13 Tips for Visiting National Parks on a Budget
National parks are ideal destinations for summer vacations: They're relatively inexpensive, appropriate for all ages, and brimming with entertaining activities. Even with the high season (May to October) upon us and increased fees kicking in, there are ways to save on a trip to a national park. Cheapism.com rounded up 13 tips for exploring these awesome places without spending a lot of money.
Photo by Mikhail Kolesnikov/shutterstock
Get There on Amtrak.You can take a train to many national parks thanks to the Amtrak to Parks program, which offers special deals combining travel, lodging, and discounted park fees. Some of the most popular parks in the program are Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Everglades, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Rocky Mountain. Dozens of national monuments, battlefields, and historic sites are also included in the program, which provides optional tour guides and itineraries.
Go on Fee-Free Days.Park entrance fees have risen across the country, so they are a smart place to look for savings. The simplest way to avoid entrance costs is to take advantage of designated free-fee days. The remaining fee-free days in 2015 are August 25 (National Parks Services Birthday), September 26 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day). For 2016, look for centennial specials as the Park Service celebrates its 100th year.
Use Your Affiliations.Many parks waive entrance fees for certain classes of people, including seniors (over 62), military personnel, and the permanently disabled. Children under 16 always enter free. Be sure to ask about any discounts that might be relevant for any of your party members; these savings can sometimes apply to a whole group if one person qualifies.
Carpool.Not only will you save money on gas by piling family and friends into one car, you'll also save on entrance fees. Most national parks charge per vehicle rather than per person, which can make the tight squeeze worth it. Within large parks, take advantage of free shuttles and try to avoid buying gas until you get back to civilization, where it's more affordable.
Get There by Foot, Bicycle, or Water.Pedestrians, bicyclists, and kayakers enjoy reduced entrance fees at most national parks, often more than 50 percent off. Two parks that have particularly easy water access are Olympic National Park in Washington and Acadia National Park in Maine.
Buy a Pass.If you plan to visit several sites in the national park system this year, consider purchasing an annual pass from the National Park Service. For $80 a year, a pass provides unlimited access to hundreds of federally operated recreation sites, including all 59 national parks. The pass covers everyone in a car if the entrance fee is per vehicle, or the pass holder and up to three other adults if the entrance fee is per person.
Volunteer.Volunteer vacations allow you to experience a park while helping with conservation efforts. Wilderness Volunteers charges $299 for a weeklong trip, with all food and accommodations provided. Volunteers do have to pay for transportation to their site, but the organization runs projects all over the West and a few in the East, so if you pick something close to home, this could be a good deal. Other programs to consider are run by the American Hiking Society and the Sierra Club. The national parks also reward volunteers: Anyone who does 250 hours of volunteer work in the parks is eligible for a free annual pass.
Camp or Stay in a Cabin.Planning to stay overnight? Camping is your cheapest option, but campgrounds are often filled to capacity in the summer. Reserve a spot ahead of time at Recreation.gov. Staying in a cabin on park grounds is another budget-friendly option. And inexpensive motels outside many national parks cater to frugal visitors who balk at the rates inside.
Use Online Deals.If you're planning to fly, book a motel, or rent a car for your trip, check Expedia and Orbitz for deals. The discount travel site Cosmos offers GoParks! tours affiliated with the National Parks Foundation. Web-savvy travelers also use Facebook and Twitter to find special offers through individual companies. The earlier you start looking, the more deals you are likely to encounter.
Avoid Tourist Traps.Don't buy travel essentials on park grounds, where they tend to be expensive. Pick up cheap sunscreen, bug spray, batteries, and other supplies before you go. Food is also more costly onsite and sometimes hard to come by, so bring snacks, beverages, and even meals with you. Just be sure to follow park regulations for food storage, so bears don't make off with your picnic basket.
Buy or Rent Used Gear.If you rarely hike or camp, don't spend a ton of money on new gear for your trip. Instead, head to a secondhand store or scour the web (Amazon, eBay, craigslist, etc.) for gently used items. Another tip: Go to Freecycle.org and find people in your neighborhood giving away unwanted outdoor gear for free. Don't see what you're looking for? Request what you need.
Explore the Full National Park System.The National Park Service maintains protected landmarks, including monuments, preserves, memorials, and recreational areas, that are similar to national parks but cheaper to visit. With 348 sites in addition to the 59 national parks, there are lots of interesting options to choose among, ranging from natural rock formations to historic burial grounds. Entrance is often free and rarely more than $10. For example, at the spectacular national monument Utah Natural Bridges, entry is $6 per car and you can camp out for about $10 a night. Other awesome sites around the country to consider are the White Sands of New Mexico ($3 entrance fee); the Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine, Florida ($10 for a week's access); Fort McHenry in Baltimore ($7 for a week's access); the Washington and Lincoln memorials in Washington, D.C. (free to enter); and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington (free to $8 for different parts of the park).
Take Advantage of "Every Kid in a Park."The Every Kid in a Park program will give all interested fourth-grade students and their families free annual passes ($80 value) to national parks and monuments during the 2015-2016 school year. This federal initiative also provides information for planning trips, educational materials, and transportation grants to low-income families.