Why National Parks Are An Unbeatable Vacation Value And A Great Idea Right Now

There are 391 national parks, monuments, memorials, recreation areas, seashores, historical sites, battlefields, grasslands and other National Park Service-operated units in the United States, and every one of these diverse destinations offers one of the best vacation values that can be found in the U.S.

“In documentary film-maker Ken Burns’s latest project, ‘The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,’ Burns makes a compelling case for why, historically, parks are truly a good idea,” said Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for national park concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts. “What the documentary didn’t explore, however, is why parks are an especially great idea right now, when Americans are experiencing one of the most economically challenging times in modern history. Above all else, Americans want value, and that is exactly what national parks offer.”

To understand why, it helps to know how concessioners and the National Park Service operate. In most cases, the hotels, restaurants and other buildings are owned by the federal government, and concessioners provide the management for those facilities as well as operate many of the activities found in the parks. Concessioners pay a percentage of revenues to the government in return for the contract to operate the facilities.

Most non-park hotels that families will book this summer use a system of pricing called “yield management.” When demand goes up, so do the rates. When hotel rooms look like they’re going to be empty, rates go down. As technology has improved to the point of being able to predict traffic patterns, hotel companies have become increasingly sophisticated about pricing rooms according to predicted demand – without pricing themselves out of the market.

Lodges in national parks are an exception to this pricing practice. Because of a little-known rule imposed on national park concessioners – operators of lodges and other concessions within the parks – pricing on everything from guest accommodations to hot dogs in the restaurants must be approved by the National Park Service. The rule is called a “model of comparability.” Everything offered by concessioners within a national park must be priced comparably to the same items outside the park. Generally, the National Park Service uses the gateway locations outside the parks when evaluating price comparability.

This is great news for budget-focused travelers, particularly during economically challenging times. While franchise hotels and motels in gateway communities outside national parks are free to increase prices to accommodate demands, room rates at national park lodges have long since been set – and published. And those prices will not change without park service approval. And if there is a change, it is often to lower a price during a shoulder season. For example, some lodges at the Grand Canyon offer reduced rates or value-added packages during the spring, fall and winter seasons.

The National Park Service has also made park entry affordable for everyone. A carload of visitors can purchase a seven-day entrance permit for just $25 in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other parks. The fees collected by the National Park Service go back into the park for improvements such as the construction of a new visitor center, trail maintenance projects and a variety of other programs. Travelers who plan to visit more than one park should consider purchasing an annual park pass or an “America the Beautiful” interagency pass. The interagency pass is a great value as it provides access to national parks, national recreation areas, national forest service campgrounds and more.

There is a long history of partnership between private concessioners and the park service. The first director of the National Park Service, Stephen T. Mather, said “Scenery is a hollow enjoyment to the tourist who sets out in the morning after an indigestible breakfast and a fitful night’s sleep on an impossible bed.”

The Park Service presently manages more than 600 concession contracts, and concessioners employ more than 25,000 workers during peak seasons. The Park Service also monitors the performance of concessioners.
“Concessioners such as Xanterra and the National Park Service have historically worked hand-in-hand to ensure travelers enjoy a memorable experience at national parks and also to preserve and protect these destinations for future generations,” said Hartvigsen. “In fact, preservation of the parks aligns perfectly with the broader need to protect the environment and is one of the most important areas of focus for Xanterra in its day-to-day operations.”