As suppressed demand surges, fall travel this year is likely to near — or even exceed — pre-pandemic levels. One of the results of high demand is that deals will be harder than ever to find. I'll do the best I can to point out some of your best bets, but don't expect to find any "secret" miracle pricing tools.
No matter where or how you travel, your trip will be constrained by two overarching challenges:
COVID isn't over. We've apparently decided to forget about special precautions and accept it as an ongoing fact of life, but a new flare-up remains a potential disruption.
Inflation is hitting almost everything and everywhere. You can still have fun, but you'll pay more than ever before.
In addition, the fallout from the Ukraine invasion poses an energy crunch with consequences still to be seen.
Airfares have come down from their initial demand-surge peak, but they're still — and will remain — higher than pre-pandemic. And beyond "keep searching," I have no magic formula for finding deals that anyone can't find. Last week, the folks at Google Flights dug into historical price data and concluded that the "best" times to buy tickets are about 45 days in advance for domestic flights, 59 days for Mexico and the Caribbean. Clearly those dates are already past for many fall trips, and patterns this fall are likely to be unlike previous years. The consensus is to book ASAP this fall. In addition, Google Flights data show that one-stop connecting flights cost an average 20 percent less than nonstops, and that Tuesday and Wednesdays flights are cheapest, Sunday the most expensive.
Don't expect any dramatic new surprises from the low-fare airline bunch. If anything, JetBlue's takeover of Spirit means fewer, not more, low-fare flights: There's no way JetBlue won't hike fares, one way or another, on any former Spirit routes it decides to fly. Avelo has opened a new base in Binghamton, N.Y., to provide more service to Florida, and Breeze is adding more nonstops east from Las Vegas. That's about it.
Even though the travel community keeps a focus on airfares, this year, hotel accommodations, not airfare, will be your primary cost-cutting concern. Inflation has rates up sharply just about anywhere. I've rebooked trips planned pre-pandemic, then canceled, for fall, and found rates for identical stays up sharply. As far as best places to buy, the travel blogosphere seems in general agreement:
Always check hotel or chain official sites where you will find some loyalty-program perks as well as the best official rates, including senior and AAA rates.
No one search system consistently finds the best rates anywhere. My favorite is Kayak, where you can filter your search to display all-up rates, including taxes and resort/destination fees, from the first screen. But others sometimes have access to discounts not available elsewhere.
Some of the best deals aren't in the rates; they're in the extras. A few upscale chains maintain sites where booking gets you regular rates plus upgrades, "free" meals, spending credits, early check-in/late checkout, and other perks worth hundreds of dollars. And live-person travel agents affiliated with a luxury network, such as Virtuoso (virtuoso.com) can arrange similar deals at top properties — and they typically don't charge a fee for hotel bookings.
You already know from high gas prices, but whether you rent for destination driving or to find an economic option for an extended road trip, rental rates this fall will give you sticker shock. One surprise: I found that hybrid and electric rentals are not available at all at many locations, and where they're available, rates are close to double gas-guzzler rates. Clearly, the rental companies haven't yet figured out what to do about the shifting popularity of electric vehicles.
You can expect this fall's trip to be among the most expensive you've experienced. The best strategies for any booking seems to be the same one Airfare Watchdog's George Hobica first pronounced 30 years ago: "Keep searching, but when you see a good deal, pounce," coupled with my obsessive "Pay as little in advance as possible."