Budget Travel

The Actual Cost of Visiting a National Park: Why I’m Outsourcing My Summer Vacation

I love America. It’s pretty much the best, current political climate aside. I can say this with a bit of authority, having worked in half the states in the nation and having visited even more. America is beautiful–trust me, I’ve checked.

Which is why I was all a-flutter about the prospect of a late-spring pilgrimage to one of my country’s crown jewels: Yellowstone National Park. It was the first national park and to this day remains one of the most-visited. And in 2017  I was going to make a visit there happen, damnit. Yes. Yes I was.

Note my use of past-tense verbs.

Because here’s the thing: unless you live within reasonable driving distance of any given national park, you probably can’t afford to go there. Here’s why:

The Breakdown: Yellowstone from Pennsylvania

This is not Yellowstone, because I've not yet visited Yellowstone. This is the closest image I have. It's Custer State Park in South Dakota. Which I also recommend.

This is not Yellowstone, because I’ve not yet visited Yellowstone. This is the closest image I have. It’s Custer State Park in South Dakota.

Flight from Philly or NYC to anywhere within 6 hours of Yellowstone: $600 per person* (total $1200)

Car rental for a week: $800

Lodging for nine nights: $1900

Food: ~$50/day per person for bad cafeteria food (Total: $700)

Grand total not counting gas or any other extras: $4600

*Flying into Jackson or Bozeman would be beyond $1000 per person; the next best option is a $600 flight into Salt Lake City followed by a six hour drive.

And that’s for a family of TWO.

So we’re not going to Yellowstone. We’re not going to Olympic or Yosemite either, even though I’ve been to both and they are definitely worth the time and money. Nope. We’re going to the south of Spain. Because this:

The Breakdown: Spain from Pennsylvania 


This is not the south of Spain, because I’ve not yet visited the south of Spain. This is the closest image I have. It’s Barcelona. Which I also recommend.

Nonstop flight from NYC to Madrid: $51 per person plus 60K air miles (total $102)*

*Note: if you don’t have air miles, that’s ok. I’ve seen flights from JFK to Madrid for under $400 for this spring. So let’s say total cost of airfare is $800.

Trains from Madrid to Cordoba and then on to Granada, Seville, Toledo, and back to Madrid: $80 per person (total: $160)

Lodging for SIXTEEN nights: $1400

Food: a glass of good Rioja is $3 and comes with olives and bread. Also most of our rentals include kitchens. Let’s say $25/day total, so $400

Grand total including alcohol: $2660

And that’s for TWO AND A HALF WEEKS. (Also we are not paying $800 for flights, so subtract $700 for a grand total of $2060 for us.)

Please excuse me while I put more things in caps: That is LESS THAN HALF of what we’d pay to go to Yellowstone. And we are going to Spain for TWICE AS LONG.

Sorry, America. I’d really like to ‘see you first’, as the ad campaign goes. But, well, I can’t argue with math.

Have you visited a US national park without spending excessive amounts of money (and without camping, as we legitimately can’t camp)? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments section. Because I really do want to get to Yellowstone some day. And also all of the parks in Utah. And return to Olympic for a longer visit. And take my husband to Yosemite. Yeah, basically I want to go to national parks. I just don’t want to take out a second mortgage on my house to do so. Not that the bank would give us more money, but that’s beside the point. 

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