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Sold-out summer: 31 travel tips to keep your trip on track and on budget

April 28, 2022
17 min read
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As you've probably noticed, many people are planning to travel this summer. If that includes you, you should be making your plans already.

We're expecting a "sold-out summer" for travel, meaning many popular destinations and attractions will be either sold out or so ridiculously expensive they may as well be sold out.

So, how can you navigate this high-demand travel environment while controlling costs and minimizing headaches? Here are our top tips for navigating travel this summer, as well as how to overcome problems you might run into along the way.

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Score an affordable car rental

While not quite the same level of "car rental apocalypse" we saw last year, the ongoing car rental shortage means renting a vehicle this year will remain challenging. There are already some summertime sellouts happening in select leisure destinations.

Even when vehicles are not sold out, demand (and prices) are still quite high, in part because car rental companies haven't been able to replenish their fleets. Some car rental agencies have even resorted to buying used cars.

Planning ahead and leveraging your elite status can be the difference between getting a rental car this summer and not getting one at all, according to Jonathan Weinberg, founder of AutoSlash.

Book first, plan later

Prices rise and availability shrinks as you get closer to your travel dates, so take advantage of flexible car rental rules that usually provide a "pay later" option and book now, even if your plans aren't finalized. Since car rental prices are up 60% compared to pre-pandemic numbers, according to Weinberg, car rental prices may make or break some summer travel plans.

Use coupons or discount codes to save

If you're a member of AAA or AARP, have a Costco membership, are a veteran or work for a large company with a car rental discount code, pull all of these levers. You might be eligible for discount codes you didn't even know about.

And don't despair if none of those reduced rates applies to you. AutoSlash can track prices and look for eligible coupon codes, too.

Leverage elite status

Having elite status with a car rental company can be the difference between getting a car or not — even if you have a reservation. That's because cars are sometimes set aside exclusively for elite members.

Additionally, car rental program members can often skip the line at the counter and go straight to the lot, which can be what it takes to get one of the last vehicles. Luckily, you may already have a credit card that offers car rental elite status, which you could use to status match with other car rental loyalty programs.

Look beyond traditional companies and locations

Most people search for rentals at the airport with the standard companies. If you're not finding good results, consider off-airport locations or try alternatives like Kyte, Turo or Silvercar.

Consider a longer rental

If you're having trouble finding an available or affordable car rental, try adjusting the rental period. Here's an example of how adding one day to trigger a monthlong rental cut the price by about $3,000:

(Screenshot from autoslash.com)
(Screenshot from autoslash.com)

Just know you should plan to keep the car for the full rental period, as returning the car early has an inherent risk of the car rental company charging a fee or adjusting pricing back to the daily rate. But this avenue can unveil better prices and expanded inventory.

Get a hotel at the right price — and place

The bedroom in a luxury suite at Delta Hotels Toronto. (Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

The good thing about hotels is that there are usually a lot of options. The bad thing about hotels is that there are usually a lot of options.

Having multiple properties to choose from can sometimes make the process of picking one feel overwhelming. And if you have a stash of points, you can use those to narrow the field.

Here are our tips for locking in the right hotel for your trip.

Book early and use a flexible cancellation policy

Similar to car rentals, booking a refundable hotel that seems right while you finalize everything else may be the way to go, even if you're not 100% certain you'll stay at that hotel. Avoid "pay now" rates in favor of a room that you can change or cancel without fees. Many award bookings allow you to cancel up to a couple of days before check-in, but always double-check the terms.

Use your elite status

Some hotel programs set aside rooms for elite members or will bump non-elite guests in favor of those with status if all the rooms are booked. Taking this a step further, travelers with top-tier Globalist status in the World of Hyatt program have a concierge who can help reserve properties. Take advantage of these perks if space is limited.

Additionally, your elite status may be the key to money-saving perks such as waived resort or parking fees, free breakfast and complimentary lounge access.

Discover similar locations

If you don't need to be in a specific location, this may be the time to change things up a bit.

For example, if you're seeking time on the beach, consider the panhandle of Florida or even the coast of Alabama instead of Miami and other popular parts of South Florida. Think of places that seem similar but may have better pricing if you're running into sky-high rates.

Book directly

Instead of booking a room through a portal or online travel agency, reserve one directly with the hotel. By booking directly, you'll likely have access to more flexible terms, as hotel cancellation policies are typically more forgiving. Additionally, if something goes wrong, you'll have an easier time changing your itinerary since you'll be dealing with the hotel directly instead of a third party.

