37 National Parks to Visit Before You Die

If natural beauty is your thing, the national park system offers some great and inexpensive ways to experience it. Here are some of our very favorites.

One of the greatest things about our country is its diversity, both in terms of its people and the land itself. That’s why we’re such big fans of the country’s national parks, which offer a dynamic and budget-friendly way to see the country up close.

Comprised of 417 areas covering more than 84 million acres, the National Park System includes the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. That’s a lot of land to explore, and all of those options can be overwhelming. So before you hit the road or catch a flight to your park destination, make sure you have a plan for your travels. (And if you have kids, you’ll want to read our handy road-trip survival guide.)

Drafting a budget is a good place to start, as is packing a travel rewards card, which can help you earn perks just for spending as you normally would. (For those on the road, a gas rewards card may be a better option.) Be sure to check your credit before you apply, as many of these cards require good credit to qualify. You can view two of your credit scores for free right here on Credit.com.

To help you decide where to venture this summer, we selected 37 of our favorites from across the country. Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

1. Denali National Park, Alaska

Who wouldn’t want to see a rainbow stretching across a pink sky as late as midnight? Or the sun rising around 3:30 in the morning to light up the snow-capped mountains? The views in Denali are breathtaking, and part of the thrill is seeing how its scenery changes in sunlight.

2. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska 

You’ll feel super-accomplished after spending a day hiking the Harding Icefield Trail, but that’s not the only way to explore this remote park. See the fjords on a boat tour in summer, go kayaking or drive along Exit Glacier, which offers pit stops for hiking and Instagram-ready viewpoints.

3. Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, Alaska

With glaciers, lakes, volcanoes, dense forests and roving bears, Lake Clark is what you think of when you think of Alaska. And though getting there requires a plane or travel by boat, you won’t regret going in summer, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the hiking is top-notch.

4. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona 

Accessible year-round, the Grand Canyon is a true American treasure, with spectacular views, life-changing hikes and a colorful, if sometimes fraught, history. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the Canyon reliably draws millions of visitors each year.

5. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

No Southwest trip would not be complete without a stop in majestic Saguaro, named for the cowboy-shaped cactuses that are abundant throughout the desert. Forbidding rattlesnakes, javelinas and gila monsters call Saguaro their home, but those shouldn’t deter you from seeing the Costa’s hummingbirds and floral blooms.

6. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

For more than two centuries, people have used the hot spring water in Downtown Hot Springs to treat various ailments; today “Bathhouse Row” is a National Historic Landmark District with the largest collection of bathhouses of its kind in North America.

7. Channel Islands National Park, California 

Calling all snorkelers, divers and kayakers: Channel Island and its isolated coves and sea caves are beckoning you. Explore heaps of kept forests alongside sea lions or surf the waters off the north or south shores of Santa Rosa. At the end of the day, you can camp on any of the five park islands and indulge in some of the best stargazing in SoCal.

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

Situated just east of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree is a mecca for rock climbers, campers and driving sightseers alike. The park’s namesake Joshua trees are abundant throughout the park, as are other desert flora and fauna. Keys View looks out over the Coachella Valley, where the San Andreas Fault is clearly visible.

9. Redwood National Park, California

There’s nothing more humbling than standing next to a 300-foot-tall redwood. In this coastal national park, you can explore numerous beautiful trails or take a meandering drive through old-growth redwoods. We recommend the Coastal Drive Loop for stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

10. Sequoia National Park, California

One of the world’s tallest trees — and largest living organisms, in fact — can be found here in this national park. The General Sherman is massive, and more than 2,300 years old, so make sure to take a picture with this beautiful, old giant.

11. Yosemite National Park, California

If you want ancient sequoia trees, stunning waterfalls and beautiful mountains, Yosemite has it all. From El Capital and Half Dome to Bridalveil Falls, the natural beauty comes in epic proportions. The high season gets very crowded, so prepare to spend some time looking for parking.

12. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado 

You don’t have to dig John Denver to get into the laid-back mindset of this park. Just bask in the wildlife viewing, scenic drives (Trail Ridge Road climbs to a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet) and family-friendly activities. Coyote Valley, where thousands of wildflowers bloom in the summer, should be tops on your list.

13. Everglades National Park, Florida 

Here you can literally slow time … and sink into the swamp. Just a one-hour drive south from Miami, the park includes a striking 1.5 million acres of tropical and subtropical habitat that’s been designated as an International Biosphere, a Wetland of Importance and a World Heritage Site. Just watch out for the alligators.

