Frugal Living: The Travel Bonus Episode


In this bonus episode of the Frugal Living podcast, host Jim Markus talks with Mark Jackson about returning to travel and how to do it frugally. You can listen to the Frugal Living Podcast on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.

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As COVID restrictions lift, more people are ready to take vacations again. The travel landscape looks a lot different than it did in years past. In this episode, Jim talks with Mark about navigating the summer travel season and changes you can expect to see to old travel reward programs. Plus read a transcript from this week’s episode below.

Table of Contents

  1. Masks Are Still Here
  2. Travel Will Be Expensive
  3. Read a Transcript from This Episode
  4. More about the Frugal Living Podcast

Vaccinated or Not, There Will Still Be Masks for a While

While the most up-to-date guidelines from the CDC, at the time of writing, allows for fully vaccinated people to mostly return to normal life, masks are still required for air travel. Masks on other forms of public transportation vary by locality, but as a general rule, you can expect masks to be a part of travel at least through the summer.

Travel is More Expensive This Year


Very few people were willing to travel last year and prices for airline tickets and hotel rooms reflected that. This year, it’s clear that a lot more people are ready to take their vacations away from home again, so the price of traveling is going back up.

Mark explains that one way to mitigate the rising costs of travel is by taking advantage of credit card reward offers. Early in the pandemic, airlines had pre-sold billions of miles to big banks when very few people were flying. Now, these banks have a lot of extra miles and as a result, they are using them up by offering better credit card sign-up bonuses.

Speaking of miles, Mark explains that since the number of miles a flight costs isn’t fixed, you can stretch your miles further by taking off-peak flights. For example, he tries to fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays whenever possible, since there is lower demand for flights on those days.

Read a Transcript from This Episode

Jim (00:13):
Thanks for listening to Frugal Living. I’m Jim Markus. If you’ve been listening, you’ve already heard season one and season two, where I talked to so many people with so many great bits of insight for someone living a frugal life. This episode is a special bonus episode. It’s all about travel this year. Season three won’t be out for a couple of weeks, but I wanted to make sure you had this information and this conversation as soon as possible because it’s a weird year for travel. And I don’t know about you, but I want to save as much money on going where I want to go as possible. So that’s what this episode is about. This is a special bonus episode for travel. And after this, there’ll be a few more weeks where you can go back and listen to some of the old favorites, anything that you missed along the way, and we’ll be back with season three at the end of the summer. Again, I’m Jim Markus. This is Frugal Living, and here is our bonus episode on travel.

Mark (01:16)
I’m Mark Jackson and I’m the travel expert at Brad’s Deals.

Jim (01:20):
So you are the go-to person. You’ve been on the podcast in the past. When I want to talk travel on the air or off air, you’re the person I go to. So thanks for being here.

Mark (01:31)
Thanks, thanks. Yeah, I, uh, I talk people’s ear off about travel. It’s uh, it’s the obsession, not only the job. I’d be doing this for free if Brad’s Deals didn’t pay me.

Jim (01:41)
Yeah. It’s, it’s remarkable how, how much of a resource you are to people at the company. Everyone I know goes to you when they have questions about travel or credit cards, or using credit cards for travel to pay for travel without paying.

Mark (01:57)
It’s uh, yeah, we get a lot of requests and it’s awesome to help people. I like just, just helping them find the right, you know, solution for what they’re trying to do and, you know, hoping, hoping that they save a lot of money on their travels.

Jim (02:09)
And that’s what you do best. Uh, and I imagine this year more than most years, you’re getting questions you don’t normally get.

Mark (02:16)
Oh yeah. It’s, uh, it’s been a mess, you know. Obviously, obviously COVID, you know, in the last year with everything being shut down completely, travel was non-existent for a couple months there. Things have obviously started looking up a lot and the vaccine rollout has gone relatively well I would say in the US especially compared to, uh, countries that some people want to travel to. And so there’s a lot of positivity out there with, with travel. There’s still some pitfalls and, uh, and unknowns, but yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s starting to look a little bit better.

