How to Find Free (or Cheap) RV Camping

Written by Megan

Free or cheap camping

You’ve probably heard before – RV camping is one of the most affordable ways to vacation. Ditching your plane tickets and hotel reservations for the open road isn’t just affordable, either; it’s a memorable experience you can only get from RVing. If you’ve stumbled upon this guide, you’re likely contemplating renting or buying an RV, and you’re wondering how you can save the most money on campgrounds. Well, you’ve come to the right place, because that’s exactly what we’re going to tell you.

How Much Fun Can You Afford? – Budgeting for Your Trip

Before you even start looking for RVs, you need to know what you can afford. There are a lot of factors that go into budgeting for an RV vacation. Though that doesn’t mean it’s not affordable, it does mean it’s a little more complicated to figure out. You’ll need to account for the following:

The cost of the RV itself – If you’re renting an RV, this will include the daily base fee, damage deposit(s), generator and mileage fees, and any other miscellaneous fees. If you’re buying an RV, this will include your RV payment.

Insurance for the RV – In some cases, you can purchase RV insurance through the rental company. Otherwise, you may have to get it through a third party. You can find out how RV insurance works for owners and renters in this article from insure.com.

Gas – You’ll want to calculate a rough estimate of your fuel costs. Simply determine how many miles you’ll travel, how many miles per gallon you’ll get, and the national gas average. Of course, this number will fluctuate quite a bit over your trip, so leave some wiggle room.

Campground fees – The costs of staying overnight at a campground vary widely depending on where you stay. Luxury campgrounds can cost upwards of $80 per night, while average campsites with hookups are around $20 to $30 per night. There are also plenty of options for camping free or for just a couple bucks.

Food – This number fluctuates as well, depending on your eating habits. Most people find that they follow the same eating habits as they would at home, so the cost will be similar to your weekly or monthly costs when you’re not on vacation.

Entertainment costs – Again, this number depends on your personal habits. If you like the outdoors, hiking ,and other free activities, your costs will be low. If you like to visit museums and go to the movies, it’s going to be more.

As you can see, there are a lot of variables to your budget. You’ll never be spot on, but you can get a pretty good estimate if you’re thorough. It may be helpful to outline your budget in a spreadsheet. Axle Addict has a wonderful article with a sample budget spreadsheet to give you some ideas.

Maps

Setting the Foundation – Planning Your Route

Aside from your budget, your route is the most important thing you can plan. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand. Your route will help you calculate your gas expenses, mileage fees (if you’re renting), campground locations, and ultimately, how long you can afford to be on the road. There are several websites to help you plan your route. Roadtrippers shows you information about your route, including gas estimates, mileage, and campgrounds along the way.

Once you’ve planned your route, you’ll have a much better idea of what to allocate for your budget. The earlier you plan, the better. You should start planning several months in advance, so you have plenty of time to make reservations.

No RV? No Problem!

Let’s face it; most people don’t have an RV just sitting in their driveway, and most people don’t have the funds to go out and buy a new rig. So, what’s the alternative? RV rentals. It’s not a new concept, but it’s certainly an ingenious one. There are several ways to rent:

  • Through a big chain like Cruise America
  • Through a small, local company, or
  • Through a peer-to-peer rental site like RVshare.

Each option has its pros and cons, but what they all have in common is you’ll be able to save money on your vacation and experience the joy of RVing. If you’ve never researched renting an RV before, you probably have some questions. Here’s a brief overview of what you can expect:

  • You’ll search through an online inventory to find an RV that fits your needs. Chain rental services and small businesses tend to have very limited inventories. P2P rental sites have every type of RV you can imagine.
  • When you find the RV you like, you’ll make a reservation online. P2P rental sites let owners rent out their RVs directly (think Airbnb for RVs), so the owner will need to run a background check before they approve you.
  • You’ll need to pay a handful of fees, including a daily base rate, security or damage deposit, and in some cases, insurance costs. Fees will vary based on the type of RV you reserve.
  • When you pick up the rig, the owner or rental agent will give you a tour of the RV and show you how to use everything. You’ll usually have daily mileage limits included in your rental price. If you go over the limits during the trip, you’ll pay the difference upon your return.
  • During your trip, you’ll have liability coverage and 24/7 roadside assistance. You’ll also have auto insurance, so you can relax knowing you’re protected if something happens. When you get back, the owner or rental service will do another walkthrough of the RV to make sure everything is clean and free of damage.

