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Thinking about travel in '22? Here's how to be fiscally smart about it.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 impacted many Americans’ travel plans over the last couple of years. And while the pandemic continues to alter daily life in ways big and small, it appears that many people are interested in hitting the road in 2022. One recent report even found that more than three quarters of Americans are in a “ready to go” state of mind, and 25% say they’re planning to increase their international travel this year.

Of course, the pandemic is still very much with us and might be throughout the year. If you decide to travel, you’ll want to make sure you do so as safely as possible and that you follow all COVID guidelines along the way.

Looking at it from a purely financial perspective, this year may be a good time to travel, since many rates are still below their pre-pandemic levels. For example, a report from Expedia found that the average price of an international flight is about 35% below 2019 prices. Tickets to domestic locales are almost back to their pre-COVID levels, but there are still deals to be found.

Even if you can’t find that super-cheap rate on a flight within the continental U.S., there still are plenty of ways to save on domestic travel this year. Hotel prices in larger cities continue to be lower than usual, since business trips and conventions are still happening far less frequently than they did before the pandemic. Typical business destinations like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston are a few cities where hotels are still well below their usual capacities — meaning you can get good deals, especially on weeknights.

If you’re thinking about renting a car at your destination, be sure to plan ahead. Rental cars may still be scarce when you book; if so, you could encounter rates that are considerably higher than you’re accustomed to. It’s one of the few travel-related services that might cost you more during the pandemic. That’s because many rental companies sold off most of their fleets in 2020 and still haven’t replaced all those vehicles.

The smart approach is to book as early as possible, then watch for deals and rebook if you see a better rate. Don’t prepay for your rental — if you do, you lock yourself in at that price and can’t continue shopping around. Just be sure not to think of car rental as an afterthought; get it squared away early, especially for travel during the peak summer months.

For those who are dreaming about international locales, keep in mind that overseas travel is still going to be more expensive than domestic travel. With COVID restrictions in place in many countries, it also requires more planning and paperwork, so be sure to do your homework before committing any cash.

Places that are a little closer to home, like Mexico and some Caribbean destinations, will sometimes offer good deals. If you find one, book it quickly, as they generally don’t last long. Prices will be lower outside of the peak summer months; if you’re looking to save a little, think about springtime or fall trips. And don’t wait until the last minute — for the best prices and availability options in international travel, you want to book at least three months ahead of time.

Regardless of where you’re going, a key to managing it all in a fiscally sensible way is to ensure you have lots of flexibility. Don’t prepay for anything unless you have to. Yes, some hotels and car rental companies offer a discount for prepayment, but when you do that, you’re locked in. With COVID still a factor, you want maximum flexibility in case someone in your party gets sick right before the trip, or new restrictions go into place that prevent you from reaching your destination.

Make sure hotels you book can be canceled without any penalties. Your best bet is a hotel that won’t make you provide a credit card number until you check in. As for flights, book directly with your airline of choice, rather than doing so through a third-party site. If you have to make changes to your flights, or even cancel them entirely, it’s considerably easier to do so if you’ve bought your tickets directly from the airline. You might also want to avoid the basic or super-saver fares right now, as they often provide less flexibility to change or cancel your plans. No matter what airline’s tickets you buy, make sure to read all the fine print beforehand. Now more than ever, you’re going to want to know what you can change later and what you can’t.

Another good way to protect your travel investment is with trip insurance. It’s especially valuable for international travel, where circumstances are less predictable. Again, though, read the fine print. Some insurance policies don’t have a “cancel for any reason” policy, which would mean you’re out of luck if you want to cancel because someone in your party has COVID. Read up and be informed.

It’s also smart to have a “just in case” budget for your trip. Set aside some money in case someone in your party tests positive and you have to quarantine before you can return home. Depending on the circumstances, you might need to extend your stay for up to two weeks, so it’s best to be prepared.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice to remember while traveling this year is one of the simplest: trust your gut. If traveling internationally makes you nervous, book something in the U.S. If flying worries you, pick a destination you can drive to. Stay within your comfort zone and do what makes sense for you. As long as you stick to what’s most comfortable for you, you should be just fine. Here’s hoping you get to enjoy some great travel adventures this year!