New Routes Make It Easier Than Ever to Visit These Top US National Parks
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Earlier this year, the National Parks Service reported that, in 2018, the number of park visitors had exceeded 300 million for the fourth year in a row. Airlines seem to have caught on to the fact that there’s big money in transporting travelers to and from these treasured destinations — and on Thursday, American Airlines announced new routes that promise to make it easier than ever take a national park vacation.
In a statement, Vasu Raja, vice president of American Airlines’ network and schedule planning, said, “National parks are a huge attraction for many families … [and] we’re expanding with more service to discover these natural wonders.”
Earlier this summer, AA began seasonal service to Kalispell, Montana (FCA) — the closest airport to Glacier National Park — from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Los Angeles (LAX) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD). Based on the success of this service, AA will be adding even more flights to airports nearby national parks.
So, what does this news mean for you? Well, more flights mean more options for traveling to and from these (somewhat) secluded natural wonders. And with that, more ways to use your hard-earned travel rewards.
Yellowstone National Park
With the addition of seasonal AA flights to Bozeman (BZN), Montana, travelers coming from Los Angeles, Philadelphia (PHL) and New York-LaGuardia (LGA) will have easier access to Yellowstone National Park.
Routes and Award Pricing
Beginning in 2020, American Airlines will operate Saturday-only service between both Philadelphia and LaGuardia, to Bozeman, from June 9 through Sept. 5. Flights between Los Angeles and Bozeman will operate daily from June 4 through Sept. 8.
American Airlines is slowly moving toward dynamic award pricing, so it’s really hard to say what these routes will cost with AAdvantage miles until they are loaded on Sept. 1. However, when saver availability is present, using British Airways Avios to fly American may be a good play on some of these routes since flights from Los Angeles to Bozeman would clock in at just 902 flown miles, which translates to 9,000 Avios.
The drive from Bozeman to Yellowstone is about 1.5 hours, depending on traffic, weather and which park entrance you’re using (you’ll have a choice between the park’s North and West Entrances). If driving isn’t your thing, there are a variety of tour operators that run trips between Bozeman and Yellowstone. Karst Stage, for example, runs charter buses and day trips from Bozeman to the park.
Where to Stay
If you’re just day-tripping from Bozeman to Yellowstone, you’ll have plenty of hotels to choose from in Bozeman where you can use points, including Springhill Suites Bozeman (from 35,000 Marriott points per night); Best Western Plus GranTree Inn (20,000 Best Western points per night); and Homewood Suites by Hilton Bozeman (available from 50,000 Hilton points per night).
But if you’d like to spend a few days enjoying the park before returning to Bozeman, your best bet is to stay in West Yellowstone or Gardiner, Montana. In West Yellowstone points hotel options include the Holiday Inn West Yellowstone (from 45,000 IHG points per night) and the Days Inn by Wyndham West Yellowstone (from 15,000 Wyndham points per night). Travelers with Best Western Rewards points can opt for either the Best Western Desert Inn or the Best Western Weston Inn, both from 28,000 points per night.
The Best Western by Mammoth Hot Springs (from 28,000 Best Western Rewards points); Super 8 by Wyndham Gardiner/Yellowstone Park Area (from 15,000 Wyndham points per night); and Comfort Inn Yellowstone North (from 30,000 Choice points per night); are all affordable properties for points travelers bedding down in Gardiner.
Because prices at these hotels during the peak summer season can easily exceed $250 per night, it can make a lot of sense to use your rewards for free nights. But if you want a fancier stay, you can always use flexible rewards like Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book an independent property.
Denali National Park
American’s seasonal daily service to Fairbanks (FAI) — the gateway to Denali National Park — launches next summer from Chicago O’Hare and Dallas/Fort Worth.
Routes and Award Pricing
Travelers can choose from daily flights between either Dallas/Fort Worth or Chicago O’Hare, and Fairbanks, Alaska, with both routes operating between May 7 and Oct. 6. Currently, American Airlines prices saver awards from the Lower 48 to Alaska at 15,000 miles each way.
The drive from Fairbanks to Denali is a 2-hour trip, but if you’d rather not worry about the road, you could consider joining a guided bus tour. There’s also a train that runs from Fairbanks to the park, but because of the schedule, it doesn’t afford visitors much time to enjoy the park itself.
Where to Stay
There aren’t any chain hotels near the park, but if you choose to stay in Fairbanks, there are a handful of properties where you can redeem points, including the Springhill Suites Fairbanks (from 25,000 Marriott points per night); the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fairbanks (from 25,000 IHG points per night); and Best Western Plus Pioneer Park Inn (from 28,000 Best Western points per night).
Otherwise, tap into your Capital One Venture miles or Chase Ultimate Rewards points to experience a hotel closer to the park. Remote lodges and cabins can also be booked through vacation rental sites such as Airbnb (just be sure to book with a top travel rewards credit card).
Related: The Best Hotel Credit Cards of 2019
Kenai and Katmai National Parks
New seasonal service between Chicago O’Hare and Anchorage (ANC) brings travelers closer to Kenai Fjords National Park and Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Routes and Award Pricing
Flights between Chicago O’Hare and Anchorage will operate daily between May 7 and Oct. 6. Award tickets to Alaska currently start at 15,000 miles each way, or 30,000 miles round-trip. We’ll keep an eye on these new routes when they load into the system.
Kenai Fjords National Park is located 126 miles south of Anchorage, just outside the town of Seward. Driving to the park’s visitors center from Anchorage takes just under 2.5 hours along Seward Highway, a route known for its incredible natural scenery and panoramic views. Travelers can also take the Alaska Railroad train. Along with “standard class” seats, there’s GoldStar Dome service, offering large picture windows for riders to enjoy the route’s stunning views.
Katmai National Park is almost exclusively accessed by floatplane or boat. If you’re flying into Anchorage with plans to visit this remote area of the state, you’ll have to make additional arrangements to get to Katmai. According to the National Park Service, you can connect via Anchorage to King Salmon (AKN) — the closest town to the park — with PenAir, Ravn Alaska and Alaska Airlines.
Where to Stay
Options for using hotel points to stay in or around Katmai National Park are nonexistent. In fact, there are only two lodging options: Brooks Lodge and Grosvenor Lodge. If you’re looking to use travel rewards to offset the cost of your stay, you’ll have to use flexible rewards like Capital One Venture miles. But if you’re visiting Kenai National Park, there are nearly 100 independent hotels in Seward to choose from, ranging from bare-bones motels to more expensive lodges. The only points hotel is the Best Western Plus Edgewater Hotel, where award nights cost about 32,000 points.
If you do end up planning a trip to a national park, don’t forget to grab an $80 annual national park pass. Though Katmai and Kenai Fjords are both free to enter, Denali charges a $15 entrance fee per person — and Yellowstone is $35 per vehicle. So, you’re sure to get lots of value from it now that access to these destinations is easier than ever. And, here are some tips if you bring the kiddos along for the journey.
Featured image courtesy of Checubus/Shutterstock
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