Our family spends a lot of time on the road with the camper behind us. Last year we lived seven weeks in the camper, and traveled 12,350 miles with it in tow. Lots of mileage = lots of gas = a whole lot of mulah. Since our adventures are limited to the extent of our travel budget, over the years we’ve found a few ways to stretch our money. Here are 10 tips to help you make your dollars go further so you can RV more
Sign up for a gas discount card (Good Sam card)
With the Good Sam card we get discounts when staying at private campgrounds, shopping at Camping World, or getting gas at Flying J. The card also gives members access to the Good Sam Trip Planner, which is a tool we use to plan our camping trips.
In addition to the Good Sam card, we also have the Flying J RV Plus Card that offers an even better gas discount at the pump (unfortunately the credit card discount can’t be combined with the Good Sam card discount). To learn more about that, see these posts here and here.
Get the Gas Buddy app
When we’re traveling we are always keeping an eye out for gas stations with the lowest prices per gallon. Apps like Gas Buddy help take some of the guesswork out of hunting for the nearest station with the lowest price. Although it may only be a few cents per gallon savings here and there, those pennies do add up.
Avoid camping and shopping in regions where the cost of living is higher.
This past summer we spent a week in Door County, Wis., a place that is often called the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” and we quickly discovered that it had the cost of living to match. Everything, from ice cream cones to campground rates were at a premium. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever visit regions where the cost of living is higher—it just means you have to budget accordingly, and try to intermingle more expensive stops with ones that are budget-conscious.
Skip private campgrounds, choose public
This is one area where RVers can really save a lot of money. On average, private campgrounds will charge $10 to $20 more a night than state parks and other public campgrounds, and that’s generally due to the extra amenities, like swimming pools and jumping pillows, you have access to during your stay. Public campgrounds will have fewer amenities than private campgrounds, but unless it’s a national park you should have electric hook ups at a minimum. (Sometimes you can even find water connections and sewer hook ups at public campgrounds.)
Skip full hook up, opt for electric or rustic
Making the decision to forgo full hook up sites for us will usually depend on the length of our stay: We know with our size holding tanks we can only go about three to four nights before we need to dump. We have a portable blue tank that we can use in a pinch, but it’s kind of a pain to use, so we usually just plan our camping stops so that we are pulling out about the time our tanks will reach capacity.
Not having full hook-up definitely requires a few more steps—such as filling up with water before setting up at your site and then making a stop at the dump station on your way out—but you’ll save money on each night’s reservation. And depending on the campground, this can add up to sizable savings.
And if you can boondock on public land, like at national park campgrounds, you’ll really rake in the savings. You just have to have right equipment to do it, like well-sized holding tanks and a generator.
Skip eating out, pack food
We try to budget for at least one “eat out” meal a week on our trips, but as a growing family of five, that means we could easily spend $50 on one meal. To save money we prepare and pack as many of our meals as we can. On long drive days I usually make pumpkin oatmeal muffins to eat with yogurt or bananas for our breakfasts, and then we pack simple lunches to eat either in the camper or the car. When we are out touring, we also pack our lunches to eliminate the need to eat out.
Sign up for a membership with reciprocity; plan trips to capitalize on places you can visit for free.
This is something we are doing this year to cut down on our admission costs at the various sites we plan to visit over the course of the year. Many museums are part of member groupings like NARM, ASTC, AZA, ROAM, or ACM. When you buy a family membership (sometimes it has to be at a certain level to qualify) you then gain free reciprocal access to the other museums in that member grouping. There may be some restrictions, so always read the fine print (for instance, some zoos don’t have full reciprocity but instead offer discounted admission rates).
We opted to purchase the Frick’s family Fellow Membership for $125 since we already had a planned Christmas visit. Normally admission for one visit there would cost our family $54. Later this summer we will be visiting the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Corning Glass Museum, and the Mark Twain house: Since the Frick membership includes NARM reciprocity, our family’s admission cost will be completely covered at these other sites too. Without it we would have paid another $40 + $39 + $76 = $155 to visit those three sites.
Get a national park pass (4th grader in the park, senior citizen)
If you are planning to visit a lot of national park sites (that charge fees) in a year, then purchasing the annual pass for $80 may be a good move. If you have a fourth grader, then even better, because he or she can get a free Every Kid in a Park pass. And if you are a senior citizen, you can make a one-time purchase of the national park pass (for $80) and have lifetime access to any park that charges an entrance fee. Keep in mind, though, that these passes do not cover parking costs (at Mt. Rushmore you don’t pay an entrance fee, just a $10 parking fee) and they do not cover tour fees.
Increase your data plan before you leave so you don’t get slapped with overage fees
When we travel, Jarrett and I both need to be able to do work for our day jobs. Since WiFi can be spotty at campgrounds, we often have to turn our phones into hot spots so we can connect our work computers. For longer trips, it’s inevitable that we will need to bump up our data plan, and by doing it ahead of time we make sure we don’t incur any overage fees. On a similar note, if you will be crossing into Canada or camping near the border, it’s a good idea to make sure ahead of time that you can make international calls and use data without incurring extra charges.
Stay on Top of Routine Maintenance to Prevent Pricey Repairs on the road
Before every long trip, Jarrett makes an appointment for our van to go in to the shop for a once-over. He also inspects our camper tires and checks hitch connections to make sure everything is in good working order. Although it’s not a guarantee we won’t have a problem on our trips, sometimes an ounce of prevention is a pound of cure. Mechanical failure, tire blowouts, etc., can not only create costly repairs, the time it takes to get the situation resolved can cause additional expenses if you get behind on your travel schedule and have to make changes to your camping reservations.
So those are 10 ways we stretch our travel dollars so we can RV more. What things do you do to save money for your travels?
For more ideas on creatively funding RV travel, check out this post, Traveling Light.