Tips To Save Money When Visiting US National Parks

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As I mentioned previously, over the coming days and weeks you’ll see the occasional post from a fellow reader who has applied to write for OMAAT on an ongoing basis. It’s possible that posts will still be in the publication queue after we’ve announced our decision, so we’ll be publishing these anonymously. We hope you enjoy the different perspectives!

This post was written by Greg Adamczyk.


Up until three years ago, I had not visited a single one of the National Parks in the United States.

And then I stumbled upon a picture of the Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon.

Mooney Falls, Grand Canyon

I was enamored by the beauty of the falls and decided that I wanted to make the 10 mile hike. This type of a trip was different for me – I had visited many cities in Europe and South America, yet I never visited any national parks or went camping even once.

In order to prepare for the 10 mile hike, I decided to take a weekend trip to Yosemite National Park. I figured that this would help me get a feel for what it would be like to do a strenuous hike, but was completely unprepared for the beauty of Yosemite. I was hooked.

Since that time, I have had the opportunity to hike and camp at Kenai Fjords in Alaska, Acadia in Maine, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. I’ve seen the sunrise at Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii. In addition, I’ve driven through Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Death Valley National Park in California.

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park

This coming summer, I am going to hike Glacier National Park in Montana, and I’m super excited to add this park to my resume!

But visiting a national park can be expensive. Airports near more rural areas tend to have high fares. Due to the remote location of most of the parks, you will most likely need to rent a car. Additionally, few chain hotels exist inside the parks themselves, leaving you without as many options to use to points.

Even with all of these obstacles, it is possible to enjoy the beauty of the national parks without having to spend a small fortune, so I want to share some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Mather Campground, Grand Canyon National Park

Airfare

When browsing for flights, you will discover that airfare to airports near national parks can be quite expensive. For example, a one-way ticket from New York to Fresno, California (Yosemite National Park), is typically upwards of $292 for July and August of this summer. That’s not horrible, but could add up quickly for a family.

Round trip flights to Kalispell, Montana (Glacier National Park) from New York are running around $550 for the same timeframe, as a more extreme example.

Even with these pricey airfares, it is still possible to reduce your out-of-pocket expenses.

Check the value of domestic economy awards

Because Fresno is a small regional airport with limited daily flights, airfare is generally high. For example, when searching award availability for two people in July, award prices vary significantly for a one-way economy class ticket from New York:

  • Delta award tickets start at 26,000 miles
  • United, Alaska, and American tickets start at 12,500 miles

Using 12,500 miles would represent a value of 2.3 cents per mile, since the lowest paid one-way ticket price is $292. Sure, you can realize a higher CPM by using miles for international premium cabin travel, but Cathay Pacific doesn’t fly to the Grand Canyon. 😉

Check neighboring airports

While Fresno is a shorter 2-hour drive to Yosemite, you could decide to fly into a major airport such as San Francisco or Oakland. In order to find a neighboring airport to compare airfare, use Google Flights’ explore map feature.

While the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite is around 3.5 hours, you can save on airfare and flying time.

For example, United Airlines is selling flights for as low as $119 one-way from New York. Better yet, the major US airlines offer non-stop flights from New York to the Bay Area, saving you from having to make a connection.

Again, for one person it might not be worth it, but for a family of four you’d spend a similar amount of time, and save ~$700 each way.

Get an airline co-branded credit card

If you decide to go camping in a national park, you will need to bring a tent and all of the necessary camping supplies – most of which wont fit in an overhead bin.

As a result, having elite status with an airline is huge, but even having the right credit card will help to reduce the cost of checked luggage. With the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, for example, you — along with up to eight companions on the same reservation — get to check your first bag free. That could save you $50-$450 in baggage fees on a round-trip!

Car Rental

Since you will be visiting some of the most beautiful and scenic parks in the country, you will need a way to get there.

Use AutoSlash

AutoSlash will find you coupon codes to save you money on your car rental. The site will even re-book you if your car rental reservation drops in price anytime after making your reservation.

Pay with a credit card with primary rental coverage

When paying for your car rental, I would highly recommend using the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

These cards offer you primary car rental coverage when renting a car in the United States. As a result, you will be able to decline the car rental company’s insurance. This will save you money and give you some piece of mind if an accident were to occur.

Lodging 

Finding a place to stay in or near a national park can be difficult, especially during the peak summertime season. In addition, since there are usually no brand name hotels in the parks, you wont be able to utilize points.

Book hotels early

Hotels located within the National Parks sell out quickly, especially for summertime travel — sometimes even a year in advance! As of March, I found availability for this coming summer to be very limited.

