9 Travel Tips for Your Post-Pandemic Vacation

In the U.S. the pandemic is winding down and travel is heating up. These tips can help you plan the vacation of your dreams without blowing up your budget.

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By the end of March 2020, almost all travel came to a screeching halt, due to COVID-19. Now that the pandemic seems to be waning in the U.S., all that stored up travel desire is about to come bursting out!

While international travel is still mostly shut down, nearly everyone I know has already taken or will shortly take some more “localized” vacations. I was supposed to depart on a European barge cruise in April, but that, of course, didn’t happen. But I’ve made plans to take an Alaskan vacation next year. And for this year, I’m testing the waters—not venturing too far from home—with mini-trips to Myrtle Beach, SC, Orlando, FL, Berea, KY and Bell Buckle, TN (you have to love some of these southern town names, don’t you?).

Those mini-vacations accomplish two things for me: 1) they are relatively inexpensive; and 2) the money I’m not spending in Europe will be allocated to my Alaskan trip in 2022.

And after speaking to friends and family around the country, and researching travel trends, I find that this strategy is pretty popular for travelers in the near future.

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer some facts and figures, as well as a few tips and tricks for traveling—both for shorter trips and for longer vacations.

Planning and Budgeting Can Save You a Bundle!
By now—if you’ve been reading this magazine for a while—you all probably realize that I’m a big fan of budgeting. And vacations almost always need to be part of your budget planning. I’ve found, over the years, if you do enough research, there are lots of ways to trim the costs of almost any vacation.

I’ll give you a couple of examples:

On my recent trip to Myrtle Beach, I paid $199 for three nights and four days at an oceanside villa. Sure, I had to listen to the 90-minute timeshare presentation (but it’s hard to sell a salesperson!), but other than that, my time was my own. Believe it or not, timeshares are still big business—there must have been at least 50 people in attendance at the presentation. And there are still many deals out there. I recently received another invitation to a timeshare in St. Croix for $599—a pretty good price, if you can get cheap airfare.

A few years ago, I went to Hawaii with a friend. I spent about a year and a half planning the trip, which gave me plenty of time to research the best deals. Here’s how we cut our expenses:

  • Free first class airfare, due to all of our business trips (as well as planning so far in advance)
  • Two nights free at the Hilton in Waikiki Beach—courtesy of our hotel rewards programs
  • Two nights free at the Sheraton in Maui—ditto, hotel rewards
  • $25/day rental car on all islands, through the bed and breakfast we stayed at in Kauai
  • One-half off: helicopter ride and snorkeling in Kauai; luau in Oahu; bike ride down Mt. Haleakala in Maui; and several dinners on each island—all due to buying a $28 entertainment book that covered all the islands.

So, as you can see, planning and budgeting are essential! Especially, as the cost of vacations is about to go up, up, up. I recently tried to rent a car in Orlando when I traveled there to speak at the Money Show—forget it! Nothing was available, and the expense was way too rich for my blood—I was quoted prices in the hundreds of dollars per day.

What Does a Vacation Cost These Days?
According to creditdonkey.com. the average vacation now runs you $1,145 per person (or $4,580 for a family of 4—about 8-9% of the average household income). Now, that’s just an average. You can certainly find trips less or more expensive than the average. For instance, if you take your family to Disney World in Orlando, don’t forget to bring a trunk load of cash! Mousehacking.com says a trip to the Mouse Kingdom for a family of four for five nights and days (including airfare, hotel, and a Disney dining plan) will cost you a “baseline” price of $5,239.

Those numbers do include the outrageous taxes and resort fees (up to $50 per day) tacked onto everything, and I mean everything! By the way, the most expensive cities in terms of these fees are Chicago, New York, and Minneapolis.

And while we’re on those fees, can someone please explain to me why I can stay at a Hampton Inn for less than $150/day and they give me free internet and breakfast, but if I vacation at an Omni, Gaylord or any higher end hotel that can set me back $300-$400 per night, I have to pay outlandish fees for parking my car, using their internet, and eating breakfast???