How to Save Money When Renting an RV

Renting an RV is an easy process – one that even the newest of RVers can feel comfortable with. Not only is it easy; it’s also affordable. In some cases, you can find rentals for as little as $9 a day. If that’s not enough, there are even more ways to save! Here are a few tips to keep in mind while you’re on the hunt for an RV:

  • Book the rental well in advance. RV rentals, hotel reservations, and airplane tickets are all similar in their pricing structures; the earlier you book, the better rates you’ll get.
  • Look for discounts for off-season and long-term rentals. Most RV rental services will give you a deal if you rent for a week or more.
  • If you’re planning a one-way trip, check some of the larger chain services for factory delivery specials. They’ll give you a huge discount to pick up their new inventory and deliver it to a specific location.
  • Know which RV is right for you and your family. It may be tempting to splurge on the big RV with all the bells and whistles, but it’s going to cost you. Think about what you really need for space and amenities – the bigger and newer the RV; the more it’s going to cost.
  • If you’re using a peer to peer marketplace like RVshare, take advantage of the owner messaging feature! You can directly message the owner of the RV and try to negotiate rental rates or terms.

These are just a few ways to save on your rental. Next up, we’ll take a look at the best way to save while camping – boondocking.

 

Laundry while RVing

Let’s Go Boondocking! Wait, What’s Boondocking?

If you’ve never heard the term boondocking before, you’re probably wondering what the heck it means. Boondocking, also known as dry camping, means camping without hookups to electricity or water. There are plenty of places to boondock: Walmart parking lots, farms, national forests and parks, and many more. Many people are drawn to boondocking because of their sense of adventure. Even more people are drawn to it because of the savings. Boondocking is either free or costs just a few bucks.

As with anything that’s free, though, you’ll have to do a little work on your end. Boondocking can be tricky if you’re not careful with your resources. Remember: you’re camping with no access to fresh water, plumbing, or electricity. If you’re thinking about roughin’ it for a night or two, keep these tips in mind:

  • Conservation is the name of the game – you’ll need to be fastidious about water and gas usage. Make sure your family is conscious about it as well.
  • Doing the dishes is one of the biggest water-wasters, so use as few as possible, and wipe them with a rag before you wash so you don’t waste time scrubbing them under water.
  • Plan your meals ahead of time and make an energy-conscious menu. Think about one-pot meals that you can make and freeze in advance.
  • When you need to reheat food, use the propane stove or a campfire, and not the microwave. Otherwise, you’ll have to rely on your generator, which wastes fuel (and it’s noisy).
  • Buy several jugs of water for things like brushing your teeth and drinking. Save your fresh water tanks for showering and washing the dishes.
  • Use as little water as possible when you shower. One of the best ways to do this is to get wet, turn off the water while you lather and shave, then rinse! Or, you can practice speed-showering by keeping a 5-minute timer in the bathroom.
  • Use a bucket to recycle your shower water (gray water) and use it to flush the toilet. It’ll keep your gray tank from filling up while also reducing your fresh water usage.
  • Solar panels are perfect for boondocking. If you’re renting an RV, look for one that has solar panels already installed. Or, invest in portable setup and bring it with you. Don’t worry; you’ll find other uses for it when you’re not RVing.
  • Use the natural environment to your advantage, whether parking under a shady tree on a hot day or facing your RV to the afternoon sun to warm up.

Boondocking might require a little extra planning and attention to detail, but it’s worth it. You’ll be seeing a lot of green between the beauty of the outdoors and the amount of cash you’ll save. If boondocking doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, however, there are still ways to save on campgrounds.

Want to Save on Campground Fees? Join the Club!

Hey, we get it; boondocking isn’t for everyone! If you enjoy the luxuries of a campground stay, or just want to supplement a few days of boondocking with a night of comfort, you can still find ways to save while staying at a campground. RV clubs offer discounts on almost anything you can imagine: campground fees, gas, camping gear, insurance – you name it. The best part? There are literally hundreds of RV clubs. The big question is, how do you know which RV clubs are really worth your money? Some of the most popular clubs are:

Good Sam Club – Good Sam Club got its start in 1966, and today has more than 1.65 million members. As one of the largest RV clubs, they offer quite a few benefits. Members enjoy perks like discounts on insurance, pet supplies, camping gear, and food and entertainment. Good Sam partners with Camping World, so members also get access to special pricing on camping gear, propane, and more. If you join, you’ll get a 10% discount at Good Sam campgrounds throughout the United States and Canada.

Passport America – Another well-known RV club, Passport America has been around since 1992. They’re the original “50% Discount Camping Club,” and their network of campgrounds has expanded rapidly over the years. Now, there are more than 1,900 campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada. Aside from significant campground discounts, Passport America also has an array of member resources, like a free subscription to RV America Magazine and a discounted mail forwarding program.

Escapees – Escapees was started in 1978 as a group for RVers of all kinds, whether weekend warriors or full-timers. Escapees offers a 15-50% discount at roughly 1,000 campgrounds throughout the U.S. They also offer free overnight parking via a directory of locations. In addition to discounted camping, Escapees has a plethora of full-timer-friendly perks, like mail forwarding, a job center, and support services.

Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) – FMCA has one of the most comprehensive lists of benefits. They offer discounts of 10% or more on campgrounds throughout the country. They also offer roadside assistance, discounts on Michelin tires, mail forwarding, insurance, and much more. FMCA holds exclusive rallies and caravans throughout the year.

Boondockers Welcome – Boondockers Welcome is a unique RV club for RVers who enjoy dry camping. It’s a network of hundreds of hosted campsites throughout the U.S. and Canada. With a membership, you’ll be able to camp for free at any of these sites, many of which have hookups. You can also join as a host if you have property and can offer overnight RV parking.

These clubs are just a small sampling of the hundreds of RV clubs in the U.S. There are clubs for women, clubs for vintage RVs, clubs for singles… you name it!

Save money while RVing

But Wait, There’s More! – How to Save Even MORE Money

We’ve already covered how renting an RV, boondocking, and joining an RV club can save you tons of cash on your next trip… and we’re not done yet! We’ve got a few more tips to help you save money on the road:

  • One of the first things you should do is get a gas rewards card at one of the big-name gas stations. You’ll get points toward gas when you make purchases at partner stores and restaurants. This doesn’t just come in handy on your RV trip; you’ll love having gas discounts throughout the year!
  • The next step: plan, plan, plan! RV trips are about fun and freedom, but you’ll waste a lot of gas (and a lot of cash) if you don’t plan correctly. Use a route planner like Roadtrippers to find the best route to your destination – it’ll keep you on track and on time. Plus, you can see cool places to stop, like natural wonders and weird attractions.
  • When you’re planning your trip, use Allstays to search for campgrounds along your route. The app has more than 29,000 campgrounds in National Parks and Forests, State Parks, Public Lands, and more. You can see campground amenities, rates, discounts, and other pertinent information.
  • Don’t forget to call ahead to campgrounds and make reservations early! Campgrounds fill up quickly during travel season, and there’s nothing worse than getting turned away from a full campground after a long day of driving. Make your reservations as early as possible, and you might even lock in a lower rate.
  • Don’t try to pack too much stuff into the RV. Excess weight wastes gas and can damage the RV’s transmission. Wander Wisdom has a good article on how to pack safely and comfortably.
  • Travel during dead times, like at night, or when people are at work, so you don’t have to sit in traffic wasting gas. When you’re on the road, take it slow and steady. Try to stay around 55mph; it’ll conserve gas (and your sanity). Check your tire pressure each day before you set out on the road. Tire pressure fluctuates drastically during temperature changes, and underinflated tires make you waste gas.
  • If you’re tired and you need to pull over for the night, you don’t have to pay last minute campground costs! Free Campsites has an interactive map that shows you Walmarts, highway pull-offs, and other places where you can park for free in a pinch.
  • Look for discounts on activities and entertainment. If you’re part of an RV club, you might already have access to coupons. If not, check sites like Groupon for discounts. Don’t forget to check if your AAA card will get you a discount, too!
  • If you plan to be on the road for several months, you might want to think about Workamping. The Workamper site has job listings that are perfect for RVers – they’re all short-term and offer compensation like free hookups and weekly pay.

New to RVing? We’ll Get You Up to Speed

If you’ve never traveled in an RV before, this whole thing can seem a bit overwhelming. We’ve pulled together some resources to familiarize you with how RVs work:

  • Here’s a video showing you how to drive a large, Class A RV.
  • This video shows you how all the electrical systems in an RV work. It’s important you know this information, so you don’t blow a breaker while you’re trying to enjoy your vacation! Here’s another video on RV water systems.
  • This tutorial shows you how to dump and clean your black tanks. It’s a good idea to figure out how to do it yourself, so you don’t have to pay hefty fees to have it done for you.
  • Here’s a tutorial for setting up your RV when you get the campsite. Trust us; you want to watch it – setting up an RV is a little trickier than it sounds.
  • Here’s a collection of tips for RVing in the winter. Here’s another video for top safety must-haves.
  • GasBuddy is a great app for finding cheap gas nearby. Just plug in your location, and you’ll see rates for area gas stations!
  • SaniDumps is an app that helps you find dumping stations on the go. It comes in handy when your tank is full!
  • Weather Radio is an app you’ll definitely want to have on your phone. It’ll alert you if severe weather is approaching.
  • The geniuses over at Technomadia created the Coverage? App to help you find out where you can get a cell signal. It’s helpful to check before you get to a campground or overnight parking location, so you don’t get stuck with no service.
  • The Walmart parking app is an Allstays app that shows you the closest Walmarts with overnight parking. People can leave comments, so you can make sure you’ll be allowed to park before you head out!

Time to Get Packing and Start Saving!

We created this guide to help new and seasoned RVers find free and cheap camping throughout the United States. Now that you have all these resources in your hands, you should be camping and saving like a pro! Whether you’re roughing it dry camping in a National Park or saving tons on campground fees with an RV club membership, you’ll be able to take all that extra cash and put it toward your next adventure. Happy camping!

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