Inflation, COVID Worries Weigh on Americans Traveling This Summer

Nearly 7 in 10 Americans plan to travel this summer, and 81% of them say inflation will impact their plans, a new NerdWallet survey found.
Jun 28, 2022

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For many Americans, the excitement of summer travel will be tempered by a bleak backdrop — not only is inflation at decades-long highs in the U.S., but COVID-19 cases are also surging.

Nearly 7 in 10 (68%) Americans say they plan to travel this summer, and of those, 81% say that inflation will impact their summer plans, according to a new NerdWallet survey conducted online by The Harris Poll among more than 2,000 U.S. adults. The toll of inflation on summer travel among Generation Z travelers (87%) and millennial travelers (89%) jumps even higher, providing a striking look at the generational impact of rising costs on younger Americans.

On a more positive note, the survey found that many 2022 summer travelers may take advantage of flexible workplace policies and unused rewards points to smooth out travel plans and offset costs.

In the survey, NerdWallet asked Americans what kinds of traveling they plan to do this summer (the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day); how rising costs might impact those travel plans; and what concerns they have about traveling abroad because of COVID-19. When referring to generational groups throughout the survey, the following applies: Members of Gen Z are ages 18-25; millennials are 26-41; Gen Xers are 42-57; and baby boomers are 58-75.

Key findings:

  • Nearly 7 in 10 (68%) Americans say they plan to travel this summer. Domestic travel (63%) is the most popular option for summer travelers, with 48% planning to travel by car, 30% by plane and 11% by another mode of transportation. Just 12% of Americans plan to travel internationally this summer, and only 9% say they plan to take a cruise.

  • An overwhelming majority of 2022 summer travelers — especially millennials and Gen Zers — say inflation will impact their plans. Roughly 8 in 10 (81%) 2022 summer travelers say inflation will impact their summer travel plans, and this jumps to 87% among Gen Zers and 89% among millennial travelers.

  • Concerns about international travel during the COVID era persist for many Americans. The most commonly cited concerns when considering international travel this summer include COVID-19 travel restrictions abroad (47%), getting stuck overseas if they catch COVID-19 (46%) and uncertainty about ever-changing COVID-era travel (43%).

  • Despite regularly saving for summer travel expenses throughout the year, debt is still likely for summer travelers — especially millennials. Three-quarters (75%) of 2022 summer travelers say they regularly save for summer travel expenses throughout the year, yet 41% say they will likely have to go into credit card debt to cover their summer travel expenses this year — and among millennial travelers this rises to 53%.

  • Relaxed workplace policies will help summer travelers this year. Some 57% of 2022 summer travelers say relaxed workplace policies — things like remote work and hybrid schedules — will make it easier for them to travel this summer.

68% of Americans say they plan to travel this summer

Nearly 7 in 10 (68%) Americans plan to travel in the time between Memorial Day and Labor Day this year, while 19% say they will not be traveling at all. A smaller share (13%) say they aren’t yet sure whether they will travel this summer.

Baby boomers (23%) are more likely than millennials (15%) and Gen Xers (15%) to say they do not plan to travel at all this summer.

“Summer is one of the peak travel seasons, and if you have school-aged children or you’re still in school yourself, it’s one of the few times a year you might be able to get away,” says Sara Rathner, a NerdWallet travel and credit cards expert. “But it’s a more expensive and hectic time to travel, so anyone with flexibility might choose to travel in the off-season.”

Domestic travel by car is the most popular option among those who plan to travel this summer

Americans are planning both domestic and international trips, although staying within the U.S. is the most popular option among those adults surveyed — even as the mode of travel varies. Some 48% of Americans will travel within the U.S. by car and 30% will travel by plane. About 1 in 10 (11%) Americans will travel domestically using another mode of transportation like a bus or train. Some 9% of Americans say they will be taking a cruise.

Some 12% of Americans say they plan to travel internationally this summer, and millennials (17%) are nearly twice as likely as baby boomers (9%) to travel abroad during that time.

Another demographic group with big travel plans this summer are parents of children age 18 and younger. When compared to their counterparts (those who are not parents of children this age), parents of children age 18 and younger are not only more likely to travel domestically this summer (74% vs. 58%) but they are also more likely to travel domestically using the following modes of transportation: car (57% vs. 44%), airplane (37% vs. 28%), other transportation like bus/train/etc. (18% vs. 7%).

Summer travelers say relaxed workplace policies will make summer travel easier

The pandemic redefined many people’s relationship to work and forced many employers to offer more flexible work schedules to accommodate safety measures and in response to things like child care and school closures. More than half of 2022 summer travelers (57%) say these relaxed workplace policies will make planning their travel easier this summer.

Among 2022 summer travelers, men (62%) are more likely than women (52%) to say relaxed workplace policies will make planning their travel easier. There are also some generational differences when it comes to these policies creating ease for summer travel planning. Younger generations of 2022 summer travelers — millennials (74%) and Gen Zers (77%) — are much more likely than Gen Xers (59%) and baby boomers (31%) to say that relaxed workplace policies will make it easier to plan their summer travel this year.

