That first post-vaccine vacation is finally a possibility for many, but after more than a year without travel, the sticker shock is no joke. In general, travel prices are increasing to reflect higher demand. According to the U.S. Travel Association Travel Price Index for May 2021, airfare is up 24.1% and lodging prices are up 10% year over year.
Nothing will stamp out that after-travel sense of bliss like getting a credit card bill full of vacation splurges. With some creativity and planning, your trip can be budget-friendly without feeling cheap.
Use credit card perks
Airline and hotel credit cards can provide valuable VIP treatments for those with good credit. Some offer free checked bags on flights, which can be worth around $60 each round trip you fly with the airline. Other cards offer discounts on in-flight food and beverage purchases, complimentary airport lounge access and hotel room upgrades that can enhance your trip at no extra cost. These cards usually come with an annual fee, but the value they offer can be worth the cost for many travelers.
Read: 10 ways to score a hotel deal this summer — and why it’s not too late
Think outside the big brands
If you’re not loyal to a well-known hotel chain, co-branded credit cards aren’t as helpful. Instead, look for deals on rates at independent hotels. Becky Pokora, founder of the travel blog SightDoing, finds that independent hotels can be 20%-30% cheaper than equivalent chain brands.
“In past years, everybody kind of had to play on the same level to attract travelers, but this year there’s so much demand,” she says. “The obvious answers get booked up fast, leaving these independent places having to compete more.”
See: Spirit Airlines CEO apologizes for mass flight cancellations
Save money on getting around
Ground transportation is increasingly expensive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer-price index for car and truck rentals increased 109.8% from May 2020 to May 2021. Because of COVID-19, the number of drivers working for ride-sharing services is down, affecting availability and pricing. To save time and money, consider other ways to navigate your destination:
- Walk and take public transit: If you’re able to walk longer distances and use public transit, you can save a lot on transportation costs. Unique transit options like ferries, cable cars and gondola lifts double as fun tourist experiences. In cities like New York and San Francisco, you can walk on world-famous bridges free.
- Stay close to the action: It can cost more to stay in the heart of a city, but a hotel in a far-flung location means you have to spend time and money getting into town every day. You may also need to rent a car to get into the city, which adds to the expense. It can be worth it to spend a bit more (or tap into travel credit card rewards that you’ve earned) to book a stay at a well-located hotel, or at least a hotel near public transit that can whisk you into the city quickly.
- Be strategic when renting a car: There’s no need to book a rental car from the moment you arrive until the day you leave if it’s just going to sit in the hotel parking lot and rack up parking fees for half the trip. Arrange your travel itinerary so you can manage a few days without a car, then rent one for the part of the trip where you need to drive. A car rental location within the city may also be more cost-effective than renting a car at the airport. For example, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport near Washington, D.C., fees, including a concession recovery fee and customer facility charge, drive up rental prices. At a rental car location in downtown D.C., the base price for a similar car is higher, but with fewer fees, you may end up spending less overall.
See: He wanted to find a rental car at a reasonable price — it was cheaper for him to rent a U-Haul truck
Save money on souvenirs
Bringing home souvenirs and gifts can get expensive, and your minimalist friends may not want another trinket that will just collect dust. This is where grocery stores come in handy. They’re great places to find local foods and snacks for a reasonable price (and consumable gifts don’t take up space for long).
You might like: New York icon Ian Schrager has seen the high-end hotel future: We’re carrying our own bags
Pokora offers a creative way to spend less: Instead of buying food and drink items for all your friends, buy a few things, then host a tasting when you get home. You’ll bring people together for a cost-effective shared experience.
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Sara Rathner writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @sarakrathner.