12 Frugal Summer Vacation Strategies from Our Family’s National Park Vacation

A few months ago, I posted an article on how we plan frugal family vacations in national parks. During the first half of June, we put that knowledge to the test with a long road trip family vacation that took us to Badlands National Park, Shoshone National Forest, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. We drove the entire trip and we camped every single night but one (we were actually unable to return to our campsite due to a freak incident and had to find emergency lodging one night).

While we did use many of the strategies in the earlier article during this vacation, I thought it would be very worthwhile to circle back and look at which strategies really were money savers on the trip. Here are 12 things that we did that saved us a lot of money on our family’s summer vacation in the national parks.

Take advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program, or the Senior Pass program, or the Military Pass program to get into national parks for free or at a steep discount. If you are over the age of 62, are an active member of the military, or have a fourth grader in your family, you can easily pick up a highly discounted (or even free) pass for the national parks, which will chop substantial cost off of your trip.

In our case, we took advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program, which got our family into Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Badlands National Parks for free and gave all of us a free guided tour through Wind Cave. This simple pass saved us at least $100 on our trip, and it took about five minutes of our daughter filling out a form online. (They do verify that you have a fourth grader in your group, so it’s a waste of time to try to ‘scam’ a free National Parks pass this way. Also, my parents have a Senior Pass, which was similarly easy to acquire.)

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the summer after your child finishes fourth grade is a great summer for a National Parks vacation. Not only will it be less expensive thanks to the Every Kid in a Park program, the child will also get a great deal of value out of it. While our youngest child was perhaps a bit too young to really get full enjoyment out of everything, our two older children really found a lot of value in the National Parks, and we’re already tentatively planning a National Parks vacation when our youngest is in fourth grade (Acadia and a stop in Shenandoah along the way, if you’re wondering).

Check out travel guides from the library before you go and rely on the free pamphlets within the park. Travel guides are incredibly useful for advance planning of the trip and identifying trails and other activities and sights that might work for you and your family. However, once the trip is over, they become much less useful, so I don’t recommend actually buying them.

Instead, hit your local library. Check out their travel guides associated with the area and make some notes and plans for yourself. You can even take the books with you on the trip.

While you’re there, however, you should really take advantage of the great pamphlets and documentation that the National Park Service provides onsite. Their brochures and pamphlets are top notch, especially when paired directly with stellar advice directly from park rangers.

Pack as much of your own food in advance as possible, bought from discount grocers. If you’re doing an inexpensive national parks vacation, there’s a very good chance you’re camping, and if that’s the case, you’re going to be responsible for preparing your own meals, probably simple ones. There’s also a very good chance that you’re driving there, provided the national park is within several hours of your home.

Given those two assumptions, one brilliant way to save a lot of money is to simply plan a bunch of meals out in advance, buy a ton of food at your local discount grocer before you go, and pack a cooler with ice from your own freezer for items that need to stay cold. That way, you’re spending very little on food for most of the trip.

This is exactly what we did. We covered much of the trip with the food we packed ourselves, filling every little nook and cranny in our vehicle with food items. We planned out a bunch of simple meals that we could utilize any day for breakfast, lunch, and supper and made sure we had everything on hand for all of them.

We also prepared a shopping list to take with us. Part of the way through the trip, when we were actually out of the national parks for a bit, we went to a discount grocer and bought everything on that list. Those items fulfilled the remainder of our meal plan for the trip.

Our food costs were stunningly cheap for this trip. Yes, we ate a lot of simple meals – sandwiches and simple soups and foods cooked over a campfire – but they were extremely low cost and actually quite fun to prepare over a propane stove and sometimes over a campfire (more on this in a bit).

Camp in a nearby National Forest rather than a National Park, if possible; it’s still beautiful and often way cheaper. As we were examining the comparative costs and availabilities of campsites, we discovered that camping in the Shoshone National Forest, which is adjacent to Yellowstone, was actually cheaper and more widely available than camping within Yellowstone.

Shoshone contains many wonderful trails, great views, and other features that make it well worth your time, plus it’s literally adjacent to Yellowstone, meaning you have full access to Yellowstone with a 15 minute drive.

The same thing is true at many national parks. There are often national forests and national grasslands and state parks and other such places adjacent to the national park that can provide wonderful vistas and experiences and a low-cost camping destination that’s often in much less demand than the national park itself.

