john olivers cabin at cades cove

6 Easy Ways We Save Money On A Smoky Mountain Vacation

The Smoky Mountains are one of our favorite places for a vacation. They mix beautiful scenery, family-friendly attractions, and outdoor adventures.

We know vacations aren’t getting any cheaper. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on this incredible destination – here are some great ways to save money on your Smoky Mountain vacation.

Note

These are designed to be actual, helpful ways to save money. They’re based on a vacation spending time inside and outside the Smoky Mountains National Park, including the Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Townsend area.

Ways To Save Money

#1 Saving Money on Travel

Flights

If you’re flying here for your vacation, make sure to check out Google Flights, the best flight-searching tool ever.

Google Flights is a just a (really good) search tool, you’ll still book your flights directly with the airlines. Go to the Google Flights website, put in your destination (TYS for Knoxville), and add other nearby airports like AVL using the + button.

Google Flights will automatically suggest ways to save money, such as moving your date by a day or changing the airport to a nearby airport.

Google Flights Alternative Dates

In the example above, we’ve created a round-trip search on Google flights for New York to Knoxville from June 9 to June 18.

The price is $397 round trip, but the highlighted Google Flights suggestion tells us by changing our dates to a day earlier, the price drops to $151 round trip. This would save almost $1000 dollars for a family of four just on flights (yes, there may be other changes like seat and bag fees).

There are suggestions for alternate dates, alternate airports, and more.

Rental Cars

Whether you’re driving from home or renting a car from a local airport, here are the best ways to save on a rental car.

Costco Travel: The big box stock Costco also has a travel department, and it’s rental car rates are some of the best we’ve seen.

You’ll need a Costco membership to book with them, but not to search. Check out the rates, and you might find it’s cheaper, even buying a Costco membership.

Costco doesn’t have all the major rental car companies in it’s program, so check Autoslash.

Autoslash: Autoslash is a search engine that automaticly adds coupon codes and membership accounts (including Costco) to your search, and finds the best price for you.

Autoslash will likely return a price the same (or better) than the Costco price, sometimes giving you even cheaper prepaid but nonrefundable options. Autoslash will tell you if any membership (like a Costco membership) is required but will let you book regardless.

Here are some real-world examples on how this works:

In this example, we’re renting a minivan for our family for spring break from March 16 to 25 and ready to book on Expedia:

Minivan Rental on Expedia

A minivan for these dates is $660 for these dates on Expedia, so we’ll check Costco Travel:

Costco Travel is $577, a savings of $83. Enough savings for a Costco membership.

With one more check from Autoslash:

$530, a savings of $130 from our original booking price! Note that Autoslash says also says “Proof of Costco membership required at counter”.

So by checking these two sources, we’ve already lowered the cost of the trip $130 before we’ve even left.

#2 Skipping Individual Attractions

This section is long and may not be popular, but it can be one of the most expensive parts of staying in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge.

While we love all the fun things to do in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the cost of the attractions that line the parkway in both cities adds up.

These are things like mountain coasters, the aquarium, and, believe it not, museums. As a rule of thumb, if it’s a small attraction and along the parkway: skip it.

aquarium in gatlinburg
Ripley’s Gatlinburg Aquarium

Take the Gatlinburg aquarium, for example. A ticket costs $40, and you’ll spend a couple of hours at most.

For a more extreme example, we visited Ober Mountain and paid a ridiculous $45 add-on for our two kids to ride “Ice bumper cars” for seven minutes.

skyland ranch mountain coaster
Mountain Coaster

Mountain coasters are similar. We love riding them and have been on most of them in the area. But at $18-22 per person, the ride is over in ten minutes.

So it’s easy to spend $100 per person and not even fill up a whole day.

Our solution? Just bite the bullet and spend the day somewhere. A Dollywood ticket costs $92, and you can spend a full day there.

