Mark Mandel may live in Green Valley, Arizona, about halfway between Tucson and the Mexican border. But in his mind, he’s already strolling the streets of Paris.
Like many of us, the semi-retired software engineer has been pretty much stuck at home the last seven months or so, with most nations around the world not even admitting American travelers due to the COVID-19 crisis.
But that doesn’t mean Mandel can’t dream — and plan. The big trip on the horizon: An extended vacation to Paris, to celebrate a milestone birthday for his wife in 2022. He envisions at least a couple of weeks, maybe up to $10,000 in expenses, and perhaps even a riverboat cruise to Prague thrown in for good measure.
“My wife is real big on Paris: She wants to hang out at cafes, and have coffee and baguettes, and go to museums and flea markets,” says the 63-year-old.
There’s even a term for this kind of big, splashy vacation dream: “Revenge travel." After so many months of being cooped up, would-be travelers are looking forward to an epic year in 2021 or 2022 — assuming a coronavirus vaccine becomes widely available, and people once again feel safe to explore.
"People are starting to think about big trips, because they know what they’ve lost,” says Chris Klauda, senior director of market insights for travel research firm STR. “It feels like it’s going to be crazy. Pent-up demand is almost an understatement.”
There’s a particular urgency for those who are nearing retirement or retired already. You've saved your entire working life to enjoy the freedom and leisure of your golden years, and you've had a year essentially stolen by the virus, so there’s now an additional premium on the precious time remaining.
Here’s an added bonus: According to one 2014 study by researchers at Cornell University, just planning a life experience like a big trip creates a lot of happiness. So not only are you setting the table for a memorable vacation, you’re making 2020 a little brighter.
So how to do it right? A few tips from the experts:
Set up a dedicated account
Financial planners are virtually unanimous on this point: You need to set up a separate account to house your travel savings. If you just keep vacation money in regular accounts, it’s virtually guaranteed to get gobbled up by the necessities of daily life.
Do this by setting up regular automated transfers, perhaps into a high-yield savings account, which will get you another percent or two on your money while you wait. If you've been lucky enough to keep your job through this crisis, you should have some financial flexibility to put extra money aside — since travel, dining and entertainment expenses have likely been slashed from their usual levels.
“It helps greatly to open a completely separate account,” says Jesse Sell, a planner with Prevail Financial Partners in Stillwater, Minn. “Set up a systematic deposit, so funding takes place with no decisions involved. Then find a way to use a visual around the house, so savings progress can be seen regularly. That will help with motivation to make the necessary spending sacrifices.”
Take advantage of deals
There’s no escaping that the travel industry is in real existential crisis right now. Since March there have been a whopping $376 billion in losses for the U.S. travel economy, according to the latest report from Tourism Economics.
For travelers, though, that presents real opportunities, in terms of locking in deals and discounts that you might not be able to get in normal times. It’s a bit of a balancing act: You want to plan far enough ahead that COVID-19 shouldn’t be an issue, but not so far ahead that hotels and airlines aren’t even taking bookings yet.
Just try to avoid large non-refundable deposits, since everything is in flux: schedules may change, hotels may go under, cruise lines may shutter. Even refundable deposits can be a headache to get back. The virus is running the show at this point, so only make definite plans if you can cheaply and easily shift things around.
One source for deals you might not think of, from financial planner Herschel Clanton of Atlanta: Costco’s travel department. The big-box retailer’s purchasing power enables its travel buyers to negotiate sweet discounts; “Executive members” get 2% rewards on travel, and an additional 3% for using the Costco Anywhere Visa card from Citi.
Make the most of your points
This is always good advice, but especially now, since we have such a long runway ahead of us. So even if you don’t have a lot of travel rewards built up yet, select a credit card with an impressive points system, and plan on directing most of your charges over the next year or two to that card.
You can get a head start with cards offering generous signup bonuses right now, like Chase Sapphire Preferred and Capital One Venture. If you use programs with transferable points, like AmEx Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or Citi Thank You points, you aren’t locked into one travel provider.
Look closer to home as well
Especially for older travelers, who are in a higher-risk demographic for the coronavirus, the idea of gallivanting around the world might seem a little daunting right now. So there’s no reason why your “Revenge Travel” can’t take place right here in the States, and even involve the grandkids as well.
Of course, everyone else is thinking the same thing — that’s why RV sales are through the roof and longer-term vacation home rentals have become more scarce than usual. A good place to start: the road-trip search tools for AAA or AARP.
But if you are staying closer to home, don’t expect any screaming bargains right now, especially in vacation areas that are within driving range of large American cities, which are proving understandably popular in 2020.
Get travel insurance
In normal times, people tend to think of travel insurance as an afterthought: Something you might get, or might not, with no huge implications either way.
This time, with so much uncertainty swirling all around, it would be an oversight to not get some kind of protection for your travel expenses. Among top firms offering travel insurance are familiar names like AIG, John Hancock, Travelex, Allianz, and Berkshire Hathaway.
Just be aware of the fine print, and research what you are actually covered for, experts advise. You might qualify for refunds if a flight is cancelled or if you fall sick, for instance, but not for a more personal decision like if you just don’t feel safe.
That’s what Mark Mandel is planning, to ensure all goes well with his big Paris trip. “I’ve never gotten travel insurance before, but I probably will now,” he says. “Because the fact is, these days, no one really knows what is going to happen.”