Use your travel credit card to help plan a budget-friendly adventure to one of the U.S.’ national park sites.
If you’re looking for a beautiful and affordable vacation, an escape to one of the United States’ national parks might be the perfect trip. The U.S. is blessed with an excellent national park system that preserves much of this country’s natural beauty and keeps it available to everybody. The U.S. National Park System features 63 national parks amid 423 national park sites, giving ample variety and opportunity for everyone to find a great vacation spot.
Traveling to a national park for vacation will not only be a great way to enjoy natural beauty and fresh air, but it’s also a budget-friendly trip, especially compared to a luxury resort or international trip. However, although national parks are generally a relatively low-cost vacation, you do have to travel to the area and decide on overnight accommodations (such as a hotel versus camping). Additionally, while some parks, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offer free admission year-round, many charge entrance fees and various activities fees. Let’s dive into options for making your national park vacation even more budget-friendly.
How to save money on national park fees
With so many park sites, the national park system provides a wide variety of options for escapes into nature, as well as great ways to save on entrance fees. Always check with the specific park before heading out, but here are a handful of ways you can save on entrance and activities fees at national park sites.
Free entrance days
If the park you have your eye on charges an entrance fee, you could time your visit for one of the six free entrance days the parks service offers each year to trim your expenses. According to the National Park Service, the free-entrance days in 2021 are these:
- Jan. 18 – Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- April 17 – First day of National Park Week
- Aug. 4 – One-year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
- Aug. 25 – National Park Service Birthday
- Sept. 25 – National Public Lands Day
- Nov. 11 – Veterans Day
If your vacation doesn’t land on any of the free-entrance days, you can also look at the America the Beautiful pass options that might save you money, especially if you visit more than one park during the year or enter the same park multiple times. Below is a list of passes that can help you save; make sure to read any relevant terms and conditions before purchasing, but most include free entrance for passengers in your vehicle.
- Annual Pass – Anyone can spend $80 (plus a process and handling charge) to get a year of free entrance to federally operated recreation sites.
- Senior Lifetime – Spend $80 (plus processing fee) if you’re 62 or older and score free entrance, as well as a 50% discount on various amenity fees and facility services.
- Access Pass – If you have eligible proof of a permanent disability, you can receive a free lifetime pass with only a $10 handling charge, and the pass includes a discount on some amenity fees.
- Military Pass – Apply for your free annual pass if you’re a current U.S. military member or veteran, or a Gold Star Family member.
- 4th Grade Pass – If you have a U.S. 4th grader, they’re eligible for a free pass that’s valid for the duration of the 4th grader’s school year through the following summer (September to August). (Also check out the 5th Graders 2020–2021 pass, ending Aug. 31, 2021, for those who missed out on the 4th grade pass.)
- Volunteer Pass – If you’re a volunteer with 250 service hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program, you can take advantage of this offer for a free annual pass
To learn more and purchase your pass, visit the USGS store online. Additionally, some parks offer other pass options.
How to use credit card rewards to save on your parks trip
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 you gear up, get there and stay there.
Because national parks tend to be in more remote areas, the logistics for some parks 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 driving in from an airport that isn’t next door.
Ready to explore some of the natural wonders of the U.S.? Check out these tips for using a credit card to help you get there
If you choose a park far away, you might fly to at least get into the same state as the park. This is where a solid travel credit card will give you a boost to your vacation finances.
Start by looking at the cards you use to see if you’ve stockpiled rewards that are ready to be enjoyed. For example, you may have been racking up points from delivery and takeout (and any pandemic traveling) on the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. If you use your points to book your travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, you get a 25% boost on your points’ redemption value
Maybe you haven’t been using a credit card, but you realize that getting a travel card to cover the occasional family vacation would be a boost to your budget. You might consider a card like the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card, with which you can earn 1.5 points per dollar on all purchases (with no annual fee for the card), plus a sweet intro bonus of 25,000 points after making $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days. A card like this is a great one to start a trip with – you can earn that intro offer while paying for your travel, plus continue to rack up points to help cover future travel expenses.
Additionally, don’t forget to look at the travel perks on the credit card you’d like to use. Some travel cards offer travel insurance and similar benefits to help cover unexpected expenses. Depending on the card you use to book your vacation, you might get travel cancellation and interruption insurance, trip delay assistance, lost baggage or baggage delay coverage, and even emergency travel assistance or emergency evacuation and transportation benefits.
Road trip rewards
If you plan to hit the road instead of flying, you can also use credit card rewards to boost your budget. Using a credit card that rewards gas station purchases is a great way to earn a little cash back every time you fill the tank. For example, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit (in addition to several other 3% and 6% bonus categories, plus 1% back on general purchases).
If you want a no-annual-fee card with flexible bonus categories, a choice such as the Citi Custom Cash℠ Card might be a good bet: This card automatically gives you 5% cash back on your top spending category each billing cycle, and one of the eligible categories is gas stations. Just watch out for the $500 cap on spending each billing cycle, after which you’ll only earn 1% cash back.
