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Plan Your Summer Vacation Now for Surprising Perks

Budget-friendly airfare and affordable rental cars are possible if you act now

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Eye Em/Getty Images

For your mental health, it’s never too early to plan a summer vacation. But should memories of the summer of 2022 — with its overcrowded airports, understaffed airlines and flight-grounding weather — deter you from moving forward with 2023 plans?

No. Experts predict a smoother travel experience this summer. But they also recommend you act now, especially if you have your sights set on popular destinations (such as Italy) or specific accommodations (say, an ocean-view room at a Hawaiian resort) or even an affordable rental car. “We are anticipating record-breaking numbers for travel this year that are likely going to exceed pre-pandemic levels,” says Michael Johnson, president of Ensemble, a travel agency association where business has already more than doubled the pace of 2022. 

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So when should you book? “The sooner the better,” Johnson says. “Fares and rates are only going to go up, and many travelers are already finding that their preferred dates are sold out or much more expensive than they anticipated as a result of the high demand.”

As travel normalizes in the first largely restriction-free post-COVID summer, here’s what to expect in terms of travel prices, congestion and trending destinations.

Busy airports, cheaper airfares

Nearly four in 10 American leisure travelers say they would travel more if the flight experience were better, according to a recent survey from the U.S. Travel Association, which also found that nearly half of respondents ranked the air travel experience as average or below average.

The federal government announced nearly $1 billion to fund airport improvements in February, but results may be distant. “We aren’t going to see better travel experiences this summer as a result of infrastructure spending,” says Gary Leff, a travel specialist and author of the aviation blog View From the Wing. Leff says the lack of funding for air traffic control technology and the need for more runways are among the issues that will take years to resolve. On the bright side, he adds, both airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) should be better staffed than last summer.

Another welcome change: Airfare is expected to peak at around $350 for a domestic round-trip ticket this summer, according to Hayley Berg, the lead economist for the booking platform Hopper. That’s down from around $400 last summer, when jet fuel prices were higher and airline capacity lower. To get the best fares, Berg recommends booking two to three months in advance of a domestic trip — so, April or May for a July trip — and three to five months out for international flights.

Lodging inflation, rental car deflation

Fuel prices may be down, but inflation and an increase in demand for hotel rooms mean more expensive rates this year compared to last. Data from STR, a global hospitality benchmarking firm, found the average nightly hotel room rate in mid-March was $161 compared to $133 for the same period in 2019, a 22 percent increase since before the pandemic and close to an 11-percent rise compared to last year.

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Rental car rates should be a little better than they have been in recent peak summer seasons, says Michael Taylor, managing director of travel, hospitality and retail analytics at JD Power. He predicts daily rates around $70, compared to rates starting around $80 at their pandemic height. Before the pandemic, they were roughly $50 to $60 on average. In popular destinations like Orlando, Florida, “if you need a rental car, make sure of its availability before you book airline tickets or your hotel,” he says.

Exploring at home and abroad

The usual suspects are back in fashion this summer. Hopper found the most-searched international destinations for summer are London, Paris, Tokyo and Rome. The domestic list includes New York CityLas VegasOrlando and Washington, D.C.

Virtuoso, the consortium of luxury travel advisers, has the United States at the top of its list for trips booked June through August as travelers continue to explore close to home. Italy, France, Canada and the United Kingdom round out the top five. While rates remain strong in major cities, the group recommends looking for value in secondary cities, including San Diego, Sacramento, Seattle and Denver.

Pam Mercer, cofounder of Tuscany Tours, which specializes in small-group tours to Italy, France and Spain, has been turning people away and advising them to get in touch in August for 2024 travel. “It used to be that people would come to us in January or February,” she says. “This year, they came in November, and they’re still coming.”​ ​

Tips for Cheaper Summer Travel:

Fly midweek. The online travel agency Expedia advises avoiding Saturday-through-Monday departures, which are the priciest. Wednesday departures tend to run 15 percent lower for domestic flights and 10 percent lower for international flights.
 

Go where the dollar is strong. The favorable exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and many foreign currencies — including the euro, Canadian dollar and Mexican peso — makes stretching your budget abroad an attractive proposition this year.
 

Stay longer. Many short-term rentals offer discounts for weekly or monthly stays. On the rental platform Vrbo, use the filter “weekly discount” to find them.
 

Rent a car away from the airport. Non-airport rental car locations generally have lower operating costs, which they pass on to renters in the form of lower rates, according to Expedia.

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