Consider alternative accommodations

If you can't find hotels that work for you, consider vacation rental platforms like Vrbo and Airbnb, as well as hotel-branded vacation rentals like Homes & Villas by Marriott, Mandarin Oriental Exclusive Homes and Accor-affiliated Onefinestay.

You can also go camping, glamping, stay in a "tiny home" or rent a recreational vehicle for a few nights. There are even ways to use points to book vacation home rentals.

Fly without breaking the bank

(Photo by Isabel Pavia/Getty Images)

You're not wrong if you think flights are more expensive. Flight bookings are up just 1.5% compared to April of 2019, yet spending is about 20% more than the same period, according to data from Adobe Analytics.

So, what are the most popular flight destinations? Currently, the top five locales are Yellowstone National Park and four different spots in Hawaii.

Even if you're not planning a trip to a national park or the Aloha State, high prices abound, especially if you're traveling around holidays and weekends this summer. Fortunately, there are several strategies to reduce the cost of your flights.

Let the prices and availability decide your destination

If you want deals, this summer may be the one to let flight deals inspire your next trip. Keep an eye on our flight deals, and book something that sounds interesting — either because of a good price or solid points and miles availability. The flexibility to go wherever the price is reasonable can lead to big savings.

Consider alternate airports

With prices on the rise, now is the time to be flexible and check all nearby airports.

For example, Houston and Chicago have two airports. The New York City area has three. It may even make sense to get to one city by flying to another before taking a short train ride for the rest of the journey, like flying into Philadelphia and catching a train up to New York. Strategies like this can help you get to your destination on a flight with better pricing or award availability.

Expand your search for awards when your first attempt strikes out if you want to avoid the highest prices this summer.

Use positioning flights

Positioning flights are not realistic for every situation or trip, but they can often offer better award availability or pricing than those from your home airport.

Can you get to your destination for a lot less by starting in Seattle or Chicago, for example? Would adding another flight to a different airport ultimately save you money or miles?

Just make sure you leave enough time between flights to avoid any unnecessary travel headaches.

Book a backup plan

If you can't get the flight you really want, book an alternative trip with that same airline. Then, get on the standby list for the flight you really want.

Plan your itinerary so you're at the airport in time to get on that other flight. You can also monitor other flights and take advantage of same-day change policies.

Fly on a holiday

Have you noticed that flights the day before Thanksgiving are extremely expensive, but flights on Thanksgiving morning are often cheaper? That's because everyone wants to get to their final destination before the holiday.

This phenomenon plays out during some summer holidays, too, so look to fly the morning of the holiday to see if that lowers the price.

Visit national parks for less and without the crowds

Capitol Reef National Park. (Photo by Mitch Diamond/Getty Images)

The busiest national park last year (Great Smoky Mountains National Park) saw 14.1 million visitors, according to statistics from the National Park Service. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve in Alaska saw just 145 visitors last year.

While the major parks are undoubtedly busy, there are still parklands that are less frequented than others, though you'll still want to plan ahead.

Here's everything to keep in mind for a national park adventure this summer.

Book in advance

Many parks require advance reservations for campsites and lodging inside the park's boundaries.

How far in advance you can book varies, but these limited reservations fill up quickly at the more popular parks. Find out when reservations open for the date you want, and plan to book as soon as possible.

Stay outside the park

SpringHill Suites Springdale Zion National Park. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

You might be dreaming of a night in a rustic cabin inside a national park, but getting that reservation could be challenging or costly, especially if you're unable to pay for it with points.

But just beyond the park, there's probably a hotel where you can pay with points. For example, the SpringHill Suites just outside of Zion is a great property if you have Marriott points to spend.

Make reservations

Some parks limit how many people can visit on any given day. Others place limits on how many people can go on a particular hiking trail. Some locations even require you to enter a lottery to get a chance to visit.

Apply for these permits and lotteries as early as possible for a better chance of securing access.

Avoid 'free days'

It may sound counterintuitive, but "free days" at national parks may not be the best time to visit, as they tend to be particularly busy.

Instead of visiting on a weekend, holiday or day with free admission, aim for an early morning in the middle of the week for more elbow room on hiking trails and at can't-miss natural wonders.

Visit alternative parks

Given the sheer number of national parks, national monuments, state parks and protected areas in the U.S., there's likely a parkland near you that isn't regularly packed with people. In fact, there may even be a park that offers similar geography to the one you're considering but with a slightly more remote location and, consequently, thinner crowds.