14. Dry Tortugas, Florida 

Comprised of seven small islands, Dry Tortugas is one of the country’s great natural wonders, with something for everyone. For history buffs, Fort Jefferson, a prison during the Civil War, can’t be missed, while those in desperate need of some R&R will enjoy the calm beaches. The shallow waters are perfect for snorkeling.

15. Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii

The feeling you get watching the sunrise at Haleakalā on Maui is hard to describe, but suffice it so say there’s nothing else like it. Standing on the windy summit around 6 a.m. would be unpleasant if it weren’t for the spectacular view. Just be forewarned, the drive to the summit is not for those who fear winding roads.

16. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

You can explore the beautiful volcanoes on the big island of Hawai’i, some of which are still active, in this park. Drive around the the summit of Kīlauea or hike one of the park’s lovely trails. The Nāhuku Lava Tube is especially great for kids, as they’ll be able to imagine the lava rushing through the tube hundreds of years ago.

17. Acadia National Park, Maine 

Acadia is Maine’s only national park and also one of the country’s most beautiful, with forests, ponds, marshlands, mammals and even whales on display. Be sure to explore the park’s historic carriage paths, commissioned by John D. Rockefeller in 1915.

18. Adams National Park, Massachusetts

Take a trip back in time to the early days of our country’s history, where you’ll find the “summer White House,” Stone Library, Adams Carriage House and the birthplace of not one, but two of our presidents. See the lovely yellowwood tree John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa Catherine must have planted in memory of their son, George, and tour the home where John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution.

19. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Deep turquoise water and tall forest trees make Isle Royale ideal for outdoorsy types. Just $7 gets you in for a day of backpacking, hiking, boating, kayaking or scuba diving. If none of those are your thing, go anyway for the island’s isolation — it’s a great place for reflection.

20. Glacier National Park, Montana

Glaciers, mountains, mountain goats, verdant mountain fields and hiking trails galore are what you’ll find in this 1,500-plus-square-mile wilderness area. There are also some rustic inns to check out if backpacking isn’t your idea of relaxing.

21. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota 

Fittingly named for the outdoorsy president who created five national parks, signed the landmark Antiquities Act and used its provisions to create 18 national monuments, this scenic park demands your attention.

22. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon 

Crater Lake was created by the explosion of Mt. Mazama 7,700 years ago and wasn’t discovered by white explorers until 1853. The Klamath Tribes who lived there considered it a sacred place, and given its unearthly quiet (and the emerald waters of Fumarole Bay), we have to agree.

23. Congaree National Park, South Carolina 

One of the newer national parks — Congaree received its official designation in 2003 following a grassroots campaign — is a tree-lover’s paradise, with one of the highest canopies in the world. The park’s website calls it the “largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern U.S.”

24. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands doesn’t just have an awesome name, it has some of the most awe-inspiring sights you’ll ever see. If hiking and climbing don’t appeal, hit the hour-long Badlands Loop Scenic Byway — the closest airport, Rapid City, is 80 miles northwest — and keep your eyes peeled for black-footed ferrets, mule deer and buffalo. The trip itself feels like circling the moon.

25. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Supposedly the first cave to be designated a national park, Wind Cave is so tranquil you’ll wonder why you never visited before. Look out for part-time residents like burrowing owls and grazing bull bisons.

26. Big Bend National Park, Texas

It’s a trek just to get to this park situated on the Texas-Mexico border — the nearest airport is 160 miles away — but the mountainous desert terrain is spectacular once you arrive. If you’re into backpacking, it’s a fantastic destination, just keep in mind you’ll have to pack-in your own water. There’s also gorgeous, seasonal river rafting.

27. Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas

When most people think of Texas, they don’t think of dense pine forests, swamps and one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, but that’s exactly what Big Thicket National Preserve is. Situated in Southeast Texas just a short drive north from Houston, the Big Thicket is also home to the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation.

28. Arches National Park, Utah 

Just five miles north of Moab lies the entrance to Arches, which is thankfully open year-round. Yes, the entrance fee will cost you ($25), but after viewing what’s said to be the world’s largest natural sandstone arches, you’ll be convinced the price of admission was worth it. Be sure to get out of your car to see the arches up close.