So, that leads me to Tip #1: Read the fine print—on everything—airplane tickets, hotel, and car reservations—before you click “purchase.” Those resort fees can really add up—and that goes for cruises too. Each time I have taken a cruise, using the internet on a daily basis has added up to $250 to my cruise cost. Note that today, there are plenty of cruise companies that are offering free internet, beverage tabs (can cost up to $50 per day), and even some excursions, so make sure you know what your total tab includes.

Tip #2: Think creatively to cut costs: Stay with family (alright, this may not be the optimum solution for a happy vacation, but if you like your family, the price is right!) Alternatively, a stay in New York City will set you back an average $392.95 per night, according to businesstravelnews.com, while Boston averages $344.49 and Nashville comes in at $225.97. You can also cut costs by driving, rather than flying. However, with the national fuel average at just over $3/gallon, and with cheap airlines around, that may not be true for all trips.

Dining out is frequently a highlight of travel and can be a big expense. But you can save money by limiting your splurging on one or two meals a day. Consider packing food. A family of four spends about $132 per day for food on vacation (that’s for meals—not alcohol, snacks, or even tips). And especially if you will be staying somewhere with kitchen facilities, plan to dine in a couple of days. You can also book hotels that offer a free breakfast. I love those places with waffle irons, as I rarely eat waffles at home! Also, consider eating at local restaurants, rather than the resorts. I always ask the bellhop or valet where they eat. I’ve found some great restaurants that way, including a now-defunct Mexican restaurant in an off-the strip Las Vegas hotel, where I once fed six people (with drinks) for $46! That’s probably why they closed, hmm?

Lastly, if you’re not sure if you can save money, just ask. At theme parks, opt for discount tickets if possible. At some parks, they are available for off-traffic/off-season times or for state residents. And don’t forget that AAA and AARP members, and veterans can get discounts of 10-15% at most hotels and may be eligible for other discounts at retailers, entertainment venues, or restaurants.

Tip #3: Saving for vacation: If you find it tempting to spend those dollars you are setting aside each week for vacation, consider opening a bank account dedicated to your vacation fund. Once you’ve budgeted your trip, calculate how much money you need to stow there each week. Then, deposit it, and forget about it! Out of sight, out of mind.

Planning Your Vacation
There are legions of travel websites. Some of my favorites are Expedia.com, trivago.com, priceline.com, and Hotels.com. But beware—I found out the hard way that if you book hotel rooms on these sites instead of the hotel website itself, you won’t always get points for your hotel rewards. This may also be true for rental cars.

So, make sure you book your stay so that you can earn rewards if you’re a frequent traveler. I always go to the large travel sites first, to see the rates and what’s available, and then book my stay at the hotel site. Sometimes, you’ll find that dates that aren’t available on the travel websites will be on the specific hotel site. The hotels often reserve a slate of rooms for guests that book through them.

And know that if you intend to use reward points, you’ll need to plan well ahead of your vacation. In some popular destinations, maybe even a year in advance.

And speaking of rewards, let’s looks at some of the best ways to earn them and some of the highest rated programs.

Tip #4: Find the best rewards programs and credit cards for traveling: If you’re a frequent traveler you may want to maximize your rewards programs benefits. You can find some of the best travel credit cards here, the best airline miles cards here and the best no-fee travel credit cards here. If you’re not interested in finding a new credit card, you can still take advantage of the best hotel rewards programs. Three resources that I like can be found at wallethub.com, clark.com, and pointswithacrew.com.

Tip #5: Travel Apps. For folks who love apps, there are many travel apps that can make your trip easier and sometimes, save you money that you can instead use on more vacation fun! These come from nomadicmatt.com and digitaltrends.com:

MyTSA keeps you updated on all the rules that you need to follow to get through security at airports. It also gives you access to live assistance from the Transportation Safety Administration, provides reports about how busy the airport is, how long security lines are, flight delays, weather conditions, and the ability to sign up for TSA PreCheck which enables a quicker route through the security lines.

LoungeBuddy. Those spiffy airline lounges can be just what you need on long layovers, but if you don’t have a membership, you can’t use most of them. This app tells you which lounges are in each airport, and will also tell those of us who don’t have lounge memberships where to find free lounges.

AirHelp. Boy, I could have used this all the times I’ve been stuck due to canceled flights: snow in Cleveland and Dallas, of all places; a blizzard in Idaho; overbooking in Las Vegas, due to an NCAA sweet 16 game; and thunderstorms in New York City and Atlanta—just to name a few!