Dollywood Tickets prices
Dollywood Tickets

Or, for more, get a 2-day pass for about $20 more. Even an annual pass is only around $150, then you’ve covered on rides for your entire stay.

For a lower-priced day, consider Anakeesta. It’s around $35, and you can spend half a day there.

There are add-ons like mountain coasters, but there are things included too, like some huge playgrounds for kids and these hanging bridges:

anakeesta bridges
Anakeesta Hanging Bridsges

The same applies to other family attractions like Go-Karts. Many go-kart tracks along the Pigeon Forge strip, similar to the one below, charge around $30 per person for two races.

Again, spending a lot of money fast on these individual races is easy.

Pigeon Forge Go Kart Track
Pigeon Forge Go Kart Track

We recommend buying a whole day somewhere like the Nascar Speed Park, where for $10 more ($40) you can race all day.

Planning on doing a lot of go-karting? For $60, you can even buy a week-long pass to Nascar.

Nascar Speed Park Pigeon Forge
Nascar Speed Park Pigeon Forge

#3 Take Advantage Of The (Mostly) Free National Park

Indian Head Rock on Little River Road
Indian Head Rock on Little River Road

One of the best parts about visiting the Smoky Mountains is most of the natural scenery is free to see!

Many other national parks charge $35 per day (per car) to enter. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free to enter! If you’re going to park for more than 15 minutes, you’ll need a parking pass, but even that is only $5 a day or $15 per week (or $40 for the whole year).

At least drive to Cades Cove as part of your trip. Yes, it’ll be crowded in the summer, but try to visit if it’s your first visit. Just try to avoid the busy weekends.

John Oliver Cabin at Cades Cove
John Oliver Cabin at Cades Cove

Make sure to do some hiking, too. Even if you don’t want a strenuous hike like the one up to LeConte Lodge, there are plenty of easy, even flat, family-friendly trails around, like the Gatlinburg Trail, which runs along the river.

 Picnic Table in the Smoky Mountains
Picnic Table in the Smoky Mountains

While you’re out, consider stopping for a picnic at one of the great stops in the national park.

Metcalf Bottoms picnic area is a great spot, with over 100 picnic table areas

#4 Spend A Day in Townsend

In the summer, traffic picks up here because it’s a great place to enjoy activities on Little River. Head over to Townsend for a day swimming or tubing on the river.

townsend
Townsend, TN

Because you drive past or through Townsend on the way to Cades Cove, combine both into one day.

Tubing in Townsend is a great way to spend the day. It’s family-friendly, and for $22 for adults (when booked) ahead, you can tube for the whole day. It’s about a two-hour trip, and you can do it multiple times for one price.

For this price, you can spend a whole day on the river with a family for less than $100.

townsend tubing
Tubing in Townsend

Townsend is a peaceful town about 30 minutes west of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. In the winter, it’s tranquil here, and activities are limited.

The Townsend Wye is a swimming area popular with locals. It’s somewhere we often stop for a quick swim when going to our from Gatlinburg.

townsend wye
Townsend Wye

The water at the Townsend Wye is clean and cold, and a rocky beach area is good for picnics. Like many popular places in the Smokies, it can be hard to find a parking spot here on busy days.

#5 Saving Money on Lodging

Cabin in the Smoky Mountains
Cabin in the Smoky Mountains

For shorter stays, we love staying in downtown Gatlinburg.

For longer stays, we prefer renting a cabin where we can cook our own meals and split the cost with other people if we have friends or family visiting.

We recently posted on our Facebook group about a list of cabins that have their own indoor pools.

While prices are much higher in the summer, we found off-peak prices of only $190 a night for one of them. And that’s for a cabin that sleeps 8 people.

Split between a larger family, renting a cabin is much cheaper than renting a comparable quality hotel.

We’ll have more ways to save on hotels in a future guide.

#6 Enjoy The Free Things To Do

We’ve created several posts on free things to do in the area, from observing blacksmiths to moonshine tastings.

More to come on this subject soon!

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