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2. Logistics of Visiting Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks via Miles and Points (this post)
3. Jet Blue vs. Southwest for Families, Plus Review of Club MCO Lounge
4. Lessons from Our Flight Diversion from Las Vegas to Phoenix, and How You Can Protect Yourself
For many folks, much of the appeal of collecting miles and points lies in doing things that they otherwise can’t afford. That’s why you see so many trip reports about some overwater bungalow on an island in the middle of nowhere (Maldives, Bora Bora and the like), plus burning miles on first-class airline seats that go for $10k.
There is certainly nothing wrong with any of it, and I’ve partaken of some of these things myself. In fact, I highly recommend an overwater bungalow experience in Bora Bora. But if you asked about my favorite use of miles and points, I would pick our recent trip to Yellowstone and Glacier.
No, it wasn’t “sexy”, and all flights were in coach. But the memories I’ve made will stay with me forever, and doing it with my husband’s family was the icing on the (sometimes) dysfunctional cake. I hope to inspire some of you to give this area of the United States a shot. Don’t worry, taking in-laws is NOT a requirement! Both parks are world-class destinations, and you can get to them in only 2-5 hours by plane, depending on where you live.
A disclaimer: we had one week to explore both parks, so I don’t claim to be an expert. That’s why I encourage you to do your own research. Fortunately, there is no shortage of pertinent information on the web. This post will mostly focus on miles and points aspect of the visit, plus tips to maximize your time.
Yellowstone, Glacier or both parks?
This will largely depend on the length of your trip and how well you tolerate driving. Personally, I think that one week is enough to see both parks, but I like fast-paced travel. To me, Yellowstone deserves a minimum of three nights, and two nights is plenty of time to enjoy the best section of Glacier at a leisurely pace.
Now, I’m not talking about in-depth visits to parks, where you explore every nook and cranny. There are folks who say you need a minimum of one week to visit Yellowstone, otherwise you should stay home. That’s nonsense.
If you are pressed for time, you can technically drive through Grand Teton and Yellowstone in one day, and see most of the highlights. We did. But I recommend you allot more time if you can. You just have to be strategic in selecting locations for overnight stays in order to minimize unnecessary driving. That means switching hotels every night or two.
Fortunately, out West, the journey is often as fun as the destination itself.
Leaving Idaho for Montana with my ride-or-die partner in crime
I absolutely loved driving through Montana. Wide open spaces everywhere, unlike anything I’ve seen before. This is not I-4 driving in Orlando, where you see your life flash before your eyes. Often, especially in Montana, you won’t spot another car for 10 minutes or more.
It takes about 6.5 hours to reach Glacier National Park from the northern or western entrances of Yellowstone. While not exactly close, it sure is easier (and cheaper) to add it than take a separate trip to the area. If you do that, I recommend getting a one-way car rental so you don’t have to backtrack.
We had to pay $250 one-way drop-off fee, but this saved us 7 hours of driving. YMMV Keep in mind that some roads in Glacier don’t open until the end of June. We could go only as far as Logan pass section before having to turn around. But it was still worth it.
If you absolutely have to pick one park, I recommend Yellowstone. Be sure to add a drive through Grand Teton National Park. It’s located right next to Yellowstone, and it’s gorgeous. To me, Grand Teton is a “do not miss.” So if you give up Glacier, Grand Teton will be your consolation prize, so to speak. If you do all three parks, make sure to buy an annual pass for $80, which will save you $25.
What makes Yellowstone/Grand Teton combo better than Glacier? It’s more unique. Many will disagree, but I have seen scenery similar to Glacier before.
If you’ve been to Alberta and visited Fairmont hotel on Lake Louise, it will remind you of Lake McDonald in Glacier.
In fact, my husband made a remark that Lake Louise was more scenic. Don’t get me wrong, Glacier is a spectacular place and absolutely worth a visit if you are already in the area. But I’m not itching to go back there like I am to Yellowstone. Again, this is my personal feeling.
One thing I will say about Glacier is that tourists seemed more relaxed there. The park doesn’t have as many famous landmarks, so you can slow down and just… be. And “just being” isn’t a a bad thing in our fast-paced world.
So yes, add Glacier if you can because I doubt you will be disappointed. But make Yellowstone a priority. I’ve seen this online discussion comparing both parks, and someone said that Glacier is more beautiful, but Yellowstone is more interesting. I think that’s spot on.
Speaking of, this is the type of scenery you should see if you start in Grand Teton and make your way to Canyon Village in Yellowstone:
A herd of buffalo, with Grand Teton park in the background
Inside the Old Faithful Inn
Watching the Old Faithful geyser erupt
Grand Prismatic boardwalk
A bear walked up right next to our van
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
A quick note on animals. We’ve seen some clueless tourists take selfies with the Grizzly bear, who was only 10 feet away. Dumb! So, you may actually see a mauling while you are in the park.
I also wanted to address crowds because that’s something that puts many people off of ever going to Yellowstone. I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of crazy traffic jams inside the park.
We went on June 9th, and it wasn’t bad at all, except for Old Faithful Inn area. That lodge was packed with people, and I couldn’t wait to get out. I’ve heard it gets crazy in Yellowstone in July, so I recommend you go at the beginning of June or in late May if at all possible.
The downside of early summer is that the weather can be quite unpredictable. The high on the day we went was 34 Fahrenheit, which was kind of fun for us Floridians. Overall, I will take cold weather over huge crowds, hands down.
If you are looking forward to relaxing in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn, forget about it. On the other hand, beautiful Lake McDonald lodge in Glacier park wasn’t crowded at all.
The huge parking lot at the Old Faithful Inn was full of tour buses, and the crowds at times were intense. This surprised me since we came in late afternoon. But there were relatively few people on the boardwalk, where you can see other, less famous geysers.
To me, seeing Old Faithful erupt is an obligatory thing to do, like riding a gondola in Venice. But I don’t need to do it more than once. So, my advice is to go, admire the lodge, see the Old Faithful and GET OUT. Other parts in the park are way less crowded. We were the only tourists at the canyon lookout, though we came towards the end of the day.
If you are looking to spot animals, I recommend this section of the park in the evening:
That’s were we spotted bears, tons of elk and a herd of bisons on the move. We ran out of time to go to Lamar Valley, something many people highly recommend. That’s why I said that you really need two full days to do Yellowstone justice. I personally don’t have to see geysers more than once, but will happily watch various animals.
Which airports you should fly to/from
In a perfect world I would fly to Jackson Hole or West Glacier in order to see Yellowstone, and Kalispel airport for Glacier National Park. That way you will cut off hours of driving. But things aren’t that simple if you are a middle-class family and don’t have millions of miles/points. The cost per person will probably determine your choices, just like it did in my case.
I had to cover tickets for seven people, and the rate to fly to Jackson Hole airport and out of Kalispel, Montana was astronomical. It was 60k AA miles roundtrip per person, though it’s important to note that we started planning this trip pretty late. By comparison, I found non-stop flights from Orlando to Salt Lake City for 14k Jet Blue points per person, and return flight from Spokane, WA for 10k Rapid Rewards. Much better!
Each airport added 4.5 hours to our driving vs. 30 minutes, but the savings made it worth it. If we were to pay cash for most convenient flights, it would cost us $4,200. Instead, I burned 98k Jet Blue points, and 70k Rapid Rewards. My sister-in-law covered the car rental and lodging.
The downside was that we had to add an overnight hotel stay in Spokane in order to not miss our flight back to Florida. We also had to overnight in Salt Lake City upon arrival. Still, all in all, it was the right decision for our family due to the fact that I don’t have unlimited savings or millions of miles. Your situation may differ. If you find low-level availability to Jackson Hole, grab those award flights because it will greatly simplify your trip.
If you have a Southwest Companion Pass, flying to Salt Lake City will probably be your best bet. Fortunately, the drive is scenic, and you can even stop at Hill Aerospace museum on the way to Yellowstone, like we did.
Another option for Southwest flyers planning to visit Yellowstone is Boise airport in Idaho. It’s only a little further than SLC.
If you are looking to accumulate Rapid Rewards, you can apply for Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards issued by Chase. Those points transfer to Southwest on 1:1 basis. If you have a business, you can also apply for Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business credit card (60,000 points bonus, $99 annual fee).
There is also a new Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business credit card that currently offers 80,000 points ($199 annual fee). It comes with a host of perks, like in-flight credits, 4 upgraded boarding passes per year etc. It pays us commission if you apply through the site.
Between the two, I would pick that business version because 20,000 points are worth more than $100 difference in annual fee. I would hold off applying for personal Southwest card versions because the offers are currently reduced. All of these offers are subject to 5/24 rule.
If you are looking to accumulate Jet Blue points, I recommend looking into Jet Blue Plus credit card, issued by Barclays. Non-affiliate link You will get 50,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days ($99 annual fee). There is also a business version that offers 60,000 points. Non-affiliate link
If you are looking to accumulate flexible points that transfer to Jet Blue, you have a choice of Chase, Citi or American Express issued cards. Chase and Citi offer 1:1 rate, Amex 250:200. However, Amex occasionally offers transfer bonuses, and some of their cards have a higher earning potential, at least when it comes to regular families. Right now is a good time to consider apply for Citi Premier card due to 60,000 points bonus. Those points will transfer to 60,000 Jet Blue points.
