Larger Crowds, Less Chaos: Why Summer Travel May Be Less Bumpy

2022 was the year of revenge travel. Travelers took trips they skipped in 2020 and 2021, catching up on a backlog of weddings and family reunions. Others finally checked off bucket list trips.

Travel came back strong, resulting in high prices and packed airports. But with the surge, chaos often ensued. Hotels cut back on housekeeping, largely driven by a hotel worker shortage. Car rental costs spiked due to high demand and low supply. The flight delay rate hit highs not seen since 2014. All that culminated into major, distressing events shared by many travelers, such as the Southwest Airlines holiday meltdown.

But if 2022 felt crowded, 2023 could be more so. Checkpoint data from the Transportation Security Administration for two out of the first three months of the year show that average airport passenger counts have actually exceeded their 2019 levels — and they’re set to keep growing.

“In January, we experienced our first full month where travel volumes exceeded the same month in 2019,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske in a prepared statement. “We fully expect to see an upward trend in travel volumes throughout 2023.”

Why big crowds might not be as big a concern

While travel volumes are shaping up to be even bigger than their pre-pandemic numbers, things might not feel as brutal as they were last year.

Staff shortages are less dire

A huge contributor to travel chaos was staffing shortages, which is a problem that’s recently lessened, according to an American Hotel & Lodging Association survey of more than 500 hotel owners in January 2023. While 79% of respondents still report staffing shortages, that’s a steady decrease from the 87% who said they were short-staffed in AHLA’s September 2022 survey.

Costs are leveling off

Sure, inflation is impacting the travel industry, but some travel expenses are actually cheaper than last year.

Average prices for both hotel room rates and airfares hit record highs in May 2022. But February 2023 airfares are down 18% from May 2022 records, according to a NerdWallet analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index data. February hotel prices, while up 15% versus prices in February 2020 (the last month before U.S. lockdowns), have dropped more than 6% from their record highs in May 2022.

Supply is increasing

Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted travel habits (e.g., preference for the privacy of a vacation rental versus the shared hallways of a hotel), the industry struggled to keep up with demand. That’s set to change.

According to vacation rental data platform AirDNA, vacation rental supply increased 25% in the third quarter of 2022 versus the same quarter in 2021. The increased supply means that occupancy rates are actually set to decline. That’s good news for travelers as they’ll have more lodging options.

Air travel supply is also increasing. Domestic seat capacity in January has already beat 2019 levels. In January 2023, U.S. airlines had 6% more seats available for booking compared to January 2019, according to data from travel booking app Hopper.

How to plan for travel crowds

Book now

Beat everyone else to the best reservation availability by booking early. Some travelers hold out for a last-minute deal, but you might be able to get the best of both worlds: Many rental car and hotel companies allow you to make a reservation now, but you don’t pay for it until you arrive at the check-in counter (and sometimes not until you return the car or check out of the hotel).

If you make a reservation and then spot a lower deal, you can rebook at a lower price and cancel the original reservation (sometimes you can call customer service and they’ll honor the lower rate without going through the hassle of rebooking). Always read the fine print for any terms around cancellation, but this typically works at hotels and rental car companies where you pay in person at the counter or hotel desk.

Travel in the offseason

Avoid traveling during busy seasons like summer, long holiday weekends and the winter holidays.

However, if you want to avoid the sluggishness of the offseason, you can book during another time of year instead: shoulder season.

Use credit card points and miles

Inflation is hitting especially hard this year, but points inflation is real — and occurs almost every year as hotels and airlines regularly raise the number of points and miles needed to book travel.

But in 2023, some rewards are more valuable. That’s because while many cash prices have increased, some points redemption rates haven’t caught up yet. Inflation is rough, but the good news is it makes those credit card points and frequent flyer miles that much more valuable.

Sally French writes for NerdWallet.

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Airbnb Cleaning Fees Can Be Brutal. Here’s How to Cope

Between the higher prices and reduced service, hotels have been getting a lot of flak recently. But in the debate between hotels versus Airbnbs, there’s one common Airbnb fee that you likely won’t find at hotels — at least not yet: cleaning fees.

Hidden travel costs like cleaning fees are commonplace on Airbnb. They are explained as a one-time fee pocketed by the host to cover the cost of cleaning their space. Cleaning fees come on top of the base price and a service fee (which Airbnb pockets).

But why are Airbnb cleaning fees so high — or are they? Just how much do Airbnb cleaning fees cost?

A June 2022 NerdWallet analysis looked at data from 1,000 U.S. Airbnb reservations with check-in dates in 2022 or 2023 across a range of locations, sizes and quality. The analysis only considered “entire place” properties, as opposed to part of a shared home.

Let’s dig into what we found about the dreaded Airbnb cleaning fee.

What Airbnb cleaning fees cost

Cleaning fees vary wildly, ranging from $0 to many hundreds of dollars. The median cleaning fee per listing for a one-night stay was $75, based on NerdWallet’s analysis.

Of the listings analyzed, 14% didn’t have a cleaning fee at all. With these stays, the base rate includes not just the ability to lay your head on that pillow, but to have it cleaned too — much like a hotel.

And while the median cleaning fee is $75, it’s important to understand the cleaning fee relative to the broader cost of the home rental. A $75 fee to clean up a 12-bedroom ski cabin might feel like a deal, but a $75 cleaning fee on a simple 400-square foot studio apartment might feel outrageous.

The $75 median cleaning fee amounts to about 25% of the total price paid for one-night stays at the listings analyzed. In fact, 34% of listings had a cleaning fee that was somewhere between 20 and 29.99% of the list price.

