Frugal Travel Case Study to the Grand Canyon Park Loop

by Michael Scepaniak on March 24, 2020 in finance, travel

Spearhead Mesa under a blue sky in Autumn - Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, USA

While a lot of people appear to have a bucket list, I’m not one of them. There are definitely many things I would like to do before I pass away, but none of them stand out to a degree where I would be filled with regret were I to find myself on my death bed having not checked them off.

With that being said, as I approached early retirement a few years ago, one of my bigger goals post-retirement was to see and hike some of the parks in the western United States. Soon after retiring, I came across someone (my friend/cousin-in-law, John) with the same interest and availability, plus much more hiking expertise. The possibility of having John on-board (for most of the trip) set my trip-planning in motion – and last fall, I made it happen!

John allowed me to take the lead on plotting out the trip. After a significant amount of research, I settled on an itinerary that essentially took the shape of a large clockwise loop around Grand Canyon National Park, beginning and finishing in Las Vegas and lasting about 2 weeks in duration. Here is where I eventually ended up going, in chronological order:

I looped around the Grand Canyon with John, from Las Vegas to Las Vegas. Once I got back to Las Vegas, John split off and I rendezvoused with my lovely Deborah, with whom I spent a few days in and around Las Vegas.

Flights

$344.58/person

Deborah and I flew in and out of Las Vegas on separate flights. She isn’t much into hiking, but that was the main thrust of this trip. So, she flew in as I was returning to Las Vegas (closing the loop around the Grand Canyon).

Southwest Airlines tends to be my domestic airline of choice, given that Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) is my home airport. While Deborah stuck with Southwest, I chose to fly in and out of Las Vegas on Spirit Airlines.

I chose Spirit because of the timing of their flights. They offered a well-priced flight into Las Vegas that allowed for an easy pick-up by John and an afternoon arrival at Zion National Park (by car). They also offered a red-eye flight out of Las Vegas on a Saturday night, which allowed me an additional full day in Las Vegas wihout having to pay for an additional night of lodging or a (relatively) expensive Sunday flight.

In retrospect, opting for the red-eye return to BWI was probably a mistake. I’m typically able to sleep on flights, but the minimal form factor of the seats on the return Spirit flight made snoozing practically impossible. I was pretty miserable.

I prefer to pay for flights using points, but I had no Spirit points and the hassle required to earn, redeem, and maintain them discouraged me from pursuing them.

This flight total does not factor in offsets purchased from Carbonfund.org, which I have been doing on an annual basis for the past few years. Purchasing offsets is part of my effort to cancel out some of the negative impacts of my travel.

Lodging

$48.77/night ($682.74 total for 14 nights)

These days, my typical go-to option for lodging when traveling is Airbnb. Staying true to form, I stayed at Airbnbs for most nights of this trip. However, I did book one night using Booking.com because they offered a better-priced option for the first night John and I spent near Zion National Park.

I also strayed away from Airbnb for the nights Deborah and I spent in Las Vegas. Deborah managed to earn three (mostly) free nights for us by spending many long hours playing the myVegas Slots app and Wynn Slots app. From the myVegas Slots app, she earned one “free” night at The Signature at MGM Grand (minus a $41 resort fee). From the Wynn Slots app, she earned two (truly) free nights at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Deborah’s timing in playing those apps was fortuitous, as the reward structure for both apps have since been modified so much that earning and redeeming free nights is now very difficult.

By virtue of my traveling with John instead of Deborah for most of the trip, my lodging costs got a bit distorted. On the plus side, John and I split our lodging costs, which halved my share. (When it is Deborah and I, I typically cover the lodging costs.) On the negative side, John and I agreed to target lodging that offered individual bedrooms, which inflated the overall prices being split.

John was new to Airbnbs and admitted to being a bit wary. But, I made a believer of him. I also worked on keeping lodging costs down by booking us in towns that were a 30 minute (or more) drive from each target park. I did my best to find a balance between proximity and cost with each place we stayed. I was pleased with the results.

We used Hurricane, Utah as our base for visiting Zion, staying one night in a motor home and three nights in a basement suite. We used Panguitch, Utah as our base for visiting Bryce, Red Canyon, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, staying three nights in a historic house. We stayed one night in a basement suite in Kanab, Utah, which put us in close-enough proximity for our one day spent at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We used a private suite in Page, Arizona as our base for visiting Monument Valley, Horeshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon. We finished up the loop in Williams, Arizona, using a couple of apartments built into a mobile home/trailer as our base for visiting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

In most of the places John and I stayed, the owner was in some way on-site. I mitigate a lot of the risks, costs, and social impact downsides frequently associated with Airbnbs by staying in owner-occupied places, when possible (meaning, the host is there during my stay).

Ground Transportation

$16.24/day ($227.38 total for 14 days)

This amount includes $122.30 for gas, $80.08 for a rental car while in Las Vegas, and $25.00 for parking (while in Las Vegas). Because John drove in to Las Vegas from his home in California and we drove the loop in his car, we were able to forgo the expense of a rental car. It only seemed fair that I should cover most of the gas costs.

Once John departed upon our return to Las Vegas, I needed a rental car for part of our time spent in Las Vegas in order to visit Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park. I rented from Enterprise via AutoSlash, choosing to pick up from Enterprise’s downtown location (which I walked to from the Wynn). AutoSlash has become my go-to option for booking rental cars. As it turned out, I was pleased to have the rental car in Las Vegas, as it allowed us to more freely eat at restaurants off of the Las Vegas Strip.

The fact that the Wynn doesn’t charge for parking was very welcome. As such, most of our parking expense was accounted for by parking in the main Fremont Street Experience parking garage, which I regret. We could have saved a bundle if we had chosen to park on the street a few blocks away and walked.