Majority of summer travelers say inflation will impact their plans

A striking 81% of 2022 summer travelers say that inflation will impact their travel plans. The share rises for millennial (89%) and Gen Z (87%) travelers, compared with 72% of baby boomers.

2022 summer travelers adjust their plans to fight rising costs

Some 7 in 10 (70%) summer travelers say the rising cost of travel has forced them to make sacrifices when it comes to their summer travel plans this year.

About a third (31%) of 2022 summer travelers say they will cut back on travel expenses outside of transportation and lodging as a result of inflation, which could mean less money spent dining out, visiting tourist attractions and shopping. A slightly smaller share (28% each) say they will travel fewer days or keep their travel closer to home due to inflation.

More than a quarter (27%) of 2022 summer travelers say they will stay with relatives and friends instead of booking a hotel room or vacation rental as a result of inflation. Similarly, 27% of 2022 summer travelers say they will share lodging (e.g., hotel room, vacation rental) with people they are traveling with, like friends or family members. Some 24% of summer travelers plan to cash in rewards points or miles to lower travel costs due to inflation.

Over half (53%) of Americans who aren’t planning to travel this summer say inflation impacted their decision

For some Americans, rising costs were a key factor when deciding not to travel at all this summer. Over half of those who do not plan to travel this summer (53%) say inflation had an impact on their decision.

More specifically, 33% of those not traveling this summer say inflation had a “major” impact. One in five (20%) say it had a “minor” impact.

Many Americans have concerns about international travel

Roughly 8 in 10 Americans (81%) say they would have some concerns if they were considering international travel this summer, and many of those concerns are related to COVID-19. The top two concerns people cited are COVID-19 travel restrictions abroad (47%) — things like vaccination requirements and quarantine upon arrival — and getting stuck overseas if they catch COVID-19 (46%). This scenario would likely include additional expenses (extended lodging, food and other incidentals) as well as the potential need to find and pay for health care.

Uncertainty about ever-changing COVID-era travel rules, including things like mask and testing requirements as well as new variants, would be a concern for 43% of Americans. More than a quarter (27%) of Americans say that having to wear a mask on an airplane for an extended period of time would be a concern if they were considering doing international travel this summer.

Aside from concerns about COVID-19, the cost of international travel is also an issue for Americans. About 4 in 10 (41%) Americans say the costs associated with international travel — everything from flights and hotels to international phone plans and passport fees — would be a concern.

“In terms of logistics, international travel has always been more difficult than staying closer to home,” Rathner says. “Now we have all these added layers of complication — ever-changing COVID guidelines, rising costs. For many Americans, the hassle of meeting COVID requirements, along with the fear of catching COVID overseas and having to pay to extend their trip, is enough to convince them to dramatically alter their plans.”

75% of summer travelers save throughout the year, but some will still go into debt — especially millennials

Traveling during peak summer months can be expensive, but three quarters (75%) of 2022 summer travelers say they save regularly throughout the year, the survey found. This number jumps for millennial travelers: 80% say they regularly save for summer travel expenses, compared with 69% of baby boomer travelers.

While saving throughout the year is a great budgeting strategy, it still doesn’t prevent travelers from taking on debt. About 4 in 10 (41%) 2022 summer travelers will likely have to go into credit card debt to cover expenses this year — and men are more likely to say this than women (46% versus 36%, respectively).

And even though 80% of millennial travelers say they save regularly for summer travel, more than half (53%) say they will likely have to go into credit card debt to cover travel expenses this year, which is significantly higher than the proportion of Gen Xers (43%) and baby boomers (28%) who say the same.

Millennials most likely group to cash in credit card points and rewards

Summer travelers aren’t overlooking their rewards points and miles, especially after a few years of pandemic life where many people significantly scaled back travel out of safety concerns. But spending didn’t come to a halt during the pandemic, which means many people have built up a reserve of credit card rewards, points and miles that are waiting to be used.

More than half (56%) of 2022 summer travelers plan to use credit card points, rewards and miles accrued during the pandemic to pay for summer travel expenses this year. Men (62%) are more likely than women (50%) to say they will use credit card rewards to offset costs as they travel this summer.

Roughly 7 in 10 (71%) millennial travelers say they plan to use the credit card points, rewards and miles they accrued during the pandemic to pay for summer travel. This is significantly higher than the proportion of Gen Zers (60%), Gen Xers (53%) and baby boomers (40%) who said the same.

Budgeting tips to make the most of summer travel

Many Americans are facing real budgetary obstacles as they plan summer travel. Inflation is at a 40-year high, topping out at 8.3% in April 2022. The national average gas price is creeping toward $5 per gallon. And with food costs on the rise too, you’ll likely face higher prices on dining out.

“To make summer travel more affordable, you might have to get creative. Setting a travel budget and cashing in points and miles is a great start, but you can save while you travel by adjusting your itinerary a bit,” Rathner says. “Consider destinations with reliable public transportation so you can skip the expensive rental car. If you stay at a vacation rental, or even in a hotel room with a refrigerator, you can save on food by going to the grocery store instead of dining out for every meal. Higher prices across the board mean travelers need to change things up.”