And most times, you’re facing long lines to rebook your flight and even more of a nightmare trying to get a free hotel room overnight, or some kind of compensation. It’s no wonder that less than 1% of airline passengers even attempt to get any kind of compensation! This app claims to make that process simple and quick—attaining compensation. It will cost you, though—25% of your compensation—which sounds worth it, doesn’t it?

Airbnb. I’ve actually used this one, and it works pretty well in helping you book rooms and apartments. Another feature in the app is Trips, which offers Experiences—curated events with local guides—to choose from during your stay.

Skyscanner. This app finds cheap flights, hotels, and rental cars from more than 1,200 sources; it also alerts you to price changes.

HotelTonight offers last-minute discounts on hotel rooms, bookable in 10 seconds! It’s searchable by city, attraction, or map. The app offers 24/7 customer service.

Kayak is similar to Skyscanner, for hotels, flights and rental cars. It also offers a trip planner and exclusive deals. You can set price alerts, and use its Price Forecast to determine whether to buy now or wait.

TripIt is an organizer for your itinerary—just upload your confirmation details and it puts them together for easy access. It will also send you automatic notifications from airlines about flight delays and cancellations. Sounds like a great option for frequent travelers.

Booking.com includes more than 135 million reviews of hotels, motels, B&Bs, and luxury apartments. The app has 24/7 support and says the best hotel deals are bookable in seconds.

OpenRice is considered the Yelp of Asia, listing a city’s most popular restaurants, ratings, menus, and booking numbers. It has listings for Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Trail Wallet tracks your travel expenses. It allows you to set budgets, add expenses, and organize them by trip or date.

Uber. I’ve used Uber in many cities, and it has always worked just great. I rarely use rental cars anymore, as Uber is just more economical; I don’t have to search for a parking space in a strange city; and the drivers usually have lots of recommendations for local restaurants and attractions. Uber is available at 600-plus airports in more than 10,000 cities worldwide.

Hopper claims to find the cheapest possible price for a plane ticket, and notifies you when to buy by way of push notifications (pop-up messages).

Citymapper helps you find public transportation in 86 cities around the world. It also connects with some ridesharing services. And if you are not familiar with the city which you are visiting, the app will alert you when your stop is coming up.

Google Maps. I use this almost more than any other app. I moved to a new city about a year and a half ago. At that time, my car’s GPS hadn’t been updated for a while, and I relied almost exclusively on this app. Even today, with a new vehicle, I find it’s almost always faster and easier than my car’s navigation system

Choosing the Right Tour Operator, Hotel, and Cruise Line
Tip #6: Determine the goal for your vacation—relaxation, adventure, exotic, luxury, family, or a trip with friends—and research accordingly.

Once you’ve figured that out, you are ready to research the vacation sites that will best fit your needs by vacation type.

Cruises: There are a wide variety of cruise types available, and you can research cruises by category. Alternatively, if you know what type of cruise you’re looking for, there are sites that allow you to prioritize searches for small-ship cruises, sailing or yachting.

Tour groups: If highly coordinated tour groups are more your speed, and you’re looking to maximize every minute of your vacation, smartertravel.com allows you to search for the best group tour companies.

Relaxation Vacations: If you picture yourself wrapped in a robe, with cucumber patches on your eyes while a masseuse kneads out your tension, you may want to consider a luxury spa vacation. But before you book your stay, you’ll need to decide what kind of spa vacation is the right one for you. For instance, do you want nothing more than pampering? Or do you want to lose a few pounds? Or maybe a combination of pampering and exercise? This site will help you determine that.

Once you’ve got a handle on the type of spa vacation you desire, townandcountrymag.com and hgtv.com can help you locate the perfect spa.

Adventure: What’s on your bucket list? Hiking up 17,598 feet to Mt. Everest base camp (be ready to spend at least three weeks and $5,000-$8,000); heli-skiing in Colorado, about $5,000; scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef (about $4,000-$6,000); an Amazon River Cruise (about $1,500-$2,000)? Each of those adventures are offered by many tour companies, and you can google your specific adventure to see the cost of the trip. But when I’m researching something that’s going to cost me several thousand dollars, I like to start broadly, so in this case, I would recommend beginning with some of the big tour companies, such as mstobek.com,  gadventures.com, zegrahm.com or adventure.travel.