About a third of listings had cleaning fees amounting to less than 20% of the price. Surprisingly, 8% of listings had a cleaning fee that amounted to 40% or more of the overall price tag, assuming you stayed in the Airbnb for just one night. And some outliers are especially mind-boggling.

With that in mind, NerdWallet compared the cleaning fee against the base price.

Most low-cost Airbnbs have low-cost cleaning fees, hence the large cluster of dots in the bottom-left corner. Certainly, some expensive listings have hefty cleaning fees, hence the results on the opposite end of the chart.

But then there are some standouts. There’s a $1,000 listing with a $0 cleaning fee. There’s a $304 listing with a $300 cleaning fee.

And then, there are the bizarre cases where the cleaning fee is more than the base price.

Depending on seasonal rates, you might end up paying more for cleaning than you do for your stay.

Here’s one example of that — a four-bedroom Airbnb in Scottsdale, Arizona. Prices vary by night, with summer stays typically costing a lot less than in cooler seasons. In July, you can book one night for just $151. But the cleaning fees are fixed at $239, meaning that the $151 July nightly rate comes with a $239 cleaning fee — far more than the base rate itself. During Christmas weekend, the same listing has a nightly rate of $408. That makes the cleaning fee still hefty, but far more palatable.

The problems with Airbnb cleaning fees

Finding a listing in your price range can be tough

Cleaning fees can be hard to parse and make filtering listings by price complicated. You might have a nightly lodging budget of $200, so you set your filter to display homes with a maximum price of $200. But in doing so, you might still end up paying more, as you might find a delightful $100-per-night home with a $150 cleaning fee. Likewise, you might overlook a $210 per night home with a $0 cleaning fee.

There currently is no way to filter Airbnb rentals by cleaning fees.

You may still have to clean up after yourself

Just as hosts can set their own prices and fees, they can set their own house rules. It’s not uncommon for hosts to ask guests to take out the trash, run the dishwasher or start a load of laundry with the towels and sheets.

There’s no rule saying that Airbnbs can’t do both — charge cleaning fees and require some light housekeeping. That has caused outrage among some travelers.

You’re going to get “graded” as a guest

Because hosts can review guests, there is some pressure to be a good guest and follow the checkout cleaning protocols, as a bad review could jeopardize your ability to book future Airbnb stays.

Contrast that with hotel stays, which typically don’t require that guests have an account or positive reviews to stay. Unless you did something really bad, a major hotel chain won’t ban you, even if you tracked sand all over the floor and left towels strewn about everywhere.

One way to reduce Airbnb cleaning fees

Stay longer. Because cleaning fees are a one-time fee, you’ll pay the same rate whether you stay one day, two days or two weeks. So if the cleaning fee amounts to 25% of the rate for one night, it drops down to 12.5% of the rate for two nights. Spread a $150 cleaning fee over a two-week stay, and the cleaning fee shakes out to only about $10 per day. Had you stayed only one day, you’d still owe $150.

In general, Airbnbs tend to be far cheaper for long-term stays than hotels. But for short-term stays, it’s almost always cheaper to stay in hotels — and cleaning fees are a huge reason why.

If you can design your trip so that you stay in one Airbnb for many days versus staying at multiple Airbnbs over the same period, you’ll almost always save money.

When trip planning, choose a home base. If you’re planning a multi-week road trip in California, you might opt for an Airbnb in Orange County, as it’s roughly 100 miles south of Santa Barbara and 100 north of San Diego, making it possible to drive to both in one day. It’s also an even shorter drive to Los Angeles and Temecula.

Say you’re hitting Arizona and Utah’s canyon-filled recreational areas with national park visits to Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon. It might make more sense to book an Airbnb for longer in Kanab, Utah, which sits roughly in the center of the three parks.

Airbnb cleaning fees are brutal for short trips. If anything, the knowledge that you can spread out your cleaning fee over an extended stay might be an incentive to treat yourself to a vacation that’s a little longer.

Sam Kemmis contributed to this piece.

Sally French writes for NerdWallet.

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Are Airbnbs Really Cheaper for Large Groups?

For all the debate around whether Airbnbs are better than hotels, there’s one scenario where many seem to assume Airbnb is always superior: group travel.

Airbnbs can keep groups together. Staying under the same roof can simplify meetups. If the whole party starts and ends their days together, it can be easier to account for everyone. And seating the crew around a giant kitchen table might be easier than getting a group dinner reservation.

And a lot of travelers tend to assume that Airbnbs (or vacation rental alternatives like Vrbo or Hipcamp) are cheaper for large groups. But are they? And if so, how much cheaper?

A June 2022 NerdWallet study analyzed 1,000 U.S. Airbnb reservations with check-in dates in 2022 or 2023. Properties encompassed a range of locations and quality — though the study only considered “entire place” properties (as opposed to a single room in a larger home). Those Airbnb prices were then compared against a NerdWallet database of nearly 1,000 U.S. hotel rooms in the same cities, also spread across a range of classes and locations.

At first glance, Airbnbs always appear more expensive. Whereas the median nightly U.S. hotel room was $178, the median Airbnb was $314 (both inclusive of all taxes and fees).

But those two comparisons aren’t exactly fair. After all, a hotel room can likely only accommodate two people, whereas Airbnbs can often accommodate more than that. Thus, when broken down per person, Airbnbs can often be far cheaper — and here’s how much.

Hotels vs. Airbnb: What’s the cost per person?

NerdWallet broke out the price per head to understand whether Airbnbs are really cheaper for groups.

This study assumed two adults per hotel room. That’s because — while some hotels charge the same price whether four adults cozy up across two queen beds in one room — others actually charge more. A separate NerdWallet analysis of U.S. Hilton room rates found that prices tend to average 11% more when the reservation is for four versus two adults.