29. Gateway National Recreational Area, New Jersey 

Gateway covers 27,000 acres, including Sandy Hook, New Jersey and parts of Staten Island and Jamaica Bay, New York City. The sprawling national park allows for activities like kayaking in Jamaica Bay, swimming off Sandy Hook and camping at historic Fort Wadsworth.

30. Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park, New Jersey

The Great Falls of the Passaic River is the second-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River, behind only Niagara. Alexander Hamilton, the founder of Paterson, harnessed the 77-foot falls to power the city, one of the earliest industrial hubs in the U.S. The park, established in 2011, allows visitors to see the falls up close and learn about Hamilton and early American industry.

31. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio 

The only national park in Ohio is also one of the country’s most popular, with thousands of plants, abundant wildflowers and a landscape of hills, sandstone ledges and waterfalls (Brandywine Falls is a favorite). Just a 30-minute drive south from Cleveland, it’s easy to get to as well.

32. North Cascades National Park, Washington 

The name “Stehekin” comes from a Salishan word meaning “the way through,” which may explain The Stehekin Valley’s allure as a passageway for travelers. Less than three hours outside Seattle, Stehkin is only accessible by foot, boat or plane, making it an ideal place to unplug.

33. Olympic National Park, Washington

This is where people come to see the rugged beauty of Washington state up close. Boating and fishing are popular activities, though keep in mind there are risks, so be sure to map your route and plan for emergencies. A day hike on the Peabody Creek Trail is a fantastic introduction to the park.

34. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming 

Named for the tallest mountain in the Teton range, the park includes multiple lakes and enough species of flora and fauna to send a biologist into a tizzy. Snapping a shot of the lakes that mirror the mountains on a calm day is a must.

35. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

The world’s first national park is a feast for the eyes, with no shortage of things to see and do. The Upper Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is about 20 miles long, offering dramatic views of Yellowstone River, while Hayden Valley features all sorts of wildlife, from bison to grizzly bears.

36. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

There are plenty of trails through the Blue Ridge Mountain forests to keep the backpacking enthusiast happy in this park, but Shenandoah isn’t just for the outdoorsy. The park’s Skyline Drive is a popular weekend driving getaway for folks around the Washington, D.C.-Richmond area, especially in fall when the leaves turn. There are also plenty of historic inns nearby to check out for a good night’s sleep and a lovely meal.

37. Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands 

St. John may be the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin islands, located in the Caribbean Sea, but it is surely the prettiest. You won’t find strip malls or all-inclusive resorts here; instead St. John is the kind of place that encourages slowing down.

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6 Ways to Save on Flights & Hotels This Summer

When it comes to the most expensive costs associated with traveling, it’s always the big three — hotels, rental cars and flights.

You’ve scrimped and saved to treat your family to a nice vacation this summer, but now that you’ve started to research how much it would actually cost to book airfare and hotels, you’re having second thoughts.

When it comes to the most expensive costs associated with traveling, it’s always the big three, says Travis Katz, co-founder and CEO of Trip.com — hotels, rental cars and flights. The good news is that with a little planning, most of these costs can be pared down. The following are Katz’s five biggest tips to help families save a little cash when booking flights and airfare this summer.

1. Think Outside the Box

Up-and-coming places are less crowded, and activities, hotels and restaurants tend to be cheaper (with better service!) because they’re eager to welcome you back, says Katz. He says his site has seen an uptick in travelers flocking to places like Hot Springs, Arkansas, Chattanooga, Tennessee and Santa Fe, New Mexico, to name a few.

2. Take the Right Flights

If you can hack it, taking the red-eye roundtrip could save you a night (or two!) on accommodation. As an added bonus, your kids might sleep through the trip. If you don’t want to over-night it, consider at least traveling on off-peak days, like Tuesday to Thursday, when airfare is generally cheaper.

3. Haggle for Your Hotel

Pricing for hotels and other types of lodging is not set in stone. Katz suggests asking nicely at the front desk at check-in for an upgrade. “If one’s not available, hotel staff might be inspired to give a freebie or two — comped breakfast, for instance,” he says.

Bonus Tip: Home rentals on sites like Airbnb offer full kitchens, so “you can shop locally and eat simple breakfasts and lunches,” Katz adds.

4. Make the Most of Your Memberships

Your vacation discounts could already be in your wallet. Memberships to some organizations like AAA or AARP come with travel discounts, and you should always check your credit card to see if they offer discounts — or bonus rewards — when booking hotels or flights through their affiliate programs. Even your Costco membership could score you some deals. Check out the Costco Travel site for information.

