Many Americans are looking to travel this summer. Most hope to find a good deal.
Unfortunately, that's not how the law of supply and demand usually works.
Air travel has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. 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 that tracks trends on Airbnb and Vrbo.
Volatile oil prices could also impact summer travel costs. The price of U.S. Gulf Coast kerosene-type jet fuel hit $3.77 per gallon in March, up from $0.46 per gallon at its low point in May 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
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
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 for 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 March 2022 was up nearly 20% compared with 2019 levels.
Deals for summer travel in Mexico could still exist, but they'll 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," Lane says. "Demand has doubled over 2019."
Instead, Lane suggests targeting destinations that rely heavily on foreign visitors 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 could (and should) follow.
"A last-minute booking in Croatia? You're going to find a great deal," Lane says.
BOOK (SOME THINGS) LATE
The pandemic has 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 approach 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 your stay rather than a few months. Similarly, deals on rental cars are generally easier to find at the last minute.
This advice 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're more common a month or more out.
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, that's why 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's necessary.
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 Airlines could carry high change and cancellation fees. The same goes for basic economy fares, which usually can't be changed or canceled at all.