Exotic Vacations: Do you yearn to see unusual places like the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Japan, the Forest of Knives in Madagascar, Machu Picchu in Peru, or Easter Island in Chile? Expatexplore.com can help you identify some of the most exotic vacations, as can lifehack.org. If you’re adventuring on a budget, try tripstodiscover.com.

Luxury Vacations: Does the idea of traveling in style to Greece, the Maldives, Fiji, or anywhere in Europe, put stars in your eyes? If so, you can find tour operators and cruises that offer the best vacations at premium prices with kensingtontours.com, nationalgeographic.com, theconteclub.com and aboardtheworld.com. If you’re specifically looking for luxury cruise lines, usnews.com has you covered.

Family Vacations: Of course, Disney! But pretty much any amusement park will thrill the little ones.

Many families like cruising, and Disney Cruise, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises are rated as the best.

As for child-friendly hotels, start with this list from U.S. News.

Singles: If you are single and want to meet new friends, you may want to try starting with goaheadtours.com and gadventures.com (or here if you’re over 50).

Romance: Planning a cozy trip for two? Try this list of romantic hotels:

RV’g: Do you dream of driving cross-country in a recreational vehicle, enjoying the flexibility of stopping when and where you want? Well, that’s going to set you back $55-$499 per night. You might want to start with Outdoorsy, Cruise America, or RVshare.

But if you go that route, you do need to make advance reservations at campgrounds; otherwise, you will find yourself “boondocking” (camping off the grid). And if you opt for campgrounds, plan to spend $25-$80 per night. Gorving.com, koa.com and reserveamerica.com are a few good websites to research your campgrounds.

Tip #7: Questions to ask your tour operator. Before you book your trip, here are some questions you may consider asking your tour operator:

  1. What is their COVID-19 vaccination policy?
  2. How long have they been in business? Do they offer references?
  3. Does the tour company have all necessary licenses/approvals and insurance depending on the state/country in which it is registered?
  4. Is the company financially sound?
  5. Is the coach driver a safe driver and also friendly, kind, and helpful?
  6. Details of exactly what is included in the tour price. For example, individual tour tickets, food, types of lodging, etc.
  7. How much physical exertion is required?
  8. In what languages will the tour be given?
  9. Is the tour guide a local?
  10. What training do their tour guides receive?
  11. What is the average group size? Ages?
  12. What is their cancellation/refund policy?
  13. Is the company a member of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) or National Tour Association (NTA)? These are professional associations for world-wide tour operators that conduct business in North America.

Tip #8: Foreign travel tips: Traveling internationally sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And while it’s not yet feasible to pick up your suitcase and travel anywhere in the world, it’s a good idea to be prepared—when those exotic ports-of-call reopen, post-pandemic. And when that happens,  there are some precautions that you need to observe to make sure your trip is all that you want it to be. These tips are from smartertravel.com:

Focus on safety. 

  1. Investigate travel alerts, which are constantly updated by the State Department.
  2. Buy travel insurance. It doesn’t cost that much, but sometimes, life intervenes with your travel plans, necessitating a cancellation of a trip. You don’t want to spend $5,000 on a trip and lose it all because you didn’t pay $350 for a travel insurance policy.

Make sure you have updated travel documents. Right now, tour operators are requiring that your passport doesn’t expire until six months after you return from your trip. Currently, it can take 18 weeks or more to get a passport in the U.S. Some places require a visa, and that can take 3-5 weeks to obtain. Check this website for countries for which you need a visa.

Keep physical and digital copies of your passport and all your paperwork. I email myself a photo of my documents and also carry the copies with me. Additionally, I give a copy to a family member or friend, in case my luggage is stolen or for an emergency.

Tell your bank and credit card companies where and when you are going. That way, there won’t be any issues with charges or debit cards being declined. Make sure you inquire about international ATM fees, in case you find yourself short of cash. And take more than one credit card with you.

