How to Save on National Park Visits in 2018

By Nick Wharton on 24 January 2018 0 comments

From the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone Park, and the Everglades to Acadia, national parks across the U.S. attract more than 300 million visitors every year. The national park system contains 417 diverse and spectacular sites, including parks in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands.

Every year, the National Park Service offers free entry on designated days, and this year is no different. Here are 2018's free entry days, as well as ways to gain free or reduced entry throughout the year, and how to cut the overall cost of your visit to the national parks. (See also: 11 Incredible UNESCO World Heritage Sites Right Here in the U.S.)

Free entry days for 2018

Last year saw 10 separate dates designated as National Park free entry days, while in 2016, the number of free days stood at 16. Unfortunately, this year has seen the number of free entry days cut down to just four, representing a 75 percent decrease in just three years.

However, despite their decline in volume, these days still represent an amazing opportunity to visit parks that normally charge a fee of up to $25, for absolutely nothing. The four national park free entry days for 2018 are:

January 15 - Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

April 21 - First day of National Park Week

September 22 - National Public Lands Day

November 11 - Veterans Day

What's not included

While the entry fee for all of the national parks is waived on these days, that doesn't mean that everything in the parks will be free. Many of the amenities are outsourced to private companies, and these companies are not obliged to reduce or waive their fees. As a result, you may have to pay for things like entrance to museums, privately run attractions, and parking lots.

The National Park Service says, "The entrance fee waiver for fee-free days does not cover amenity or user fees for activities such as camping, boat launches, transportation, or special tours."

Check in advance with the park you plan to visit as to whether the activities you're interested in are available for free, in order to avoid any disappointment.

How to get reduced entrance fees throughout the year

If you can't make it to the parks on the fee-free days, here's how to get reduced entrance fees throughout the year.

Purchase an annual pass

For $80 you can buy an annual pass, good for entry to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, which includes all of the national parks. You're able to purchase annual passes in person at any of these federal recreation sites, or you can buy annual passes online.

Get a free U.S. military pass

If you are currently a serving member of the U.S. military, you're able to get one of the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands annual passes for free. This also applies to dependents of serving military members and covers those in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Reserve, and National Guard. Simply show your Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID (Form 1173) at any of the sites that supply annual passes to obtain yours for free.

Get an annual fourth grade pass

For the duration of their fourth grade year, students are able to claim an annual National Parks Pass, which will provide both them and their family members free entry to the full range of parks. Students who are fourth graders now can claim their passes online until August 31, 2018, which is considered the end of their fourth grade year.

Apply for a Senior Pass

If you're a U.S. citizen or permanent resident age 62 or over, then you are eligible for a Senior Pass. There are two available: one is an annual pass for $20, and the other is a lifetime pass for $80 that will give you access for life. You can claim them in person at the participating recreational federal sites, or purchase them online or by mail.

Note that online and mail applications come with an additional $10 processing fee.

Claim an Access Pass

For U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities, it's possible to claim an Access Pass that allows you free entry to all sites. Some parks may also provide discounts on amenities and services, but you should check with individual parks to find out what's offered. You can apply in person at participating recreational federal sites, or by mail, which would require you to pay the $10 processing fee.

Volunteer

Free Interagency Passes are available to volunteers who have completed 250 hours of service with participating federal agencies. These agencies are the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

How to cut travel costs

In addition to reduced fare or free entrance to the parks, there are other ways to make your trip to one of these beautiful sites an affordable experience.

Pack your own food and drinks

While many national parks do have their own concession stations, prices for food and drinks are often way higher than you'd find in the grocery store. If you've got a family, the cost of feeding and watering lots of hungry mouths can quickly add up. One simple way to cut down on costs is to pack your own food and drinks and take them along with you in a cooler. This way you can also ensure you’re getting healthy nourishment, rather than relying on what's available. (See also: The 14 Best Ways to Cut Food Costs While Traveling)

Travel in a group

If you're heading to a national park with friends or family members, save money on fuel by arranging to carpool rather than going in separate cars. By splitting the cost of gas, you’ll undoubtedly save money. If you drive gas-hungry vehicles, this can really add up. (See also: 7 Travel Hacks for an Affordable Road Trip)

Stay outside the park

If it's necessary to book a night in a hotel in order to visit a national park, this will immediately add on another travel cost. Rather than stay inside the park, where prices can be sky high and spaces often get booked up far in advance, try finding a cheaper place outside the park perimeter. Many hotels, motels, and even campgrounds cater specifically to park visitors but at far lower prices than you'll find inside. (See also: 13 Ways to Get Free Travel Accommodations)

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