Make Your National Park Visit As Inexpensive As Possible

Spending a night or two in a tent is one way to cut costs on a national park vacation. Tent site overlooking Yellowstone Lake, Kurt Repanshek photo.

Travel in these days of a weak economy and high fuel costs can be expensive, but there are some ways that you can trim the costs of visiting your favorite national park.

Lodging

If your trip entails travel of any great distance from your home, you'll obviously need to rent a room for a night or nights. Savings can be had in this category by opting for a room without a bath versus one with; traveling on shoulder seasons, when concessionaires typically offer deals -- some great! -- to fill their rooms; staying outside the park at a budget motel; or spending a night or two in a park campground before heading indoors towards the end of your trip.

Spending a night or two in a tent might not be as comfortable as a lakeside room in Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park, but it can offer a wonderful camping experience through which you meet new friends. Kids likely won't be disappointed, either, when they attend a campfire talk before heading back to their sleeping bag.

And today's tents don't always mean you crawl into bed on hands and knees. Some larger models offer not just room for cots, but also lighting systems that can be wired to provide you with reading time or a game of cards or checkers after the sun goes down.

Meals

Cutting costs on eating is not as difficult as you might think. If you're driving to a national park, bring along an empty cooler and stock up on breakfast and lunch items before you enter the park. Many rooms in the parks these days are being equipped with coffee makers and, in some cases, even microwaves and mini-fridges. You also can make lunch your big meal of the day, as often dining rooms offer a lunch menu that's very similar to their dinner menu, but at lower prices.

Travel

Travel can be hard to cut costs on...but there are ways. For starters, go to the website run by the National Park Service's Public Use Statistics Office. At the bottom of that page, you'll find a link to calculate "how much gas will you need for your trip." The calculator will give you a pretty good idea of how much you'll need to cover fuel costs. This at least will give you a starting point for your transportation costs.

There are a growing number of parks that offer shuttle systems -- Acadia, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite to name a few -- so you can park your car and save gas by utilizing these buses.

You might also consider renting an RV for your trip. On its face, this might not seem like a way to cut costs. But when you consider that nightly room rates in a lodge can quickly approach, and surpass, $200, the weekly rental cost of an RV -- Cruise America quotes an 11-day rate of $1,750 for renting a standard RV in Salt Lake -- starts to seem reasonable.

Too, you can cook in an RV, another cost savings. And you can carry a lot more gear -- hiking gear, perhaps a canoe on top, bikes, etc -- that you'd like to have on your vacation, and save on rental costs in some cases.

Of course, before you sign on the dotted line, be sure you factor in the fuel costs for driving such a rig, be sure you can find a campground to park the unit, and are comfortable driving an RV.

Buy A Package

Sometimes a package tour can save you some dollars. Concessionares often put together multi-day packages that include meals, lodging, and activities, that will shave dollars off what you would put ala carte.

Comments

I've been seeing nice rental cabins around the Smoky Mountains for a good price. You get a lot more cabin than you would in most vacations spots for your money. (You really could save money if you rented a larger one with a group). The article mentions traveling at off-peak times and that's what we've been doing and going right before school starts. I've been watching coupon sites too like Groupon, Living Social for discounts on restaurants and activities.