If you’ve been in an airport or hotel lately, you’ll likely agree that the travel industry is no longer operating in the shadows of COVID-19. Travel is back. While a few mask-wearing passengers are still likely to be found on every flight as a reminder of the lives we lived in 2020-2022 (and the fact that the virus is still with us), pandemic travel restrictions seem to have finally dissipated.

Yet, even as the COVID travel era becomes more of a distant memory, travel in 2023 still feels very uncertain with a global recession on the horizon and higher-than-ever fuel costs driving airfares sky high. If you want to get ahead of inflation and hit the road in 2023, the time to plan your travel — and your credit cards reward strategy for travel — is now!

Here’s what travel will look like for 2023, and how best to plan for it.

2023 travel outlook: open but costly

Nearly two-thirds (63.6 percent) of American travelers expect the U.S. to enter an economic recession sometime this year, according to Destination Analytics. Because of this, 65.7 percent say they are being careful with their money.

Yet, even with an economic recession looming, many Americans view travel as “essential” and remain committed to spending on travel even in an economic downturn, a November 2022 survey reports.

To put it simply, travel in 2023 is likely to cost more than we want to spend — just as we’re all tightening the purse strings in the face of inflation — but most of us are committed to travel anyway. It will help to plan ahead and use credit cards to reduce the costs.

How to plan and save on 2023 travel

In the face of higher travel prices, hunting for fare deals and building a recession-proof credit card rewards plan to earn some close-to-free travel are two excellent strategies to keep you traveling this year.

Look for travel deals

If you’re looking for travel deals in 2023, you’ll need to keep watch for the bargains — as well as for the reasonable fares — as fuel costs drive ticket prices up. Paid services like Thrifty Traveler or Scott’s Cheap Flights can be helpful to keep up with deals alerts delivered to your inbox.

You can also take advantage of free search tools like Skiplagged to find creative routings and explore discounted prices, or set Google Flight alerts to keep you posted on how a specific airfare you are watching is trending. You will find more on the best tools for redeeming rewards for flights here.

Being flexible about where you go is another way to catch a travel deal for 2023. If you can choose your destination based on where the lower cost flights are operating, you’re more likely to save on travel. Try using Google Flights to search flights across a region to determine where the cheapest destinations are, then use the fare calendar to see which date pairs have the lowest price tag.

Book trips you can cancel or reschedule

There’s a good chance that travel prices are going to continue to go up as fuel costs remain high. If you see a low or reasonable fare now that you think you might like for next year, the best advice is to go ahead and grab it.

Many airlines are still offering relaxed policies for canceling or rescheduling flights, so if a reasonable flight you purchase now happens to drop in price (or if you need to change your plans), you can always change the flight or cancel it and rebook.

Book directly with airlines

When you can, book directly through the airlines or hotels rather than a third party (like Expedia or Kayak). It isn’t that third-party sites don’t have great deals, they often just make it more complicated to get a refund, cancel or make a change.

Most airlines still have relaxed change policies for domestic tickets and international tickets originating in the U.S., unless you’re booking the basic or saver fare. Of course, the rules are always subject to change — and may be more likely to do so during a recession when airlines are looking for new revenue streams. So, make sure you check the current policy before you buy.

It’s important to understand that flexible cancellation isn’t the same as purchasing a refundable fare. If you cancel a fare under a flexible cancellation policy, you will most likely receive an airline credit for the price you paid for the ticket. If you pay extra for a refundable fare, you will receive a credit back to your original form of payment.

Airline change and cancellation policies (as of Nov. 11, 2022):

Airline Cancellation policies
Alaska Airlines Alaska has eliminated change fees on Main Cabin and First Class fares. Credit for canceled reservations is deposited in My Wallet. No cancellations on Saver tickets except within 24 hours of booking.
American Airlines No change fees for domestic, short-haul international and select long-haul international flying on Premium Cabin, Premium Economy and Main Cabin fares. Basic Economy fares are non-refundable and non-changeable.
Delta Airlines Delta has no change or cancellation fees for Main Cabin or above tickets on flights originating from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Remaining value from canceled fares will become an eCredit valid for one year from the date of purchase.
JetBlue JetBlue has no change or cancel fees on most fares, except Blue Basic which can be changed or canceled for a $100 fee for travel within North America, Central America or the Caribbean, or $200 for all other routes plus fare difference. There is a $25 fee if you make a flight change by phone.
Southwest Airlines Southwest never charges fees to change your flights. You may be asked to pay a difference in fare if the new flight you’re choosing costs more than your original itinerary.
United Airlines United Airlines has permanently gotten rid of change fees for most Economy and premium cabin tickets for flights within the U.S., or between the U.S. and Mexico or the Caribbean. You also won’t pay change fees for international travel originating in the U.S.

Read the fine print

Make sure any flight or hotel room you book is flexible, changeable and refundable. If you’re booking with your credit card points, look up the rules of the credit card, hotel or airline program through which you’re booking to make sure you can get your points back and adjust your itinerary.

And if you’re shelling out a lot of money for an organized tour, cruise or another prepaid adventure, make sure you have adequate travel insurance. Before you charge any kind of travel on your card, whether it’s a flight or a rental car, make sure you’re using a card that has good travel insurance for that particular expense. Depending on the type of travel, you might want to consider buying separate travel insurance for your trip as well.

Use rewards points for travel

As deals get harder to find and the prices on airfare and accommodation continue to go the way of inflation, using your credit card points for award travel will likely be very advantageous to cut travel costs in 2023.

To max out your rewards points earning and redemption, you’ll want to be sure that your travel credit card strategy is optimized. An end-of-the-year rewards audit is a good way to refresh your memory of what points and benefits you have banked from 2022, and to make sure you’re earning in line with your travel goals for 2023.

If you haven’t been traveling a lot in the past years, it may be time to upgrade those cards you’ve let lapse because you weren’t using the lounge or baggage benefits. Or you may consider applying for a new card with a big sign-up bonus going into the new year as a way to recession-proof your travel strategy.

Many airline and hotel card sign-up bonuses offer enough points to get you at least one domestic return trip anywhere in the U.S. or a couple of free hotel nights for your first 2023 trip.

The bottom line

With COVID mostly behind us and the possibility of a worsening recession in front of us, travel in 2023 still has its uncertainties. Though we may see higher prices, hunting for fare deals and building a recession-proof credit card rewards plan are two excellent strategies to keep you traveling. The world is open for business, and the time to make your 2023 travel plans is now.