Many Glacier Hotel, Glacier National Park

In addition, hotels in the national parks tend to be expensive. For example, a one-night stay at Many Glacier hotel will set you back $207 plus taxes.

This is where credit cards that offer an annual travel credit, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, can really come in handy. The Sapphire Reserve offers an annual $300 travel credit, and you will receive an automatic statement credit after your stay. That can definitely help to offset the high nightly rate!

Look for coupons with online travel agencies

Online travel agencies (OTAs) can be a great value here. Since most of the hotels near the parks are not brand name or chain hotels, online travel agencies like Orbitz, Expedia, and Hotels.com, will allow you to use promotion codes that can help you save 10, 15, or even 20% on a booking.

For example, Orbitz usually has an ongoing 15% off coupon that can be used toward hotel bookings.

Save 15% at the Otter Creek Inn Near Acadia National Park with Orbitz

In addition, these OTAs oftentimes have their own reward program. For instance, Orbitz and Expedia allow you to earn money toward future bookings. If you frequently book though these sites, you can earn money off future hotel stays and may even qualify for a free night.

Use points for hotels on the park perimeters

You can find less expensive hotels within a short drive of the parks. This can be a much more economical way to visit. While you might not find a glamorous hotel, it is easy to find Choice, Wyndham, and Best Western hotels nearby. More importantly, these “gateway” hotels give you the option to book with points! These are not necessarily high-end properties, so I always make sure to look at reviews on TripAdvisor first. No one wants to stay at a run-down and dirty hotel.

Additionally, Choice, Wyndham, and Best Western have been known to offer generous promotions. For example, Wyndham currently has a pretty awesome promotion going on where you can stay twice and earn a free night!

Wyndham

Wyndham points can be earned three ways – by staying at their hotels, buying points, or making purchases using the Wyndham Rewards Visa Card.

Their program is unique in the fact that every hotel in their portfolio can be booked for 15,000 points, regardless of the cash price. These “Go Free” Rewards can save you a lot of money.

For example, the cash price for Wingate by Wyndham Hurricane, Utah (Zion National Park) is $161 + taxes per night. Instead, you could choose to stay for free by using 15,000 points.

You also have the option to reduce the cost of a hotel by booking a “Go Fast” Award. Usually, you will have to pay 3,000 points plus some cash.

Choice Hotels

While not the most glamorous hotels, Choice Hotels are a solid option for staying close to the national parks. Reward nights at Choice Hotels range from 6,000 to 35,000 points. While you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Choice Hotels, it’s typically not the best use of points. Purchasing Choice points during promos can make sense for these pricier destinations though!

However, it can be frustrating to book Choice Hotels with points since you can only book 30 days out. This can be a problem during the busy season – many of the gateway hotels sell out. However, if you are a Diamond elite member, you can book awards up to 100 days in advance.

Best Western

Best Western gives you another opportunity to use points. Best Western properties can be booked starting at 8,000 points, and range up to 36,000 points.

Similarly, you can earn Best Western Points by using the Best Western Rewards Mastercard, purchasing points, or staying at hotel properties.

Campgrounds

For those adventurous travelers, I’d recommend camping in order to experience nature at its finest. Similar to hotels, the most popular campgrounds in the national parks tend to fill up 3-6 months in advance. Unlike hotels, however, the campground sites usually start at $18 per night.

In order to find campgrounds, I use the site Reserve America, where you can search for specific national park campgrounds in order to find open availability.

Saving on Entrance Fees

For the most popular national parks, the 2018 entrance fee is $30 for a non-commercial vehicle. However, there are five ways to save on entrance fees when visiting.

Free Days

In 2018, you can visit any of the national parks for free on the following days:

  • April 21 – First day of National Park Week
  • September 22 – National Public Lands Day
  • November 11 – Veterans Day

Annual Pass

For $80, you can purchase an annual pass. This pass allows the owner and up to three adult passengers (age 16 and older) in a vehicle to enter the national parks across the country. This type of pass would make sense if you plan on visiting multiple national parks in a single year. Otherwise, it would still be cheaper to purchase a 7-day pass upon arrival at the national parks.

Senior Pass

As long as you’re a US citizen aged 62 and older, you can purchase entry to the national parks at a reduced rate. An annual pass costs $20 and a lifetime pass costs $80.

Military Pass

If you are an active member of the US military, you can obtain a free pass. In addition, if you are a dependent of an active military member, you too can get a free pass to the national parks. Unfortunately, veterans are not eligible for this military pass.

Fourth Grade Pass

If you happen to have a son or daughter in fourth grade, you can claim an annual National Parks Pass. This pass will provide them and the rest of the family free entry to the parks.

