe Biden announced that 90% of adults will be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine by April 19.

But just because you've been fantasizing about your perfect getaway for months — almost one-quarter of Americans say they would give up their favorite food for a year in order to travel safely and normally, according to The Vacationer — that doesn't mean you have to overspend on it.

You probably already know some of the basic travel savings tips: Price-compare flights and redeem credit card points to offset travel costs. However, the pandemic has altered what flight routes and accommodations are affordable.

Here are five ways travel experts say you can save money on a vacation as the economy reopens.

1. Book flights before demand bumps up prices and fees

Airfare prices are expected to go up this summer, says Adit Damodaran, economist at fare-tracking site Hopper. "It's a good idea to book future vacations now, since we're forecasting that prices are going to rise with demand," he says.

Another reason to book sooner than later: The longer you wait, the less flexibility major air carriers may offer, says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at deal site Travelzoo. This is especially true if you're buying basic economy tickets, which usually provide little wiggle room on change fees and cancellations. The typical change fee is about $200 on most domestic flights.

"Starting April 1, on most legacy carriers, those rock-bottom fares won't be immune to change fees, which can cost more than the tickets themselves on occasion," he says. "March 31 is the deadline for people to gobble up basic economy fares and know they can be changed within the year without penalty."

It's a good idea to book future vacations now, since we're forecasting that prices are going to rise with demand.
Adit Damodaran
economist at Hopper

2. Compare the total cost of air travel

Compare your total cost before booking airfare. Basic economy is usually the cheapest fare class, but a less expensive fare might end up costing you more because of all the restrictions and add-on fees, Damodaran says.

"You may not be able to change or cancel your flight, choose your seat, and the overhead bins for luggage may be off-limits," he says. "These restrictions can lead to a lot of additional fees."

And while some of these fees may have been waived during Covid-19, that most likely won't continue once demand spikes. Getting premium seats might cost more upfront, but those fares could also include a checked bag and ability to select a seat, two things that may incur additional costs if you bought basic economy tickets.

How to successfully use a cash-back credit card

Video by Mariam Abdallah

3. Fly routes that are feeling 'the loss of business travel'

Because business travel will most likely not be returning this summer, flight routes that depend on business travelers will have some of the lowest fares, says Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommers.com.

You might want to consider visiting New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, for example, as airfare could be more affordable.

"Business travelers only account for 20% of seats on the plane, but they are often paying 80% of revenue of that flight," she says. "Airlines are going to have to make up for the loss of business travel."

Business travelers only account for 20% of seats on the plane, but they are often paying 80% of revenue of that flight.
Pauline Frommer
editorial director of Frommers.com

4. Stay in a hotel instead of an Airbnb

Hotels are also hugely dependent on revenue from business travel, and are adjusting prices in order to attract other travelers. "If you're not getting a deal on your hotel this summer, you aren't looking hard enough," says Elaine Glusac, frugal traveler columnist for The New York Times.

In large cities, you should be able to find a hotel for much less than an Airbnb rental or other home rentals. "Airbnb has said it's had huge demand for cabins and cottages in remote areas, thanks to social distancing needs, so trying to find a deal there is going to take a lot of searching," Glusac says.

There are exceptions to the rule: Beachy destinations are likely to see higher hotel prices, she says. "You might want to avoid superpopular places like the Florida Keys, where rates have been driven up by people looking for an island vacation without having to use their passport and go through Covid testing on their return from an international trip."

You may not get the most value for your buck at resorts, either, Frommer warns. "Make sure you're not going to a hotel that has resort charges," she says. Those mandatory fees can be $20 or more per night, and usually cover use of amenities such as the hotel gym and pool. "Resort charges are still in full effect even though a lot of things they used to say are covered by resort fees aren't even open."

You might want to avoid superpopular places like the Florida Keys.
Elaine Glusac
frugal traveler columnist for The New York Times

5. Pick cheap, safe, and socially distanced activities

Visiting a dense city this summer might give you pause, but there are plenty of activities that are safe, especially if you are vaccinated. Many of the ways you've explored your own city during the pandemic — visiting parks, going on bike rides — would be just as fun in a new city.

If a neighborhood is known for its murals, plan a "DIY walking tour," Glusac suggests. Renting bikes is also an affordable way to see a city. "Many cities have bike-share rentals that are cheap and offer easy-access joy-riding," Glusac says. "Many of these systems are going to electric bikes, which means you can roam farther without exhausting yourself.

And don't forget about public parks, she adds: "I'm also very much into takeout picnics in public parks, so much so that I'm packing a compressible picnic blanket in my day pack."

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