5. Consider Opening a Travel Rewards Card 

Rewards credit cards, when used wisely, are a helpful way to pay for a family vacation. Just remember not to go overboard so you don’t lose your rewards to high interest, or wind up accruing unneeded debt. The last thing you want is to come home to an upsetting credit card bill.

Before you apply for one of these cards, be sure to read the terms and conditions so you know what you’re getting. Also evaluate whether you’ll actually use the rewards. A Southwest rewards credit card, for instance, won’t do you any good if you don’t fly the carrier. Research what airlines have hubs in your area —you can find a helpful list of the best credit cards to use in every major U.S. airport here. If you don’t think you’ll frequently fly with a specific carrier, consider a general purpose low-annual-fee travel rewards credit card.

Just be sure you know where your credit stands so you’re certain you’re able to qualify. Travel credit cards generally require good credit. You can view two of your credit scores, free of charge, on Credit.com.

Bonus tip: Travel rewards credit cards generally partner with rental car companies so your plastic may qualify you for a discount — or at least earn bonus points — on that expense, too.

6. Be Loyal to a Particular Airline or Hotel Brand

Besides using your credit card rewards to fund your trip, consider becoming loyal to a particular hotel or airline to cash in on some of their loyalty programs. Become a member of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards Program, for example, and you’ll earn points for every dollar you spend that you can put toward a free flight sometime in the future.

Bonus tip: See if you can pool your credit card rewards with the points or miles you earn through a travel provider’s loyalty program to qualify for a free night or award flight faster.

Note: It’s important to remember that prices for products and services frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms cited in this article may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with the company directly.

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7 Ways We Spend Less on Vacation

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Our family loves to visit new places. We get asked all the time how we can afford to take our family of nine on a vacation every year. I must admit, it hasn’t been easy, but we have learned a few tips and tricks throughout our 20-year marriage.

Here are seven ways we’ve learned to save.

1. Go Camping

Staying in a campground can save you $100 or more per night off of local hotel prices. When we go camping, a typical night with water and electricity costs between $20-$25 per night at a state or federal campground. While private campgrounds can be a bit more expensive, they often offer more amenities that will keep you busy.

2. Use Hotel Deal Sites

If you must stay in a hotel, consider booking on some of the online discount hotel sites. Keep in mind, though, that you will not always be able to request two beds, so if that is a requirement, you may not be able to book on certain sites.

3. Pack Your Food

Packing your own food helps you to save money and time, especially while you’re traveling. A typical meal that we pack will include a sandwich, chips and a piece of fruit. This is so much cheaper than having everyone go into a popular fast food restaurant and order a large combo. When I was a child, for dinners in hotel rooms, my mom would bring her crockpot and cook up a tasty feast.

4. Find Restaurants Where Kids Eat Free

Since we always travel with children, we often search for the restaurants that advertise that kids eat free. Typically, before we leave on the trip, I will do a search online for the town we will be in that day, followed by the words, “kids eat free.” There are websites that regularly update which restaurants do this. On one of our past vacations, we were able to eat out on a daily basis, due to all of the free food my kids were getting.

5. Subscribe to Restaurant Newsletters for Money-Saving Coupons

About five to seven days before you leave for vacation, visit several of your favorite restaurants’ websites and subscribe to their newsletters. Typically, they will email you a coupon for something free from their restaurant. Sometimes it’s just a dessert, but other times, it’s a full meal. Be sure to do it well before you leave on your trip, because sometimes, you won’t receive your coupon for a few days. Keep in mind that the coupon will often expire within 14 days of the date that they send it to you, so you don’t want to sign up too early.

6. Find Things You Can Do for Free

With a family of nine, we typically cannot afford to spend money on all of the attractions that you see others spending money on. Instead, we usually pick out one major activity that we want to do, and the rest are activities found by searching the web for free or cheap things to do in that area. We have had many adventures relying on these free (or cheap) activities, including at our regular vacation stop, Branson, Missouri.

7. Drive, Instead of Fly

Most of the time, if you are traveling with a family, it will be much less expensive to drive, instead of fly. We like to research where the cheapest gas prices will be and fill up in those locations. We have also researched how to save money on gasoline and have implemented many of these tactics while traveling.

Hopefully, these ideas can also help you to stretch your vacation dollars while still enjoying fun activities.

[Editor’s note: You can monitor your financial goals, like building a good credit score, each month on Credit.com.]

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12 Spring Break Essentials for Families

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