Use your credit card rewards to visit national parks
Rewards expert who writes the "Cashing In" reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com
When you think of using your credit card reward points for a vacation, you probably think of cashing in points to fly to visit friends or relatives, or perhaps using them to unwind somewhere on a beach.
But the truth is that reward points are incredibly versatile – so much so that you can use them even for the most rustic vacations, such as visiting national parks. The United States is blessed with an excellent national park system that preserves much of this country’s natural beauty and makes it available to anybody who cares to visit.
Lodging and flights for free
Each summer, millions of visitors pour into national parks, where they can enjoy hiking, camping and other outdoor activities while seeing wildlife, geysers, plains, mountains and unusual rock formations. Credit card points can help get you there and take care of your lodging.
Because national parks tend to be in remote rural areas, the logistics can be trickier than going to big cities, which have lots of flight options and chain hotels that accept points. A travel reward card that allows you to use points for any travel purchase can cover the cost of in-park lodges and inns and the rental car you would need if coming from far away. But even without a card like that, you have options with airline and hotel cards. Or, with the right equipment, you could even camp.
There are many beautiful national parks to visit. Just calculate which one will take your points the furthest and go explore some of the natural wonders of the U.S.
Ideas for national park vacations
Grand Canyon National Park
Known for: Massive, mile-deep canyon. Northwestern Arizona.
Flying there: You have the most options flying into Phoenix (three hours away) and Las Vegas (four hours away). You might also check award availability into Flagstaff, Arizona (one and a half hours away), which is served by American Airlines.
Staying there: There are several independent hotels and lodges just steps away from the canyon’s South Rim. But for less-expensive options or using hotel points, look at nearby Tusayan, Arizona, just outside the park gate, which has a Best Western and a Holiday Inn (IHG).
Zion National Park
Known for: Steep red cliffs rising above you. Southwest Utah.
Flying there: The best bet is Las Vegas, two and a half hours to the west, because it is served by all major airlines including discount carriers. Smaller, closer options include St. George, Utah, an hour away, served by Delta, United and American; and Cedar City, Utah, an hour away, served by Delta.
Staying there: There’s only one hotel in the park, the well-located Zion Lodge. If it’s too expensive or unavailable, your best bet is nearby Springdale, Utah, just outside the park. It has a number of independent hotels as well as a Holiday Inn (IHG), Hampton Inn (Hilton), La Quinta, Springhill Suites (Marriott), Quality Inn (Choice) and Best Western.
Video: Save on a national park vacation
Rocky Mountain National Park
Known for: Beautiful mountain range, Estes park, cool summer weather.
Flying there: The Denver airport is less than two hours away and offers shuttle service to many hotels in the mountains. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card is a good choice as it comes with a sign-up bonus that may fly the whole family there, depending on where you live.
Staying there: You have many lodge options, which don't accept points, or hotel chains such as the Quality Inn (Choice) or Best Western where you can redeem your credit card rewards from cards such as the Barclay Choice Privileges Visa Signature card or the Best Western Rewards Premium Mastercard. If you're a fan of ghosts and The Shining, you can stay at the famed Stanley Hotel. If you're staying at a hotel that isn't part of a points program, consider booking through a site such as Expedia or Orbitz, where you earn cash rewards toward future bookings, or Hotels.com, where you get a free night at a hotel after booking nine nights through the site.
Yellowstone National Park
Known for: Huge iconic national park with geysers and plenty of wildlife including bison, bears, moose and bald eagles. Parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
Flying there: The closest major airport with all major airlines and discounters is Salt Lake City (five hours away). You might also consider Boise, Idaho (six hours away), which is served by Southwest. Closer airports with more limited flights include Jackson, Wyoming (one hour away); Cody, Wyoming (45 minutes away); and Bozeman, Montana (one hour away).
Staying there: It’s a big park, and there are plenty of options inside and outside. The most centrally located town with chain hotels is West Yellowstone, Montana, which has a Holiday Inn (IHG), Days Inn (Wyndham), and Best Western.
Yosemite National Park
Known for: Giant sequoia trees and granite cliffs. Central California near Nevada border.
Flying there: The biggest airports – San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento – are each about three hours away. Fresno has a smaller airport about two hours away.
Staying there: There are several in-park options, but close out-of-park chain options are trickier. There are a couple of Best Westerns along the western entrance, in Mariposa and Sonora. The town of Oakhurst near the southern entrance has a Best Western, Comfort Inn (Choice) and a Holiday Inn Express (IHG).
Before you head out, check out the pass options that may allow you to get into the parks for free or at a discounted rate, if you qualify.
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