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If you’re ready for a summer vacation but aren’t about to head to a densely packed city, consider a national park trip. That said, national parks have entrance fees that can quickly eat up a decent chunk of your vacation budget — especially if you’re planning to visit multiple parks (, anyone?).
The priciest national parks, which include Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Yosemite, each cost $35 per vehicle. But, there are ways to get in at no cost, including free entry for some elementary school students.
Can’t take advantage of free entry? There are other ways to save, including free or discounted passes and great savings on annual passes. Here’s what you need to know to enjoy the national parks for free or at a discount in 2021.
Every year, the National Park Service selects a handful of dates when it waives the entrance fees to all of its sites that normally charge for admission.
For 2021, the National Park Service designated these free-entrance days:
If you’re visiting on a free-entrance day, only admission fees are waived. Fee-based activities like camping, reserving a boat launch or hiring a guided tour still incur a charge.
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Fourth-graders can obtain a free pass for the duration of their fourth-grade school year and through the following summer (through Aug. 31). To obtain one, visit the where you can download a printable voucher. The pass is for U.S. fourth-grade (or home-school equivalent) students.
At park sites that charge per vehicle, the pass covers passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle who accompany the pass owner. At sites that charge per person, the fourth-grade pass owner can bring up to three adults for free. Any other children in the group under the age of 16 can also join in for free.
People who volunteer 250 hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program can request this no-cost pass, which will be valid for 12 months from the date of issue.
The six agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program are:
If you’re currently in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Space Force, Reserve or National Guard, you can claim a free, Annual Pass for U.S. Military in person at a federal recreation site by showing identification. Free admission covers both you and your dependents.
As of Nov. 11, 2020, you can now claim a free pass if you’re a veteran or Gold Star Family and can show proof of eligibility.
If those freebie options won’t work for you, there are still ways to save a significant amount of money on park entrance fees.
If you don’t qualify for any of the above discounts, the America the Beautiful Annual Pass can still allow you to visit parks at a discount. It costs $80 and covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges, plus day-use fees at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The more parks you visit, the more value you get out of it. That’s useful for, say, an vacation, where it’s easy to hit multiple parks including Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon on subsequent days.
Say you visited Utah’s five national parks, which are relatively easy to visit on the same road trip:
Individually, you’d pay $150 to visit them all. Purchase the America the Beautiful pass, and you’d save $70, had those been the only national parks you visited that year.
Even if you only plan on visiting just three parks a year, the annual pass generally pays for itself.
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If you’re a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and are at least 62 years old, you can purchase an annual pass for $20. Perhaps even a better deal, you can purchase a lifetime pass for $80. If you purchase a lifetime pass when you're 62 and use it every year for the next 20 years, that’d come out to just $4 per year.
America’s national parks are not just epic, they offer some of the greatest vacation values anywhere — whether or not you’re visiting them for free. But if you can visit national parks on a free entrance day or through other programs, you’ll find yourself looking at even steeper savings.
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the , including those best for: