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RV Life Save Money RVing

9 Free Things To Do: For Kids Who Travel In An RV full time

As a full-time RVing family, we often meet people on our travels who are a bit shocked, slightly envious, or even perplexed at how we travel as a family full-time and share 270 sq feet in our travel trailer between 5 of us. (I remember one woman listening to our story at a restaurant, and then replying “Wow. May the force be with you.”)

Two of the most frequent questions we get when someone finds out we RV full-time as a family:

  • How do you not drive each other crazy living together in such a small space and RVing with kids?
  • How much does traveling in an RV full-time cost compared to living in a house?

While these two questions seem unrelated, they have a pretty close connection, not just for our family, but for how other full-time RV families handle family time on the road and keep their kids busy and learning.

The first answer is that we don’t spend our life in 270 sq feet. Most days, we treat our travel trailer like you might treat the hotel room on vacation. Our goal isn’t to travel somewhere, and then spend all of our time in the trailer. We’re out exploring the place where we’re visiting, and that includes finding things for our kids to do.

Often one of us will take the kids out for the day, or the evening, while the other stays home to work. It’s also common that one of us is dropped off at a coffee shop to work while the other takes the kids to explore.

The answer to the second question is that we keep our costs relatively low. (Here’s an article we wrote about 9 ways we save money on campgrounds). One of the keys to keeping our costs low (and not driving each other crazy in a small space) is that we find ways to entertain our kids for free.

None of the 9 ideas below are probably groundbreaking ideas for you, and they’re not specific to being a full-time RV family, but they are things we make part of our routine and spend time together as a family without breaking the bank. While most of these may be happening out of habit for you, once you get on the road as a full-time RV family, you’ll want to make these a regular part of your routine.

The best part about using this same list over and over is that as you travel, the “new playground” will seem like a brand new idea for your kids. We know it’s a repeat of visiting a “new playground” in the last city, but we won’t tell your kids.

 

1. Playground or Skatepark Near You

A simple google search will pull up plenty of nearby areas to go to a playground or skatepark (and often both in the same area).

It’s amazing to me how excited our kids get about a new slide. “Daddy, this slide is blue!” To me, most playgrounds look pretty similar: a slide, monkey bars, and a rock-climbing wall or ladder to get up, but to my kids, they are happy to explore new territory.

Skateparks have become the recent rage for our boys. They’ll put on rollerblades or ride their scooter around for hours in just about any skatepark. It’s great that we’re not telling them to go out but watch for cars. It’s simply a place intended for them to skate around and enjoy.

Skate parks and playgrounds are also great stops in the middle of travel days. We search ahead of time, find a location, and then check the satellite view to see how easy it will be to pull our trailer in or out of the area. Often these parks have a large parking lot, are located next to a road with plenty of parking, or in a schoolyard where there is unused bus parking on the weekends or in the evenings.

It’s great to pull our travel trailer into a large parking lot, let the kids out to grab their scooters and helmets, take a break for a snack, and then continue our car ride to the next campground.

 

2. Enjoy a Local Library

I can’t promise that your kids will love your proposal to ‘hang out at a library’, but besides books (which our oldest can’t get enough of) our kids have found games on computers, comic books to read, magazines to check out, and frankly, sometimes just decent wifi for the iPad and a quiet place to unwind for a rainy afternoon (while I get some work done, or at least a few emails answered).

In our traveling as a family, we’ve found libraries that have evening storytime, afternoon concerts or sing-alongs, movie nights on the lawn, and costume parties at different times throughout the year. It’s not something we plan our schedule around, but it is a great way to get out with a purpose if we happen to be in the area when there is an event going on.

Most of the time, we aren’t able to take books or movies away from the library since we aren’t locals, but if you ask any of the librarians, “What things are there to do for kids near here?” they usually have at least 2 or 3 ideas of things you can do as a family in the nearby area.

 

3. Free Zoos, Museums & Factory Tours

This free activity for families comes as a surprise to many people, but there are quite a few large and reputable zoos, museums, and factory tours in major cities that are completely free.

Most traveling families recognize that in Washington, DC, many museums and art galleries are free to access, but we’ve found many small, local-run museums that are free to access (or by donation, which can fit any budget).

A quick google search about “Museums for kids or families near me” can lead you to plenty of museum options, and it takes a little digging to find free ones that may interest you.