For Airbnb stays, NerdWallet grouped rentals into two categories: rentals with a max capacity of two adults and rentals with a max of six adults.

In almost every scenario, groups of six save significantly when booking a large Airbnb versus three hotel rooms. But for groups of two, hotels tend to come out cheaper per head. Here’s the cost breakdown per person:

For groups of six, the median nightly price per person to stay in a large Airbnb was about 33% cheaper versus booking three hotel rooms. But a single hotel room turns out to be 29% cheaper than a small Airbnb.

But those are nationwide numbers, and there can sometimes be high variability depending on the location. Here were some standout cities in NerdWallet’s research:

In Chicago and Dallas, the median hotel price was always more expensive than Airbnbs per head, no matter the group size. Meanwhile, the median hotel in Los Angeles and Philadelphia was always cheaper than Airbnb.

Yet in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Akron, Ohio, prices were mixed. Hotels were cheaper than Airbnbs for groups of two, but more expensive for groups of six.

When a hotel still might make sense for large groups

Just because the cost per head is lower doesn’t necessarily mean you should ditch the hotel for your family reunion, bachelorette party or other group trip. In some scenarios, hotels are still superior for groups.

You can earn or redeem loyalty rewards

While there are some backdoor ways to earn or redeem points on Airbnb stays, Airbnb doesn’t have its own loyalty program. Points, which can often be easily attained through hotel credit card sign-up bonuses, can make hotels free or cheap. Hotel loyalty programs also tend to include money-saving benefits like free hotel night certificates and free breakfast.

For a large group heading to Disneyland, the Hyatt Place Anaheim’s free breakfast buffet can be faster than cooking at the Airbnb kitchen, and cheaper than paying for theme park meals. (Photo courtesy of Hyatt)

You’ll maximize the amenities

Speaking of free hotel breakfast, many major hotel chains promise it. Some, like Embassy Suites by Hilton, additionally offer a free evening happy hour including appetizers.

If cooking in the Airbnb is not your jam, then a large group could quickly rack up a big restaurant bill. Keeping the group together at the hotel breakfast buffet might be easier anyway.

Hotels are also more likely to offer amenities and conveniences like an airport shuttle, kid’s club or a crib that you likely won’t find in an Airbnb.

The location is more convenient

While the study evaluated hotels versus Airbnbs in the same cities, it wasn’t able to account for granularity of location. Often, hotels are in the heart of the city near prime tourist attractions. Airbnbs, while cheaper, might be 5 miles away. Staying at an Airbnb, you might need a rental car (and maybe a few) if your group is big. A well-situated hotel might enable you to walk and ditch the rental car completely. That could be a particular money saver these days, considering May 2022 rental car prices are up 69% versus the same month in 2019, according to Consumer Price Index data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When an Airbnb might still make sense for couples

Yet even if the sticker price is more expensive, you might find Airbnbs makes sense. Here are a few reasons why.

An Airbnb in Sydney, Australia. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

You need features like a kitchen or laundry

Even if a kitchen is promised, hotel kitchens tend to be middling (often consisting of a mini fridge, a microwave and a cooktop — if you’re lucky). Laundry almost always costs extra.

While not always the case, most Airbnbs include full kitchens and laundry rooms. According to the USDA, the cost of food in the U.S. for the average adult cooking at home in May 2022 ranged from about $55 and $100 per person, per week, with variations based on amount and quality of food consumed. When exclusively dining out on vacation, it can be easy to spend that much per day.

And while cooking at home can be a money saver for penny pinchers, it could be a lifesaver for those with dietary restrictions. For outdoor trips involving adventures like skiing or fishing, laundry might be necessary.

You’re staying in a remote area

While trips to National Parks or other remote outdoor areas are becoming more popular, the number of hotels accessible to those areas hasn’t caught up. The closest Marriott to Maine’s Acadia National Park is still about an hour away, yet there are dozens of Airbnb listings on Mount Desert Island, where the park is located. Hilton only just opened its first hotel this May in the Yosemite area — the Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite.

When hotels are sold out, outrageously expensive or nonexistent, vacation rentals might be your only option.

Airbnb once offered a Winnie-the-Pooh-themed “Bearbnb” near London. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)

You want a unique experience

While some say Airbnb has lost its luster as mom-and-pop vacation rentals give way to corporate property management behemoths, some Airbnbs are still delightfully charming. If you’re seeking to cozy up to the locals, you’ll more likely befriend your Airbnb host who made you breakfast versus the bellhop who brought your bags to your room.

And while you can certainly find unique hotels, you’ll have better luck on Airbnb reserving a geodesic dome on the beach, a treehouse or a one-of-a-kind Hundred Acre Wood replica on Airbnb.

The bottom line

Airbnbs are typically more expensive for parties of two versus traditional hotels. But, they tend to be far cheaper for larger groups seeking a multiroom vacation rental versus booking multiple hotel rooms.

It’s unlikely that six people will all cram into one hotel room together, yet booking three hotel rooms can get pricey. Airbnbs can help you keep the group together and, in most cities, save you money.

In short, large groups should almost always consider Airbnbs if budget is a priority. But do your own comparison shopping before booking, as prices can vary by city.

Sam Kemmis and JT Genter contributed to this piece.

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Should You Use Buy Now, Pay Later Services for Travel?

Buy now, pay later services are an increasingly popular way to purchase products online. These services often target young shoppers through social networks and promote the ability to purchase products like clothing or makeup via a small down payment followed by installment payments to cover the difference.

