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Here’s how to salvage summer vacation, according to travel experts

There are still ways to plan a last-minute trip before school and office life returns

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

Most years, travelers make summer plans well in advance so they can fit in a getaway before life gets busy again in the fall.

But 2021 is not most years. Vaccinations in the United States only became widely available in the spring, some popular domestic destinations didn’t drop covid restrictions until last month, and global travel rules are shifting constantly.

That leaves vacationers without much time to fit in a trip before kids go back to school or adults return to the office. Many are scrambling to arrange last-minute trips, whenever and wherever they can over the next several weeks. And, of course, safety is still a top concern since the pandemic isn’t over.

“People definitely are raring to do something over the summer, and many didn’t plan as far ahead as we would normally recommend because they just didn’t know what was going to be happening,” D.C.-area travel adviser Sari Greene said.

Those who are venturing out while they still can are finding steep prices, limited lodging options, a dearth of rental cars and flight disruptions galore. So is it possible to scrape together a summer break? Experts say: Absolutely.

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Keep it close to home (just like last year)

Greene, an affiliate of Virtuoso agency Avenue Two Travel, said she has been helping clients plan two- to three-day driving trips close to home. Without having to worry about flying or rental cars, it is easier to plan at the last minute and go whenever a hotel has availability.

“People have so much more flexibility if they don’t have to get that flight, and they can go anytime,” she said.

Or go very far away

With many countries in Europe opening to Americans recently, the crowds are expected to be far smaller than in a typical summer — with prices following suit. Experts say international airfare is the only category of travel that isn’t more expensive this year than last.

Mike Salvadore, owner of 58 Stars Travel, said deals in places such as Italy should still be available this summer.

“I would call Europe definitely an under-the-radar opportunity that they can explore, especially this year,” he said. “Because next summer is going to be very busy.”

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Consider big cities

Metropolises such as New York City, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago — which normally welcome domestic tourists, business travelers and international visitors — have a lot of hotel rooms and only a fraction of the visitors they would see in a typical year. Many of these destinations are putting on big events, running ads and otherwise trying to entice more tourists this season.

Think ski towns, but for summer

Greene said she has been able to find options for clients in places that would normally beckon in winter, including Colorado and Vermont. She is planning her own family vacation in August in Vermont — which, she said, would normally have never been a summer option. One additional item in Vermont’s favor: More than 82 percent of residents over the age of 12 have at least started their covid-19 vaccination.

Be flexible

Make plans around what is available, rather than try to stick to a specific date or destination. Caroline Teel, managing editor of SmarterTravel, said in an email that travelers looking for inspiration can go to Skyscanner and enter “everywhere” as their destination to find deals on flights.

Gamble on weather

Summer means hurricane season and a lot of potential weather disruptions. But for travelers willing to take the risk, there can be last-minute deals to offseason destinations including Cancún, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, Teel said. (In this case, travel insurance would be wise; policies need to be purchased before a storm is named.)

According to travel booking app Hopper, Florida — another destination at the mercy of tropical weather — is also the cheapest place to go domestically when considering hotels and airfare. Orlando, Fort Myers and Tampa are also among the cheapest domestic destinations.

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Expect to pay a premium

Last-minute travelers this summer are joined by those who were bumped from plans in 2020 and earlier this year. That is part of the reason prices are higher than last year — and in a few cases, higher than even pre-pandemic times.

“We have some people that come in and think they’re going to get a champagne trip on a beer budget, and they realize it’s going to be a champagne price these days,” said Mike King, owner of a Travel Leaders agency in Fredericksburg, Va. “There’s very few of what they think are going to be deals.”

Get creative with flights

Consider booking your outgoing and departing flights with different airlines in case that presents cheaper options, said Mark Crossey, U.S. travel expert for Skyscanner. He said travelers should also search multiple dates and airports, set up price alerts, and look at options for a whole month to see when the fares are lowest.

In a roundup of “new normal travel booking tips,” Hopper said that because prices spike in the couple of weeks before a flight leaves, it’s best to lock a ticket in no later than three weeks ahead of departure.

Flights in the middle of the week are typically cheapest, with return dates on a weekend most expensive, Hopper says. Traveling in late summer or early fall could save on average about 12 percent.

Given the recent rash of delays and cancellations, Hopper said it is also wise to build extra time into plans, especially if there is a can’t-miss special event on the agenda.

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Cruise from the Caribbean

Cruises have started departing from the United States again, but the number is still small and capacity is reduced. That means choices are limited and discounts are scarce, said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic.

But, she said, there are deals for those who are vaccinated and don’t mind flying to get on ships in places including the Bahamas and St. Maarten.

“There is plenty of availability right now and, for some, airfare from the continental U.S. to the Bahamas is comparable to what they would pay to fly to Florida for a cruise,” Gray Faust said in an email. Looking ahead, she said, cruises from the United States could be a better deal in the fall as operators have more and fuller ships sailing.

Think broadly about rental cars — and book early

Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper, said in an email that the best approach is to avoid trying to rent a car in popular places such as Los Angeles, Orlando, Las Vegas and Miami since demand is high and availability is low.

“If you can look slightly outside the city or at a less popular airport,” like Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami, he said, “you might find more availability and better prices.”

Experts also say travelers should book a rental car as soon as they book a flight. Even if it doesn’t help with the price, booking as far ahead of time as possible will increase the chance that a car will be available.

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Plan ahead for every part of the trip

Greene said she is emphasizing to her clients that they need to book dinner reservations and activities ahead of time.

“Those kinds of things are filling up like crazy, like we’ve never seen before,” she said. “Those are things that can be really disappointing when you arrive.”