Sure, museums, but zoos? Sure! The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the St. Louis Zoo are two of the most awarded zoos in North America, and both are free admission. Don’t let the free ticket set a low expectation. They have lions, tigers, and bears – oh my – they are worth the trip.

Check ahead of time, since there is often a cost for parking, or you may save a few dollars by parking out of town and taking public transit.

Free Factory tours have become one of our favorite things to do as a family as we travel. Our kids are fascinated by the machines, watching the workers, the packaging, and seeing the process of how things are made.

Sometimes we plan for these tours, like The Kazoo Factory tour in Beaufort, South Carolina, and other times, we just happen to see a sign and drop-in, like the Jelly Belly Factory Tour in Fairfield, California.

The factories love to have you come through for free, because you’re almost certainly going to promote your visit on social media, and probably pick something up in the store on your way out.

For many factories, offering free tours for individuals or families is a promotional opportunity.

 

4. Local Live Music in your City

Finding live music could be as casual as buskers to listen to in Quebec City, or New Orleans, or it could be a summer festival with music in the park or a local festival. You might hear about a local school performing a Christmas concert, or someone playing at the amphitheater at a park nearby.

Something about hearing live music is exciting, and it doesn’t have to be a genre you already love – just being around people enjoying the music with you is enough to create a great experience.

RV living is about new experiences, not things. In our first month living in an RV, we sat and listened to buskers play in Quebec City. In our second month on the road, we were invited by other full-time RVers to a ceilidh (basically a fiddle dance in a barn in Eastern Canada), and shortly after that, we listened to a Beatles tribute band in Nashville at a library and danced to a DJ in Orlando in an outdoor mall.

My kids were surprised to learn that I didn’t like any of the music that the DJ was playing, but enjoyed spending time together as a family. Life on the road with kids is about appreciation, not preferences.

 

5. Browse Farmers Markets

Our youngest has a fascination with seeds, gardening, fruits, and vegetables.

Full-time RV living doesn’t allow us to have a garden, but free farm tours when we’re staying at a Harvest Host or Boondockers Welcome site are a perfect fit for his 6-year-old interests.

While we’re not staying on-site at a farm, we like to find local markets to wander through – often not buying anything, or choosing to spend some of our grocery budget which we would have spent anyway.

We talk about the produce that grows locally in each area, check out new fruit or vegetables we’ve never seen before (did you know purple cauliflower is a real thing?)

Often markets have local crafters, samples that our children love to taste, and simply broadens our horizons in a different way than a family trip to a national park, for instance.

 

6. Visit Historical Sites and take a family photo

Historical sites not only give something to add to a “to-do” list but also offer an educational opportunity for our kids (and let’s face it, we usually learn something too as parents). While we’re full-time RVing, we homeschool, so visiting ‘whatever is near us’ gives us a way to talk about topics that may not have come up naturally during lessons.

A statue or monument gives us insight into a local historical figure, and often ties into another site we visited a few days ago, or a site we’ll visit a few days from now. A historical plaque will let us know why a city was established where it is, or what the purpose of its location originally was.

Since we travel full time, we have a map that we use to show our kids where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re heading to next. Often, the history of an area plays into their clarity about how certain regions are connected.

 

7. Have Your Kids Plan and Prepare a Family Picnic

Picnics are not just about eating at a park. An entire process can be built around preparing for a family picnic. You may imagine that when we live in an RV full-time that picnic is an exciting daily occurrence since we often have a picnic table at our campsite, but this often just becomes part of the routine of traveling full-time; eating at the picnic table outside our RV.

Planning a picnic includes deciding what to eat, making a grocery list, shopping for the groceries together as a family, preparing and packing your lunch, then the enjoyment of unpacking it at a park, or near a lake, or in the middle of a hike to sit together and enjoy a meal as a family in a newly-explored place.

You are going to eat anyway, so this is an opportunity for your kids to do some planning and see the whole process of how to make a well-rounded meal.

 

8. Walking, Hiking, and Biking

Whether you’ve parked your RV near a National Park, State Park, Provincial Park, Municipal Park, or none of the above, traveling as a family almost always puts you in or near somewhere that you can go for a hike.