But it’s not just physical stuff that you can click to buy and pay in full later. Travel providers have jumped on the trend by partnering with these services, which include Affirm and Uplift, to let you fund your vacation in small payments — sometimes even after you’ve finished the trip.

Affirm began partnering with Vacasa vacation rentals in February 2021 and then American Airlines in October 2021. Afterpay lets you use its service when you book through online travel agencies Klook and Agoda, and you can even order tickets to the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” United Airlines flights can be paid for later through Uplift.

Payment plans to cover vacations aren’t new. Charging your vacation to credit cards was an option before these services began, and many travel agencies have long offered payment plans. Buy now, pay later payment options are the shiny, technology-based version of payment programs like layaway or deferred interest.

Buy now, pay later” services can be handy in some circumstances, but there are drawbacks to taking on this kind of debt.

The problems with using buy now, pay later to book travel

They make travel seem cheaper than it really is: Breaking down one big payment into multiple, smaller payments can make a purchase seem more affordable than it is and perhaps is psychologically satisfying. But adding up all the payments can end up the same, or sometimes even more due to interest, than the full quoted cost.

For example, a two-bedroom Vacasa vacation rental for a three-night stay cost $1,399. But Affirm markets it as six monthly payments of $233.

You might scoff at lodging expenses for a three-day weekend that may be more than a month’s rent. But don’t be fooled when you see the $233 offer — you’re still paying the $1,399, just not all in one go.

It’s usually not a good way to build credit: Sezzle proudly proclaims that it has “zero impact on your credit.” Afterpay advertises that it doesn’t conduct credit checks.

“We don’t believe in preventing people from accessing Afterpay because they may have had an old debt from a long time ago. And we don’t believe that missing a payment with Afterpay should result in a bad credit history,” according to a company statement.

While that notion has its merits, it does mean that people who might already have a history of debt are getting access to loans that they might be unable to pay off — in turn digging them into deeper debt.

In fact, Afterpay doesn’t affect your credit scores, period, so even a pristine, on-time reputation won’t help your scores. Had you paid on time through a traditional credit card, that information would be reported to the three credit bureaus and likely help your credit.

You could end up owing more than you thought in interest: Some services charge fees. Affirm typically charges interest on longer loans, but won’t charge fees on shorter loans. In the previous Vacasa example, you won’t owe interest if the loan is paid off within six months. But if you opt to pay in 12 monthly installments of $116.67 over the course of a year, you’ll also owe Affirm nearly $120 in interest fees. That turns what could have been a nearly $1,400 cabin into a $1,520 cabin.

Most other types of loans charge interest too. In fact, the average interest rate for a co-branded credit card in 2020 was 25.7%, according to data in a 2021 consumer credit card market report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

There are other fees besides interest: Especially if you already struggle to pay your regular bills or track your expenses, some of these services can make it easy to fall behind on payments and incur high late fees.

Zip, which partners with Airbnb and encourages bookers to split any purchase into four installments over six weeks, charges a $1 convenience fee per installment (so you’d owe $4 to Zip on top of the money you owe Airbnb). If you miss a payment, Zip charges late fees ranging from $5 to $10.

Sezzle doesn’t charge outright late fees but will deactivate your account if you’re two days late. To get your account reactivated, you’ll pay a fee of up to $10. And, if you preemptively delay your payment due date, Sezzle charges a $5 rescheduling fee.

Like many other services, Sezzle makes these fees tough to know about ahead of time. Case-in-point: Sezzle’s fees aren’t clearly stated on its site, but rather buried within the fine print of its 12,000-word user agreement.

Credit cards can also entail fees, and credit card issuers charged consumers a combined $12 billion in late fees in 2020, according to the CFPB. But the Credit Card Act of 2009, intended to protect cardholders, heavily regulates such fees by limiting how high those fees can go. And in most cases, buy now, pay later loans aren’t subject to the same consumer protections that apply to credit cards.

When buy now, pay later services make sense

You might pay less in interest or fees versus other forms of debt: Many of these services allow you to pay off purchases down the road without paying compounding interest, which you’ll typically owe with other forms of debt you take on. Unless you’re taking advantage of a 0% APR offer on a credit card, that includes most credit card debt, too.

You have poor credit or are credit invisible, and it’s a necessary expense: Maybe you have poor credit. Perhaps you’re great with money — but are credit invisible, meaning your credit history isn’t long enough to have generated a credit file.  (This situation is common among young people and recent immigrants.) While most of these services won’t help build your credit, they can help if you need to make a purchase that you can’t pay in full now.

It’s a necessary expense: Maybe you have a sick relative and you need to jump on a plane to care for them. Perhaps your house needs emergency repairs and you’ll need to stay in a hotel, but your homeowners or renters insurance won’t cover the upfront cost. If your travel expense is necessary, then buy now, pay later services can serve people with few to no other options.

The bottom line

Buy now, pay later services can be a lifesaver when you’re in an emergency situation and you’ve exhausted other options. They can also serve to cushion your savings account if you’re booking a trip that you know you can afford, but want to hold cash as long as possible.

But in general, there are far too many gotchas in these services to make them worth recommending for most travel purchases.

10 Easy Tricks for Saving Money on Travel

Travel can be expensive, whether it’s high gas prices during your road trip or increasing travel demand causing hotel and airline costs to rise. But it doesn’t have to be as costly as you might think with these tips for saving money on travel.

How to save money while traveling

1. Pack light

Packing light is undoubtedly beneficial for avoiding checked bag fees, but there are a few other incentives to do so. For starters, packing light means you can get around a lot easier. With a light suitcase or backpack, you’re more agile, enabling you to navigate public transit rather than feel like you need to pay for a taxi.