Jim (02:53)
We are in an interesting situation right now where we’re open. The US is basically open now. Vaccines are pretty readily available if you want one. You should be able to find one pretty easily. So a lot of people are getting vaccinated. Places are opening, flights are opening. What’s still different? What is still weird about travel right now?

Mark (03:16)
For one, the CDC’s announcement last week, um, saying that vaccinated people can basically return to normal life was an incredible announcement for anyone in the travel industry. And especially domestically, even throughout the pandemic we’ve seen domestic destinations that were relatively open, like Florida or my home state of Arizona. They’ve done quite well during this entire time. They’ve had travelers. They’ve had full resorts because people, you know, have that natural inclination to, you know, want to go on a trip. Things are not back to normal, though. The US has about half, um, of its population left to vaccinate. You know, we probably won’t get to the full a hundred percent, but even despite the CDC guidelines saying that vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks indoors or outdoors, if you’re traveling on an airplane or any sort of conveyance, uh, public transportation, ferries, you still have to wear a mask. And that hasn’t changed. I don’t know when that will change. The current mask mandate expires in September. I don’t think that it will be extended beyond that. That get, kinda gets us through all of the summer travel. And I think by that point, we’ll, we’ll probably see that go away, but, you know, individual businesses, all the airlines, they can also require their own customers to, to wear masks beyond that, you know, even without a government guidance. So we’ll have to wait and see if the airlines themselves extend it beyond anything that the government might say. They were, they were requiring masks before the CDC mandated that. But yeah, we’ll have to, we’ll have to see there. You know, the other thing that’s not normal about travel right now is the demand for leisure travel has never been higher. People didn’t travel all of last year. Most people didn’t. And so you’re seeing destinations sell out. You’re seeing rental cars sell out. And people, you know, that were used to paying one price for their favorite resort may be paying a higher price because international travel is still largely shut down. And the populace just, you know, is, is, are booking things early and, and at a volume that, um, the resorts are obviously excited about. But if you’re, if you’re frugal traveler, not so much.

Jim (05:54)
Sure. When I think about travel this year, I think a lot about personal preference in terms of… We all had a different last 12 months. Your pandemic look different than mine. Mine looked different than someone else’s and every American’s looked different than anyone in Japan or in the EU. And it still does. And so, we’re seeing a huge burst. People want to travel. I want to travel. If I might not be comfortable traveling right now, I might be comfortable in a month or in four months. And my travel comfort level might depend pretty heavily on well maybe I’m comfortable traveling, but I don’t want to fly. Maybe I’m comfortable flying, but I don’t want to fly internationally. Maybe I’m comfortable flying, but I don’t want to go on a cruise. You know, and any of those is fine. You know, like, however you feel is understandable. We need to start, I think, the conversation with that. If you’re comfortable going, great. If you’re not, great. No one’s saying you have to travel or that you should or that you shouldn’t. Let’s just talk about the landscape as it is. If you do want to travel, it’s not even what’s the cheapest option. Travel is expensive this year. This summer is going to be crazy expensive for travel. How do we mitigate that? What are the cheap options?

Mark (07:04)
Like you were saying up at the top, I love credit cards. I talk about credit cards every day on Brad’s Deals. The credit card offers have never been higher. There’s a couple reasons for that. For one, going back to the beginning of the pandemic, the airlines were obviously in trouble. They weren’t flying anywhere. They got a lot of government assistance to stay open and we can debate whether or not that was necessary. But the airlines are basically… At least the US-based airlines are now flying for their frequent flyer program as a business right now. They’re basically losing money on flying and preselling the miles that you use on the award flights to these big banks that issue their co-branded credit cards in their name. So American will sell billions of miles to Citi or to Barclay and they’ll make money off of that. And basically you, when you use your card, you get some of those miles back, um, in the form of rewards. And so they presold billions and billions of miles and billions of dollars worth. And so now you’re seeing higher, uh, sign-up offers because the credit card landscape is quite competitive. And especially for people that have come out of the pandemic, you know, smelling like roses ’cause there is a large portion of the population that’s richer after the pandemic. And so the credit card companies are definitely focusing on that consumer–people that will be good customers down the road. And this is a continuation of the entire industry’s competitiveness before the pandemic. This was a blood bath before COVID hit. And so you’re going to see these high sign-up offers. You can use those for your summer travel, probably late summer, at this point because it does take a while for those miles to get into your account and sign-up offer. So that is an option. I’ll say on the flip side, if we’re gonna get, kinda get into economic stock… As you issue more miles into the ecosystem–just like real cash–inflation happens.