You don’t always have to imagine a hike as tromping through a forest. Maybe for your family, a hike is wandering downtown in a city you’ve never explored before, or biking through a park and stopping for ice cream, or wandering around your campground and counting flags or taking pictures near flowers.

We usually go for a hike once a week – sometimes more – and the longer we travel full-time, the more frequently we seem to decide to get out and go for a hike.

While a google search can help you find hiking trails in the area, we’ve talked with other families about RVing with kids, and many of them also say that the best way to get a recommendation for a hiking trail to do with kids is to ask a local. Stop by the campground office and ask for an opinion on a great hike to do as a family, or while you’re in a toy store, or ask the librarian.

Most people whose profession includes working with kids will know exactly what there is to do in the area in a way that a google review may not help with.

 

9. Community Events & Festivals

Many community organizations have free events for kids, from Hallowe’en events to summer programs, to plays in the park, to endless possibilities.

We love going out to do an event, and not just be passive observers. While festivals often have a concert or presentation aspect, we also love to see vendors, exhibits, and craft tables while we’re there.

Search for a community event calendar in the area where you’re staying on Google, or check Facebook for “Events Near Me” to find out what’s coming up in your area while you’re traveling.

We’ve even changed our travel plans to be in a specific area at a specific time for an event we found out about. Usually, it’s because we were already in the area and decided to stay an extra day, or found out about an upcoming event in the next area where we’d be staying and decided to travel a day early.

A few times, we’ve pulled an all-nighter road trip to get somewhere for a specific event that we just found out about, and that freedom is one of the joys of the fulltime RV lifestyle.

 

Full-time RV living is about staying flexible and gathering memories and experiences, not things. As an RV family, we’re always focusing on what we can do to make those memories, without breaking the bank.

While we’re traveling, we do have times when we choose to treat ourselves and spend a portion of our budget on a unique experience, but it’s possible to both travel full-time and be aware of your budget and stay within it.

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RV Life Save Money RVing

9 Easy Ways to Save Money on Campgrounds

With 3 boys running around, hiking, biking, and expending energy, we’ve got to balance our budget between how much we spend at campgrounds, “invest” in groceries, and keep our boys busy with things to do since we are full-time RVers.

Campgrounds can cost a hang of a lot of money. We’ve found some (and stayed in some) that are $80-$100/night – actually, we paid $20/night for 12 nights in the Florida Keys at a campground that usually costs $119/night… more about that later.

While Celine and I would probably sit around a campground, visit a beach, or go for a hike more often than not, our boys want to keep doing things, so one way that we can reduce our expenses is watching our campground costs. Keeping these costs low allows us to pay that extra bit for activities to entertain our kids, splurge on treats like going out for ice cream, or buy some camping gear when we see a new gadget.

After being on the road for exactly 2 years this month, we’ve found some great ways to save money on camping, and we should specify that when we say “camping” we’re talking about our 30-foot travel trailer – it’s not exactly roughing it or what you might think of as a typical “camping trip” but it is our full-time home on wheels.

In our first 6 months on the road (August 2018 – December 2018), we paid $2851 to campgrounds. For all 12 months of 2019, we paid $2801. Based on what we know about saving money on campgrounds, our expenses are about half of what they were.

There are a few tips that, when used together, can help you save money on your camping trips or your full-time RV life. Obviously, if you’re full-time RVers like we are, then you’ll have more opportunities to save money regularly than if you’re camping on weekends, but nevertheless, here are our best tips:

Stay longer in one place to save on camping costs:

Typically, we move often – like every 3 or 4 days. This is because when we first got on the road, we thought it would only be for a year, so we had a lot to see in a short amount of time. In light of that, we kept moving.

To put it in perspective, in the first 3 months, we had gone within Canada: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, back through New Brunswick, south through New England, visited Washington, drove to Atlanta for a conference, visited friends in Alabama, west to Mississippi, north through Tenessee and then went to the east coast on South Carolina. It’s exhausting just writing that list, but again, we thought we had a year.

Campgrounds will often offer a discounted rate for a week, and a further discount for a month. For example, if you go camping for a night, the rate could be $40. if you stay for the week, then they charge $210 (or $30/night) and if you stay for the month, then they might charge $600 (or $20/night).