Be strategic about travel plans to offset inflation

Summer travelers should plan to face inflation head on in the coming months. Although airfare costs are lower than they were before the pandemic, be prepared to pay more for things like hotel stays and rental cars.

Travelers will likely need to consider how potential savings (choosing to fly instead of drive) might be offset by increased costs on the back end, like sky-high rental car prices, for example. Taking into account the number of travelers in your group can also help you weigh the benefits of some travel methods over others. For example, if you’re traveling with a larger group or with children, driving might end up saving you more.

Activities like dining out and entertainment will also be more expensive for travelers this summer. Restaurant and entertainment prices have increased fairly consistently over time, although entertainment price hikes haven’t been as drastic as those for dining out.

So what can you do? Part of the fun of travel is trying new foods and checking out local attractions. Here are some tips to balance out your budget and prioritize what matters most to you:

  • Modes of travel: With gas and rental car prices soaring, flying to your destination might be your best bet to save money. Once you’re at your destination, split rental car costs or ride-share services with friends or family — or, better yet, take advantage of public transit.

  • Shared lodging: Staying with a friend or family member, or sharing accommodations with your fellow travelers, can really cut costs on hotels and vacation rentals.

  • Food costs: Consider hotels that offer free breakfast or other amenities like happy hours in the early evening to cut your restaurant bill. If your hotel or vacation rental has a refrigerator or kitchen, stop by the closest grocery store to pick up snacks and drinks that will keep you from spending extra money between meals.

It should be noted, however, that some of these more budget-friendly options require sharing public spaces with strangers (e.g., airplane travel, using public transit), which increases your risk of exposure to COVID-19. Before booking your summer travel, assess your risk tolerance and make sure to take your health — and the health of your loved ones — into consideration.

Take advantage of unused rewards, points and miles

Many Americans have unused travel rewards, hotel points and airline miles sitting in their accounts after more than two years of pandemic life with significantly reduced travel. Don’t forget to use those rewards to offset travel costs. It might take some time, but it’s worth it to familiarize yourself with the travel reward currencies at your disposal and keep your travel goals in mind.

Between unused travel miles, frequent flyer program benefits and hotel rewards programs, you can save some serious cash:

  • Make the most of airline miles and frequent flyer programs: Most airlines offer a free membership to their frequent flyer program. By simply inputting your frequent flyer number when you book travel, you can accrue miles each time you fly; those miles can be redeemed later for nearly free flights. If you have certain co-branded airline credit cards, you can access added benefits like free checked bags, lounge access and priority boarding. Check your current programs to see if you have any miles you might be able to use for summer travel.

  • Earn hotel points for your stays: Like airlines, many hotels have rewards or loyalty programs where you can earn points that can later be turned into free nights. If you find a hotel chain you really like, joining their rewards program offers plenty of long-term benefits. As with airlines, check your current hotel accounts and see what your points balance is. You might also have free night certificates issued as a perk of one of the credit cards you hold. In many cases, the expiration dates on these certificates were extended during the pandemic. It’s worth checking, because these certificates can snag you a valuable free night.

  • Transfer or use credit card points to pay for a variety of travel costs: Flexible credit card points (like those from Chase, American Express, Citi or Capital One) are versatile and while you can redeem them for everything from gift cards to cash back, you’ll get the most value when you transfer them to airline or hotel partners, or redeem them directly for travel.

Using the travel portal for your rewards program, you can book flights, hotels or car rentals. You can also transfer those points to program partner airlines or hotel chains.

Avoid travel debt by saving in smaller chunks throughout the year

While it might be a little too late to start planning for summer travel this year, you can start building costs into your budget for next year. A sinking fund is a great way to plan for predictable expenses and spread out costs over a longer period of time. By saving in smaller chunks each month, you will have the cash on hand to keep travel debt at bay.

To make the most of savings, set up automatic payments to a high-yield savings account. This way, you won’t even have to think about it and that money will be accessible while also earning interest at a higher rate than a typical personal savings account.

To calculate how much money you’d like to save for upcoming travel, you can estimate the total costs and divide it by the number of months or weeks you have before your trip. Even if prices change slightly between now and then, you’re off to a great start and are less likely to go into debt.

Methodology

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from May 10-12, 2022, among 2,016 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, of whom 1,333 are 2022 summer travelers. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +2.8 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Mauricio Guitron ([email protected]).

Disclaimer

NerdWallet disclaims, expressly and impliedly, all warranties of any kind, including those of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose or whether the article’s information is accurate, reliable or free of errors. Use or reliance on this information is at your own risk, and its completeness and accuracy are not guaranteed. The contents in this article should not be relied upon or associated with the future performance of NerdWallet or any of its affiliates or subsidiaries. Statements that are not historical facts are forward-looking statements that involve risks and uncertainties as indicated by words such as “believes,” “expects,” “estimates,” “may,” “will,” “should” or “anticipates” or similar expressions. These forward-looking statements may materially differ from NerdWallet’s presentation of information to analysts and its actual operational and financial results.

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