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6 ways to save on national park trips

For those on a budget, national parks can be an ideal family summer vacation. Here are ways to save money on such trips.

By Cheapism.com May 29, 2013 2:53PM
This post comes from Alyssa Goldman at partner site Cheapism.com.

National park trips can make ideal summer vacations: They're relatively inexpensive, appropriate for all ages, and brimming with entertaining activities. Even with the high season fast approaching, there are ways you can save on travel to national parks. Here are six tips for exploring national parks on a budget:

Family of three loading car with luggage, low angle view © Juice Images, Cultura, Getty Images1. Carpool. Not only will you save money on gas by piling family and friends into one car, you'll also save on entrance fees: Most national parks charge per vehicle, rather than per person, which can make a tight squeeze worth it.
 
Within large parks, take advantage of free shuttles and try to avoid getting gas until you get back to civilization, where it's more plentiful and affordable.

2. Obtain a pass. If you're a frequent visitor of national parks, it might benefit you to purchase an annual pass from the National Park Service.
 
For $80 a year you gain unlimited access to 2,000 recreation sites for everyone in your car, if the entrance fee is per vehicle, or for yourself and up to three other adults, if the entrance fee is per person. Children under 16 can already get in free.
 
Take note of the entrance fees at the parks you plan to visit, however. Even some of the most expensive charge only $20 or $25 per vehicle, so you would have to visit at least four times throughout the year to make the pass worthwhile.

Members of the military and people with permanent disabilities can obtain free annual passes and seniors (62 and up) can purchase $10 lifetime passes. Again, these extend to everyone in your vehicle or up to three companions, depending on the entrance fee.

3. Plan around fee-free days. Park entrance fees are waived on designated days each year. In 2013 these include Aug. 25, the birthday of the National Park Service, and Sept. 28, National Public Lands Day. A good chunk of the national parks -- 268 out of 401 -- don't charge entrance fees at all, so consider those if you're on a tight budget.

4. Camp or stay in a cabin. Planning to stay overnight? Camping is your cheapest bet, but campgrounds often fill to capacity during the summer. Try to reserve a spot ahead of time at Recreation.gov. Staying in a cabin on park grounds is another budget-friendly option. Motels outside national parks cater to frugal visitors who balk at the rates inside. Don't forget to ask about AAA, AARP, and military discounts.

5. Avoid tourist traps. Don't buy any essentials on park grounds, where they tend to be pricier. Pick up cheap sunscreen, bug spray, batteries, and other supplies before you go. Food is also more costly onsite and sometimes difficult to come by, so bring snacks, beverages, and even meals with you. Just be sure to follow park regulations for food storage, so no bears make off with your picnic basket.

6. Buy or rent used gear. If you rarely have the chance to hike or camp, don't spend a ton of money on new gear for your national park trip. Instead, head to secondhand store or scour the web (Amazon, eBay, etc.) for gently used items.
 
Another tip: Go to Freecycle.org and find people in your neighborhood giving away unwanted outdoor gear for free. Don't see what you're looking for? Request what you need. You don't want to invest too much in an activity you don't do often.

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