A quick shout-out to Delta frequent flyer program since Salt Lake City is their hub. Even though the mileage rate may not always be favorable compared to Southwest or Jet Blue, it could make sense to burn Sky Miles if you find a non-stop flight. A reminder: current increased offers on Delta co-branded cards expire on July 31st. My personal referral link for all versions.
Staying inside the parks vs. using hotel points
Continuing with the theme of the previous subheading, if money was no object, I would stay inside of Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. You are close to all the action, plus, there is something special about sleeping in a hundred-year-old lodge. That said, when you have seven people and need three bedrooms, the cost to do so is astronomical.
Yellowstone is especially tough for those on a budget. Reservations for lodges located inside the park open on May 1st, and cover the following summer. I’ve been told that the best deals are gone within days. So, if you are looking to go to Yellowstone in the summer of 2020, you are already too late. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that people cancel all the time, so if you stalk the website every day, you may get lucky. According to my research, you have to budget at least $250-$300 all-in per night on a basic room with two queen beds and en-suite bathroom. If you are willing to use one down the hall or another building instead, you can get away with paying $120-$180, depending on the lodge.
I absolutely insist on having my own shower/toilet, especially when traveling with kids. You never know when all of a sudden they’ll start to worship the “porcelain god” or have a mother of all diarrheas. Happened to my cousin-in-law during their recent trip to Yellowstone. Both kids were violently throwing up on the first night, possibly due to change in altitude.
But if you don’t care, this is a good opportunity to save some serious cash. Roosevelt lodge has a few basic cabins with bathrooms that cost around $160, but they tend to book up fast. Keep in mind that there is no TV, A/C, pool, cell phone service or internet inside the park lodges. Since my husband is technically on-call 24/7 for his job (including vacations), staying in the park is simply not a viable option for us.
My cousin-in-law was able to snag a room without bathroom in an Old Faithful Inn for $167, and here are her thoughts: “Old Faithful Inn was fun but I think it’s once and done for me there. I thought it would be a bit homier and we would sit around the fireplace at night drinking hot chocolate and the kids would play with other kids, but it’s so big and busy there. Not homey or cozy. The rooms were fun and it’s part of history, but I don’t necessarily need to stay again.”
Families of five (or more) will have an especially tough time with finding affordable accommodations. I’ve seen threads indicating that the park does have rooms with three queen beds, but they are not listed on the website, so you’d have to call. Once again, they tend to get booked on May 1st. Sense a theme yet?
By comparison, here is a fancy vacation rental (with a hot tub!) that you can get for $450 per night in Whitefish, Montana, located 45 minutes from Glacier National Park:
Three bedrooms/three bathrooms, or $150 per room
Personally, I don’t think it’s essential to stay inside of Yellowstone or Glacier on a relatively short trip. I really don’t. Yes, you will have to drive more, but the savings to me will make up for inconvenience. Let’s say you do what we did, as in visit both Yellowstone and Glacier.
If you have one week (5 nights to see the actual parks), here is how I would break down the itinerary:
1. Fly into Salt Lake City and overnight there.
We stayed at Holiday Inn Express and Suites Salt Lake City-Airport East and I recommend it. But you have tons of options via hotel points.
2. Drive the following day to Jackson, WY and spend one night in a hotel bookable via points.
Your best option IMO: Homewood Suites Jackson WY For 70k Hilton points per night, you can book a one-bedroom suite with two double beds and a sofa sleeper. This hotel is the best option for large families, and the location can’t be beat.
It also has a pool/hot tub and a complimentary breakfast. Sure, 70k points per night isn’t exactly dirt cheap, but Jackson Hole vacation rentals run at $350-$500 in the summer months.
If you are looking to accumulate Hilton points and don’t want to pay a $450 annual fee, I recommend applying for Amex Hilton Ascend card ($95 annual fee), which comes with a bonus offer of 150,000 points. My personal referral link Amex Hilton Aspire may be a better option for some, and you can use your free weekend night at this hotel. See my comparison of the two cards.
Another good option is Super 8 Jackson Hole which runs at 15,000 Wyndham points per night. Don’t be fooled by the name, it actually looks quite nice. Plus, with paid rates of $250+ in the summer, it’s a good use of your recently devalued Wyndham points.
Speaking of Jackson, it’s a cute town that deserves at least a few hours of your time. There is a neat park that has a deer antlers arch at all four corners:
Kids will love watching an animal called pika:
Just a short walk away, by the visitor center, there are beautiful trees that bloom at the beginning of June:
My wonderful/crazy in-laws
If you have an extra night, spending it in Jackson could make sense. This will allow you to rest up or possibly do a hike in Grand Teton park without continuing to Yellowstone on the same day.