It depends on your goals, but if your goal is to save money or reduce costs, then slow down and make plans for longer stays. This also will reduce the fuel costs of towing a trailer (since you won’t be towing as often) or your fuel costs of driving your motorhome if you’re driving around a passenger vehicle more during your longer stays.

Now that we know this, do we plan longer camping trips? Not really. We like to keep moving and out boys are in that rhythm.

Learn to Back in your Trailer or Motorhome:

Pull-through sites, while much easier to get in and out of, typically cost more per night. Sometimes that’s only $5/night, but it really only benefits you on the night you actually drive-in.

If you are camping for 5 nights, the only time you benefitted from the pull-through site was the day you pulled in, so you’re paying an extra $25 to benefit you for one day.

Sometimes there isn’t an option – sometimes the back-in sites only accommodate a smaller rig, or they don’t have proper hookups that you need, so the pull-through is the only option, but generally speaking, learning to back in can save you some money on almost every stop.

Save money by choosing a campsite without full hookups:

Are you only staying a few nights at the RV Park? The difference between Electric and Water and Full-hookup is simply the sewer connection. If the campground has a dump station, and if you’ll be in and out quicker than your tanks will fill up, a great way you can save a few bucks is by not choosing a sewer site, and stopping at the dump station (or sani-station) on you way out.

Get used to doing this anyway. Even if you’re willing to pay the premium, some RV Parks simply don’t have sewer connections, so everyone learns to use the dump station.

Camp a little further out of town:

View in Dallas Texas

RV Parks with easy access to big cities are often more expensive because of the convenience. It’s great to be able to ride your bike as a family across that bridge and be downtown, or convenient to be a 1-block walk to the subway, but when it comes to your camping budget, going a little bit further can save that money for other things.

If you’re going to be camping near a city you want to visit, plan multiple activities on a single day when you go into the city, then take a day to sit and enjoy the campground rather than going into the city every day. You may not realize that when camping in the city, you often can’t have fires within city limits, so in addition to being more expnsive, city camping can put a damper on your experience.

We’ve seen campground prices go down by half in as little as a 15-minute drive further out of the city. It’s a small tip that may take a few more minutes of driving but can save you money in the long run.

Consider a Thousand Trails Membership:

Initially, we didn’t buy a Thousand Trails membership for 2 reasons:

1) We were traveling in Eastern Canada where there are no Thousand Trails parks.

2) We didn’t know how much we were going to be spending on campgrounds.

Thousand trails membership can seem expensive, but we chose their base-level membership with their encore resorts upgrade, and it worked out to about the same costs as we’d been paying for 1 month worth of camping at private campgrounds.

Our initial base package is $599/year, + $199/year for their encore resorts – this was when we were averaging about $800/month at campgrounds. We were on our way to Florida where almost all of the Thousand Trails parks are Encore resorts, so the add on made sense for us, and we found that it was helpful for the rest of our travels as well.

When you pay the membership fee, most campgrounds are free to stay up to 14 days. They have 80 RV Parks in the US, and 1 in British Columbia, in Western Canada, just north of the Washington State border. A few premium sites, like in the Florida Keys, cost $20 (this is how we stayed at a great resort in the Fiesta Key Encore Resort that retails at $119/night for only $20/night.)

In the first year of our Thousand Trails membership, we stayed for free 80 nights, bringing out per-night costs down to $10/night while we were in their parks (and, we paid the $20/night for an additional 20 nights through the year).

Wait, Adam. If you have access to free campgrounds with Thousand Trails, why only stay 80 nights in your first year?

With the base membership, there are some limitations (which of course, you can pay to upgrade). For instance, our membership only allows us to book 60 nights out, whereas other tiers will allow you to book much further out, so sometimes (but rarely) availability was an issue.

If you stay more than 4 nights in a campground, you have to stay out of the Thousand Trails system for a week. (but we went 3 nights back-to-back all the way up the West coast and camped for free for a month from San Diego to Washington State – again, this is perfect for our pace).

Because of this, we discovered another way to save money between camping at Thousand Trails.

Thousand Trails offers regular discounts and promotions. Click here to see their latest offer.

Make sure to buy a Passport America Membership:

I know these are supposed to be tips or suggestions, but you’ll thank me later. Passport America is a network of private campgrounds (unlike Thousand Trails) which gives you 50% off per night with your Passport America membership.

