Heading for a National Park? Can You Say Free Day?

Take advantage of these hand-picked savings strategies, including camping discounts, annual park passes, volunteer opportunities and NEA benefits.

by NEA Member Benefits

Editor’s Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel and how much you’ve missed it. As states begin to relax their regulations with regard to COVID-19 and more Americans become vaccinated, travel is opening up more and more. Before planning a trip, read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before booking and again before traveling.

American author and environmental advocate Edward Abbey once said: “Wilderness is not a luxury but necessity of the human spirit.” Though you may agree that outdoor experiences aren’t luxuries, they still can sometimes cost a pretty penny unless you know the secrets to making wilderness travel affordable.

For example, warm weather and extended time off from school make it easy to seek out lower-cost accommodations such as campsites. Even a day trip (without overnight costs) to a state or national park is well within reach for many. In the U.S., there are more than 400 national parks spanning 84 million acres, which means there are plenty of places to go.

Here are four insider tips for saving big on the great outdoors, whether you’re traveling close to home or farther afield.

Strategy 1: Annual National Parks Pass pays off—and fast

Admission for a car into Grand Canyon National Park runs $30. Visiting Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton together will set you back another $50. The annual America the Beautiful Pass? It costs $80 total for entrance to all national parks for the entire year. (The pass is also free to members of the military and to fourth graders.)

Another tip: Two people can sign the back of the pass. So, if you have a friend who doesn't mind switching off weekends, you can each pay $40 and enjoy all the same benefits.

The national pass is available to everyone, and if you’re older than 62, $80 buys you a Lifetime Senior Pass! That price includes expanded discounts on some campsites and activities as well. (For those on a fixed income, you can also get an Annual Senior Pass for just $20.)

Strategy 2: Use what’s free: entrance days, disparate camping

Each year, there are free entrance days for national parks and recreation areas. The con: Although the national parks that usually charge fees are free, they are therefore quite busy on free entrance days. Be prepared to get there early to beat the lines. The pro: Getting in on a free day obviously reduces your costs overall.

One way to maximize your savings is to use federal agencies to your advantage. The Bureau of Land Management manages about one-eighth of the total landmass of America, not just public lands. The U.S. Forest Service manages 175 national forests. What does this mean for you? There are millions of acres of land where you may camp for free.

Granted, there are no campsite amenities at these sites, but also no campsite fees. For up to 14 days, you can spend time within parks across the country without paying a dime.

Check the National Park Service for details, as different parks have different fees, regulations, days of entry and registration needs, especially for campsites.

Strategy 3: Volunteer in exchange for discounts and free entrances

The National Park Service runs several volunteer programs that are perfect for educators. Many allow park exploration without an entrance fee, which is ideal for the summer months.

Art and music teachers can try the artist-in-residence program, where you create new projects while volunteering at a local national park. There are more than 50 programs around the country. While each park’s program varies in length (weeks to months) and timing throughout the year (many are in summer), all include free lodging.

Science educators can also volunteer for Citizen Science, a program where research centers work directly with K–12 schools.

Whether you’d like to try a program such as one of those above, work for the day on a volunteer event, or sign on for a longer-term recurring opportunity where you’d serve alongside park employees, 250 hours of volunteering earns teachers an interagency pass.

With this pass, not only do you get to explore the park for free during volunteer hours, but you also earn a free pass to explore other parks for the rest of the year.

Strategy 4: Use your NEA Member Benefits to cut costs

Maybe you don’t want to put that many miles on your car to drive to a national park and back. With NEA Travel car rental discounts, you can save as much as 25% on a rental. 

If you’re lacking the right gear for a big park adventure, visit the NEA Discount Marketplace to find great cash-back offers from retailers where you can buy all kinds of equipment. 

Or maybe you still want to experience the great outdoors but don’t want to rough it? Check NEA Travel: Hotels for the right hotel at the right price, near your park of choice.

Now what are you waiting for? Experience the nation at an affordable price—one national park at a time.

Travel savings for NEA members