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Travel is back, but that doesn't mean it's easy (or cheap).
Airport chaos has made headlines more than a few times over the past couple of years, but if you opt to drive, you'll have to contend with soaring gas prices. Plus, hotel prices have hit all-time highs, even though many properties cut some services like daily housekeeping.
Despite all those deterrents, traveling might be non-negotiable. You might have five weddings to attend this year. Then there’s the work offsite to finally meet the coworkers you’ve never met face to face. And now that your youngest kids are vaccine-eligible, you owe them that (expensive) Disney trip they’ve been begging for.
Ah, suddenly the wanderlust you felt when envisioning your dream “revenge trip” back in 2020 has been zapped away, instead replaced by anxiety and plenty of unwanted expenses.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Combine solid planing with a healthy mindset, and you might skip the common problems with traveling. Who knows? This summer vacation might become the best trip ever.
1. Acknowledge your trip won’t be perfect
Go into your trip with realistic expectations. Delays are all but inevitable, and things might be more expensive than you budgeted for. If you go in knowing the caveats, you’ve already set yourself up better to avoid disappointment.
With that, focus on these next tactics that you can control.
2. Book flights with lower odds of a delay
As if traveling wasn't stressful enough right now, it’s impossible to guarantee your flight won’t be delayed, as even a private jet could still be subject to air traffic or weather delays. But certain booking strategies can at least increase the odds of on-time arrival:
Fly earlier in the day before a previous flight can delay your plans.
Avoid layovers if your budget and route allow.
Book with airlines with strong histories of on-time arrivals (Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines rank highest, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics).
3. Apply for TSA PreCheck
One of the easiest airport lines to avoid: the traditional security line. With TSA PreCheck membership, you can access dedicated, often-shorter lines that enable you to flow through faster. Plus, you won’t need to remove your shoes or laptops.
Applying for membership takes time, and perhaps money, too. But carving out time to apply now is likely better than cutting into your precious vacation time by standing in an annoying security line. The application fee is $78, but many travel credit card benefits include TSA PreCheck reimbursement.
4. Don’t check bags
Another line to skip? Bag check. While you can sometimes skip this line by holding airline elite status, the easiest way to skip it and avoid unnecessary travel obstacles is by not checking bags, period.
There are plenty of other reasons to pack light. There’s no risk of checked luggage getting lost if you fly carry-on only, and you won’t have to stand at the baggage carousel on the other end of your flight. And should you need to make a last-minute switch to another flight, you won’t be held back because your stuff is stuck on another aircraft.
5. Do pack a 'delay emergency' kit
While packing light is essential, make space for some essentials to account for one of the all-too-common travel problems: delays or other inevitable travel snafus. Things to include:
Packable snacks: “Hangry” travel can turn a bad trip worse. Jerkies and protein bars are filling, without filling up too much space in your bag. Plus, you’ll avoid long lines at airport cafes.
Portable chargers: If flights are delayed and the airport doesn’t have power outlets, you’ll stay plugged in.
Copies of your passport, COVID-19 vaccine proof and other important records: You might not necessarily need physical copies, but digital copies don’t take any space and might come in handy.
Entertainment: Bring a book or laptop so you’ve got entertainment if you get delayed.
6. Gift yourself lounge access
Speaking of what to do during a delay, the airport lounge might be your oasis. Airport lounges, which can typically be accessed via programs like Priority Pass (membership is sometimes included with certain credit cards), can sometimes make a delay not merely tolerable, but actually enjoyable.
Lounges vary in quality, but the best ones have luxuries like nap suites, Peloton bikes, showers and buffets. Consider travel hassles like delays simply as opportunities to treat yourself to another complimentary cappuccino.
7. Let your phone assist you
Smartphone apps can simplify travel. Most airlines and hotels now offer online or in-app check-in, upon which you’ll receive a mobile boarding pass or virtual room key to bypass the physical counter.
Just this year, Starbucks rolled out the ability to order ahead from many airport locations, removing yet another irritating line you might otherwise stand in.
Apps can also notify you of a flight delay, help navigate new routes due to traffic, and find cheap gas stations.
8. Reserve the 'pay later' rate, even if it’s more expensive
Many rental car companies and hotels allow you to reserve now, but don’t require payment until you arrive. Sometimes they offer a discount for paying upfront, which can be worth it if you’re certain you’ll make the trip.
But given the uncertainty of travel issues these days, it might be worth paying what’s likely only a small percent more. The trade-off — no headache of trying to get your money back — can be worth it.
Plus, if prices drop between booking and check in, you can rebook the same reservation at a lower rate. In fact, such occurrences are surprisingly common. Hotel room rates were cheaper 73% of the time when booked 15 days out versus four months out — with an average savings of 13% over the past three years, according to a 2021 NerdWallet study.
9. Consider an all-inclusive or group tour
Group tours and all-inclusives can sometimes be more expensive upfront, but they may entail less headache given there are fewer reservations to book (and worry about going awry). When you book guided group vacations, the trip is in your guide’s hands once you arrive.
Trip challenges — whether a vehicle breakdown, unanticipated closure or something else — are almost inevitable these days. But if the trip is up to the guide you hired, then problem-solving is largely up to them, too.
10. Have travel insurance
Travel insurance can help you get money back for canceled or interrupted trips. It can also fund expenses like additional clothing if your luggage gets lost or an extra hotel room if you need to stay overnight due to a flight delay.
Some credit cards offer travel insurance on trips purchased with that card.
Read the policy, though, as many plans come to your rescue only if you experience a covered reason, like an injury or jury duty. You generally can’t expect a refund if you cancel “just because,” unless you purchase the more expensive “Cancel For Any Reason” coverage. And even still, this more-flexible coverage typically only refunds about 50% to 75% of the total cost, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
11. Tip where appropriate
Travel is already expensive, and tipping can sometimes feel like something you do begrudgingly, especially when you’ve already been hit by rapid inflation, resort fees and maybe even a COVID-19 surcharge.
Tipping can help a likely overworked employee (as of May 2022, leisure and hospitality employment still remains roughly 8% below pre-pandemic levels, according to the U.S. Travel Association). Likewise, your generosity might literally pay off for you, too.
Tipping the cleaning staff at the hotel breakfast buffet might net you a complimentary premium drink from the coffee bar. Some cash for the hotel housekeeper might mean chocolates and towel animals on your bed.
12. Be kind to workers and fellow travelers
You don’t necessarily have to tip to get superior service — kindness is free. Berating the gate agent because your flight was delayed won’t get you there any faster (not to mention it’s likely not their fault the flight is late). But, being nice means they’re more likely to pull some strings to get you on another flight.
And try to be patient with and considerate of other travelers. For a lot of rusty travelers, it’s their first trip in years. And for some other travelers, they’re flying to their fifth wedding of the month. They deserve your sympathy, too.
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:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card