Summer time is here and that means vacation season is also on your doorstep. Unfortunately, vacations can also be synonymous with expensive trips and overpriced food and lodging. But vacations don’t have to be a financial headache. If you choose to visit a National Park, family vacations can be less expensive and still fun, especially if you follow these six suggestions to make your National Park vacation more affordable.
- Carpool – By packing your entire family or friend group into one car, you can save money on travel costs by splitting the gas. What many people don’t realize is that many campgrounds and national parks charge an entrance fee per vehicle, and that many parks offer free transportation around the park. By carpooling, you will reduce your park entrance fee, and by utilizing the in-park transportation, you can cut down your fuel budget as well.
- Get an Annual Pass – For those of you who are able to enjoy the park service year round, it is highly advisable to get an annual pass from the National Park Service. An eighty dollar annual pass will give you and three others access to over two thousand parks and recreational sites for the year. Keep in mind that a daily park pass costs twenty dollars, so if you aren’t planning more than one trip or visiting four parks in a year, it may be better to just get a short term pass. For military members and those with disabilities the parks will provide free annual passes. Also, those who are sixty-two and older can buy lifetime passes for just ten dollars.
- Plan Your Trip Around Fee-Free Days – On certain days throughout the year, many National Parks waive all entrance for those on a tighter budget. These days include August 25th, the park service’s anniversary, and September 28, which is National Lands Day. Only 268 of the 400 national parks participate in these free entrance days, so be sure to visit the parks’ web pages to check which parks quality and along with a list of other free dates and special entrance rates.
- Camp in a Tent or Cabin – Camping out is the most affordable way to spend the night and campsites within the park or in close proximity are often very safe and family-friendly. These sites can fill up quickly so be sure to book your camp ground spot in advance. If you aren’t up to roughing it, many smaller motels and cabins near the parks offer special rates for park visitors through AAA, AARP, and military discounts. Also look to make reservations for sites or adventures on recreation.gov.
- Avoid Tourist Traps – Make sure to buy supplies like bug spray and sunscreen before your trip rather than on park grounds where they are often more expensive. It is also wise to bring in your own snacks, drinks or even meals to avoid more expensive on-site meals. Just make sure to have the proper equipment for protecting your food from predators – like bears!
- Buy or Rent Used Gear – As fun as it is to go on a pre-vacation shopping spree for some novelty hiking equipment or a plush new tent, it is much more cost effective to look for secondhand items like tents, lanterns, hiking boots and other equipment. Used items are often still in good condition and will cost significantly less than buying new gear. Freecycle.com will help you find neighbors who are willing to give away their old outdoor gear for free. Many rental groups give good deals on all the equipment your family will need. Just remember that if you infrequently camp or spend time outdoors, you shouldn’t feel obligated to spend “retail money” on equipment you may not use again.
For more information about other cost-effective family trips like cruises, check out Cheapism.com or read their 8 Cheap Summer Family Vacation article. Check recreation.gov for activities, rates, and special offers for the National Parks.