Save money by exploring America’s outdoors on a cheap national parks vacation with our eight budget-saving, trip planning tips.
According to recent traveler surveys, almost three-quarters of family vacationers plan to visit a national park in the next year. This summer especially, the national parks will be a hot trend for families seeking cost-effective vacations.
1. Free and Cheap Ways to Visit the National Parks
A cheap national parks vacation allows you to save a few pennies if you plan it yourself. First, your family will enjoy the great outdoors free so you can trim your activities and attractions budget. Another penny-saving aspect of a national parks vacation is the stunning beauty of these destinations. Nature’s beauty is so overwhelming you won’t need to buy souvenirs to make lifelong memories.
If you’re visiting several national parks, an annual parks pass is the best bet. At this time, most of America’s national parks charge a vehicle entry free of about $35.00 per non-commercial vehicle holding up to 15 passengers. It’s valid for one week and may be purchased online. You can save money by parking outside the park gates, perhaps at a nearby motel, and taking a free shuttle in. Those who walk or bike into a national parks will be required to pay $20 per person if over age 15.
Additionally, each year there are several fee-free park days to visit. In 2022, those dates are Jan. 17 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday), April 16 (Beginning of National Parks Week), August 4 (Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act), Sept. 24 (National Public Lands Day) and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day).
FTF staff interviewed some leading concessioneers of the National Park Service and we think you’ll find the following cost-saving tips to be very helpful.
2. Get to Know Your Region’s History and Ecology at Parks
Wherever you’re located, there’s probably a state or national park nearby. All parks offer an affordable and family-friendly travel option for last-minute travel. Looking for a daytrip or a weekend trip with the family? State parks often have no entry fee for facilities ranging from swimming areas to fishing gear. National monuments (there are currently 129 protected monuments in the U.S.) do not charge an entry fee yet often provide rich educational displays.
According to one TripAdvisor survey, more travelers are looking to supplement their vacations with educational opportunities for the entire family. That’s especially true during a period when many children have been limited to remote schooling. National parks offer complimentary guided tours that showcase the unique history of the region. Tours are led by trained National Park Service rangers and provide a great learning experience for all ages.
What better way for families to save on cash than to hike the trails of their favorite park? No cost recreation includes facilities to fish, bike ride, or share a picnic while watching the sunset. Visitors get a world of experiences by visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites at such national parks as Mesa Verde, where the world’s largest archeological preserve in North America lies. Glacier Bay, a marine park in the state of Alaska, has one of the nation’s largest biosphere reserves.
3. Book Shoulder Season Travel for a Cheap National Parks Vacation
While traveling during off times may not sound that appealing, that’s when many national parks offer great deals on accommodations, tours and services. Plan your national parks adventure at the beginning or toward the last few weeks of a season to save on your budget.
Families looking to see the beauty and grandeur of national parks without the crowds will see firsthand what the locals experience year-round. September brings the very best of fall foliage in Alaska. May and June usually have more temperate weather conditions, allowing for the best travel in warmer regions of the country.
The misty floodplains of Congaree National Park in South Carolina are a good example. Year-round, explore more than 25 miles of hiking trails, 2.4 miles of elevated boardwalk and miles of canoe and kayak waterways. Bring your own watercraft, rent one in nearby Columbia, SC or join a guided swamp tour with a naturalist from Palmetto Adventures. (Rental inner tubes are just $15 per day.) The park’s free ranger and volunteer guided programs take place Saturdays year-round.
4. Cheap Vacation Means Looking for Alternate Lodging
The best part about visiting national parks is the variety of unique lodging options. Save your funds and experience the great outdoors by roughing it with the family. Afraid of not pitching a camping tent successfully and looking like a novice camper? Instead, rent one of the National Park Service’s cabins or an RV and park it at the campground.
Travelers skip the hotel and head right for the houseboat (many with their own waterslide) at Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Cherish a unique way to sleep on the crystal blue waters of Lake Powell, America’s top houseboating destination. Lake Shasta in northern California is also popular for houseboating. Look for each marina’s great seasonal fuel offers to save on gas since prices are so high this summer. Specials are advertised periodically to boost visitor traffic.
Plan even farther ahead in the high season to ensure the best lodging is available. Crowds of families visit the national parks to hike and enjoy outdoor activities during their kids’ school holidays.
5. Go Green in the Parks to Conserve All Resources
Support the environment, go lean and go green with a cheap national parks vacation plan. As you’ve been told countless times, ‘take only pictures and leave only footprints’ when you get out into the Great Outdoors.
A number of national parks concessions are incorporating green initiatives into their operations. For example, look for locally sourced and sustainable cuisine on hotel’s fine-dining menus. Use the parks’ and hotels’ water bottle refilling stations. Recycle whatever you can. All these steps contribute to helping the environment and the local economies. Alaska’s Denali National Park Resorts, for example, is leading the way with its Articlean Ozone laundry system, award-winning recycling program, and the addition of hybrid buses to its tour fleet. With more travelers looking for eco-friendly destinations, national parks offer families the perfect green getaway.
6. Book Direct and Search for National Parks Deals
Hunt for package deals when planning your cheap national parks vacation. Today, nearly every website lists packages, often bundling a rental car and hotel with a national parks pass. Take adantage of travel agent services offered by your credit card or loyalty program when using points, since they often access deals that consumers cannot.
Or, book accommodations through hotel websites directly, rather than through the search engines. You are guaranteed to get the best rate, for example, if going directly to Bestwestern.com, rather than booking lodging through an online travel site.
In light of the industry’s huge losses during the pandemic, company loyalty programs are on the rise. Be sure to sign up to earn, accumulate points and win travel rewards.
7. Plan Ahead, Organize Your Time on a Cheap National Parks Vacation
Plan ahead as much as possible to make the most out of a park visit. Limited capacity hotels and campgrounds plus required parking or entry reservations make it imperative to book ahead. In summer, make that months ahead of the holiday weekends.
Keep in mind that Canada and the U.S. have different national holidays. For certain weekends, choose a state or national park across the border to reap unexpected savings.
Allow time to experience the best each region has to offer at any time of year. ARAMARK, Xanterra, Delaware North and other parks concessionaires offer unique packages geared around special events and festivals. Plan your trip around the culture of the region, whether it’s the Indian Arts & Culture Festival at Mesa Verde National Park in Southwestern Colorado, or the Apple Butter Festival at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
8. Ask Kids to Help Research Your Park Destination
And don’t forget to prepare the family for their foray into the Great Outdoors. Prior to your visit, research the flora and fauna you may encounter. Ask each family member to help you put together a nature guide and collect souvenirs for a scrapbook. Download maps and hiking trail guides to your GPS or print them out and laminate them.
The parks have experienced cutbacks in government budgets to match your own. Therefore, the Visitor Centers may not be as well stocked with giveaway guides and other literature as you’d expect.
However, on weekends especially, there are sure to be worthwhile — and free — ranger-led tours and programs. And those shared moments of discovery — truly priceless — are what memories are made of.
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