Bottom line

National Parks are a somewhat less conventional destination for those of us accustomed to frequent international travel. And they can be shockingly expensive due to their more remote locations and popularity.

If you follow the tips that I have provided when it comes to airfare, car rental, and lodging, you should be able to save money while enjoying some of the most beautiful parks in the country.

What are your tips for minimizing expenses when visiting the national parks?


As a reminder, this post was guest-written by a fellow reader. Feedback is appreciated, but please keep the comments kind and constructive.

Regarding Comments: The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Comments

  1. I really like the style of writing for this one. I give the vote a yes.

    My concern, is that content written is slightly off. For example writing that $292 is a one way to Fresno, and saying that $550 roundtrip to Montana is more expensive, or more extreme example, is simply factually untrue. 292×2 would be $584.

    Another point of using google flights, I think many of us use matrix here, and you can narrow down to nearby airports by miles..

    Otherwise great article and writing.

  2. I don’t think the premise “Nationalparks are remote and therefore expensive” is correct. For one, the popular national parks that take more than a day trip to visit have generally chain hotels nearby.

    For an optimal experience, it is of course advisable to fork out more or camp. Saving $ on the hotel is nice and all but having to drive an hour back and forth to access the NP is taking time out of hikes.

  3. I’m surprised in a post about us national parks that you didn’t address the rise in park entry fees. We’re doing the mighty 5 in Utah next month and I’m trying to decide what is the most cost effective way of paying for the fees.

  4. One of my goals is to visit all 59 national parks. I’m at 38 so far, and I just booked #39 Mammoth Cave in May and #40 Yosemite for June. The miles will sure come in handy for American Samoa National Park.

  5. Definitely book early if you want stay within a park – either camping or hotel

    Entrance fees – no mention? Why?

    I was at Joshua Tree a few weeks ago, fee was $25 for a few days (7?). But my understanding is there is annual pass available that is pretty cost effective depending on how much you would use it.

  6. How do you write an article about saving money at national parks without mentioning the National Parks Pass or the Senior Pass??

  7. Staying in the national park campgrounds is neither particularly adventurous nor does it require booking six months in advance almost anywhere. You can usually get a place if you arrive in the morning — that sometimes means staying near the National Park the night before (in a hotel or nearby state park campground) if you don’t have a reservation.

    I’ve left San Francisco on a summer weekend morning and managed to get a spot on arrival at Yosemite (one of the more-camped parks). I don’t recommend it, but it’s possible, and easier elsewhere.

    Short of staying in one of the historic lodges (which DO fill early), staying in the beautifully situated campgrounds is the best way to experience the national parks. It brings you much closer to nature while saving on lodging and food (if you do your own cooking). And, once you’ve paid the modest admission fee, so your entertainment is free.

    If you do want adventure and are equipped to walk a bit, many national parks allow free camping of you walk in a mile or two.

    It doesn’t seem fair to count the CC travel credit against the hotel since you’ve already used it up on the airfare and car rental.

  8. @J : Buy an annual pass then.

    Last year, I did Colorado NM, Arches NP, Canyonlands (Island in the Sky district) NP, Canyonlands (Needles district) NP, Mesa Verde NP, the Grand Canyon NP, Bryce Canyon NP, and Glen Canyon national recreation area in one long road trip. The cost of the pass was totally worth it.

  9. Thanks for sharing! I grew up in NJ and in the summer my family took a road trip to Acadia National Park for a week and loved it! Sure that was back in the 90s and gas prices were less than a dollar per gallon back then but my point is you don’t need to fly to a national park given they’re located all over the USA (if the goal is to simply save money to visit a national park.)

  10. Great article. Covering a lot more than the vast majority of articles. Books are written on this topic. Criticism isn’t fair as topic so broad. Article so comprehensive, it could be broken into parts with greater detail. Writer is a keeper. Writer took on a tough broad subject matter for one article. Did a great job. Also type of article lacking for OMAAT…outdoors coverage….nice to broaden readership. I liked!!

  11. I picked a smaller or lesser chain hotel as a base with the trade off of having to start earlier in the day for the hikes (day hiker not a camper). For Yosemite I stayed at Mariposa and Glacier I stayed at Coram or West Glacier. Have to be strategic though since some parks are huge (Yellowstone) so that means on longer trip I have to change hotels. I saved by buying supplies at the local groceries hence avoiding pricey national parks concessionaire. There is an annual pass still for non seniors I think $80 per year – heck of a deal. I avoid national park hotels since they are quite expensive and old. I stayed at Many Glacier and the toilet got clogged and the walls are super thin. And to close – if you think the parks in the lower 48 are great then go to Denali in Alaska. Just the roadside scenery from Anchorage to the entrance will blow your doors off.