Speaking of lower-demand camping…

Check on “first-come-first-serve” campsites, but don’t rely on them. Once you start planning a national park vacation, you’ll quickly learn that many campgrounds allow reservations while other campgrounds operate on a first-come-first-served basis. I’m not going to say that either style is strictly better than the other – you’ll have to rely on individual campground reviews for that – but simply recognize that both are available to you. In general, however, I’ve found that the first-come-first-served campgrounds are significantly less expensive than the reserved campgrounds.

In short, the more flexible you are, the more it makes sense to rely on first-come-first-served campgrounds. This is especially true if you’re open to considering campgrounds that are in adjacent national forests, or you’re willing to spend your first night in a hotel after a long drive and set up camp the next morning.

As I mentioned earlier, first-come-first-served campgrounds tend to, in general, have a lower per-night cost than reserved campgrounds, so if you’re going for a longer trip, you can actually still save money by staying at a hotel near the national park the first night, then going in early the next morning to secure a campsite for the next several days.

Given the length of our drive (from central Iowa out to western Wyoming), we chose to go with reserved campsites, but during one portion of the trip we were faced with some logistical challenges and we examined the options of first-come-first-served campsites and were impressed with the relative value they offered.

Bring along a sturdy backpack that can serve as a “picnic basket.” Here, I’m speaking directly to families who may not be frequent campers but are giving it a try as a family vacation: a sturdy backpack will be your friend on this trip. It will save you a lot of money.

The reason is very straightforward. When you’re out and about visiting ranger stations or walking on trails or checking out visitor centers, you’re not going to want to stop and rush back to the campsite for lunch for a hungry family. Instead, it’s far more convenient to just find a picnic table or even a log to sit on and simply enjoy a picnic together, produced as if by magic from your backpack. (Often, the other option is to eat very expensive fare sold by the park service at their stations.)

This does take some morning prep work. You’ll have to plan out some meals that will work well in a backpack, prepare all of the food before you leave in the morning, and someone will likely have to carry it at least for a while. However, the convenience of being able to go on a very long trail from the mid-morning to the mid-afternoon with lunch at the far end of the trail, or the ability to go to the far side of the park for the day without having to worry about paying for an expensive lunch or expensive snacks can make a huge difference in your vacation costs.

Keep meal prep as simple as humanly possible so that you’re not tempted to skip it and do something else. On this trip, we ate a lot of sandwiches. We simply kept loaves of bread in a box in the back of our vehicle along with cheese and hummus and condiments in a cooler, along with some fruits and vegetables in the food box and a few additional items in the cooler. Those sandwiches became the basis of a lot of meals – they made up most of the lunches we ate, in fact!

Our dinners were a mix of simple campfire meals – soup made in a cast iron pot over a propane burner one night, hot dogs over a campfire another night, campfire meals wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked directly on the fire yet another night.

All of those meals were very easy to prepare. Often, we just pulled food from the food box and the cooler, assembled meals within a few minutes, and started cooking them immediately (if cooking was even necessary). The meals required few ingredients, but the ingredients we did use were flavorful. We did not plan gourmet meals on this trip.

We ate at restaurants exactly twice the entire vacation and both times we ate very nice meals, but the vast majority of our meals were very simple meals prepared quickly from just a few ingredients. We intentionally chose simple things so that we could spend our time enjoying all of the things to do, rather than preparing complex meals or throwing money into expensive restaurant meals.

Use a small propane burner for hot foods, as it’s far cheaper than campfires; campfires are fine, but don’t use them for every meal. Yes, camping often implies a campfire, but campfires can be expensive. Often, the wood needed for a night of campfires can add up to $10 or more and you’re strongly discouraged from bringing outside wood.

Our solution? We didn’t necessarily have a campfire every night, especially on nights when we returned to the campsite later in the evening. On nights when we did have a campfire, we prepared meals on it and roasted marshmallows; on other nights, we used a simple propane stove for meal prep needs along with a solar battery lantern for light.

This enabled us to keep fuel costs as low as possible. It’s definitely less expensive to burn a small amount of propane to cook some food and use a solar light to see than it is to burn $10 worth of campfire wood, and on a night when everyone is tired after walking twelve miles of trails, a quick meal over a propane stove and heading to bed immediately was more suitable to everyone, anyway.

