Whenever you’re ready to dust off your suitcase and get back out there, know that your usual trip routine will need some adjustments. But the extra preparation could spare you a considerable amount of stress.
Nerdy tip: Though travel has resumed for many in the U.S., we’re not yet out of the woods when it comes to COVID-19. Your life at home may have mostly returned to normal, but things are far from business as usual in many cities and countries. If you plan to travel, take appropriate precautions and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance regarding travel safety.
1. Plan ahead. Way, way ahead.
Check your passport expiration date
Odds are your passport hasn’t gotten much use lately, so check its expiration date ASAP if you’re thinking about an overseas trip. The State Department now recommends submitting your passport application at least six months before planned travel.
Make advanced reservations
For the time being, you can’t just waltz into many tourist attractions and buy a ticket like you used to. In some cases, you must book in advance online.
If you plan to drive to the airport and leave your car there, you can also pre-book your parking at some airports. Also, getting a table at many restaurants is still a challenge because of staffing shortages. Make reservations or build in time for longer waits.
Consider travel insurance
If you’re planning an especially expensive, once-in-a-lifetime trip, consider purchasing a travel insurance policy that provides appropriate coverage. You may already have some coverage if you used a travel rewards credit card with built-in travel protections to pay for your bookings.
2. Anticipate airport absurdity
Get to the airport early
Lauren Doyle, president of boutique travel agency The Travel Mechanic, a member of Ensemble Travel Group, suggests you get to the airport at least two to three hours before boarding, even for domestic flights.
If you’re hoping to quickly scarf down some food before boarding, dining options are limited at many airports (again, because of staffing shortages). Bring your own food or give yourself more time to hunt down a snack.
If there’s ever been a time to reduce what you bring on a trip, it’s now. Doyle's recommended packing list includes three pairs of shoes (if they’re leather, pick black or brown, but not both), clothing in neutral colors and smaller accessories to dress outfits up. Don’t forget layers like a rain jacket or scarf, if needed.
3. Be kind
Recognize that we’re all in this together
Everyone at an airport is advocating for their own needs — the need to drop off a loved one, check a bag or get to a gate on time. But you can accomplish your goal without getting in someone else’s way, or worse, treating them rudely.
Adjust your expectations for service
Airports, hotels and restaurants are understaffed right now, and that means longer lines, reduced service and limited capacity. Again, this is a time where advanced planning on your part can help.
4. Keep your itinerary light and flexible
Plan a realistic schedule
With so many limitations still in place, you’re less likely to check off every item on your travel wish list. If anything is a must-do, get tickets quickly and arrange your days around those activities. Identify a few backup options that can fill in your day if something else gets canceled.
Embrace the unexpected
On any trip, no matter how well you prepare, things will go wrong. But that’s as much a part of the travel experience as things going right.
"Travel is most exciting and rewarding when it requires you to ad-lib, be spontaneous, and use your imagination to conquer surprise challenges," travel writer and TV host Rick Steves said. "I like to make an art out of taking the unexpected in stride — and by doing so, I’ve gained lots of new friends and fond memories along the way."
5. Make it easier to reacclimate after travel
Prepare your home before you leave
Even if your trip goes according to plan, anticipate coming home bone-tired. Before you leave, take care of some errands so you don’t have to scramble so much when you get back.
Give yourself a buffer
If you have the vacation time to spare, take an additional day off before returning to work. This gives you the chance to fully unpack, restock the fridge and otherwise get yourself ready for your return to real life. Even better, come home on a Thursday so you get a three-day weekend.
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Late or missed payments
This one cuts to the heart of what lenders really want to know: “Are you going to pay your bills?” says Francis Creighton, president and CEO of the Credit Data Industry Association, the member organization for credit bureaus.
Anything other than timely, minimum payments are seen by creditors and lenders as missed payments.