  12. Really?? You guys advertise for someone who has an intimate knowledge of using miles and points to leverage them in insightful ways and we get a post about how visiting the national parks can be…… expensive? Why not re-open the application pool? I have a post in mind, here’s
    teaser:

    Traveling During the Holidays can be Busy and Expensive

    Have you ever tried to use Google Flight search to book a ticket for the Thanksgiving long weekend or around Christmas and New Year? Chances are prices are going to be higher and once you arrive at the airport it will be much busier than in normal times.

    STAYING HOME

    One solution is to stay home, not only will you save money but you’ll also save the hassle of dealing with a crammed solution

    INVITE RELATIVES OVER

    If you stay home you can still enjoy the holidays with relatives, and usually if they come visit you then you won’t have to help out with travel costs, though you may have to feed them. If so, a visit to Costco may help you save on costs. If the first meal you serve them is really bad they may wish to dine out thereafter, saving you even more money.

    TRAVEL TO DESTINATIONS NO ONE WANTS TO GO TO

    You may be able to save money on airfare if you’re willing to visit shitholes places no one wants to be in, even over the holidays. Surprisingly, you can find affordable travel to extremely cold places. Why? That’s because people would rather stay warm over the holidays. Now, some cold locales may still be expensive, but remember that you can always stay home

  13. @Boco I think you’re being unfair. Not everyone wants to go on vacation to major hotels in major cities. The post includes point options for going to/near national parks. The purpose of points travel is to go places for less cash.

    For my part I appreciate the attention to cheaper ways of traveling. For example, ideas to save money on places that don’t involve silvercar or spg/hyatt. I’d be interested in future ideas for how to leverage points in the choice and best western programs — these are great properties for family travel in the US and abroad (try finding an spg hotel with three beds!).

    Some additional thoughts on saving money on national park trips: check out the AA “reduced mileage awards” list — usually these include smaller airports that could be good options outside of the peak season. Also, take your grandma/4th grader to save on park entrance fees.

  14. To me, this turns into into a points guy, yahoo travel, buzzfeed type of article which is probably not the demographic of this blog. It’s really common sense to look at other airports, booking early etc. and it feels very much like pushing the cards too much. So thumbs down on this type of content. My two cents.

  15. @Boco. Very funny! I always get a laugh when people complain that places like Rome and Paris are “tourist traps.” Well folks, if it’s worth visiting it’s probably a good guess that lots of people will go there – duh…..

  16. You can save a lot of money by booking a vacation home outside the park. If you book through airbnb, you can use points from several different programs. Staying outside the park does not automatically mean a long drive and lets you get away from the crowds. Example – at Yellowstone, stay in Island Park, ID. Beautiful area and 20 minutes to West Yellowstone Park entrance. There is plenty to do there (float the snake river, see Mesa Falls), so you can enjoy a day away from the park. Carry a collapsible ice chest and buy groceries or snacks in a big town. A gallon of milk in West Yellowstone was about $6 last year. Most items were about double what we normally pay. I flew 21 people on the same SW flight from TUL to SLC and used roughly 9000 RR points roundtrip, per person. I booked the during one of the biggest sales. We then had a 4 hour drive, but it was beautiful. Our last night, we drove back to SLC and used points for 5 rooms at a HIX.

    Another tip for Yellowstone – it is huge – stay near the West Entrance for a few days, then stay around Jackson Hole for a few days. You could fly into one location and fly out of another. Flights to Jackson Hole are $$$$ but Frontier has great fares to Bozeman.

    Again, everyone travels differently and not everyone is looking for luxury or to fly first class to the Maldives.

  17. Writing: 8.5/10 (long article but managed to capture my attention throughout. Easy on the eyes to read. Good job)
    Content: 8/10 (there is a lot of thinking, planning and research into this piece. I credit the originality of it. Could have been 8.5 – fellow commenters highlight the lack of coverage on the park fees – could have covered a bit of that)

    I like this piece – showcased the writer’s ability in many areas.

  18. @ Boco — That’s reasonable feedback, and I appreciate it.

    To assuage any concerns, we feel like everyone we asked to write a sample post has a very strong understanding of miles and points, and so gave them a lot of leeway as to what they wanted to write about. We could have easily assigned topics (Ben has a list of literally hundreds of posts he’s trying to find time to write), but since this process is designed to help us find someone who is a good personality fit in addition to being an engaging writer, we gave options. People are writing beginner posts but aren’t beginners themselves, others are writing about certain programs or experiences, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have knowledge of other programs, etc.