Since these campgrounds are privately owned, each one gets to set their own rules – some are not valid on weekends, or not valid on holidays, or only valid for 3 nights maximum, while others have a 3-night minimum.

While there are no park-to-park standards about the discount, the one common factor is that it’s 50% off. Between our stops at Thousand trails, because we’re staying out of their system, or we’re in an area that doesn’t have a Thousand Trails park – like most of Canada, Passport America, at $50/year will pay for itself in 2 or 3 nights.

Passport America isn’t always a surefire because of the individual park details, it is a great way to make sure your camping trip stays within budget.

Our favorite Passport America find was in Mobile, Alabama at Chicksabogue Park where the $19/night camping fee is 50% off with Passport America with very few restrictions, so we stayed for $9.50/night for full hookup.

Sign up for Passport America here.

Save money by staying overnight at Walmart, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, or Cracker Barrel or truck stops.

Not bad for a free stop in a Walmart Parking Lot

This shows up further down the list because of 2 reasons:

1) It’s not really camping. Stopping at these locations are for the purpose of having a safe, well-lit place to pull over and sleep for the night.

2) You usually end up spending more than a campground!

Yeah, so the $5 breakfast at Cracker Barrel, with the upgraded hashbrown casserole to add bacon, plus a drink for 5 people ends up costing us more than a campground, but it does mean that instead of paying a spot to park, we got breakfast.

If you just need to run in for a minute to check out the camping gear while you’re parked there, you’re probably coming out with $50 worth of important gadgets you may never get to use.

Keep in mind that while these are great options if you’re on an overnight trip (ie. deciding to spend 12 hours driving from Boston to Atlanta over 2 days to be at a conference) there are no hookups, so you’ll want to figure out if your RV battery/ propane can sustain your fridge and groceries for an overnight stop without being hooked up, and limit the amount of time you try this.

While you’ll be saving money, it might not be worth having to endure the heat in July with no A/C or fan, or losing the food in your fridge because it spoiled as you were saving money 5 nights in a row.

Rest Area with a picnic table for an overnight stop in Northern Ontario

This is great for an overnight stop now and then – we stay overnight at a Walmart once or twice a month, and usually a rest stop or truck stop once or twice – but consider the other costs, and avoid putting out your awning, setting up the grill, putting down stabilizers, etc. Our general rule of thumb is to stay less than 12 hours.

Before staying in any ‘public’ parking lot, be sure to check with the store manager and find out if there are any local ordinances not allowing it. I wouldn’t imagine it’s much fun to be woken up in the middle of the night and told to start driving and find another spot to sleep.

Get a camping membership where you can stay for free at some cool locations (usually with no hookups aka Boondocking)

Harvest Host Goat Farm in Central Florida

Again, like Walmart for instance, plan this one wisely because the romanticism of a free night in an orchard without power needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Memberships like Harvest Hosts or Boondockers Welcome allow you to stay at some really cool free locations like wineries, golf courses, hobby farms or museums, (usually with no hookups, but sometimes available for a fee) usually for just one night, but in some cases a few nights.

In return, spend approximately what you would spend for a campground at their store, taking a tour, or buying a ticket to their location.

Instead of paying for a campground, you’ll get an experience or something to take with you for your overnight fee – a block of cheese, a hand-made craft, or pictures and a fun memory all beat paying for a campsite.

Check out Harvest Hosts Here.

Check out Boondockers Welcome Here.

Free Camping on BLM Land (in the US) or Crown Land (in Canada)

Prefer isolation and seclusion and being out in nature? BLM Land (Bureau of Land Management) in the US and Crown Land in Canada offer some amazing options for camping off-grid.

Up until now, we’ve used these options for between sites – if we’re traveling from one place to another and need a stopover – since they’re much more enjoyable for us than a Walmart parking lot. If you have solar panels or a sufficient bank of batteries, then you can spend weeks or months camping in some of these locations for free.

We’re currently working on installing a system of solar panels and batteries. While this requires a substantial investment upfront, it will allow us the freedom to be off-grid for many days at a time giving us not only financial savings from campgrounds but also the quality of life that we’d like while we’re off the grid exploring and camping in the wilderness.

Here’s our personal list of camping memberships we’ve used to cut our accommodation expenses in half:

-Adam