Activities

$419.00/person

The bulk of this activities expense was allocated to a private guided hike through a slot canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for $270.00/person. John and I opted to splurge a bit and booked the “Epic Slot Canyon” tour offered by Escape Goats. While the slot canyon we hiked through lagged Antelope Canyon in terms of sheer beauty, we loved the fact that we had the slot completely to ourselves and enjoyed the physicality required of squeezing and climbing down through it.

For Antelope Canyon, we opted for a morning guided tour of lower Antelope Canyon with Dixie Ellis for $57.00/person. (The only way visitors are allowed to see Antelope Canyon is via a guided tour.) The cost was very much worth it.

For our hike through the Narrows in Zion, we opted to rent gear from Zion Outfitter for $27.01 (the “Warm weather package”). Beforehand, I was debating whether or not I needed the gear, but I am happy to say that it was completely worth it (if for nothing else than the neoprene socks).

Because John had an annual National Parks pass, we were able to enter Zion, Bryce, the Grand Canyon, and Horeshoe Bend at no additional cost. However, getting in to Monument Valley cost $20.00, Red Rock Canyon cost $15.00, and Valley of Fire State Park cost $10.00. (If John had been with me when visiting Red Rock Canyon, that entrance would have been free, too.)

In Las Vegas, Deborah and I booked a walking tour of downtown Las Vegas for $30.00, which gave me a greater appreciation for Las Vegas, as a whole. Highly recommended.

Food and Dining

$29.78/person/day ($518.59 total for 14 days)

When traveling, Deborah and I tend not to eat much. For my part, my pattern is to hold off on eating each morning, eat an optional snack of some sort in the afternoon, and then fill up on a large dinner (which is typically vegetarian). However, I’m a sucker for chocolate chip cookies and other desserts.

Fortunately, by and large, John was willing to go along with this meal plan. He did typically stop somewhere for a coffee and pastry each morning, though.

Because John and I did so much hiking each day, my dinners were extra-large. Most of those meals were salads. Given that our surroundings were typically very rural and that we were lodging in small towns, I was grateful for whatever vegetarian options (with actual vegetables) I could find.

In retrospect, some of the restaurants that stand out (in a good way) include River Rock Roasting Company in Hurricane, Utah, Kenny Ray’s in Panguitch, Utah (for their salad bar), Wild Thyme Cafe in Kanab, Utah, Vegenation in Las Vegas, and Go Vegan Cafe in Las Vegas (for their top-notch salad bar). Main Street Cafe in Hurricane was also good.

Some of the other places that we ate at include Cowboy’s Smokehouse in Panguitch, Utah, State 48 Tavern and DAM Bar & Grille in Page, Arizona, El Tovar dining room at the South Rim, Delights at the Signature at MGM Grand in Las Vegas (overpriced), and Chef Kenny’s in Las Vegas (too much soy for me). All of these were serviceable, but unimpressive (for my purposes).

When needed, I also supplemented with meal replacement bars, typically on hikes or as a substitute for airport/airplane food.

Miscellaneous

$65.25 total

My miscellaneous expenses were comprised of souvenir magnets (7 in total) for the refrigerator and shipping charges for extra clothes.

Much to our surprise, as John and I approached the Bryce portion of our trip, the weather forecast showed the temperature taking a dive down into the teens for a couple days (maybe even the single digits, if I recall correctly). That was much colder weather than what I had packed for. I asked my lovely Deborah (who was still at home at this point) to price out the cost of shipping me a sweater, socks, gloves, hat, etc. Hero that she is, Deborah figured out a reasonably-priced shipping option that got these warm clothes to me just in time. Cost, $23.18.

Travel Total

Below, please find the total cost of this trip:

Grand Canyon Park Loop Travel Costs
Flights $344.58
Lodging $682.74
Ground Transportation $227.38
Activities $419.00
Food and Dining $518.59
Miscellaneous $65.25

This total is higher than I would have liked. The $270.00 guided slot canyon hike put me over the $2,000 mark. I also opted to pay for the flights using cash instead of points so I could get flights that better accommodated my itinerary. Remove those two price points and the total cost would have come out to be ~$1642, which would have been pretty satisfying. But, I don’t regret the choices I made. (Well, maybe that awful return flight on Spirit.)

I was very happy with how this trip turned out. For me, it was a long time coming and it didn’t disappoint. If you are wondering, below, please find listed my top 10 hikes from the trip:

  1. The Narrows – Zion
  2. Grandview Trail – South Rim
  3. Pink Ledges Trail to Birdseye Trail – Red Canyon
  4. Lower Antelope Canyon
  5. “Epic Slot Canyon” – Grand Staircase-Escalante
  6. Connector Trail (and Northgate Peaks Trail) – Zion
  7. Queen’s Garden Trail to Navajo Loop Trail – Bryce
  8. Monument Valley (scenic drive with viewpoints)
  9. Angels Landing via West Rim Trail – Zion
  10. Calico Tanks Trail – Red Rock Canyon

Hopefully, this article helps you wrap your hands around the financials of your own trip to the Grand Canyon park loop. If so, please let me know in the comments below.

I haven’t found this itinerary/route/trip referred to as the “Grand Canyon Park Loop” anywhere. I made it up. But, I think that it’s a perfect name for it.

If you’d like more details about this trip than what I’ve provided here, including the actual itinerary, please subscribe to the blog and then email hidden; JavaScript is required. When subscribing, if you’d prefer, you can opt to only subscribe to those articles I post to the travel category. When sending the email, specify that you’d like to email hidden; JavaScript is required. Thanks.

Mike

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