For Summer Travel Deals, Stay Off the Beaten Path

Summer vacationers should brace themselves for intense travel demand this season.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Meg Lee

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The majority of Americans — 7 out of 10 — plan to travel in the next 12 months for leisure, according to a February NerdWallet survey. Many Americans are looking to travel this summer, and most hope to find a good deal.

Air travel has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. The number of flyers passing through TSA checkpoints was down only 19% in February and January compared to the same period in 2019. Hotels are filling up and vacation rentals are booming.

“Demand across the board for summer 2022 travel is up 20 to 25% relative to 2019”, says Jamie Lane, Vice President of research at Airdna, a vacation rental data platform, which tracks trends on Airbnb and Vrbo. “When we started in 2021, demand was 20% lower than 2019 levels. And now as we start 2022 they’re 20% above 2019.”

Volatile oil prices could also impact summer travel costs. The price of U.S. Gulf Coast kerosene-type jet fuel hit $3.46 in March, up from $0.46 at its low point in May 2020.

With so many factors pushing travel prices upward, where are the deals? And what destinations should budget-conscious travelers avoid altogether?

Zig while others zag to Mexico

The rise of inflation has reminded consumers of a simple economic truth: When everybody wants something and there isn’t enough of it, prices go up. This is true for real estate, microchips and airfare.

So when planning a trip this summer, it’s helpful to know where demand remains high.

“Destination resort areas are up 40% over 2019,” says Lane, of vacation rental occupancy rates.

Mexico has been a particularly hot destination for U.S. travelers, due to proximity and easygoing testing requirements. Indeed, the number of travelers to Mexico in early 2022 exceeded 2019 levels.

Deals for summer travel in Mexico could still exist, but they will be harder to find than in less-popular destinations. The same goes for rural U.S. destinations, especially those close to National Parks.

“The strongest demand is in small town rural areas,” says Lane. “Demand has doubled over 2019.”

Instead, Lane suggests targeting destinations that rely heavily on foreign tourists and have been slower to recover tourists.

“Places like Croatia, Italy and Greece have been very slow to recover. And are down anywhere from 40 to 60% in demand. They haven’t seen the price increases that we’ve seen in the U.S.”

Flight bookings to Europe dropped after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, according to data from Hopper, a travel booking app, suggesting that travel to the continent could remain sluggish through the summer. That means deals should follow.

Book (some things) late

The pandemic reshaped how many travelers make plans. Instead of cementing dates months in advance, many began booking trips mere weeks away. And despite much conventional travel wisdom, this is actually a good way to secure deals.

“Generally if you book far in advance you’re going to pay more,” says Lane, pointing to how the Airbnb pricing algorithm will drop prices at the last minute to fill remaining availability. “As you get closer to the stay date, if it’s not booked, you’re going to get a discount.”

The same is true of hotels, which are often cheaper to book within a few weeks or days of booking rather than a few months, Deals on rental cars are also generally easier to find at the last minute.

This comes with two big caveats. First, if demand does outstrip supply at a particular destination, prices could actually go up in the few weeks before a trip rather than down. Worse, availability could dry up altogether, leaving few cars or vacation rentals available.

Second, last-minute airfare is usually costlier. This is not an ironclad rule — last-minute deals can pop up, but they are more common a month or more out.

Stay flexible

The only thing we don’t know about what will happen this summer is everything. Another variant could emerge. Borders could close. International conflicts could escalate. Who knows.

As a traveler, this means flexibility is a must for finding deals.

Rather than making a firm plan to visit a particular destination, follow the deals. See what airfare and accommodation deals are available on target dates, and build a trip around them Flexibility has always been important for budget travel. Now it is necessary.

Also, make sure to only book travel that can be easily changed or canceled. A great deal on airfare with a low-cost airline such as Spirit could carry high change and cancellation fees. The same goes for basic economy fares, which usually cannot be changed or canceled at all.

The bottom line

Travel is back, but it may never return to normal. Finding deals requires some understanding of what has changed, where others are traveling and — more importantly — where they aren’t.

This summer, target large cities, avoid rural areas and resort destinations, and try booking accommodation and rental cars close to the date of travel. And always book fares that can be changed or canceled.

“A last minute booking in Croatia? You’re going to find a great deal,” Lane suggests.

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