3. Get an early start after spending one night in Jackson and drive through Grand Teton all the way to Yellowstone.
This will be a long day because there is a lot to see. I recommend doing what we did and stopping at Old Faithful Inn, Grand Prismatic and finishing in Canyon village. You should be done by 7 PM as long as you keep moving and don’t shop too much. Time to check into your next hotel and call it a day.
4. Stay two nights at north or west entrance of Yellowstone.
I personally would stay at the north entrance because it’s closer to Lamar Valley, plus it’s supposedly less crowded. That way you can devote a full day to watching various animals and seeing sites you may have missed the previous day.
Your best option will probably be Super 8 Gardiner/Yellowstone that costs 15,000 Wyndham points per night. Recent reviews are positive, and it looks like new owners have remodeled the property. Right now the offer on Wyndham credit card is only 30,000 points (non-affiliate link), but it should go up to 45,000 points eventually.
There is a Best Western hotel, but it’s quite expensive via points. Also, there are some Choice properties, though you can’t book them via points until 30 days before your stay, which to me is a deal breaker. But if you have a ton of Choice points and don’t mind reserving rooms last-minute, definitely consider using them in Yellowstone in the summer. This will yield spectacular ROI.
If you decide to stay at the west entrance, Holiday Inn West Yellowstone is your best bet (45,000 IHG points per night). If you book far in advance, you may be able to snag a suite that has two bedrooms and two bathrooms:
IMO, this is the best deal on points in all of Yellowstone area, and makes buying IHG points at 0.5 a cent somewhat palatable. Or you can apply for IHG co-branded credit card, though the bonus offer is currently down to 80,000 points (was as high as 125,000 points in the past).
5. Drive to Glacier and spend two nights in a nearby city.
Glacier area lodging is in less demand compared to Yellowstone, so prices tend to be a little lower. You will probably come out ahead by booking a vacation rental via AirBnB or VRBO, but there are some points options as well.
Few noteworthy ones for families are: TownePlace Suites Whitefish Kalispel and Springhill Suites Kalsipel Both cost 25,000 Marriott points per night, and rates in the summer tend to be $300 or more. Both properties have rooms that will fit five people. If you have a Marriott or SPG co-branded card, either property is a good use of your renewal certificate.
Those who have an IHG co-branded credit card can use their renewal certificate at Holiday Inn Express and Suites Kalispel (35,000 points per night). Wyndham has several options, and all of them cost 15,000 points per night. But I personally would burn my Wyndham stash on Super 8 hotels in Yellowstone area instead.
6. Drive to Spokane, WA and overnight there before taking flight home.
There are several points options, and I wholeheartedly recommend Holiday Inn Spokane Airport (nice indoor pool and hot tub, always a hit with kids)
To summarize: if you are a family of four or five looking to visit Yellowstone/Glacier, there are ways to leverage hotel points instead of cash. It doesn’t mean you should because some people swear by staying inside the parks. I’m cheap, so I would rather drive an extra 1.5 hours each day than pay $300 per night for a basic room. But you may feel differently.
If you are a party of seven or more, your best bet is to probably book a vacation rental for stays of two nights by using AirBnB or similar site. Here is my referral link for AirBnB, you will get $40 towards a rental, and I will get $20. For overnight stays, it makes sense to burn hotel renewal certificates or look into fixed programs like Wyndham. But again, it depends on what type of hotel points you have and how much you value them.
If you are looking for unique accommodations near north entrance to Yellowstone, check out Dreamcatcher Tipi hotel in Gardiner, Montana. If glamping is your thing, and if you don’t mind walking to a nearby building in order to use bathroom/shower, this resort should be on your radar. It comes highly recommended by my cousin-in-law. She even offered to write a short trip report, so keep an eye on it.
She also told me to mention the app GypsyGuide which, according to her, is a tremendously helpful tool for maximizing your time in US national parks.
This write-up has turned into a monster of a post, but I wanted to provide some helpful information for those who are considering a visit to Yellowstone and/or Glacier. As I’ve said repeatedly, these are my personal opinions, so keep that in mind. My travel style probably differs from yours, and that’s OK.
The main point I was hoping to make is that it shouldn’t cost a fortune to go to either of those parks. As miles and points enthusiasts, you have access to savings that most people don’t have.
Of course, as in everything in life, there are tradeoffs. You may have to pay with your time in order to save points/money. Still, I recommend you plan a visit to Yellowstone/Glacier sooner rather than later. The parks will only be more crowded in the future, I guarantee it. And if you do go with your family, you will not regret it.
Speaking of, as I’m editing this post, my father-in-law is in ICU unit, though fortunately, it looks like he will make it. Only ten days after the trip he required an emergency surgery. If he does recover, his new reality will make travel quite challenging. I’m glad we went when we did.
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.