Take a Low-Cost Road Trip to a National Park
Looking for a spring getaway but short on cash? Consider visiting one of the nation’s 401 national parks, which will waive admission fees April 19 and 20 for the start of National Park Week. With a national park in every state, you shouldn't have to travel too far to get to one.
SEE ALSO: Best Cars for Long Road Trips
In addition to free admission, National Park Week offers special events and programs April 19 through 27, such as hands-on children’s activities, walking and bicycle tours, cave tours and ranger-led talks. Specific events include:
--Birding tour with expert guides at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.
--Living History Encampment Weekend at Appomattox Court House National Park in Virginia, which includes demonstrations of how Civil War soldiers lived.
--Patriot’s Day at the Minute Man National Historic Park in Massachusetts, which commemorates the opening battle of the American Revolutionary War with parades, reenactments and ceremonies.
--Riverfront history stroll along the Mississippi River at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in New Orleans.
--Whiskeytown Waterfall Challenge at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California, which involves ranger-led or self-guided hikes to the park’s four major waterfalls and a gift for completing all of the hikes.
Or you could simply explore any of the national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails that make up the national park system on your own. You can use the National Park Service's interactive map to find a park near you and sign up to receive the National Park Foundation’s free “Owner’s Guide” series in your inbox to help plan a trip.
If you plan on staying overnight on the free admission days, you'll still have to pay for camping or lodging. But pitching a tent at a national park is a great way to save money on a weekend (or weekday) getaway. When my family visited Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, we paid just $20 a night to camp. If we had stayed in a hotel in nearby Estes Park, we would’ve paid more than $100 a night.
We saved money on food by purchasing items at a supermarket, storing them in a cooler and cooking over a campfire. If you plan to drive to a national park, pack sandwiches, snacks and drinks so you don’t have to stop at restaurants along the way. To make it fun for kids, you can buy a few trinkets at the dollar store and put them in bags along with their food to replicate kids' meals from fast food restaurants.
If you do eat meals out during an excursion to a national park (or any other road trip), check Groupon and other daily deal sites for restaurants offering discounts in the cities you're visiting. You also can get discounted restaurant gift certificates for local restaurants from Restaurant.com and discounted gift cards for chain restaurants at the gift card sites such as Gift Card Granny.
To save money on gas during a road trip, you can use a free gas app such as GasBuddy to find the cheapest gas prices near you. Then use a rewards credit card that will let you earn cash back on gas purchases (you can compare cards at Bankrate.com). You also can save money by buying discounted gift cards for gas stations at sites such as Cardpool and CardCash. These cards tend to go quickly, so sign up for e-mail alerts to be notified when they're in stock. Also look for discounted gift cards for Walmart or grocery stores that have gas stations.