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Some vacationers expect to carry summer travel debt, report finds. Here’s how to avoid that

Klaus Vedfelt | Digitalvision | Getty Images

If you plan to spend money on travel as the days get longer, sunnier and warmer, be careful: It could leave you with high-interest debt you will still be paying off through the fall and winter.

Almost half (45%) of Americans plan to take a summer trip requiring a flight or hotel stay, and they expect to spend an average $3,594, according to NerdWallet’s 2024 summer travel report

The majority of travelers, 83%, will pay for part of their vacation costs with a credit card. But 20% won’t pay off the balance in full within the first billing statement, NerdWallet found. The report polled 2,092 U.S. adults from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2024.

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“Travel expenditure is not slowing down,” said Hayley Berg, lead economist at Hopper.

The summer wedding season may contribute to travel debt. About 31% of recent wedding guests took on debt, according to a new study by LendingTree. Of those who paid with credit, the cost of travel (32%) and accommodations (27%) racked up the highest bills, LendingTree found.

‘More bang for their buck’

Three quarters of Hopper users said they plan to spend the same or even more on their travels this summer, the 2024 Travel Outlook by Hopper found.

“But they are trying to get more bang for their buck,” she said, by getting more trips out of the bigger or same-size budget.

About 86.6% of Hopper users expect to travel this summer, but 72.5% have not booked their trips yet, according to the outlook.

“It never surprises me how many people wait until the last minute to book their vacation,” Berg said.

Fortunately for travelers, airfares are down 5.8% from a year ago, according to the consumer price index.

Domestic airfare for the months of June, July and August cost around $305 on average, down 6% from this time last year, according to Hopper. Prices are expected to peak at $315 per ticket at the end of May and early June, per Hopper data.

“That is a vast improvement over the prices increases that we have been seeing every year,” Berg said.

EasyJet sees 'positive momentum' going into the summer travel season, CEO says

But other costs associated with air travel have gone up. For instance, many major airlines like United AirlinesAmerican Airlines and JetBlue Airways increased their checked baggage fees this year.

“Most airlines raised their fees by five dollars,” said Sally French, travel rewards expert at NerdWallet.”That typically means something like 35 dollars now becomes 40 dollars … That’s an additional 40 dollars there for a round trip.”

Some cardholders may believe that carrying a balance while they pay off a vacation or other big-ticket purchase is good because it helps to show they’re using the card, said French.

That’s a common misconception. In 2022, about 46% of Americans believed that leaving a balance on their credit card is better for their score than paying it off entirely, according to NerdWallet data.

“There are many myths about credit cards,” French said. “Leaving a balance in your credit card is not necessarily good for your credit score.”

The reality is, carrying a balance can increase your credit utilization ratio, which has the potential to ding your score. Plus you’re adding to the expense of that purchase, with average credit card interest rates topping 20%.

Cardholders already owe $1.12 trillion in credit card debt, with an average balance of $6,218 per consumer, according to a new report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

‘If you have not booked, book now’

Smart planning and budgeting can help you cut travel costs and make it easier to avoid carrying a balance. Here are three strategies to try:

1. Book summer travel plans soon: The sooner you book your travel plans, the lower the upfront cost will tend to be. Prices for domestic flights in the U.S. tend to spike the weekend before 4th of July week, Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend, per Hopper data.

“If you have not booked, book now,” Berg said.

“The sweet spot” for international trips is three to five months in advance; if you plan on taking a trip in August, now is the time. For domestic flights, about two to three months in advance is best for summertime trips. You might still have time to book late summer, early fall trips, she explained.

2. Be as flexible as you can: If you are able, avoid departing on Thursday or Friday nights; try booking flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Flying in the middle of the week can save about $50 per ticket on domestic airfare, and “a whole lot more” on international, Berg said.

If you’re flexible on your trip dates, booking vacations for September and even early October can save you 30% off hotel and airfare prices. And “the weather is typically just as good, fewer crowds in many destinations,” Berg said. “Easy way to save money and also have a little bit less of a tourist experience.”

2. Save on food costs: When budgeting for a vacation, travelers focus on hotel and flight costs because they typically book and pay for those in advance, said French. Restaurant prices are often a surprise when travelers review their spending and “are shocked by how high it is,” she said.

Look for options to save on food costs by going to counter-service options over table service. Or go to a local farmers market or supermarket and cook something on your own for a meal or two.

“Dining out is a huge part of a lot of people’s trips, so you might not want to skip that entirely,” French said.

3. Leverage credit card rewards: Some credit cards offer benefits and rewards on dining and travel expenses such as checked bag fees. They might also extend those perks to other people you’re traveling with, French said.

But this isn’t a last-minute move: It takes time to apply and then receive your new card. “Many people get tripped up because you do have to apply for this credit card ahead of time,” she said.

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