“What matters is that you’re making the payment by the due date,” says Rod Griffin, senior director of consumer education for Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus. “If you only make a partial payment—as related to minimum payment due—that’s a bad sign. A partial payment is a late payment.”
When it comes to your credit score, making timely payments is the most important factor. It counts for 35% of your credit score.
Foreclosures and bankruptcies
These are the two worst items you can have on your credit history — and both will give future lenders pause, says Griffin.
But seeing these items on your history “doesn’t mean they won’t make that loan,” says Creighton. “But they may price it differently.”
Foreclosures stay on your credit report for seven years. Chapter 7 bankruptcies — total liquidation — remain on your credit report for 10. Chapter 13 bankruptcies — where consumers reorganize to repay some or all of their debts—stay in your credit history for seven years.
The further in the past that a foreclosure or bankruptcy occurred — and the more the consumer has recovered financially — the less impact it will have on their credit, says Griffin.
High balances and maxed-out cards
“A high balance, as compared to the credit limit on your cards, is the second most important factor on your credit score,” says Griffin.
How much of your credit you’re using makes up about 30% of your score.
“Ideally, you would pay off your card in full every month and keep your utilization as low as possible. What we see is the people with the best score have a utilization ratio (the balance divided by the credit limit), of 10% or less,” he says. That goes for individual cards and the consumer’s collective total of credit lines and card balances.
One credit score rule-of-thumb used to be to keep the utilization ratio below 30%. “But 30% is the max, not a goal,” warns Griffin. “That’s the cliff. If you go beyond that, scores will drop precipitously.”
Someone else’s debt
When you co-sign a credit card or a loan, the entire debt goes on your credit report. So, as far as lenders are concerned, you’re carrying that debt yourself, and it will be included in your debt load when you apply for a mortgage, credit card or any other form of credit, says John Ulzheimer, a former credit industry executive and president of The Ulzheimer Group.
If the person you co-signed for stops paying, misses payments or pays late, that likely will be reflected on your credit report.
Co-signing means agreeing to repay the obligation if the borrower defaults and allowing that debt, and any late or nonpayments, to count against you the next time you apply for a loan.
A history of minimum payments
Lenders don’t like to see only minimum payments on your credit report.
“It suggests you may be under financial stress,” says Nessa Feddis, senior vice president of the American Bankers Association. “You may be at higher risk of defaulting.”
Occasionally paying the minimum doesn’t signal a problem. For instance, paying minimums in January, after holiday spending, is understandable. But consistently paying minimums month after month indicates you might be having trouble paying off the balance.
Cash advances on a credit card
“Cash advances, in many cases, indicate desperation,” Ulzheimer says. “You’re generally borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”
The cash advance is immediately added to your debt balance, which lowers your available credit and your credit score for all potential lenders to see.
Secondly, larger card issuers regularly re-evaluate their customers’ behavior by pulling credit reports, FICO scores and customer account histories and running those through their own credit-scoring systems, Ulzheimer says. Many of the scoring models penalize for cash advances because they are considered risky, he says.
If the card issuer reduces your credit limit or cancels your account, that can damage your credit score — and make other lenders wary.
A flurry of loan applications
This one won’t so much scare lenders as cause them to take a second look at what’s going on in your financial life, says Griffin.
For someone who’s making minimum payments or late payments, and transferring balances, a burst of applications can be a sign of financial stress.
Hard inquiries for new credit stay on your credit report for two years and affect your credit score for a year. In the FICO scoring model, new credit counts for 10% of the score.
“They are the least important factor in credit scores, and the last thing that creditors are going to look at,” says Griffin.
Some types of credit applications — for mortgages, car loans or student loans — are grouped together and counted as one inquiry by credit scoring formulas. When it comes to those large purchases, lenders know you’ll want to shop around — and that’s smart.
While newer scoring formulas group similar loan inquiries together if they’re made within 45 days, older versions have only a 14-day window.
But you have no way of knowing which version potential lenders are using. To be safe, keep all inquiries within 14 days.