So how do you pack light? Bring clothes that you can wash easily in a sink. Look for items that dry quickly, and pick clothes that you can mix and match. Default to basic items that go with pretty much any outfit, so you don’t need to cram four pairs of shoes into your bag.

Plus, packing light means you won’t be tempted to pay for souvenirs — because limited capacity in your suitcase or backpack will deter your urges.

2. Shop at local grocery stores

Head to outdoor markets in Asia for fruits and vegetables that you might not find in your supermarket back at home.

Visiting local markets can be an adventure on its own. You’ll find different types of foods that you wouldn’t necessarily come across at home. Plus, having food on hand means you’ll likely save money, as you’ll be less tempted to buy the stale, overpriced muffin from the hotel cafe just because you were hungry.

3. Pack snacks

If you can’t visit a local market, packing snacks from home is the next best thing. Look for protein-heavy items like jerky and protein bars, which can make you feel full and not take up too much space in your luggage.

Reusable water bottles don’t take up much space and can save you from buying tons of plastic bottles.

Bottled water can also shape up to be a considerable expense when you’re on the go. Assuming you have access to a clean water source, pack your canteen, and consider a portable water bottle that can collapse to fit in your pocket.

4. Get yourself into the airport lounge

The Centurion Lounge at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has a full buffet and access for certain American Express cardholders. (Photo courtesy of American Express)

One of the best ways to get food while traveling is at an airport lounge. Many premium travel credit cards offer lounge access as perks, generally through the Priority Pass lounge membership program. Food quality ranges by lounge, but you can usually expect light snacks like fruit, chips, cookies and coffee. The fancier lounges sometimes provide entire buffet meals.

Beyond food, lounges can provide Wi-Fi speeds typically faster than what’s offered in the airport. In addition, some lounges offer showers, exercise rooms or massages. Get to the airport early to maximize the amenities.

5. Arrive early

Leave plenty of time to get to the airport early. If you’re running late, you might hail an overpriced cab in a panic instead of taking public transportation at typically a fraction of the cost. You may also find that rideshare prices could be higher for routes to the airport at certain times. Having more time allows you to avoid the surge pricing.

Don’t risk having to rebook a flight last minute because you arrived late.

6. Get TSA PreCheck or Global Entry membership fees reimbursed

You can speed through airport crowds by applying for either TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Both are types of Trusted Traveler programs offered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

If approved, you’ll be able to use expedited lanes, which typically have shorter, quicker lines because travelers aren’t forced to remove their shoes, laptops, belts or jackets. According to TSA’s data, 94% of TSA PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes in December 2021.

Certain credit cards will reimburse your application fee, typically $85 for TSA PreCheck or $100 for Global Entry.

7. Take advantage of credit card free night certificates

Some hotel credit cards — even those with sub-$100 annual fees — offer free hotel night certificates. Assuming the value of your hotel room is more than the credit card’s annual fee (which it very easily can be), it could be a smart move to get one of these cards to save some money with a free night stay.

Plus, these cards typically offer extra benefits like elite status, making your stay more enjoyable, and bonus points, which can make future stays free — or at least cheaper.

8. Book hotel rooms on points

Speaking of bonus points, it’s almost always a good idea to spend your hotel points rather than save them. Booking rooms on points versus cash is certainly a smart way to avoid dipping into your cash savings for a vacation, but there are a few other benefits:

You may avoid resort fees: Resort fees (those extra charges that hotels impose to cover extra amenity usages like pools and Wi-Fi) are irritating, and they can sometimes run north of $50 per night. Thankfully, some hotel loyalty programs, including Hilton Honors and World of Hyatt, don’t charge them for rooms booked on points.

You might get extra discounts: For stays booked on points, you might unlock additional discounts for staying longer. For example, you receive the lowest point-value night free for every five consecutive nights stayed at a Marriott property funded with Marriott Bonvoy points. Hilton has a similar policy where members with at least Silver Elite membership receive the fifth night free when booking on points.

9. Travel during the offseason

If you can travel during the offseason, that’s not only a way to avoid crowds and the headaches that come with them, but you’ll usually be able to get a better deal. A NerdWallet analysis conducted in spring 2021 of over 1,110 airfares found that airfares averaged more expensive for holiday travel than any other booking window.

Booking window

Average economy class cash airfare

15 days out


180 days out


During the holiday season (Dec. 22-29)


Airfares for flight routes during the holiday season average 41% more expensive than other flights booked roughly six months out during non-holiday seasons.

10. Explore tourist attractions that don’t cost you any money

The Hamon Observation Tower at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park is free to visit.

Even trips to notoriously expensive spots like San Francisco, New York City or Walt Disney World don’t have to break the bank.

For example, there are tons of no-cost things to do at Disney World. Ride around the monorail, or watch fireworks from the beach at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. In addition, you can find free walking tours in most major cities (though tour guides typically rely on gratuity, so tip accordingly).

Prioritize the free tourist attractions over the ones that have a fee. For example, tickets to San Francisco’s de Young Museum cost about $15, but you can go to one of its coolest rooms, the Hamon Observation Tower, for free panoramic views of the city.

And while there are dozens of excellent cultural institutions in St. Louis, start at the ones that have free admission, including the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis Science Center and Saint Louis Zoo. If time permits, then turn to the attractions with a fee.

Forest Park is approximately 1,300 acres of public parkland just west of downtown St. Louis, featuring numerous attractions, including museums, a planetarium, zoo and amphitheater, most of which are free to visit.

The bottom line

Travel costs can add up. Your vacation might not be as cheap as that slick airfare deal may have led you to believe when you factor in other expenses. Often, vacation spending can rocket past your initial budget once you’re out on the road.

