4 Ways To Save On National Park Trips (And Use Points)

by Bill Shuman

In my household, summer time means family time. Similar to the 100 million American families that are going to be taking a vacation this summer, my family has lots of plans to travel and spend some quality time together. Over half of those families, a whopping 53% to be exact, are going to be planning to hit the road. Perhaps road trip are popular due to wanting to see various parts of the United States, or to reduce the $1,928 hit to the wallet that a vacation typically costs. (Obviously, these are not point and/miles families!) Personally, I find that stopping at anyone of the National Parks is the perfect reason for a road trip with the family.

Find out how to visit the parks on a budget with these four ways to save on national parks.

1. Visit on a National Park Free Fee Day

During 2019, there are 5 days that the National Park service is offering free admission to anyone. As of this writing, two of those dates have already passed, Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 21 and First Day of National Park Week/National Junior Ranger Day on April 20. The upcoming free days for 2019 are:

  • Sunday, August 25 – National Park Service Anniversary
  • Saturday, September 28 – National Public Lands Day
  • Monday, November 11 – Veterans Day
save on national parks

See spectacular sites while visiting Hawai’i Volcano National Park.

Keep in mind that on these dates that the National Parks are going to be very crowded. Be sure to get there early to ensure you get in!

2. Have a 4th Grader? Visit all the National Parks Free!

In 2015, Barack Obama created the Every Kid in a Park run by the United States National Park Service. Fortunately, this program has been renewed every year since its adoption. This program gives all 4th graders, and travelers within their vehicle, free admission to thousands of parks! The idea behind the program is:

To inspire U.S. 4th graders and their families
to recreate, explore cultures, discover connections
to nature, and spark a lifelong passion for America’s
great outdoors.

As a teacher of 4th grade students, I send these passes home each year with my students and encourage them to use the benefits all year long. The pass expires in August of the following year. If you didn’t get one from your child’s 4th grad teacher don’t fret! The application process is simple:

  1. Have your student Go to the Every Kid in a Park website scroll down and click on Get Your Pass. Go to “Get Your Pass.”
  2. Complete a quick, fun, online game then download and print your free paper pass voucher. Electronic passes are NOT accepted!
  3. Next, go to this list to see all of the nearby and far away places where you can use your pass.

Pro-tip: If you’re a grandparent, aunt, uncle or other family who wants to take a 4th grader to a park you can also print off a pass. Just remember it won’t work unless you have the 4th grader with you! 

3. Buy an Annual Pass

If your road trip this summer takes you through several National Parks, then buying an annual pass could potentially save you some extra cash. The standard America the Beautiful Pass costs $80 and is good for a full 12 months. Therefore, if you bought it early in a month you could get almost 13 months out of this pass. This annual pass is good at over 2,000 recreation sites. With several National Parks, like Bryce Canyon and Zion charging $35 each to enter, it only takes a few park visits to recoup the pass cost.

Bryce Canyon is one of the most expensive parks to enter at $35, but also one of the most unique.

Protip: Active, Reserve, and National Guard members can acquire a pass for free. Seniors over 62 can buy an annual pass for $20, or can buy a lifetime pass for $80.  

If you are only going to visit one area, but still want to visit multiple parks, be on the lookout for a multi-park pass. One example is the Tri-park Annual Pass in Hawaii. This pass is $50 and allows entrance to three National Parks including Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park ($25), Haleakalā National Park ($25), and Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park ($15).

4. Use Points To Visit National Parks!

This should be an obvious one given that you’re reading a points and miles blog. My favorite, like many other bloggers, is using Chase Ultimate Reward points to stay at hotel properties. However, when it comes to national parks, using points with transfer partners — which usually results in the highest redemption rates — isn’t often the best use.

View from Exterior

The Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth is surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty, such as the snowcapped mountains and lush green trees. Photo Credit: Marriott International

Top Up Your Chase Ultimate Reward Balance With These Bonuses

Using Yosemite as an example, Hyatt, a Chase transfer partner doesn’t even have a hotel in the Valley. This will change in Quarter 1 of 2020 with the opening of the 114 room, El Capitan, a Joie de Vivre Hotel. Marriott, the largest hotel chain in the world, only has one property in the Valley and that is The Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth. This property is a Category 6 hotel and will set you back a whopping 50,000 points per night and if you’re staying during peak season (which would include most of the summer) that will be increasing to 60,000 shortly. Even with the 5th night free benefit, it averages to 48,000 points a night. Not really an effective use of points when the cash rate is $184 giving you a redemption rate of 0.38 cent a point.

save on national parks

These majestic views in the Grand Tetons can be had for almost nothing by using Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

Cards as Good as Cash

As noted, there are sometimes no major hotel chains in certain parks. This is due to the fact that often the hotels within the parks are owned by national park concessionaires. In order to offset the cost of these hotels you can use flexible points offered by Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. The beauty of doing this is you can enjoy a fully immersive experience. In addition, in 2016, the National Parks had more than 331 million visitors, which was more than the entire US population of 323 million! Since you are already in the park, you wouldn’t be denied entry at an overcrowded gate.

The other way to book at the concessionaires is directly through the Chase Ultimate Reward portal. You are guaranteed to get 1 cent per point redemption on most cards, which is much better than the Marriott example I outlined earlier. However, if you are looking to maximize your redemption book using your Chase Sapphire Reserve card that will net 50% more, at 1.5 cents per point.

The Upshot

Overall, my family has plans to visit several national parks this summer as we love being outdoors in nature. Although, I personally can’t take advantage of the 4th grader pass as my son is only four. (A pass for 4th grade teachers would be awesome though). However, I am able to combine some point spending and the purchase of the America the Beautiful Annual Pass to save some money on our trips this summer. Do you have any plans to visit one of the National Parks this summer?


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