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:
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:
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.
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.
Save money by staying overnight at Walmart, Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, or Cracker Barrel or truck stops.
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.
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)
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.
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:
- Thousand Trails Base-Level Membership + Encore Resorts Add On
- Passport America
- Harvest Hosts
- Boondockers Welcome