Jim (08:58)
This is exactly the conversation I didn’t expect to have, but I’m so excited to have. Just to make sure I’ve got this, one of the things airlines did to stay in business, to maximize their business right now. You know, when, when flights are pretty low over the past two or three months, six months, twelve months. One of the things they did to make money was they sold frequent flyer miles to financial partners like banks, places that own credit cards. The banks then can use those to bump up the incentives to sign up for their credit cards because obviously credit cards are a major driver of revenue for banks and for, you know, financial institutions.

Mark (09:37)
Exactly. So the, uh, yeah, the credit card issuers have a whole bunch of miles in their account and they’re, they’re ready to, to burn them, to acquire you as customer.

Jim (09:46)
And to get back to what you were saying before. The inflation of miles, right? As long as we’re issuing a bunch of these miles, this is a made-up currency. You know, this isn’t blockchain. This isn’t, you know, backed by gold. These miles are just miles. And they can say this flight costs 3,000 miles or points today. And six months from now, they can say this flight actually costs 12,000 miles or 12,000 points in six months.

Mark (10:12)
Exactly, they do that all the time. They, they’ve, they do it sneakily sometimes. Sometimes they announce it. Um, a few years ago we used to have award charts that we could actually clearly see how much a flight within the US would cost, how much a flight from here to Mexico would cost. Those award charts have largely gone away. And it’s for the reason that we have demand-based pricing for most flights with the big three US-based carriers. So you can have a, a really busy flight and they could ratchet up the number of miles that it’s required to, to fly that. If you’re flying on an off time, though, you may actually end up paying less miles than you did before. And, and I frequently try to fly on, you know, Tuesdays or Wednesdays because those miles are, are typically a little bit less and I get, I can stretch those miles a little further. So it’s not all bad news. But I’ll say that if you’re traveling in the summer to, say Orlando, you know, and you’re going, you’re trying to leave Saturday after work, and you’re coming back Sunday, you know, before work begins the next week, you’re gonna be paying a high price. And, and those airlines can, can and will continue to raise the price of their award travel going forward. It’s just the way that the economics work.

Jim (11:24)
That’s a really good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to release this as a special episode between seasons–like we’re not actively releasing new episodes every week right now like we do when there’s an active season of Frugal Living–one of the reasons we wanted to get this out during the summer, early in the summer, is these types of offers may not last. And if they do last, the value of those offers might not last. So it’s better to say this now to share this information now. If you’re frugal, if you’re looking to maximize credit card points, sooner rather than later is probably when to think about doing that. Let’s talk about rental cars. It’s, from what I’ve heard recently especially, it’s crazy expensive to rent a car right now. People want to get out. People want to rent cars. What advice do you have?

Mark (12:20)
Oh man, drive your own car right now. I, uh, I, like, drive it. You know, wherever you’re going. If you live in New York and you’re going to California, just drive it. It’s, uh, it’s bad out there right now. My biggest advice, if you do have to rent a car, is you have to book early. And I would normally never say this with rental cars, but you kind of have to right now: pre-pay. So make sure about the, you know, the cancellation policy for the car. Watch that carefully. But pay in advanced to make sure that the car is there for you because most car rentals… You know, you don’t even have to put a credit card down to reserve that thing. So they may, you may show up after your flight, you may show up at midnight to Hertz and they say, sorry, we don’t have any cars. And if you prepay, you know, it, it, it, it’s much, much less of a chance of that happening. Not saying that it can’t happen, but that’s my biggest advice. The rental car companies, what’s happening is they really got squeezed at the beginning of the pandemic when no one was traveling. Their whole business model is, are, are selling these rental cars, you know, to regular drivers after, you know, a few months of being used so that they always have new cars. Um, and the used car market is, you know, a lucrative market for them. So they sold off all their inventory because they needed cash flow. And now they can’t find new cars to buy and they can’t fulfill, you know, refill their inventory. So you’re seeing the cars that they do have go for $200, $300 a day sometimes. A quick story: We were on the big island of Hawaii about two weeks ago, and we did rent a car. It’s a little less touristy and a little bit bigger of an island, so I think they had a little bit more inventory than the other Hawaiian islands that are seeing a big surge. Um, we paid about $40 a day for a rental car, which was not bad. But I had to use a coupon code from USAA, which they actually have a USAA membership that doesn’t cost anything that you can use that coupon code on Hertz. And if I hadn’t done that, it would’ve been $80 or $90 a day, which is still less than what the other Hawaiian islands are seeing. You’re seeing $200 a day in Maui. People are renting U-Hauls instead of rental cars, because the U-Haul rate is cheaper than the rental car. It’s insane. And I don’t expect that to improve at all this summer. So, um, especially if you’re flying out to Hawaii, which can’t easily get cars out there, book early. Or, or just try and make a trip that you don’t need to use a rental car.

