How to beat the post-pandemic travel boom and find last-minute deals

Restrictions are lifting, fears are easing, summer is here and pandemic cabin fever is breaking.

That means travel is back. But it also means that places are booking up fast, and prices for flights are soaring. So is there any hope for finding a good last-minute travel deal?

Yes, but you have to be shrewd about it, according to Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights.

Keyes said last-minute bargain hunters first need to let go of a common myth — that airlines will magically slash prices at the last minute to fill seats.

It’s just the opposite.

That’s because historically, the people buying last-minute flights were not leisure travelers but rather business travelers who “don’t care about what the flight costs because it’s their company paying for them,” Keyes said.

“Airlines know this, and so rather than slashing the price to try to fill unsold seats, they actually jack up the price to try to make as much money as possible from those business travelers,” he told WTOP.

“And so if you’re looking at a flight and it’s within a month-or-so of travel, don’t hold out hope that it’s going to get cheaper. To the contrary, it’s almost certainly going to get more expensive. The graveyard of cheap-flight wishers is littered with folks who were hoping that it was going to get cheaper in the last week or two, only to find out that instead it got a lot more expensive.”

That’s why Keyes advises travelers to book as early as possible. If that’s not an option, though, and you’re still determined to find a bargain, then be flexible with your plans.

Keyes recommends people take the typical vacation thought process and “flip it on its head.”

“The normal way folks search for flights is a three-step process. Step one, we pick where we want to go. Step two, we pick when we want to go there. And only on step three do we look [at what] the flights cost. And by setting price as the last priority, it’s not terribly surprising we end up with some expensive flights.”

Instead, make airline price the top priority to bring down the cost of a trip. So, step one would involve figuring out where the cheapest flights out of a given airport are going to.

“Step two, of those places … which one interests you the most? And step three, what dates work for your schedule?” Keyes said, noting that he’s found round-trip flights from Dulles Airport to places like Belize for only about $350 using this method.

“By setting price as the top priority, that’s how you end up getting cheap flights. And that’s how you take three vacations for the price you used to pay for one.”

Websites like Expedia and Kayak are good places to start, although keep in mind that Southwest is not included in their flight searches. Signing up for weekly email alerts about travel deals from companies like Travelzoo is another option.

This strategy, however, relies on being open to more offbeat destinations instead of tourist hot spots like Hawaii. Keyes suggests considering “iconic, western, outdoorsy destinations such as Montana, Wyoming or even Alaska.”

“We saw flights just the other day from Dulles to all over Alaska — Juneau, Sitka, Anchorage — for as little as 220 bucks round-trip. We saw flights from Dulles out to Jackson Hole for $201 round-trip,” he said. “And so those types of deals are popping up pretty regularly, even with last-minute availability.”

Interestingly, international destinations have become much more affordable than many domestic getaways because of the pandemic, which curtailed both business and leisure travel abroad. But if you’re comfortable venturing to another country — especially in Europe — now is the time to do it. Be aware of any COVID-19 restrictions that may still be in place at your destination, or testing requirements for American travelers returning home.

A recent deal on Travelzoo featured round-trip flights to European cities like Berlin, Stockholm and Amsterdam for as low as $329, even for 2022 bookings. Another deal featured a seven-night vacation package to Spain — including air — for just $900 per person.

“Airlines are adding a lot of capacity to countries that have opened up in Europe, like Greece and Croatia and Iceland, but there’s still a lagging hesitancy among a lot of folks, even folks who have been vaccinated, to travel internationally,” Keyes said.

“And that’s why you see a lot of the best deals happening for last-minute flights to places like Greece and Iceland,” he added, noting there’s also not “a whole lot of business travel you’re competing with for those last-minute flights.”

Of course, flying is not the only mode of transportation. Many people are still more comfortable driving for now, but the recent surge in demand for rental cars has caused a huge shortage because many companies sold off their fleets during the pandemic to stay afloat.

Keyes said a good alternative is Amtrak, which has significantly cut fares to bring riders back. This makes Amtrak is a convenient option for weekend getaways from the D.C. area to places like Philadelphia, New York or Boston.

And even though the rental car market is tight, it’s not impossible to find a car if you know where to look. Keyes advised skipping airport rentals in favor of rental car companies in the D.C. area that are likely to be cheaper.

Another tip is to rent directly from a dealership.

“A lot of Subaru and Kia dealerships and Nissan and whatnot have car rentals. They’ve got fleets of cars that they don’t necessarily advertise are available to rent, but you absolutely can, and their prices tend to be more set-rate rather than the variable pricing you see at car rental agencies,” Keyes said.

The situation is so desperate in the rental car market that some people have resorted to renting U-Haul trucks for their summer escape. It’s a strangely positive sign that travel is returning. At a minimum, Keyes said it will make for some interesting vacation stories.

“Talk about a memorable trip, right? ‘Oh man, can you remember that summer when car rentals were so expensive that we rented a U-Haul to go take a road trip around the Smoky Mountains?’” Keyes laughed. “That would be one to certainly give your future self a great story to look back on.”

Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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