4 Ways to Travel Cheaply During a Recession

Here's how you can save on travel costs so you can still take a vacation during an economic downturn.
Apr 23, 2020

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Note: As you plan travel during the coronavirus pandemic, please check the CDC and State Department websites for current guidance and travel restrictions.

The coronavirus pandemic has cast a pall over the travel industry and is likely to send the global economy into a recession. Nobody knows when travel will resume at anything like its normal pace, nor who will be able to afford a vacation when it does resume.

Previously, we’ve explained how to book airfare for maximum flexibility and prepare your finances for a recession. Now, we offer a glimmer of hope for those worried that they may have to scrap their travel dreams. Here are the details about four ways to travel cheaply during an economic downturn.

1. Play the rewards game

Maybe you’re already a points pro, or maybe the idea of learning how to maximize points and miles gives you an anxiety attack. In any case, the easiest way to travel "cheaply" while tightening your personal finances is to play the rewards game.

Start small: Get a highly rated travel credit card with a low annual fee, and use the points or miles earned from the sign-up bonus to take your first trip. Or, if you’re already sitting on a stack of rewards and have been waiting for the right time to use them, this may be the time.

Keep in mind that, despite what Instagram influencers and lifestyle blogs may promote, even rewards travel isn't "free." Even for the most dedicated rewards maximizers, it carries many costs that can add up, including:

  • Fuel surcharges, taxes and resort fees. These can add up to hundreds of dollars, especially for international flights.

  • Credit card annual fees. Those eye-popping sign-up bonuses are often offered by cards that carry (sometimes hefty) annual fees. Even a $95 fee can add up after a few years, so stay aware of what you’re spending to earn the big benefits.

  • Change and cancellation fees. As many of us became intimately aware this spring, reward bookings may only cost points or miles to make in the first place — but they can cost serious cash if your plans change.

Here’s one way to get motivated with rewards travel: Make it a challenge. Set yourself a goal of booking a family trip using only points and miles. You’ll be surprised how creative you can get within reasonable constraints.

2. Stretch your dollars

While nobody knows what the future of the global economy holds, one thing is almost certain: Currency exchange rates will change. Already since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen the U.S. dollar gain on the Mexican peso, from 18 pesos per dollar at the start of the year to 24 pesos per dollar on April 20.

Of course, these exchange rates will change constantly and unpredictably, so your best bet is to check current rates before planning your trip. A relatively strong dollar will bring down the effective costs of everyday travel expenses like food and rideshares, but can also knock down the big-ticket items like hotel rooms and train tickets.

3. Hit the road

Road trips are always a budget-friendly alternative to air travel, but many factors are looking to make this an especially good time to take one:

  • With oil prices crashing, the cost of gas is likely to remain low.

  • It’s easier to maintain social distance in a vehicle than on a crowded airplane.

  • Road trips are more flexible than air travel, should conditions change.

True cheapskates can save money by camping, while the less adventurous can rent RVs, try glamping or use hotel points. And the amount saved on airfare should easily cover the cost of a few greasy spoon roadside lunches.

4. Be mindful

This might sound like a stretch (not the yoga kind), but we’ve described in the past how mindfulness practice can help make seemingly uncomfortable travel more enjoyable. And being comfortable with more spartan digs means spending less on luxurious hotels and premium cabin airfare.

That’s right: Meditating can save you money, though that’s obviously not the only reason to do it.

Another personal financial tool enhanced by mindfulness (and many other contemplative practices): It allows for more "responding" and less "reacting" when making purchase decisions. That is, instead of seeing a fancy room at the St. Regis available for "only" 60,000 points and immediately booking it, you might take an extra minute to ask yourself: "Do I really need the luxury, or would I rather stay more nights in a simpler room?"

The bottom line

It will be some time before many of us start making travel plans. But for those worried that the combination of pandemic and global recession means they may never travel again — don’t lose hope.

Whether investing extra time learning how to leverage points and miles to your maximum benefit, hitting the road in an RV, or, yes, sitting on a meditation cushion, there are plenty of ways to satisfy your wanderlust under a tight budget.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:

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