The Jan/Feb 2009 issue of the AARP Magazine has an interesting little article entitled “America the Economical.” It offers seven tips for seniors who want to save money on their trips to national parks.
Noting that seniors will find national park trips distracting (excessive worry is bad for you) and healthy (clean air and scenic vistas are invigorating), AARP offers these tips:
• Stay in the park; in-park rooms are often cheaper.
• Book yourself; don’t pay fees for reservations you can make yourself.
• Pitch a tent; campsites are cheaper than rooms.
• Share a shower; rooms lacking private bathrooms cost less.
• Exercise your mind; many parks offer lectures and guided hikes at no cost.
• Skip the summer; off-season rates are cheaper.
• Take a pass; for just $10 you get a lifetime Senior Pass for free admission.
All seven tips are just fine, but Traveler would like to suggest an additional one.
• Plan a picnic; restaurant meals can be budget-wreckers.
Concessionaires offer fast food and/or cafeteria style service in most popular parks (Great Smoky Mountains National Park being a notable exception), and many destination parks also have full service restaurants. These are just fine. Many park visitors find food services very convenient, and in some cases -- the $$$$ Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwahanee Hotel in Yosemite National Park being the most outstanding example – the dining experience is itself a treasured memory.
But if you are truly looking for ways to cut your costs, why pay concessionaire prices for food service in the national parks? Nearly all of the nature-based parks and many of the cultural/historical ones have picnic tables or other facilities you can use for dining “al fresco, el cheap-o.” You can save money by bringing your own food and drink or buying the fixings in the park stores. In fact, if you visit enough national parks and spend enough time in them, this strategy can save you a lot of money.
Lots of seniors I know compromise by fixing their own breakfast and lunch, then taking their evening meal in a fast foodery, cafeteria, or full service restaurant.
Postscript: Be aware that bringing food with you can be very problematic in bear country. Picnickers may be accosted by bears looking for food. In Yosemite and several other national parks, black bears have become highly skilled at ripping vehicles open to get at food stored inside. I’d personally be very reluctant to practice the bring-your-own-food strategy in a park that has problem bears.