I love the late sunsets and warmer weather this time of year. I live in New York, so it’s not quite summer yet, but the weather has definitely gotten nicer. And the town pool opens in about a week, so visions of lazy summer days are dancing in my head.

My wife is a planner, too, so our summer vacation plans were set a while back. But many people are still deliberating over their summer itinerary. About one in five Americans (18 percent) weren’t sure of their summer vacation plans, according to Bankrate’s summer travel survey published last month. Some 53 percent were definitely planning summer vacations, and 29 percent were not.

If you’re still on the fence, my advice is to book as quickly as possible, especially if you’re planning to travel by air. Last year was a record year for air travel, as measured by TSA passenger screenings, and this year is 6 percent ahead of that pace (as of May 13). You have plenty of competition for a still-limited supply of airline seats, as mechanical shortages and business decisions continue to result in packed planes.

The cost of summer travel

Some good news is that prices have retreated a bit. The April Consumer Price Index revealed that car and truck rental costs fell 10 percent over the past year, airline fares declined 6 percent and “other lodging away from home including hotels and motels” was down about half a percentage point.

Still, as inflation squeezes so many areas of the household budget, many Americans don’t have a lot of extra money to go around. Among those who are not traveling this summer, 65 percent of Americans say they can’t afford it – the most common explanation, by far. That’s up from 58 percent a year ago.

The next most common response was “I am not interested in taking any vacations currently” at just 24 percent (lucky them — maybe they’re retired and every day is a vacation). Though everyone should take some time to relax and recharge and enjoy the company of family and friends this summer, fewer than half of Americans take advantage of all the paid time off they’re offered, according to Pew Research.

Of course, it’s wise to avoid credit card debt if you can, since the average credit card rate is a whopping 20.66 percent. It’s alarming that 38 percent of U.S. adults are willing to go into debt this year for discretionary purchases such as travel (27 percent), dining out (14 percent) and live entertainment (13 percent).

It’s also troubling that two out of every three Americans with credit card debt are chasing rewards. Don’t pay 20 percent or more in interest just to earn 1, 2 or 3 percentage points’ worth of cash back or airline miles. If you have credit card debt, give common debt repayment strategies — including signing up for a balance transfer credit card with a lengthy interest-free period up to 21 months — a try.

Money-saving travel tips

Remember, credit card rewards are only worth it if you can pay in full to avoid interest each month. That said, tapping into your existing stash of rewards points and miles can be a valuable way to stretch your vacation dollars this summer. Here are some ways to save:

Use rewards points and miles

About a quarter of rewards credit cardholders didn’t redeem any rewards over the past year, per a 2023 survey commissioned by our sister site CreditCards.com. Especially if you haven’t redeemed in a while, you might be sitting on hundreds or thousands of dollars in free travel. Take stock of your credit card rewards, frequent flyer miles, hotel points and other loyalty programs. You might have a lot more value sitting around than you realize.

Don’t forget about unused gift cards and travel vouchers, either. About half of us have those lying around, and the average is approximately $200 per person. I recently cashed in about $200 in airline vouchers from a canceled 2023 trip; they were set to expire soon.

Zig when others zag

Another great way to lower your out-of-pocket travel costs is to take the road less traveled. As in, let the deal dictate when and where you go. Flexibility is key. If you want to go to the beach this summer but you don’t really care which beach, cast a wide net. Traveling to a destination during its shoulder season or offseason often represents a great deal. I’ve gotten phenomenal airfare deals to Florida in the summer, whereas prices tend to be sky-high during my kids’ February school break.

On a related note, flying midweek is usually cheaper than flying on the weekend, and road trips may be even cheaper than flying somewhere. If hotel prices are giving you sticker shock, try a home rental site such as Airbnb or VRBO. The more open-minded and flexible you can be with your dates and location, the better. You’re much more likely to bust your budget if you get your heart set on a specific place at a specific time.

Set a good budget

I know, budgeting is a dirty word to many people. You know you need to do it, but it sounds boring and feels like it’s all about denying yourself the good stuff, right? It doesn’t have to be that way. Done right, a budget can free up money for things you value, including a vacation.

A lot of people don’t set a budget, or if they do, they only account for necessities such as housing and food. Build a line item into your budget for entertainment or travel, if you can. Then, try to set money aside from every paycheck, ideally in a high-yield savings account (some of the best savings accounts yield more than 5 percent annually).

This is a great way to set money aside for a specific purpose and ensures that you have the money to fund your travels instead of going into credit card debt. Bonus points if you create a separate account (such as “summer week at the beach” or “Paris 2025”) — some sources suggest that people are more motivated to save and less likely to withdraw from the account when there is a specific purpose assigned to the funds.

If all else fails, plan a staycation

It can be fun and rejuvenating to play tourist in your local area. We all get busy with our daily lives and don’t have enough time to explore our own backyards. You could take that literally and lounge or picnic in your backyard, or you could visit that local art museum, hiking trail or theater (or whatever it is that you always thought would be fun but never got around to trying).

One in eight Americans are planning staycations this summer, according to Bankrate’s summer vacation survey. I’d love to see more people joining this group, especially if the alternative is working all summer. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by.

The bottom line

There are plenty of ways to have fun on any budget this summer. With some planning and creativity, I’m confident you can have a great summer getaway — whether you’re traveling near or far.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com and I’d be happy to help.