Yes, you can take a free vacation after the pandemic (almost)

take a free vacation after the pandemic

America’s ready for a little time off after a long lockdown. But with the economy taking a beating, no one wants to pay for it. So is there a way to take a free vacation?

Yes — almost.

“I long to get out and begin traveling again,” says Linda Malys Yore, a travel blogger from Tampa, Fla. “During quarantine, I carefully monitored my money, resisting the urge to make nonessential purchases online. Travel is my big picture — and I am zeroing in on that goal.”

Her strategies may sound familiar. They include choosing a less expensive way to travel, using her reward points, and pinching pennies on the road. But post-pandemic, travelers like her are taking the money-saving to a surprising extreme. (By the way, here are a few bargain blunders you’ll want to avoid.)

Ways to take a free vacation after the pandemic

Here are the top free or low-cost vacations after the coronavirus:

✓ A staycation
✓ Camping
✓ Vacation rentals
✓ Couch surfing

Lower your standards a little before you leave

The first trick to taking a free vacation: lower your expectations. This won’t be a five-star vacation. Not in this economy. Tasha Holland-Kornegay, a counselor who specializes in reducing worker burnout, says your destination doesn’t have to be far from home.

“It can be your favorite childhood park, a mountain you’ve always wanted to climb or a white sand beach,” she says. “It can even be a new coffee shop.”

The idea of a post-pandemic getaway is to find inner peace, not to do everything. And besides, everything won’t be open for a while. Staycations have always been popular, but more American than ever are planning to take them this summer.

Applying a more inclusive definition of “vacation” may bring you closer to your goal of a free getaway, say experts like Holland-Kornegay.

Pitch a tent to save a buck (or two)

People who want a free vacation are getting creative.

“If you had told me this time last year that I would be going on a camping vacation, I would have said you were nuts,” says Louise Sattler, a marketing consultant from Los Angeles. But after sitting around during her confinement, she says she stumbled across an off-the-beaten-path destination near her. “Now I’m finding myself researching camping and RV-friendly destinations,” she adds.

We’re lucky that we live in a country with so much space.

“For Americans, there is so much public land and provided that you leave no trace and are not visible from the road, you can find little side roads and go camping for free in much of it,” says Kristin Addis, who writes a blog about solo travel. “Especially in the American west, like Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and even California, there is so much free camping.”

The RV rental company Outdoorsy has crunched the numbers and is predicting a renaissance in road travel once people get the green light to hit the road and travel again.

“People have had to rethink many things — from how they shop for groceries and socialize to how they achieve work-life balance when working from home with their families,” says April Cumming, a spokeswoman for Outdoorsy. “Once this storm passes, people will also start rethinking the way they travel.”

In fairness, some of us never stopped thinking of tents and RVs as the preferred way to travel, including this former Boy Scout.

Vacation rentals are another great way to get an almost free vacation

OK, vacation rentals may not be free, but they are a great way to save money. So let’s include those in this list. Omer Rabin, a managing director at the short-term property management platform Guesty, says he sees an increase of up to 40% in reservations for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s compared to last year.

Let me repeat that. Vacation rentals are predicted to be up 40% from last year.

“This early data suggests we could witness an unprecedented surge of vacations later this year,” he says.

Why? A rental lets you prepare your meals, host a large family, and enjoy all of the conveniences of your home. No, it’s not free, but compared to staying in a traditional hotel and eating in restaurants, it’s positively a bargain.

The only thing cheaper is staying with a friend or family member. It’s called “couch surfing,” and a lot of Americans are doing it this summer, including yours truly. Sorry, Mom.

Reality check: nothing is really free

Finally, a reality check: There’s no such thing as totally “free.” For example, if someone told you they took a “free” vacation with points or miles, ask: What did you do to get those points? That’s right, you had to spend a small fortune on your credit card or on travel. Even the cheapest known mode of travel — couch-surfing — has hidden costs. You have to survive Grandma’s meatloaf!

But I think this is one of the best travel trends to happen to us in a long time. What’s so wrong with spending the summer camping, hiking, RVing, and being with family? Too bad it took a crisis to make it happen.

Other ways to pinch pennies when you travel

Hitchhiking

This early form of ridesharing was popular during the last economic downturn. Maybe it’ll make a comeback? “I’ll admit, hitchhiking is not for everyone,” says Connor Griffiths, who runs a vacation rental management service in Alberta, Canada. “You do accept a certain level of risk. I have never felt unsafe once and have only met the coolest people.”

Home exchanges

That’s how Emma Riggs saves money on accommodations. She swaps her home in Australia for another home. “The only real costs you incur when house sitting are the transport costs of getting yourself there, like flights and fuel,” says Riggs, who writes an RV lifestyle blog.

Home-cooked meals

Tanya Peterson, a vice president at Freedom Financial Network, a debt relief company, says a trip to the grocery store can save you money on your next vacation. Preparing your own meals can reduce your food bills considerably. And, as a benefit, grocery stores also sell discounted attraction tickets, offering another bargain opportunity.

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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