Saving money on travel with these tricks can give you more freedom to spend where you need, whether that’s on this trip or your next one.

Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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5 Reasons Why ‘Shoulder Season’ Is the Best Time to Travel

In many ways, travel in 2021 was more challenging than it was in 2020. While demand for travel returned, sufficient hospitality staffing often did not, leading to long waits at airports, hotel check-in desks and restaurants.

The eye-catching travel deals seen in 2020 mostly faded away, making way for price increases, like soaring rental car prices. Despite social distancing recommendations, travelers often found themselves in bigger crowds than ever. Mobs clamoring around airline customer service counters to rebook canceled flights left people barely six inches apart — let alone six feet.

This year might bring similar challenges for travelers, but here’s a good way to skirt most of them: Travel during “shoulder season.”

The definition of shoulder season varies by destination, but it typically means the period of time between a region’s peak season and offseason. This timespan can last months or just weeks. For instance, if a place’s peak season is summer and its offseason is winter, then the shoulder season would be spring and fall. Alternatively, a place may experience peak travel during a holiday weekend, but demand will drop off the weekend before or after — these times can also be considered shoulder season.

Here are five reasons why shoulder season is the best time to travel, especially during the pandemic.

1. Expect to pay lower prices than for peak season travel

Airfares averaged 23% cheaper when booked for shoulder season versus peak season travel. That’s according to a NerdWallet analysis conducted in December 2021 of more than 100 airfares taken from the most popular routes in the U.S. across eight major airlines.

The same routes were compared for flights booked for peak versus shoulder season days, where peak season flights were those booked for the Monday before or after a major holiday. In contrast, the shoulder season flights were those taken two weeks before or after that date.

The difference was starkest around Christmas: Flights averaged 50% cheaper when booked for Monday, Jan. 10, versus Monday, Dec. 27.

2. You won’t compete as much for coveted reservations

Those higher flight prices typically stem from supply and demand — which means demand is higher during peak season.

Increased interest leads to more competition across the board, whether for a hotel room at the price point you want or the chance to nab tickets to that concert. And that’s only scratching the surface. Restaurants are more likely to get filled, airplanes to fly with fewer empty seats and wait times to get longer, and the likelihood of a complimentary upgrade diminishes.

Book during shoulder season and you’ll vie with fewer folks for your top experiences.

3. You won’t see as many offseason closures

While demand is high during peak season, sometimes demand drops so low during offseason that the places you want to visit aren’t even open. Boat tour operators might board up for the winter, and charming ski town cafes could close for the summer.

For example, January in Utah’s Zion National Park averages about 16% of the number of visitors that come during peak season in July, and most tourists will have a rough go. Ice forces certain trails to close, some roads become inaccessible to drivers, and the museum and services like shuttle buses aren’t available.

Instead, consider a trip during the September shoulder season, when crowds are at only about 85% of the park’s peak but most amenities are available. Plus, you’ll benefit from mild weather and the emergence of fall colors.

Around the world, hotels often take the offseason to do renovations, so the pool might become off-limits. Airlines typically cut back routes, so you’ll have less flexibility on what day or time you can fly.

But the shoulder season is less likely to entail such challenges. Travel before summer crowds arrive and you might be pleasantly surprised with a newly renovated hotel room. Head to the mountains just after the winter holidays to take advantage of still-snowy slopes without as many skiers on them.

4. Weather is generally pretty good

The shoulder season likely won’t bring the sweltering heat or storms that come with a region’s offseason. And in some cases, the weather during shoulder season is actually better than peak season.

Summer at Florida’s theme parks is often humid and muggy — and that’s before you add in the crowds of out-of-school kids. During shoulder season, you might forgo sunny summer days on the beach, but you’ll typically get temperate weather, not to mention a less sweaty smile in that photo with your favorite character.

Shoulder season in the Rocky Mountains might not entail the romanticism of white powder snow surrounding a cozy cabin. But, you can pack light and leave the parka at home.

5. You could more likely experience unique, local events

Tourist hot spots typically want year-round crowds, so they often host events, concerts and other festivities that don’t occur at times when crowds would be large anyway.

Theme park food festivals are among the most common shoulder season delights. Southern California theme park Knott’s Berry Farm typically hosts its annual boysenberry festival from March to April. Hawaii comes alive in the fall with festivals spanning multiple islands, including the annual Waikiki Ho‘olaule‘a, which is a giant block party on Oahu, and the Kauai Mokihana Festival, a weeklong celebration of Hawaiian culture.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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Winter Storms, COVID: How to Change a Flight Last-Minute

Rerouting, rebooking, diverting, you name it. Making last-minute flight changes can be an enormous stressor amid an already stressful holiday travel season.

Hundreds of flights have already been canceled last-minute due to pandemic-related staffing shortages. Perhaps a coronavirus variant surge forces you to cancel your trip. Or what if a winter snowstorm prevents you from taking off?

No matter the reason, be prepared for last-minute flight changes or cancellations this year.

Finding last-minute flights

If your flight is delayed or canceled, here’s how to quickly get on another:

Look to other airports

Many major cities are served by multiple airports, so broaden your airport search. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City might be backed up from a blizzard, but that doesn’t necessarily mean nearby airports Newark Liberty International or LaGuardia are out of commission.

And look beyond the major airlines. JSX is a semiprivate jet service, but fares often aren’t much more than commercial airfares.

Use booking tools

Even if you’re accustomed to booking via an individual airline’s website, tools like Google Flights will allow you to quickly compare routes across multiple airlines, nearby airports and selected dates. Booking tools may help surface an available route you’d otherwise miss.

