The key to a successful national park adventure is proper planning. With the centennial celebration of the National Park Service this year, they are more popular than ever. Every campsite we visited was full, and some filled up within seconds of booking windows being open; not exaggerating!
We started with mapping out what we wanted to see and how long we needed at each location. Our favorites made a nice loop starting and ending in Las Vegas. Since Allegiant only flies from Knoxville to Vegas on select days, we picked ideal flights and worked from there. Sign up for their emails so that you can be first to know when they run specials like we got.
Allegiant is super cheap, but the add-ons can add up quickly. I suggest you pay for your checked bags when you book because it’s cheaper. We checked five, but we could have used one more. Allegiant limits the weight to 40 pounds a bag vs the 50 pounds on most airlines. Weigh your bags ahead of time to avoid more fees! And make one of them a cooler. We all carried small backpacks that fit under the seat to avoid the “carry-on baggage” fees. Pack your own snacks and water bottles to avoid pricey in-flight snack charges. Unfortunately, even on a direct flight, Allegiant lost one of our bags—the cooler. Make a list of everything in each bag. We were able to replace its contents at Wal-mart and REI, but it did cost us time.
For rental cars, it pays to book well in advance. We reserved a car right after booking airfares in January. SUVs are almost always cheaper than mini-vans, but get what you need for your family. Just make sure you read the fine print to get “unlimited miles within the states you plan to visit.”
Since setting up campsites can be time and energy consuming, I suggest staying at least two nights at every location. You’ll thank me later. We stayed two nights at Grand Canyon, three in Zion (with a day trip to Bryce), two in Kings Canyon (with a day trip through Sequoia), and four nights in Yosemite. Note: each site is limited to six people, but if you book with friends who have five in their family, you can space out a family of seven. Hint, hint: Coupon Katie.
Most national park campsites book six months in advance; Yosemite is four months. Check Recreation.gov for details of parks that interest you. All reservations are done online, often at 10am EST on the 15 th of the month. And when I say 10am, you better be Johnny on the spot, ready to hit that button at 10am. As three families planning a reunion in Yosemite, we had six adults with individual accounts trying to nab 12 specific sites (one each on computers and one on mobile). Out of 12 attempts, only three were successful in the first two seconds. Thankfully that’s all we needed, but if you want Yosemite during peak summer times, you have to be a shark! Check here for more tips
Your last step before you go is packing clothes. Lay out what you think you need and then put half away. Not kidding. You’re camping without showers for possibly days. What difference does it make if you wear clothes more than once?! We packed one weeks’ worth and then washed them at a hotel before week two. We fit almost all our clothes in one suitcase and then separated them into mesh bags so that everyone could find their clothes easily in the tent.
I suggest two sets of pants that can zip off as shorts, leggings for girls, 5 t-shirts, 1 extra layer for cooler mornings, 1 bathing suit, 3 good hiking socks you can wash at the campsite, clean undies every day, a hat and sunglasses, and only 3 pairs of shoes per person: hiking boots, close toed water shoes, and flip flops / Chacos / Tevas.
If you’ve managed to get your flights, rental car, and campsites, the rest is cake. Relax and look forward to spontaneity when you arrive.
If you missed Part 1- The Budget you can read it here.
Margaret is a freelance writer in Knoxville, TN. She writes and produces for HGTV and has been couponing since 2009.