And if you plan to drive a rental car, also check your card of choice to see if it offers car rental insurance, which can save you the extra insurance fee at the time of rental.
Hotel rewards and perks
Once you get to the national park, you can also use credit cards to help take a bite out of your lodging costs. If you opt for a hotel stay, you might consider a hotel credit card to access perks and rack up points toward free stays in the future. If you already have a card that earns points toward hotel stays, you can check to see if you have enough points already for a free night.
Since many national parks are located remotely, you might not have the hotel chain choices you need to use your specific points. If that’s the case, you can still use a card to earn points on your lodging expenses. For example, the Citi Premier® Card will give you 3 points per dollar spent on hotels, as well as on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations and air travel, plus 1X points on other purchases. The only downside to this card is the $95 annual fee, but this card still could give you plenty of rewards on your national park trip and year-round.
Cash back on gear
If you opt to camp or need to purchase new hiking or camera gear for your adventure, you can use a flat-rate cash back credit card to earn steady cash back on everything you buy. This strategy certainly won’t give you a free trip, but it will slowly add up to some nice rewards down the road. One card to consider is the Citi® Double Cash Card. With this card, you’ll earn 2% cash back – 1% when you make a purchase and the other 1% when you pay your balance on time. If you want a flat-rate card with a sign-up bonus, you could also check out a card like the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card, which earns 1.5% cash back on every purchase but also offers a $200 sign-up bonus after spending only $500 in the first three months.
However you plan to enjoy your national park venture, there’s a travel or rewards card that can help you make it easy on your budget. Now that you know how you’ll pay for it, let’s glance at just a few of the national parks that are awaiting your adventures.
Adventures await at national park sites
Here’s a roundup of a few of the most popular national parks. Make sure you check the park’s website before visiting to know about any closures or cautions, as well as current reservations requirements and coronavirus safety guidelines.
Known for: This mountainous and forested park spans sections of both Tennessee and North Carolina.
Fees: No entrance fee. Overnight camping is $14 to $23, and pavilion rentals at picnic areas incur fees.
Accessibility: Much of the park can be viewed from your vehicle and many of the sites offer accessibility features. Check accessibility before you visit.
Safety: Water recreation is not recommended due to various hazards, and black bears should not be approached or allowed to approach you. Check the park’s website or the visitor’s center upon arrival to learn more about a safe visit.
Known for: This massive, mile-deep canyon is located in northwestern Arizona and includes 277 miles of the Colorado River.
Fees: Entrance fees range from $20 per person to $35 for up to 15 passengers in a single, private vehicle. Lodging, tours and other third-party fees are not included.
Accessibility: Terrain is rugged and many facilities feature uneven ground. Check accessibility ahead of time.
Safety: Watch for the edge and never throw or dislodge any items over the edge, as you could injure others. Also be prepared for the weather extremes and rapid changes, as well as possible wildlife encounters.
Known for: Towering sandstone cliffs feature an array of cream, pink and red in southwest Utah.
Fees: Pay $20 to $35 for non-commercial entrance.
Accessibility: Several hikes and campsites are reserved for those with disabilities, and visitor centers, restrooms and other areas are all accessible. Check accessibility before you go.
Safety: The park website warns of lightning, flash floods and steep cliffs. Personal responsibility and good judgment are important when venturing into the park.
Known for: This beautiful mountain range crests at over 12,000 feet in Colorado.
Fees: Entrance passes cost $25 to $35 for various day and week passes. Timed entry reservation permits are currently required.
Accessibility: Wheelchair access is permitted on all trails, and visitor centers and educational programs are all accessible. Get accessibility details before you venture out.
Safety: Stay out of rivers and creeks in response to high-water advisories, watch for avalanches in relevant areas, and be cautious of wildlife.
Known for: This huge, iconic national park features geysers and wildlife, including bison, bears, moose and bald eagles, and it spans parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
Fees: Seven-day passes are available for $20 to $35.
Accessibility: Leashed service animals are allowed, whereas pets are not. Audio/visual assistance is available for educational opportunities in the park. Check accessibility specifics before you go.
Safety: Stay on designated trails in thermal areas. Don’t feed or approach wildlife, which can be unpredictable.
Known for: Giant sequoia trees and granite cliffs grace this swath of central California near the Nevada border.
Fees: Entrance fees are $20 to $35.
Accessibility: The park offers a free, fully accessible shuttle bus service in the Yosemite Valley, and the staff is working on new buildings and retrofitting older ones to ensure better accessibility of site facilities. Get accessibility details to plan ahead.
Safety: Don’t approach wildlife, and watch for environmental hazards, such as rockfalls and lightning.
In 2020, the National Park Service recorded 237,064,332 recreation visits at national park sites. With travel reopening from the coronavirus pandemic, more and more people are looking for ways to get out of the house, explore and – for travel card enthusiasts – use accrued reward points. Whether you choose a park on our list or another from the parks map, we hope you make good use of your travel credit card and enjoy a budget-friendly trip into the great outdoors.