How to Save Money on RV Camping Fees
by Cheryl Probst
Here are several easy ways to save money on RV and trailer camping fees, including government campgrounds, RV membership clubs, Harvest Hosts and more.
Many Boomerinas dream of hitting the open road in an RV when they retire. Many actually do this. Many more probably would if they could afford it, but fear they won’t be able to pay nightly RV park fees, which can run anywhere from $30 to $100 or more per night, depending on season and location. Fear not! With judicious planning and not too much hardship, you may be able to get by on $500 or less a month total in nightly fees. Impossible? I certainly hope not, since that’s what I’ve budgeted for our site fees when my husband and I hit the road later this year. As long as we stay out of southern Arizona or Florida in the winter, I think it’s doable. Here’s how we plan to do it.
National Park and National Forest Campgrounds
Government campgrounds are bargains, and some in more remote areas are even free. We’re past the primitive camping stage, so we’re willing to pay a few bucks per night. A federal recreational lands pass for seniors is a must for those who plan to stay in federal campgrounds, whether they’re located in national forests or national parks. A lifetime pass costs just $10 and gets you free admission to any federal recreation facility and 50 percent off most campgrounds. A couple of years ago, we paid $7 night for a site at Yellowstone using the pass, which also got us into the park free.
State Park Camping
Also check with your state parks department to see what discounts they offer senior citizens. For example, Washington State parks offers a 50 percent discount on campground fees to low-income senior citizens who have their special ID card. Government campgrounds won’t have all the amenities that private campgrounds and RV parks do, but then you’re not shelling out the big bucks either.
Stay Longer at RV Parks
RVers who will only be staying one night will pay the highest rates at private campgrounds and RV parks. Some private RV parks start multi-night discounts after three nights, but most don’t discount rates until the stay is at least a week. Even bigger discounts apply for stays that are at least a month. Unless you’re planning a long-term occupancy, do you really need amenities such as a clubhouse, cable television, full-fledged recreation program, swimming pool and outdoor barbecue? Sure they’re nice to have, but the more amenities a park offers, the higher your cost will be. Do you really want to pay for something you won’t use?
Good Sam Club - RV Membership Clubs
A membership in an organization such as Good Sam Club can save you money if you stay in member campgrounds that offer discounted campground fees of a minimum 10 percent. Even better is the 50 percent discount offered by Passport America member campgrounds. Most campgrounds in the network put restrictions on usage, such as length of stay or dates, but passholders say the pass pays for itself in just a couple of stays.
Free RV Camping - Boondocking
Free is good, especially if your RV is fully self-contained. In fact, that is almost always a requirement for free camping, sometimes called boondocking. The most obvious place to camp free is the Walmart parking lot. However, not all Walmarts allow overnight camping, so check with the store before you set up your RV. Many Indian casinos also offer free or cheap RV sites. Obviously they’re gambling that you’ll lose at least the equivalent of the campground fee once you step inside the casino.
If you want something more upscale than Walmart or a casino, how does staying at a winery sound? Check out Harvest Hosts, a membership service that is a clearinghouse for wineries, farms and orchards that allow free overnight camping for people who want to learn more about agriculture. Stays are limited to one night; rigs must be fully self-contained. Whether you’re staying at a Walmart or a winery, it is considered good etiquette to spend a little money with your host. Be sure to clean up after yourself before pulling out.
Looking for more options for free or cheap camping? Do an internet search for free camping at your intended destination. You may be surprised what will turn up.
Workamping and Volunteering
Workamping, where you trade work for a free site, is another possibility. Campground hosting is probably the most well known option, but workampers also turn up at visitor centers or doing trail maintenance. State, local and federal governments use a lot of workampers, with positions in major national parks going quickly. The federal government maintains a list of volunteer openings in local, state and federal facilities; the clearinghouse also lists job descriptions and required qualifications for the camper and his RV. In addition to a free site, some volunteers also receive free propane, laundry, mileage and perhaps a daily cash stipend. Volunteer opportunities also exist with private RV parks.
Potential workampers should check with their financial adviser before undertaking any volunteer work in return for a free RV site. The IRS is cracking down on people who trade labor for a free space and may require them to pay income tax on the value of the free site. The so-called free space may also be subject to state income taxes, which could require campers to file a return for every state they “worked” in. To add insult to injury, some states want to tax all your income, not just what you earned in that state.
There are problably more ways to save money on nightly fees while on the road. But at least these options should get you off to a good start.
About Cheryl Probst:
Cheryl Probst is a Boomerina who loves to travel and write. She specializes in motorcycles, and travel in the Pacific Northwest and China. She has authored several guidebooks on Beijing, where she lived for two years, as well as Yellowstone on a motor scooter. If you’re planning a trip to China, check out her website, Cheryl’s China.
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