I flew across the country for work last week – from Seattle to New York and back – within 24-hours. It’s one of those quick business trips that used to be routine, until COVID-19 hit, grounding flights and turning airports into ghost towns.
While last weeks’ trip wasn’t my first since the pandemic started – it was the first time it felt like everyone else was back to traveling too. Lines for security checkpoints stretched and snarled through the terminal. Passengers stuffed into every seat on the plane and overhead bins were bulging.
Apparently, some 4 out of 5 people in America plan to take a trip this year and the biggest crowds are yet to come.
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“Summer 2022 will be the busiest travel season ever,” Expedia Group Chief Executive Officer Peter Kern recently told Bloomberg. “And yes,” Kern continued, “prices will be high. But at this point, I think people are willing to pay whatever the hell it takes to get away and go to a place they want to go.”
Before you throw all your pandemic savings into the skies, check out this “mostly new” batch of must-know travel tech tools bound to make your first vacation in years … totally worth the wait.
Fly for free-ish
Along with pent-up demand for travel comes a potential windfall of pent-up savings. All that office furniture, toilet paper and bread-making flour you bought over the past two years likely racked up some sweet savings in the form of loyalty points or airline miles – and it might be the perfect time to turn those into a bucket-list-worthy vacation.
The Points Guy App is a noteworthy new way to keep track of points and miles across banks, airlines and even hotel loyalty programs. Once you download the free app, it prompts you to add your credit cards, link rewards programs and “search for your first trip,” based on the best ways for your points and miles to get you there. If you tap the “Award Explorer” icon at the bottom of the app, it shows your progress toward specific award routes and shows you how to earn toward trips even faster. The built-in newsfeed also delivers insider tips and tricks around flights, deals and even the latest COVID-19 requirements (you still have to wear a mask).
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The Points Guy App is only available for iOS at this time, but there’s a sign-up page on the website for the Android version the company says is due out any day now.
If you’re not using the AwardWallet app (iOS, Android, free) or desktop site yet, take it for a spin too. It’s the originator of rewards-tracking tools and lets you monitor more than 700 loyalty programs – all from one central dashboard. You can add everything from credit cards to cruise ships and the app analyzes your spending to make sure you’re using the right cards to earn the most points.
AwardWallet’s been around so long, I had no clue how many points I had amassed until I spent nearly two hours updating passwords and linking every account everywhere (Chipotle, Sephora, Target, Fandango, Ferryhopper – you name it – it’s there). The only bummer is that to get the most out of it, you’ll need to upgrade to the $30/year version.
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Now comes the tricky part – figuring out how to turn all those random points into a dreamy vacation. That’s where the new Point.Me website swoops in to save the day. Use it to sync with AwardWallet and track down all of the flight redemption opportunities available for more than 100 different airlines.
Point.Me has access to seats that airlines don’t openly advertise, so you can score better seats on more flights for fewer points. It also takes the headache out of matching your credit card points with compatible airline deals. Once it finds the perfect points-based flight, it gives you step-by-step instructions on how to transfer points and book available tickets. It feels like having an “inside person” in the booking department.
There is no free way to use the service, but you can take it for a 24-hour test drive for $5. That’s how I was able to find a roundtrip flight for my next business trip for 18,000 points and less than $20 cash in taxes. I didn’t even know that particular credit card worked with Southwest Airlines.
Add these latest tools to a few familiar ones that make frequent travel deal headlines, such as Hopper, Travel Pirates and Scott’s Cheap Flights and let the “that seems too good to be true,” deals come straight to you.
Lug a whole lot less
One of my favorite travel tools these days – especially for packing ski gear or extra gadgets for a TV appearance – is a service called LugLess. It ships all your bags and boxes to your destination so it’s there when you arrive or you can pick it up from one of more than 10,000 FedEx, UPS, or Walgreens locations. It even tracks down the cheapest luggage shipping rates and then lets you choose what options you need – like doorstep pickup or additional coverage.
Airlines are constantly hiking up the prices of checked bags and while a carry-on fine for a quick jaunt to the beach over a three-day weekend, there are many times when packing light just isn’t an option. (Have you seen how much gear it takes to travel with a baby these days?!)
As an often solo-traveler routinely wrestling overstuffed duffle bags up several flights of stairs or dragging a suite of gadget-stuffed suitcases through crowded airports – only to pay overweight luggage fees at every layover – this service is a real lifesaver. It lets me ditch the stress but still take the exact right amount of clothes – and shoes – wherever the next adventure awaits.
Once you’ve booked the ticket and packed for your trip, easily the next biggest hurdle standing between you and your dream vacay is the TSA security checkpoint. It’s a necessary inconvenience, of course, but it can also feel like a test in travel torture. (I’ve missed flights more than once after getting stuck in two-hour-long traffic jams at the security checkpoints!)
The good news is you can essentially skip most of the time-draining TSA steps with TSA PreCheck and the MyTSA App (iOS, Android, free).
Apply for PreCheck approval on the TSA’s website and once you get the green light, you can fast-track your way to your gate. Approved PreCheck members don’t have to remove shoes, laptops, or belts. Whole families can sign up as well and TSA PreCheck is available at over 200 airports across the United States.
The My TSA App can also help you steer clear of potential problems. It shows estimated wait times at each airport’s security lanes, so you can plan ahead and time your arrival accordingly. The app also offers helpful tips for preparing for security, including a searchable database of what you can and cannot bring in your carry-on bag.
It’s a great time to revisit the other tried and true travel apps too, like App in the Air, Skyscanner, TripIt and VeriFLY. All of these are updated and include some great resources for COVID-19 travel requirements and information.
One of the biggest pain points I see everywhere I travel is around masks. You still have to wear them in airports and on planes until at least April 18. You can be that troublemaker who wears it under their nose or not at all, but don’t expect to get away with it. Causing a commotion or creating a stink over wearing a mask can still get you kicked off a plane and banned from travel.
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Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The most helpful travel apps to install on your phone before a trip