Jim (14:52)
The idea of driving instead of flying to save money can be good. But I think, like you said, you really need to have a car that you’re using already. Like if you own a car and you drive that car, that might be a better option than flying in terms of saving money, but renting a car this summer probably isn’t.

Mark (15:13)
Probably not. There are a few startups that you may find deals with. I don’t have personal experience using them, but startups like Turo where you actually as a car owner can rent your car out to people. That’s an option. There’s, you know, tons of caveats involved with renting your own car out there. But you as a, as a car renter, um, may be an option to save a whole bunch of money compared to the rental car company. So definitely check out Turo. And, and if you’re just in desperate need of a car, may, may end up working out for you.

Jim (15:46)
That might be a good way to offset some costs too. If you don’t use your car a lot and you feel comfortable doing this, especially as we in the US are kind of coming to the end of a, a pandemic, that could be a lucrative way, especially this summer to make some extra money for travel. Also, you know, becoming a Lyft driver. If people aren’t renting cars, you know, like that might be a, a good option.

Mark (16:13)
Yep, and always check the liability when you’re renting your own car. I’ve, I’ve looked into it myself and I, I just didn’t feel comfortable personally with the coverage and the risk. You know, you do have a complete stranger driving your car. So it, it’s, uh, it’s not without its risks for sure. But, a lot of people are doing it and seemed to have a pretty good time with it. So if you’re, if you’re comfortable with that, you know, it could be a really good option.

Jim (16:36)
So we’ve already covered a lot of the, the things I had wanted to cover in terms of trends for this year, in terms of ways we can save money in this pretty unique summer of travel. What other areas are going to be valuable for us to talk about?

Mark (16:52)
Yeah. I think the biggest thing is where you travel. We touched on domestic travel and it being popular. Basically everywhere is open, even Hawaii who still requires a COVID PCR test to, um, enter the islands even if you’re vaccinated. They’re open too. They’re open for tourism. So you can go anywhere in the United States. You can go down to the Virgin Islands. You can go to Puerto Rico. But if you’re trying to go to Europe, the, there’s just a number of caveats right now at the time of recording that will probably not a hundred percent be in play by the time we publish. But as of right now when we’re talking, the EU is, uh, about to agree on terms for reopening for tourists. And that’s for vaccinated tourists. So the EU… some countries have already opened in the EU. Like right now, Greece is open for travelers that are fully vaccinated. So you could go to Mykonos right now, party it up on the beach as a, as, you know, with your other vaccinated friends. No problem. The other countries right now are, are, are not fully open. Italy just started this week with kind of this, these COVID flights, um, on specific routes with Delta that fly, you know, from JFK to Milan testing before, testing right before your flight with a rapid test, testing after your flight with a rapid test. Try to make things safe. So, so Italy is actually open for tourists now and this just happened a few days ago. So you actually get into Italy now, which is great news for people. Probably the most popular, one of the most popular destinations in Europe for American travelers is Italy. It’s beautiful. Great food. The other EU countries should have some framework by next week. But, um, fully vaccinated is going to be required. Basically every country except for Denmark has signed on to this agreement. So Copenhagen may not be an option this summer. Tangential to the EU countries like Switzerland, they basically have said they’ll follow whatever rules the EU, uh, is, is going to put into place. So we’re gonna have to wait and see, but, uh, it looks like European summer travel is going to be possible for Americans. Keep in mind that you will have to find a rapid test at this time to fly back to the United States within 72 hours of your departing flight back to the US. So, just something to keep in mind. But yeah, overall, it should be, it should be, um, a little bit more normal summer in Europe for a traveler. Still won’t be completely normal. You’ll still probably have to wear a mask in, in public places, et cetera. But, um, we’ll just have to wait and see on that.

