If you are RVing full time or for an extended period of time you quickly learn that RV parks and campgrounds can get pricey. Add in a financed RV and a financed car and you’ve got yourself a mortgage payment! If your RV and vehicle are already paid for, that is awesome and is hopefully a great example of keeping things within your means and being smart with your money. If you are more like Robert and I, well, you definitely need to read this! We are going to share the most practical strategies for camping on a budget.
This post contains affiliate links. Updated August 30, 2017.
If you want the condensed version of this, watch our video, if not, keep reading…
Costs of RV Parks and Campgrounds
So, how much does it actually cost to stay in RV parks and campgrounds? The costs vary greatly from park to park and region to region. We have been able to stay at a RV park for as little as $385/month and as much as $800/month, but depending on location and amenities, rates can be higher. There may be additional costs. Some parks charge extra for electricity and have meters at each site. Most parks have on-site laundry facilities and these can run anywhere between $2/load and $8/load. Lastly there are the extra charges for pets or additional family members (usually anything greater than 4 people although we found a park that charge for more than 2 people). The best way to get an accurate price is to call and ask about all fees, including cost for laundry, cable, internet, etc. Our best find to date has been a quiet campground in the mountains for $425/month including usable WiFi, $2 per load of laundry, and no electric fee. So how have we managed camping on a budget? Via discount memberships and boondocking.
One of the easiest ways to save on RV parks and campgrounds, is through discount memberships. Each membership has a different yearly fee, parks covered, and benefits that vary from membership to membership. There are many memberships out there, but these are our top picks and the ones that we have done the most research. Here they are in order of increasing money savings (aka awesomeness): Good Sam Club, Passport America, and Thousand Trails.
Good Sam Club is probably one the least complicated discount memberships for RV parks and campgrounds out there (and certainly compared to the other ones we are discussing in this post). You save 10% off nightly fees at participating (Good Sams) parks. The membership discount extends beyond the nightly fees and includes 30% discounts at Camping World stores, pet discounts on foods and toys, and you save on fuel at Pilot /Flying J. Reasons to Have it: It’s cheap (less than $50/year). It’s nice to have a discount at Camping World in case you need a stinky slinky and there’s a store down the street. Reasons to Skip it: If you are just looking for a camping discount 10% isn’t much.
Passport America Discount Camping Club is relatively inexpensive and saves members 50% off campsites. Exciting for anyone camping on a budget, right? It pretty much pays for itself after two uses. There are nearly 1,900 RV parks that offer discounts with Passport America. Reasons to Have it: It’s cheap (less than $50/year). There are many participating RV parks and campgrounds throughout the USA, Canada, and Mexico. Reasons to Skip it: Each park is different and have various policies on how and when the discount can be applied. If you would like to purchase a Passport America membership, please consider using our link here. In doing so you help us continue providing free content and information about RV living.
So far we have covered Good Sam and Passport America. Now for the most complicated of discount program for RV parks and campgrounds: Thousand Trails. There are several different memberships and ways to use Thousand Trails. Their memberships vary with different camping zones across the nation as well as various upgraded membership options (both past and present).
Camp Passes allow you to stay in campgrounds in a particular zone for a certain amount of days. You get 50 days free, then $3 or $4 per night after that, but you have to move around: you can stay at one park up to 14 consecutive nights, but then have to stay out of the Thousand Trails system for seven (7) nights before you can stay again at any park. This could be great for folks not full time traveling or don’t mind moving around often. Reasons to Have it: Camping Zones are relatively inexpensive when you weigh in free 50 nights and then the discounted camping throughout the year and you can learn more about Thousand Trails as you go. At the writing of this post, the annual fee is $565. If you even camp for 50 days in one year, the pass pays for itself. It is a 1 year commitment with little to lose. Reasons to Skip it: Camping Zones can be limiting, although Thousand Trails will sometimes allow you to switch one zone for another. This may not be the discount program for you if you like to stay put for more than 14 nights. Need more information? Check out RV Love’s post “Is a Thousand Trails Zone Pass right for you?” or watch our video below.
Upgraded memberships allow up to 21 days within one park before having to move on and access to all the camping zones. There are many, many different types of memberships. To make things even more complicated, Thousand Trails has been around for decades and some of the memberships from decades ago are still floating out there and some may even be available for sale!! So you can only buy camping zones new, but the other upgraded memberships can be purchased either directly from Thousand Trails (new) or from individuals or brokers (used). Reasons to have it: Upgraded Memberships can be a bit more expensive ($5k new, but much cheaper used. It’s possible to find some used memberships for $2k), but if you are RVing full time you are going to be spending thousands on RV parks and campgrounds (If you are fortunate to pay only $425/month you would end up pay $5100 for the year). You can stay in all the camping zones and essentially have free camping. Reasons to Skip it: It is an investment, so if you are not going to be doing extensive travel, this would not be the membership for you. Also, nearly every plan is different and they change year to year. what is true of one membership 3 years ago is completely different from one that was create 10 years ago. Trying to figure out which is best for you maybe a challenge due to all these memberships available. Lastly, the cost. There is quite a commitment and if you buy a used membership, you are not able to resell it again. Need more information? Check out RV Love’s post “Thousand Trails Upgrades: Elite, Platinum, VIP ++“
That’s right, just don’t stay in RV parks and campgrounds. This is referred to as boondocking, wild camping, or dry camping. This is the ultimate camping on a budget because for the most part, you are paying $0. There are so many ways to do this: business parking lots, rest stops and visitor centers, private property, and public lands.
Let’s say you’ve been driving for 8 hours, it’s 2am, and you need to stop somewhere and get some rest. Where are you gonna go? You can’t stop at a RV park, they’ve been closed for hours. So what now? There are a number of business that allow overnight camping in their parking lots. As a courtesy, you should go in and ask the manager and purchase something from the business. When possible, call ahead and ask the manager. Of course, if it’s 2 am, not many businesses are going to be open and I say it is more important that you are well rested and safe rather than moving on because you can’t ask the manager. Just note that if it isn’t clear whether overnight parking is allowed or not, you run the risk of being awakened a few hours later and asked to move. The businesses that tend to be friendly to RVers staying in their parking lots are: WalMart, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, Flying J truck stops, and casinos. Now just because the Walmart at exit 4 in Tennessee allows RV parking overnight, don’t expect the Walmart on exit 95 in Florida to allow it. Each business is different – managers are different as are city ordinances. Signs that businesses are open to RVing overnight – other RVs or trucks overnighting, lack of “no parking overnight” signs, and even better, a sign welcoming overnight parking. When you find an appropriate place, keep in mind this is not a RV park or campground. Do not deploy slides unless you cannot get to your essential spots in your RV, do not deploy your awning, get in and get out as soon as you possibly can. If you have an emergency that keeps you there longer than you had anticipated, talk to management and explain your situation.