Budget Travel to Yellowstone National Park
May 24th, 2011
Summer is nearly upon us in the United States, and summer for many means visiting the national parks. It’s a rite of passage that’s been the hallmark of a summer vacation for decades, and one of the most popular parks on many a family’s to-do list is Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park is mostly within the state of Wyoming, but is also partly in Montana and Idaho. It’s an enormous park, and holds the distinction of being the world’s first national park. The park’s popularity, however, means that it isn’t always cheap to visit – particularly if you want to go during the summer high season.
Here are some tips to help you do Yellowstone on a budget.
Best Airports to Use for Yellowstone
While Yellowstone isn’t right next to a major airport (which, as it’s a huge park dedicated to the natural world, is a good thing), but there are several small commercial airports in the area. They’re not all open year-round, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find a direct flight to any of them unless you’re coming from reasonably close by.
In other words, finding a cheap flight to Yellowstone (especially from far away) may be tough – but here’s what you need to know about each of the area airports to help you find the best deal on airfare.
- Yellowstone Regional Airport (COD) – This airport in Cody, Wyoming is just over 50 miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance. It’s served by Delta Connection and United Express, with connections to Salt Lake City and Denver. Although it’s very small, there are a few rental car companies with desks at the Cody airport. It’s about a 1-hour drive to the East Entrance and a 2-hour drive from the Northeast Entrance.
- Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) – The airport in Jackson, Wyoming is actually inside a different national park altogether (Grand Teton), but it’s an option for Yellowstone as well. Jackson Hole is served by American Airlines, Delta, Delta Connection, Frontier Airlines, United, and United Express, with connections that include Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Denver, and LA (some of those destinations are seasonal). In addition to the rental car options at the Jackson airport, there’s also a shuttle company called AllTrans that will get you to and from Jackson or Teton Village (but not Yellowstone). It’s about a 1-hour drive from the South Entrance.
- Gallatin Field Airport (BZN) – The Bozeman, Montana airport is served by Allegiant Air, Delta Air Lines, Delta Connection, Frontier, Horizon Air, United Airlines, and United Express, with connections to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Denver, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, and Chicago. This airport provides access to Yellowstone’s West and North Entrances with shuttle and taxi options as well as rental cars. It’s about a 1-hour drive from the North Entrance and a 1.5-hour drive from the West Entrance.
- Billings Logan International Airport (BIL) – The airport in Billings, Montana is the only airport near Yellowstone with the word “international” in its name, despite there being no cities outside the U.S. on its list of destinations served. The Billings airport is served by Allegiant Air, Delta Air Lines, Delta Connection, Frontier Airlines, Great Lakes Airlines, Horizon Air, United Airlines, and United Express. Destinations include Las Vegas, LA, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago. There are car rentals available at the Billings airport, as well as shuttles to get you into Billings itself. Greyhound buses will help you get further from the airport, including to West Yellowstone. It’s about a 3-hour drive from the North Entrance.
- Idaho Falls Regional Airport (IDA) – The Idaho Falls, Idaho airport is served by Allegiant Air, Delta Connection, and United Express, with connections to Las Vegas, Long Beach, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, and San Francisco. There are several car rental companies with desks at the airport. It’s about a 2-hour drive from teh West Entrance.
- Yellowstone Airport (WYS) – The airport in West Yellowstone, Montana is very close to the West Entrance of the park, but it’s only open from June through early September. It’s served by only one airline – Delta Connection – with service to and from Salt Lake City. It’s the closest airport to one of the Yellowstone entrances, and there are several rental car companies with desks at the airport. There’s also a shuttle service for the area called the Yellowstone Roadrunner.
There’s regular bus service from Bozeman to West Yellowstone that’s available year-round, while bus service from Idaho to West Yellowstone is only available during the summer. Commercial transportation to the park from Cody and Jackson is available during the summer. There’s no train service that will get you to the park entrances.
Times of Year When Yellowstone is Cheaper to Visit
Yellowstone is open year-round, although most of the entrances get closed for part of November and then again in March/April while park officials work on the roads before and after the winter season. The busiest season is the summer, when the weather is reliably good, and July and August tend to be the busiest of the summer months. As in most places, busy also means expensive.
The shoulder seasons in Yellowstone are good candidates for cheaper trips to the park, but keep in mind that weather extremes in the shoulder seasons of a national park can be dramatic. Even in May or October the weather could be quite cold in places. The trick is balancing the need for a budget-friendly trip with the activities you want to do when you get to Yellowstone. A shoulder season trip may save you money, but if you don’t get to do the things you wanted to do then it may not be worth the savings.
Finding Cheap Accommodation in Yellowstone
Within Yellowstone National Park, there are a few accommodation options – the cheapest ones are at the campgrounds in the park. There are more than 2,000 campsites available, but keep in mind that this is one of the most popular national parks in the U.S. – so during high season don’t be surprised if they’re booked well in advance. You might also consider camping in the national forests that are near the park’s borders if you’re still looking for budget-friendly accommodation and the campgrounds within the park are booked.
Aside from camping, the lodging inside the park is more on the hotel/resort end of the spectrum. They’re perfectly nice, but not always budget-friendly. Another in-park option is to rent a cabin for a more extended stay. This can be a budget-friendly option if you’re traveling with a group of people and can split the cost.
Outside the park, you can find all sorts of accommodation options near any of the park entrances. Each town near an entrance has a variety of hotels, lodges, motels, resorts, and vacation rentals. These towns aren’t close to one another, however, so once you’ve decided which entrance you’re going to use you’ll need to hunt for the best deals on lodging for that town. In other words, if budget is a huge factor in your vacation planning, you might want to check out which town has the best budget options before you commit to one park entrance as your homebase.
General Yellowstone Visitor Information
You can get current information on everything from the park’s entry fees to what roads are closed on the official Yellowstone website (part of the National Park Service site).
Also note that if you plan to visit the park more than once during a year – or you plan to visit both Yellowstone and its neighbor, Grand Teton National Park – you might want to get a Park Annual Pass instead of purchasing individual passes for each park.
photo by jimmiehomeschoolmom