Jim (19:30)
And obviously, like you said, you know, we’re recording this, uh, a little in advance of when this episode will air, so do your own due diligence. But one other thing to keep in mind is, you know, we as Americans are incredibly privileged with the rollout we’ve had. Like, it’s been much, much easier for adults to have, and, and even, you know, at this point, children to get the vaccines than it is in many, many other parts of the world. So maybe consider that when you’re choosing to travel. You know, if you go to Japan and adults may not be able to be fully vaccinated until fall, you know, understand that that is, uh, a thing to keep in mind as you travel internationally. And so look up local guides, talk to local people before you book, find out if it’s something you want to do. You know, if the, if the country is still in the middle of their pandemic experience, it may be a good, ah, thing to keep in mind when you book how much that’s going to affect your trip and how you interact with the people who are there.

Mark (20:36)
That’s a great point. And unfortunately, Americans don’t have a great reputation as tourists abroad. And I think it’s probably well earned. I think, uh, you know, oh, you know, overall I think we’re pretty nice, but we can tend to be a little pushy and rude sometimes. And, you know, this is gonna be, um, you know, you’d be surprised. I mean, the EU’s rollout has been abysmal compared to ours. Um, so even countries, like, that you’d expect to do pretty well like Germany or, or Italy, you know, it’s, it hasn’t gone that well. Um, so, you know, to your point, you know, follow the rules that they, that the countries themselves have implemented. Don’t just, you know, have this privilege of being vaccinated and think that, you know, your rules apply. You know, you’re in a foreign country. There could be fines. It could be jail associated with, uh, ignoring those rules. So, um, you know, there’s a whole new layer of, of rules that you have to follow. And overall, if you do something wrong accidentally, they’re not going to fine you or arrest you, but, um, you know, definitely be conscientious when you travel. You know, set a great example as an American traveling. Um, and, and, you know, most importantly have a good time.

Jim (21:46)
Yeah. And I mean, like there’s no, there’s no reason you can’t be frugal and have an incredible vacation this year. I, I did not expect that to be the case, but it looks like summer is gonna be a good, a good time for travel. And, well, even different parts of the US, uh, are opening differently. I think there’s a lot of options and things that you can do no matter your comfort level that are worth exploring. Personally, I’m excited to get out into the wilderness, which I haven’t done much in the past year.

Mark (22:15)
Oh yeah. Well, that’ll be great. And you know, definitely a frugal trip and you may have to book that campsite a little early, but, you know, it’s, it’s funny how, how all this is filtering down to all forms of travel. But my main advice is just book something early. And make sure it’s cancelable, so if you decide not to go, you don’t have to.

Jim (22:47)
So that was season two and a bonus episode of Frugal Living. We will take a few weeks off, work on getting a few more interviews for upcoming season three, and we’ll be back talking to experts in personal finance, deals, travel, you name it. In the meantime, check out Brad’s Deals. This podcast wouldn’t be happening without Incredible deals sourced by real people, and in many cases, negotiated for exclusive offers that are only available on the site. Check it out there or download the mobile app. If you’re on Google Play or iOS, you can get the Brad’s Deals app, and there are offers right there. You can personalize it and it’ll show you more deals as they become available. There’s new deals every day, and in many cases, every hour, sourced by actual human people that work with me directly. Thanks again for listening.

More about the Frugal Living Podcast

To hear more from Mark about summer travel in 2021, check out the latest episode of Frugal Living.

Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season two, out now.

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