Search for one-way, individual tickets and direct flights

Don’t limit your options by searching for round-trip tickets. In a pinch, book a one-way ticket and find the return flight later.

And, if you’re traveling with others, rather than searching for group tickets, consider searching for individual ones — especially if your group is comfortable splitting up. If one flight has only four seats left but another flight has two, then a search for your party of six wouldn’t show any available tickets. But if some folks are OK being left behind and catching up later, you improve your odds of getting to your destination, period.

Fly direct when possible. If it isn’t, try to connect through destinations that are less likely to be affected by bad winter weather (San Diego over Chicago, for example). While the flight with the layover might be cheaper, it might not be worth it if weather issues in the layover city are the reason you can’t take off.

Getting your money back

Here are ways to improve your chances of getting a refund for flights interrupted by winter storms or COVID-19:

Use a credit card with travel insurance

One of the best ways to get money back for canceled flights (or to get reimbursed for additional costs incurred during delays) is booking with a credit card that offers travel insurance.

Exact terms vary by travel credit card, but you can typically expect coverage for flights affected by severe weather. And usually, this type of insurance will cover not just the flight itself, but ancillary expenses, such as an additional hotel night to take a next-day flight.

Purchase travel insurance

If your credit card doesn’t include travel insurance as a benefit, consider purchasing coverage separately. Look closely at the terms and conditions as they vary significantly between plans. Learn more about travel insurance if you’re new to the concept.

Turn to social media

Technology can help you. Many airlines are embracing social media as a customer service tool, and account managers may even be equipped to directly help passengers rebook, issue flight credits and more.

If the delay is an airline’s fault, you might get compensation. For example, Southwest Airlines’ October 2021 meltdown cost the company $75 million, according to its third quarter 2021 earnings report. Much of that figure was attributed to customer refunds and “gestures of goodwill,” as Southwest offered vouchers to many customers who were affected.

Other tips for traveling during winter storm season

  • Be prepared to stay longer than you intended. Search for budget-friendly lodging near the airport before your trip. If your flight gets delayed and you need to stay an extra night, you don’t want to be scrambling to find a room that fits your standards and budget.
  • Pack small snacks. Protein bars or nuts are great backups in case you’re stuck in an airport overnight and the restaurants and stores are closed.
  • Avoid checking luggage. If there’s an opportunity to board another last-minute flight, you don’t want your luggage packed on a delayed flight to be the one thing holding you back. Carry-on travel allows you to be more nimble. If you do need to check luggage, keep items you can’t go without — like phone chargers and medications — with you.
  • Set up flight alerts. Check your flight status before leaving for the airport or, better yet, set up automatic flight updates via text alerts. An early alert might help you avoid arriving at the airport for a canceled flight or give you a jump-start on booking a new flight before other passengers.

The bottom line

You might not think the scramble to make a last-minute flight change will happen to you — until it does. And given the challenges of travel this holiday season, you should be more prepared than ever.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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Omicron, Travel Bans and How They Could Impact Your Trip

As countries rush to impose travel bans to manage the spread of the omicron COVID-19 variant, some travelers have been left stranded. Meanwhile, those with trips planned might not be able to take off.

Here’s what you need to know about traveling and the omicron variant.

Review border closures and entry requirements

As of Nov. 29, the U.S. has restricted travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe due to concerns over the new variant. While these travel restrictions do not apply to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and certain other categories of travelers, some airlines are canceling flights from those countries anyway.

Many countries have imposed even stricter restrictions than the U.S. While some have banned inbound flights from specific countries, others, including Morocco, Japan and Israel, have temporarily banned international travel — with few exceptions — entirely.

Even if it’s just a layover, check the border closures and entry requirements at every stop on your trip. You can typically find a country’s most up-to-date travel policies by checking with the government’s travel and tourism office.

Understand your flight’s change and cancellation policies

In 2020, many major airlines introduced flexible and generous change and cancellation policies, and they’ve largely held on through 2021 (and likely will continue into 2022, too). Check with your air carrier, as you may be able to get a voucher toward a future flight and sometimes an outright refund if you opt not to travel — often no matter the reason.

Read the fine print. Policies on low-cost or basic economy fares tend to be less generous, and sometimes even the flight credits have tight expiration dates.

For flights specifically between the U.S. and many southern African countries, many airlines are rolling out special change policies, many of which leave you with tough, last-minute decisions to make.

For example, if you originally booked a flight for Johannesburg, South Africa, between Nov. 27 and Dec. 12, Delta is waiving the fare difference should you decide to fly elsewhere. However, you must take the new flight by Dec. 12, which doesn’t give you a lot of time to find a new destination. If you opt to fly after Dec. 12, Delta may charge you for the fare difference, which can be especially hefty if you’re booking last-minute.

Purchase ‘Cancel For Any Reason’ travel insurance coverage

Whether a prebooked trip is disrupted by a travel ban or you’re feeling more travel hesitancy now that omicron is in the lexicon, you might decide to cancel your trip altogether.

You can protect the money you shell out for a trip in advance with the right travel insurance coverage.

But sometimes even the biggest travel insurance policies won’t cover all omicron-related challenges. For example, while AIG’s Travel Guard insurance plan covers you in the event you get sick from COVID-19, it explicitly does not cover travel restrictions or travel warnings issued by any governmental body or health authority.

In that case, you’d need to have purchased Cancel For Any Reason coverage, which can get you a partial or full refund, no matter why you choose not to travel.

Have a quarantine plan

If you’re traveling abroad and returning to the U.S., you need proof of a valid, negative COVID-19 test to return — even if you’re vaccinated.

