Every year, millions of tourists flock to the worlds first national park – Yellowstone, to see the unbelievable Geo-thermal features and to see the incredible wildlife (aptly named Serengeti of the West). Needless to say, flights are very expensive and unless you want to spend a few days on the road, driving is not a realistic option depending on where you are located.
After a whirl-wind of a 3 month around-the-world trip through 13 countries to mostly cities and towns, we were left craving for some backpacking, hiking and camping. Almost impromptu we started researching and from various contenders, we selected Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). We planned and booked our trip just 5 weeks in advance which was quite nerve racking since the hotel and flight bookings for these revered national parks are booked months in advance. Here’s how we did it.
Also checkout –
Our experience and our favorite hikes in Yellowstone (Coming soon)
How to get there
The closest airports for Yellowstone National Park (YNP) are Bozeman, MT (north entrance), Cody, WY (east entrance), Idaho Falls, ID (west entrance) and Jackson, WY (south entrance).
The closest airport to get to Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) is Jackson, WY. In fact, it is located within the park. You can’t get closer than that!
Since all the above mentioned airports are regional, tickets are usually pretty expensive, especially during summer time. Redeeming miles makes a lot of sense in this case as they provide really good value compared to the cash equivalent and you can redeem one way tickets for each leg and you can fly in and out of different airports reducing the drive time.
If you are paying by cash, it generally makes sense to fly in and out of the same airport. You could also avoid the expensive regional airports by flying into Salt Lake City, UT (additional 4 hours driving) or Denver, CO (additional 7 hours driving).
Searching for award availability
We decided to book this trip last minute (5 weeks out is last minute for award seat booking). We checked the award availability on various airlines (American, United, Delta) for the various airports starting from the closest to the farthest.
To maximize time in the parks, we would’ve preferred to fly into Jackson, WY to visit GTNP, then continue onto YNP and then fly out of Bozemon, MT. Our schedule was pretty fixed (leaving on a weekend) and since the award availability was pretty low so close to the travel date, we decided to fly into Jackson (WY) and fly out of Salt Lake City (UT) which added about 3 hours of drive time to our trip.
How to book tickets
After a lot of searches, we found saver economy availability on American airlines and United Airlines for the flight from NYC to JAC (saver is the lowest amount an award ticket for that class costs and yes, these seats don’t come by very easily). Since the flight duration was pretty short, business class redemption rate didn’t look worthwhile.
The key is to look for flexible award dates even if you have a fixed schedule. That way you can review the entire month calendar to see if any other week might work better. Also, book as far in advance as possible to maximize your chances of finding a saver award seat.
Before getting too excited, we realized that we had recently redeemed our AA miles so the only option was to go with United.
Flight from NYC to JAC – Saver award seat cost for two: 25k miles + $11.20
Flight from SLC to NYC – Saver award seat cost for two: 25k miles + $11.20
Instead of using 50k United miles, we decided to use up 25k Lufthansa miles that were about to expire for the returning leg. United and Lufthansa are both Star Alliance partners. Once we found the saver availability on United, we called up Lufthansa and gave them the exact date and time to book one-way award tickets from SLC to NYC).
In summary, it cost us 50k miles and $22.40 to get two round-trip tickets to fly directly into Grand Teton and fly from SLC to NYC after visiting Yellowstone. Booking just 5 weeks in advance of the travel date and paying by cash would have cost us north of $1500. What a steal!
On arrival at the soul crushing dystopia of LaGuardia INT’L Airport (renovation end date: 2126 A.D.) we checked one suitcase full of camping food and gear with United Airlines for $25. This would normally make us cringe, because with the right planning you can get your 1st checked bag free (Chase United CC). Fortunately, we will get this baggage fee refunded (With Chase Sapphire Reserve airline credit) and only paid $11.20/person for this 2 leg flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We had a great time hiding out from the calamity of LGA in the calm and tranquility of the Amex Centurion Lounge for about 90 minutes before our flight (Free access incl. food & drink for you and friends with AMEX Platinum CC). A decent breakfast buffet and 2 Bloody Mary’s later, we sped through security by utilizing the TSA Precheck line which Global Entry passengers can use. The price of Global Entry fees can be reimbursed by using AMEX Platinum or Citi Prestige or Chase Sapphire Reserve.
While we were booking our flight tickets as two separate legs, we knew that we would need to shell out extra to pick-up and drop-off the car from different locations which usually costs more. However, after searching for rentals on various websites, we found a great price of $265.00 for an 8-day rental for a standard car which included the pick-up from Jackson airport and drop-off at Salt Lake City airport.
Once we arrived at the airport, we utilized an ingenious strategy at this point in the day – Hemali gathers the checked suitcase at baggage carousel while I make a beeline for the Enterprise rental car counter. This strategy made for one of the best deals of the entire trip.
Being first in line at the counter allowed me to chat with the employee at a casual and relaxed pace since there wasn’t a long line breathing down our necks just yet. The key to saving money with car rentals is having solid primary rental coverage with a premium credit card such as Chase Sapphire Reserve (I do not own a car, but even with personal auto insurance I’ve read that additional coverage while renting is secondary, meaning more hassle and deductibles to meet in case of an accident). By denying the CDW and all extra coverage, and not prepaying for any fuel top offs when returning (NEVER PAY FOR THESE RE-FUELING OPTIONS!) we were able to keep the 8-day rental price we were expecting which was reserved online.
The best part about being first in line is having the most vehicles to choose from. I reserved a standard sized 4 door car, but asked if any larger vehicles were available in the same pricing tier. I said we would be camping a lot and might sleep in the car for sunrise Yellowstone wildlife viewing or in case of cold rainy nights. As the line behind me grew, and the employee checked how many other reservations he’d need to fulfill in the next hour, it was apparent that most folks wanted cheaper, smaller vehicles (Mostly my guesswork here). Whatever the case may be, I was lucky enough to walk away with a 2017 Ford Expedition, which is one of the most expensive vehicles at Enterprise, at the standard vehicle rate. Amazingly, this behemoth of a SUV only cost us $110 in fuel over 8 days/900 miles of driving! (2016 – $2.49/ gallon) For the two of us, this was basically an RV w/out the toilet for the nights we were not staying at a hotel. We had plenty of space for our 2 air mattresses, sleeping bags and gear/food for the week. This truck was vital for our itinerary later in the week when the weather really turned on us.
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After crossing the big hurdle of booking saver award tickets, we thought the hard part was over. Boy, were we wrong! The hotels and historic lodges within the Yellowstone park ( Book Here ) get booked months in advance. In fact, try booking for next year today and you will notice that there is barely any availability. In our upcoming post we will share the tips and tricks that we used to secure these reservations just 3 weeks in advance of our travel dates. Stay tuned.