Get required vaccinations 4-6 weeks before your trip. It takes a while to build full immunity, and you want to make sure any adverse reactions are taken care of well in advance. Here is a site that provides information on which vaccinations you need for various countries. And have your vaccination record ready for customs inspections.

Familiarize yourself with your destination. You’ll want to know about customs, appropriate clothing, currency exchange rates, a smattering of phrases in the local language, and tipping norms.

Determine how to use your cell phone in foreign locales. This may be as simple as stopping by your cell phone provider’s business or searching their website, but double-check everything you’re told or read. I’ve made some very expensive mistakes by not verifying what I was told before traveling overseas. This also applies to cruises; each cruise line seems to have its own special connection to one or more cell phone providers, so make sure you know what your plan covers, and how much foreign calls will cost.

Take extra chargers and/or batteries for your electronics.

Download books, songs, maps, etc. before you go.

Carry on-board: travel documents, medications, insurance, ID’s, chargers, cash, credit and debit cards, electrical converters/adapters, headphones, pain reliever, earplugs, eye masks, sleeping aids, antibacterial wipes, sweater/light jacket, and cell phones.

Tip #9: Pack Efficiently!

You probably are fully aware of this, but airline fees are rising. And if your bag weighs more than 50 pounds (40 on some of the discount airlines), you can find yourself paying an extra $150 for that privilege! Alternatively, a second checked bag may only cost you an extra $45.

Listen, almost everywhere you go has running water, so consider handwashing some items so that you don’t have to pack so much. I always start out with my “wants.” Then, I parse through every item, decide what I can wear a couple of times (or wash), and start winnowing down my wardrobe. I usually end up with about one-half to two-thirds of the clothes and shoes with which I started. You won’t need the “just-in-case” stuff that clutters up your travel bag.

There’s also something called the 5,4,3,2,1 rule: Limit yourself to no more than five sets of socks and underwear, four tops, three bottoms, two pairs of shoes and one hat. You can add a dress, jacket, or swimsuit, if needed, for your particular destination.

Here are some popular methods for the actual packing of your clothes:

  1. Choose clothes in the same color family so you can mix and match. And no matter how cute those red shoes look with your capris, leave them at home. Pack black or brown, so you can use them with several outfits. The same goes for jewelry—pack items that can be worn several times.
  2. Think wrinkle-resistant fabrics! You can google lots of web sites that sell travel clothing, or you can just read labels (and save money!). For women, I found that retailer Chico’s has a great selection of clothing that travels well.
  3. Use your shoes to store smaller items, like underwear, running shorts, socks, etc. Then put them in a plastic bag to protect the rest of your clothing from dirty soles.
  4. Roll your clothes to save space and to help keep them wrinkle-free.
  5. Use packing cubes—great for separating outfits!
  6. Wrap consecutively larger items around smaller ones, which also helps minimize wrinkles.
  7. Fold your clothes the Marie Kondo way. This is my favorite way to pack now; it really does decrease wrinkles!
  8. Put the clothes you will use first on the top of the pile.
  9. Cover your pile of clothes with a dry cleaning bag; because it is slippery and moves around, it will help keep your clothes from wrinkling. If you have extra bags, put one between each clothing layer. And speaking of wrinkles, it’s difficult to pack completely wrinkle-free, but if you hang the outfit you are going to wear next on the bathroom door, the shower steam will help “iron” it.

Here’s how to pack your toiletries:

  1. Use travel size bottles; you can buy empty ones or your favorite brands in most discount stores.
  2. Leave a little room at the top of your bottles, since the storage compartments on airplanes are not pressurized. Overfilled bottles can explode, and your clean clothes are at risk!
  3. When you return home after a trip, refill your bottles, so they are ready for your next travels.

Here’s how to pack your jewelry:

  1. Pack only inexpensive items in your stowed luggage.
  2. If you must take expensive pieces, wear them. I don’t even put expensive jewelry through the TSA scanners. I know a couple of people whose jewelry somehow disappeared in the scanner.

Lastly, put some thought into the size of your suitcase. Unless you are going for several weeks, honestly, no one really needs that 30” bag! It’s bulky; it’s heavy; and you are probably going to overpack it (increasing your travel costs).

I hope that these tips will help you plan the best vacation you’ve ever had. And my last tip: Have fun and make great memories!

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