There’s still a chance you can get a COVID-19 breakthrough case while vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you do, understand what quarantining for more than a week in a foreign country might entail. Plan where you might be able to stay. Make sure you’ve packed enough for the additional nights, including extra prescription medications or perhaps a laptop to help pass the time.

The bottom line

Given the ever-changing COVID-19-related travel restrictions, taking trips in 2021 is complicated. If you’re set on international travel, understand what you’re in for: potential lockdowns, canceled flights, lost money from upfront bookings, and the risk of having to quarantine. And even domestic travel might feel precarious for those uneasy about the emergence of omicron.

No matter where you’re headed, have a plan. And these days, it doesn’t hurt to also have a solid backup plan.

Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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Biden Acts to Ease Gas Prices, But You Can Save Money Now

President Joe Biden is taking steps to wrestle down gas prices, which were nearly 60% higher in October 2021 than they were the same month a year ago.

This week, he announced that the Energy Department would release 50 million barrels of oil from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase supply.

Last month, the nationwide gas price average hit a seven-year high, according to AAA, and prices this week averaged $1.29 more than they were this time a year ago.

“The fact is, right now, that energy prices at the pump and at home are too high,” Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said during a press briefing this week. “Low-income families already spend up to 30% of their monthly income on fuel, on energy. And so, any price increase — for them, in particular — causes an undue strain, but it causes a strain on everyone.”

But don’t expect that to change gas prices immediately, Biden warned.

In the meantime, you can cut how much you pay at the pump. Here’s how.

Know how to find cheaper gas stations

Apps like GasBuddy track local gas prices, which can show if it’s better to fill up at the station near your home or by your workplace. And while warehouse clubs like Costco typically require membership fees, many have their own gas stations that offer lower prices, which may alone justify the dues.

Change how you drive to increase fuel economy

Believe it or not, adjusting how you speed up, brake or use cruise control can impact how much gas is used on your trip.

For starters, slow down. According to a study from car-shopping website Edmunds, slowing down from 75 to 65 mph increased fuel economy up to 14%.

Embrace cruise control. Edmunds found that driving at a constant speed can save up to 14% versus constantly changing lanes, accelerating and decelerating.

And idling eats up a significant amount of gas, even though you’re not moving. If you’re waiting outside school to pick up your kids, or you’ve pulled over at the end of your block to chat with a neighbor, turn off the engine. Edmunds found that avoiding excessive idling can cut fuel use up to 19%.

Use the right gas credit card

Ultimately, it’s likely you’re paying more for gas this year than last, no matter how prudent you are about saving. If so, at least maximize rewards earned from your purchases. The best gas credit cards typically net at least 3% back in rewards for your gas station purchases.

Go electric

You could also ditch gas completely and consider an electric car.  They can be expensive, and they can be a hassle when you consider how often you’ll need to charge it and figure out where you’ll be able to do so.

But they come with benefits too — no oil changes needed, access to carpool lanes in some regions, and reduced environmental guilt. Then there’s the tax benefit, too. All-electric and plug-in hybrid cars purchased new in or after 2010 may be eligible for a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500.

And these days, not paying for gas might feel like the biggest benefit of them all.

Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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What to Know About Bitcoin as It Approaches $70,000

What to Know About Bitcoin as It Approaches $70,000

This article provides information for educational purposes. NerdWallet does not offer advisory or brokerage services, nor does it recommend specific investments, including stocks, securities or cryptocurrencies.

Bitcoin is trading near all-time highs: The cryptocurrency crossed a record $68,000 this week before dropping slightly lower. It was the latest record high in what can now be considered a tear — the currency also crossed the $60,000 threshold in October, a figure it also hit in spring 2021.

Money is pouring into bitcoin as of late, according to data released Monday by digital asset manager CoinShares. Inflows into bitcoin hit a record $6.4 billion so far for 2021, CoinShares data shows, and $2.8 billion has flowed into bitcoin during the cryptocurrency’s latest eight-week bull run.

It’s not entirely clear what’s driving this latest rally, although volatile price swings are relatively common among bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin is up about 130% year-to-date.

Investing in cryptocurrencies is somewhat controversial among big-name investors and business leaders. For example, JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon is not a fan. “I personally think that bitcoin is worthless,” he said during an Institute of International Finance event in October.

Conversely, Tim Cook, Apple chief executive, said during the New York Times DealBook Online Summit on Tuesday that he has bought cryptocurrencies. “I think it’s reasonable to own it as part of a diversified portfolio.”

What is bitcoin, and should you invest now?

Bitcoin is a decentralized form of payment intended to eliminate the need for intermediaries like banks and governments. Unlike fiat money (like the U.S. dollars in your bank account) that is government-backed and regulated, bitcoin is powered by a combination of peer-to-peer technology and software-driven cryptography to create a currency backed by code.

Bitcoin is just one of many cryptocurrencies, though it’s by far the largest. Other prominent cryptocurrencies include ethereum and solana. There are also dog-themed cryptocurrencies, including dogecoin and shiba inu, the latter of which saw a massive surge in October 2021, which many attributed to tweets from Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Shiba inu coin is up about 72,000,000% in value over the past year as of press time.

Cryptocurrencies can be purchased from online crypto exchanges, such as Coinbase and Gemini, or through select online brokers, like SoFi and Robinhood. In addition, some cash and payment apps, including Venmo and CashApp, also offer access to a limited selection of cryptocurrencies.

Whether you should invest in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies depends on your financial situation. One rule of thumb when it comes to alternative investments like this is to ensure they comprise only a small percentage of your overall portfolio, with the bulk of your investments diversified through more traditional assets, like mutual funds.

The author owned bitcoin at the time of publication. NerdWallet is not recommending or advising readers to buy or sell bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency.

Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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