For example, the second-largest canyon in the U.S., Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle, sees 4 million fewer visitors per year than the Grand Canyon.

Plan for maximum enjoyment with minimum stress

(Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

You may have all types of activities in mind for this summer: theme parks, a road trip to visit grandparents or even an isolated beach getaway.

To cut down on travel headaches and bank account woes for the many trips you hope to take, consider these helpful tips.

Visit amusement parks on weekdays

While summer is a peak travel season since kids are out of school, many parents are still working Monday through Friday, meaning weekdays are generally less crowded. As a result, going to a theme park in the middle of the week and arriving early in the morning typically leads to shorter lines for rides and shorter waits at in-park dining venues. It may even help you score cheaper tickets and lodging.

Ditch major theme parks

Growing up in Ohio, I had easy access to Kings Island and Cedar Point — two great theme parks that didn't require flying to Florida or California.

Do as my parents did when I was a kid and look for regional parks that provide a lot of fun without the hefty price tag. Getting tickets will probably be easier, plus you may not need to add flights or hotels to the list of expenses.

Book Disney reservations early

You still need actual reservations (not just tickets) for Disneyland and Disney World. Just because you bought a ticket doesn't mean you're getting in.

To avoid any unexpected surprises when you show up, lock in your reservation as soon as possible to guarantee access to your preferred park, as they can and regularly do sell out.

Reserve airport parking in advance

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If flights and airports are packed, you can expect full parking lots, too.

Reserving airport parking ahead of time can be the difference between having a spot or not — or paying extra for the premium or far-away lot. If you aren't having any luck finding a space at the airport, try snagging one at an off-airport parking location that offers shuttle service to the terminals.

Take a road trip

When you fly, you may have to buy four tickets for your family. When you drive, you don't have to put gas in four cars.

Yes, gas costs more than normal right now, but a road trip may be calling your name this summer. An added bonus: Driving your own car means you won't need a rental car at your final destination.

Look for coupons and codes

You don't usually see Marriott or Delta Air Lines on Groupon, but activities are definitely more prolific.

Watch for coupons, group deals or sales for activities you're planning on doing during your trip. From roller coasters to roller derbies, the internet offers all kinds of deals, midweek sales and discount codes for activities that can lead to big savings.

Buy gift cards on sale

This tip can apply to many areas of life, but it's especially true for theme parks and other activities.

Your local supermarket, big-box store or office supply store may sell gift cards at a discount. E-commerce sites like Raise also sell discounted gift cards.

When buying gift cards, use shopping portals whenever possible and pay with a card that will earn maximum points. Once you have your gift cards in hand (or your email inbox), use them to purchase Disney tickets, a hot air balloon ride or whatever activity you're hoping to enjoy while on vacation.

Consider a cruise

The Carnival Cruise Line ship Mardi Gras departs Turku, Finland, on Sept. 28, 2020, for sea trials in the Baltic Sea. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

While we've written about sold-out theme parks and hard-to-come-by flight deals, you should know that cruises are not quite as expensive as many other types of summer vacation ... at least for now. With a cruise, you could simultaneously unlock serious savings and avoid crowds.

Book now for the future

You might feel iffy about being on a cruise ship right now, but maybe that will change in a year? Rather than regret not locking in a cruise when you had the chance, book a cruise now while prices are still low.

Cruise soon to avoid the crowds

Cruise lines are still recovering from the depths of the pandemic — more so than other types of travel. However, passenger numbers are increasing. So, if you want to sail on a vessel that isn't operating at full capacity, plan to cruise soon.

Look for bundles and packages

Not all cruise lines are reducing the prices per person. The president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which owns three cruise lines (Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises) specifically said in March the company wouldn't slash prices to fill rooms, for example.

But even when that's the case, you may find that where you can save is in bundling items. Search for deals on drink packages or onboard spending credits, or consider "kids sail free" options — even if the first number you see (the price for an adult) doesn't look like a bargain right away.

Bottom line

The summer of sold-out travel is coming.

It is possible, however, to avoid hordes of tourists if you're looking for some peace and quiet. You may even be able to visit a popular destination without spending a fortune, having a 16-hour layover or coughing up all of your airline miles to get there.

Regardless of where you plan on going, flexibility is the best thing you can bring to your travel plans this summer. Start planning now (if you haven't already) so you can make the most of your summer without breaking the bank.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases