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.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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Recessions tend to cast a particularly gloomy pall over the travel industry. As households' budgets tighten, spending on nonessentials like vacations are usually the first to go. But this large-scale trend doesn't mean that you or your family have to sacrifice travel during a recession.

Of course, it's easy to scale back spending by traveling less frequently or to less pricey destinations. But it's also possible to travel smarter — not less — to wring more value from your precious dollars.

It's wise to prepare your finances for a recession to determine how much discretionary wriggle room your budget allows. Then consider which of these strategies to employ.

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, 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.

  • Interest rates and late fees. Don't get a new credit card if you're not able to pay the balance in full each month. At a time of economic uncertainty, it's especially important to make sure that your credit card is working for you, not the other way around.

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. The dollar has been especially strong lately, particularly against currencies in tourist-friendly destinations like Europe and Japan.

A 20% increase in the value of the dollar against the Japanese Yen, for example, effectively translates into a 20% discount on everything purchased during your trip, from restaurant meals to Uber rides.

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. Stay flexible

Maybe you were planning a dream trip to Mexico, or a Christmas wonderland trip to London. But the Mexican Peso has also been very strong, and travel during the December holidays is always more expensive.

The trick to saving travel dollars during a recession (or any time, really) is simple: Stay flexible. Rather than building itineraries and budgets around specific destinations, flip the script and work backwards from affordability. Sign up for travel deal newsletters and other alerts, wait for something exciting to pop up, and book it for cheap.

This approach has additional benefits beyond the obvious economic ones. Staying flexible with plans can afford exciting experiences you might otherwise never have considered.

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

We have no idea how long the next recession will last or whether (at the time of this writing) we're already in one. But regardless of larger economic trends, it's possible to build a personal travel strategy that is relatively recession-proof.

Whether investing extra time learning how to leverage points and miles to your maximum benefit, taking advantage of the strong dollar 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 2023, including those best for:

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