Avoid the touristy towns on the edges of national parks. Jackson, Wyo., is a beautiful town. However, it’s an expensive town, one clearly built with visitors in mind. Virtually everything there is pricey and there are simply infinite opportunities to spend your money.

The best solution? Don’t go there unless you’re expecting to spend some dough.

There are cities and towns like that near every significant national park. They’re convenient. They have a lot of little creature comforts. They often have some interesting things to see. But they’re expensive places to visit.

We chose to eat lunch in Jackson one day and visit a few interesting sites there, but the cost of lodging and of many of the shops there was very high (though everything seemed to be of good quality). While Jackson is lovely, it was also not a good match for what we intended to be a very low-cost family vacation. The same holds true for any expensive, tourist-oriented town on the edge of a national park area.

Go electric-free and use rechargeable batteries. When evaluating campsites, you’ll quickly notice that some have electricity and some do not and that the electrical sites come at a premium. I encourage you to give electric-free a try.

“But what about cell phones?” you might wonder. Our solution was simple – we simply used rechargeable batteries. We stayed at an electric-free campsite for five days and my Anker PowerCore lasted for the entire stint, charging my phone several times. We saved about $12 a night compared to a similar campground, so the savings alone paid for the battery (and more).

It only takes a few days at an electric-free campsite to pay for a rechargeable battery, which you can then use and use and use again. If you stay at an electric-free site in the future, you’ve already got the battery!

Set a “souvenir budget” for everyone right off the bat. At the very start of the trip, we agreed to buy each child one article of souvenir clothing and one additional item up to a specific dollar amount. They knew that this was the rule and we stuck with it throughout the trip.

This allowed us as parents to set clear boundaries before ever setting foot in a store of any kind and allowed our children to understand what kind of souvenir to look for.

Our children did also bring along earned allowance money, so they were able to buy additional small souvenirs if they so chose, something some of our children did.

This policy as a whole saved us a lot of money on souvenirs because the policy was clear and unambiguous and set the cap for spending very low overall. We came home with a few new shirts and a couple of books, mostly.

Fill up with gas away from the park, if possible. Many of the larger national parks offer options for fueling up within the park, but those gas stations are often priced as you would expect a gas station to be priced in an environment with no competition. Needless to say, the gas there wasn’t cheap.

The best solution is to fuel up outside of the park whenever possible. We went on one lengthy excursion outside of the national parks on our travels (besides the actual travel to and from the parks) and we did our best to fuel up outside the boundaries of the park. Why? The cost of gas inside the park was $0.20 to $0.30 higher than outside the park. It wasn’t enough that a buyer would be shocked at the price, but it was enough to notice if you were paying attention and it was enough to make a $10-20 difference on the trip.

Naturally, this isn’t a big thing, but it makes enough of a difference that by simply being aware of it, you can make better choices that will keep money in your pocket.

On the whole, this was an extremely inexpensive vacation for our family. We were away from home for 10 days and spent less than $100 each day on everything – food, fuel, campsite, firewood, everything (the only thing I’m excluding is the unexpected emergency night in a hotel). That cost savings was largely due to three factors.

First, we are regular campers. Most of our camping supplies are used several times a year and have been used for many years, bringing the cost per night of camping for that gear down into the pennies, literally. I have a sleeping bag that I have slept in countless times since college, so the cost per night of that thing is far, far less than a dime. Being a regular camper makes camping cheaper and cheaper.

Second, we planned with low cost camping in mind. We thought about the trip in advance, thought about choices we could make to keep costs low, and executed those choices. We made meal plans, checked out library books, and carefully packed things before ever departing. We didn’t just toss clothes in a bag and roll out the door. That prep work paid off – our family was able to see a ton of natural beauty at a low cost.

Finally, we separated ourselves from the idea that vacation has to mean “luxury” experiences. Rather, vacations, to us, simply means experiencing a new slice of the world, and we certainly did that. (Though, to be honest, I can’t think of anything “luxurious” that would seem more amazing than some of the natural beauty we saw.)

I highly, highly recommend a well-planned vacation in the national parks if you have a fourth grader in your family (and even if you don’t). It can take some planning to keep it cheap, but it’s a tremendous opportunity to see some of the amazing natural beauty of our country at an incredibly low cost. See what national parks are within 10 hours of driving from your home and use that as a starting point.

Maybe, in a few years, we’ll see you in Acadia.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.