    So I wouldn’t necessarily use topic choice as an indicator of miles and points savviness, if that makes any sense.

  19. I would love to see more posts like this! While I love visiting cities, I find it’s pretty easy to find good deals to major metropolitan areas. I tend to use my points while organizing trips to National Parks and outdoor hotspots. I just used United and Alaska points to book a trip to Glacier this August. Paid rates were $650-800, but using points made this a much more affordable trip for me. Also, I tend to find that it’s on the smaller regional flights that I actually get upgraded. It’s not as glamorous as a trans-ocean journey. After I’ve been backpacking for a week, getting a free glass of champagne feels really amazing.

  20. Great post, and one of the most practical of the guest posts so far. Writing was easy to follow, and it was nicely organized and thorough. Probably my favourite so far.

  21. @Boco – You nailed it….

    On a side note:
    Why would anyone want to “save” money when it comes to the entrance fee of a national park, heritage site or museum?
    With all the ‘skimping and saving’ so many people benefit from with points and “playing” the system etc.
    ….I’d think most people would want to invest in the maintenance and preservation of these places.

  22. The writing style is fine but I pretty much reject the premise, having been to 47 of the 60 National Parks listed on Wikipedia plus over 100 of the other parks operated by the National Park Service but not officially “National Parks” (just got back from visiting NPS parks in Guam and Saipan).

    The parks run by the NPS are great because they are such inexpensive family vacations. If the lodges inside the park are too expensive (sometimes yes, sometimes no), there are almost always much cheaper accommodations right outside the park. Food inside the park is generally very reasonably priced. It may not be gourmet, but it is perfectly fine. There is no reason to fly to an expensive local airport since virtually all parks are located within only a few hours driving distance from a major metropolitan area. Plus, there is almost always a Walmart nearby to buy a cooler after getting off the plane and to stock up on supplies. Flying my family of five from the East Coast of the USA to the West Coast for a two week NPS family vacation, including hotels and van rental, cost about 20% of the cost of a family vacation to Europe (we’ve done both).

    In my opinion, OMAAT is so great because of the quality of the writing and the analysis, as well as the comments written by incredibly knowledgeable people. There are many other blogs out there for beginners. I always thought of you guys as a cut above the rest.

  23. Economy class? National parks? Finding ways to save money on rental cars versus being driven by a chauffeur in a luxury car?

    This style of writing belongs on a blog like Seat 31B or Mommy Points, not OMAAT. 😉

  24. Great and very useful post! Thanks for sharing these awesome tips, I’ll surely need them as I’m actually planning to visit a few national parks in the months to come.

  25. Well, I’m definitely in the minority. I thought the writing poor, a day while the content was okay, it is definitely it why I read this blog. I come here for the one thing you guys excel at: LUXURY travel on points.

  26. 1. National parks “access pass” is a free lifetime pass for disabled veterans. Writer skipped over that one.
    2. Veterans Day is a free day for veterans.

  27. If you stay in a gateway town to a park, remember you can also use Fourth Night Free at a mom-and-pop motel if you have the Citi Prestige. These are usually cheaper than the chains and sometimes have better amenities anyway. Also, don’t forget that Southwest is an option to a lot of National Parks. If you’re really in a bind for airfare, just get the credit card and the 50,000 point sign-up bonus that comes with it. That should be enough to cover two tickets pretty much anywhere.

  28. I’m going to Page, AZ over Memorial Day weekend. A month or so ago, the prices for hotels was $250+. Also, that’s when Wyndham came out with their stay 2 nights and get 15k points. I “stayed” at the local Super 8 twice, for total out of pocket of $100 and booked 1 night in Page at the Baymont. My gf did the same. This is the type of points articles and topics I’d be interested in reading on here.

  29. Two comments/tips:

    The in-park accommodations often book up way in advance, but cancellations are common, especially last minute. I have booked a backup hotel outside the park and then started checking availability frequently in the week or two before the trip. I’ve always found cancellations and was able to trade up.

    Autoslash doesn’t rebook your reservations anymore. They will keep tracking a reservation if you ask, but you have to rebook it yourself.

  30. The beauty of the US National Parks is overwhelming, and the service and infrastructure the US NPS is offering the best available in the world (as a German I may say so, and I have visited national parks and similar protected areas in many countries throughout the world). Thus, I feel the entrance fees are reasonable, definitely below true value provided. Especially if you are using the America the Beautiful pass which grants access to all parks for 12 months for just $80. So, saving on travel is ok, but complaining about national park or campground fees in the US is not worthy. If you feel it’s too much, you should choose other destinations. Other countries will charge you many times more, with much worse offerings.

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