Visitors on a ranger guided snowshoe walk at Mount Rainier National Park. Courtesy: NPS
Holidays are stressful. The present buying, food preparation, party-going, and traffic-fighting are enough to leave even the sanest person a bit unnerved. With post-holiday drops in airfare and hotel and car rental companies offering enticing rebates, now is the time to plan your post-holiday getaway to a some of the most peaceful and scenic places on earth--National Parks.
National Parks present many options for those seeking to relax and unwind. Accommodations vary, as do distances from airports, winter-activities offered, and level of tourism. To capitalize on the best deals currently being offered consider a few of the following questions:
Where do you want to go and what do you want to do? Do you want to ski and snowshoe or do you want to sit on a beach and go diving? As there are parks in every state, answering this question will help you narrow down your choices of parks. Through the park service website you can search for parks by location or by activities offered. These searches will provide a detailed list of parks that offer the activity you are looking for or are in the location you wish to visit.
Finding a cheap ticket: Once you have your list of prospective parks, conduct a quick internet search for the best airfare deals. Find out what the airfare specials are and what destinations are on sale. Knowing the destinations that are on sale, will help you whittle down the list of prospective parks. For example, a quick search today yielded an airfare deal to Seattle from Anchorage. And if I wanted to go skiing for my vacation I would quickly narrow down my list of winter parks to Mount Rainier and North Cascades. Both are within 2-4 hours of the airport and both are accessible by car. Which brings me to finding transportation to and/from the airport.
Cheap car rentals: Sometimes the best deal is the most obviously. When conducting your flight search, considering checking a flight-car rental combo. They often offer a marked reduction than reserve the flight and car separately. Using the above example, another search yielded a round trip ticket from Anchorage to Seattle with a 4-day car rental for $580.00. The ticket alone was $525 and the rental was $100. By booking together, I saved $45.00. And in today's economy $45.00 is gas money. This is not to say that renting separating can not be cheaper but it will take my leg work and you will incur a lot of extra airport taxes on the rental which will drive the cost even higher.
Finding accommodation: Accommodations vary within parks. Some parks only offer camping while others offer full-service hotels and historic cabins. The easiest way to find accommodations is to go to the intended parks website and click on the Plan Your Visit tab. All park websites have this planning tool and it includes a list of accommodations. Also, keep in mind that winter is the best time to travel to most parks and that is because tourism is lower in the winter season. Therefore many hotels in parks offer discounts and incentives to visit. Continuing with the example of visiting Mount Rainier, a quick check of available accommodations resulted in finding a 2-for-1 hotel special at the National Park Inn, located within the historic district of the park. On top of the that, the hotel is providing free use of snowshoes to visitors who reserve two nights. What a deal!
For those wanting to camp or backpack while on vacation, you will have an easier time finding cheap accommodations. Many parks offer free winter camping and/or reduced cost campsites or cabin rentals. These may have to be reserved in advance however, so check the parks website for information.
Free/Low cost activities: The beauty of visiting a park in winter is that once you are there, there are endless hours of free entertainment to choose from and less crowds to deal with. A quick stop at a visitor center will yield an abundance of information ranging from trail-conditions and hikes to ranger-guided programs and cross-country ski routes. This information is also available in advance by visiting the parks web-page and clicking on Plan Your Visit. From there go to the brochures or publications tab. Every park puts out a free newspaper that will list all of the winter activities available and any associated costs.
Finally, just to prove how inexpensive it is to visit a National Park, I totaled up the costs associated with planning a trip to Mount Rainier, since I did use that as a recurring example. The final cost would be: $808.00 for one person to fly round-trip from Anchorage to Seatte, with a 4 day car rental, a 3-night stay in the historic inn located within the park, and a 7-day visitor pass to the park. I would have free use of snowshoes for 1 day courtesy the hotel, and free ranger guided snowshoe walks could be taken advantage of throughout the rest of the stay, not to mention the free sledding runs and cross-country ski trails available. So when all is said and done, a getaway to a national park easily amounts to a vacation in paradise!