With long summer days just over the horizon, it’s time to begin thinking about family vacations, getaways with friends, and solo trips to national parks.
If you plan to hit up a national park in the U.S. this summer, there are several steps you can take to keep more money in your wallet as you explore these natural wonders.
Visit on a free day
Most national parks are always free to visit, but dozens of others usually charge you a fee to enter.
However, on five days during 2023, all national parks offer free admission. The only “free day” during the summer months is Aug. 4, the anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act.
Other upcoming free days to note are Sept. 23 (National Park Lands Day) and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day).
Save money if you are traveling with a fourth-grader
A federal program called “Every Kid Outdoors” offers fourth-graders the opportunity to travel to national parks for free.
If you happen to be traveling with a fourth-grader, simply apply on the program’s website, print out a pass, and bring it with you to begin exploring.
The free pass is good for a full year.
Get an America the Beautiful annual pass
If you plan to visit more than one park this summer, consider getting an annual pass.
The America the Beautiful pass covers the cost of entrance at any land managed by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It costs $80 and is available to anyone who wants it. There is a discount for seniors, military members, and some others.
Choose camping over hotels
Many national parks allow visitors to camp on the grounds. If you already have a tent and a vehicle to get you to the park, this can save you big bucks.
Visitors who opt to stay in the hotels at national parks will likely spend far more for their lodging.
Depending on which park you’re heading to, you might be able to skip the nightly fee and find free campgrounds that are outside the park, but in the same general area.
Cook your own food
Frequent visitors to national parks will tell you that the food available there is not the greatest. Like the dining options at a theme park or hotel, it might be subpar and will likely be marked up.
To keep your national park vacation on the cheaper side, it’s best to pack your own food.
This could mean bringing sandwiches and snacks for a day trip or packing a cooler with some food and drinks (and maybe marshmallows) if you’re planning to camp overnight.
Purchase a senior pass
If you are 62 or older and visiting multiple parks is in your retirement plans, you might want to consider the "lifetime Senior Pass," which is $80.
If you’d prefer an annual pass, you can nab those for just $20 each year.
Pro tip: Purchasing a senior pass and exploring our national parks at your leisure is just another great reason to work hard and save today so you can retire early and travel tomorrow.
Avoid peak season
While park entrance fees won’t be cheaper during the off-season, hotels and other rentals near the parks may charge lower fees when there is less demand.
To take advantage of off-season pricing, find out the most popular months at the parks you would like to see, and plan your visit for another time.
As a bonus, the parks will be less crowded, giving you more space to explore.
Use a Military Lifetime Pass
Veterans and Gold Star Families can also land free passes to national parks for life through the Military Lifetime Pass program.
To get the discount, active military members or veterans need to present their valid veteran IDs, and Gold Star Families need to have a valid Gold Star Family Voucher.
Volunteer or work a part-time job
Volunteers who log 250 service hours with federal agencies participating in something called the Interagency Pass Program can get a free one-year national parks pass.
If you don’t have the time to volunteer and happen to live near a national park, you might be able to get a part-time job within the park, which will mean free entry both while you are working and after work hours.
Stay outside the parks
The views alone can make it tempting to stay inside a place such as Grand Canyon National Park, but you might save considerable money if you seek accommodations outside of the parks.
Using the Grand Canyon as an example, travelers may want to look for hotels in nearby towns or in Flagstaff to avoid the sometimes steeper costs of staying in the park.
Take free shuttles
Some national parks have free shuttles that can take you to the best viewpoints or day-trip destinations.
While this may take away some of the freedom of driving to and around a park yourself, it does offer some unique opportunities.
For instance, as a passenger, you can take in the full beauty of the park while someone else does the driving — and pays for the gas.
Know which parks are free
According to the National Park Service, only about 100 of more than 400 national parks charge visitors an entry fee.
Those that do charge usually cap the price around $35, and some are as cheap as $5.
If you’re planning a trip to see multiple parks on a budget, research which are free before you go.
Visiting U.S. national parks can be a great summer excursion — and it’s one that you can do even on a tight budget.
There are many ways to see the nation’s most breathtaking natural wonders while spending very little. And when you do need to spend, consider using a rewards credit card that enables you to earn travel rewards and other perks.
Easy-to-Earn Unlimited Rewards
- Earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
- Earn 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases
- Longer intro APR on qualifying purchases and balance transfers
- No foreign transaction fees
- Apply Now
- Earn unlimited 1.5 points per $1 spent on all purchases, with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees and your points don't expire.
- 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases.
- Use your card to book your trip how and where you want - you're not limited to specific websites with blackout dates or restrictions.
- Redeem points for a statement credit to pay for travel or dining purchases, such as flights, hotel stays, car and vacation rentals, baggage fees, and also at restaurants including takeout.
- 0% Introductory APR for 15 billing cycles for purchases, and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days. After the intro APR offer ends, 18.24% - 28.24% Variable APR will apply. A 3% fee applies to all balance transfers.
- If you're a Preferred Rewards member, you can earn 25%-75% more points on every purchase. That means instead of earning an unlimited 1.5 points for every $1, you could earn 1.87-2.62 points for every $1 you spend on purchases.
- Contactless Cards - The security of a chip card, with the convenience of a tap.
- This online only offer may not be available if you leave this page or if you visit a Bank of America financial center. You can take advantage of this offer when you apply now.
Earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
Why we like it