With vaccination rates rising in the U.S., travel is inching back. Although the virus that causes COVID-19 is far from defeated, people are returning to airports; the TSA says the number of passengers screened at U.S. airports in early July is around pre-pandemic levels. Most of those travelers were leisure flyers, on the move for the Fourth of July holiday, while business trips and international travel are still down.
That’s good news for a world beginning to heal. But the not-so-good news for people who want to travel is that the days of paying rock-bottom prices for flights are about to end, since airlines aren’t struggling to fill planes anymore.
On average, airfare is still 16% below pre-pandemic levels, says Willis Orlando, flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights, a site that allows setting up alerts for cheap airfare.
But that’s just an average, and some popular routes have already returned to pre-pandemic prices. Take, for example, these round-trip fares around $600 we found between New York City and Los Angeles later in July on the three major legacy airlines. That is in line with prices before the pandemic, according to Google Flights.
So where does this leave you if you’re looking to save some money on upcoming travel? Here are six tips to help you choose where to go and when.
1. Be Flexible
Rule number one: Be open to some changes, if you are able to.
“For example, instead of saying ‘I want to go to Paris from August 1 to August 8,’ say, ‘I want to go to Western Europe in August’,” Orlando suggests.
Having this built-in flexibility will allow you to jump on cheap flights. You can also hop on a train or low-cost flight between European countries, too, which may end up being cheaper than flying directly to your originally intended destination.
This kind of flexibility can pay off within the U.S., too, Orlando says. He suggests looking at airports other than the one closest to your home. “Sometimes you can get a great deal by looking at other options,” he says. For example, if you live in or want to get to Los Angeles, you can look at flights at area airports such as Burbank and Long Beach.
2. Choose the Right Destination
When it comes to cheaper international destinations, now that many places are admitting vaccinated or Covid-negative Americans, Orlando suggests Portugal or Croatia, both of which have opened to U.S. travelers in the past few weeks. “Portugal is the new sweetheart of Western Europe. We’ve seen fares as low as $297 round-trip or in the $300s from all over the country. It’s really cheap on the ground and easy to get to,” he says.
3. Move Fast
Travel, including international and business trips, will be fully back to pre-pandemic levels by December, Orlando predicts. And while there still are deals to be found, you should move fast if you’re looking to fly abroad. “The window for international travel deals is starting to close,” he says.
Being flexible with your travel destinations — both departing and arriving — can help you lower your trip’s price tag.
The best time to book flights in order to save money also depends on whether you are flying domestically or internationally. The “Goldilocks window,” Orlando says, is one to three months out for flights within the U.S., while three to five months is ideal for international ones.
4. Use Google Flights
We also recommend using Google Flights to help you find the best prices to your given destination. Instead of searching on each airline’s individual website, this tool combines them to show you when the cheapest fares are — just keep an eye out for the green numbers within the calendar function, as seen below.
One caveat is that Google Flights won’t show Southwest Airlines. If you live near an airport served by Southwest, head over to the airline’s own site to find its fares, which can be lower than the big three legacy airlines: American, Delta and United.
5. Know Your Right to Cancel
You can always cancel within 24 hours for a full refund, on any airline, if you bought a ticket on a flight originating or arriving in the U.S. Per Department of Transportation guidelines, you have 24 hours after you book to cancel a flight without penalty, provided your booking was made at least seven days before the flight. So if you see a cheap flight to a destination you’d like to go to, you can book it and figure out in the following 24 hours if it works for your budget and schedule.
6. Use a Credit Card to Save
Regardless of when you book, though, you can save money on travel by using points and miles earned from travel rewards credit cards. Strategically using one (or more) of these cards will help you earn points that you can later redeem for free airfare and hotels, paying just taxes and fees.
One of our favorites is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. With a $95 annual fee, the Sapphire Preferred is our pick for the best travel rewards card with an annual fee under $100.
And in the spirit of being flexible, if you know you’re ready for an adventure this summer but not quite set on a specific destination, we have some suggestions about how to put that 100,000-point bonus to good use.
Airlines are dealing with heavy passenger demand again, and airfare is getting more expensive than it was during the pandemic. But there are ways to save, even as airports return to their familiar, crowded status. With some flexibility and foresight, and maybe with a credit card that earns a hefty bonus in points that can be turned into travel, you can still go far for relatively cheap. Just make sure to have a budget, and to keep your travel expenses within its limits.