Saving Money on the Road
Here's a handful of tried and true tips on conserving that necessary
green stuff as you travel!
Living full time in a RV is a wonderful way to see the country and meet
interesting people. It can also be a lot less expensive than maintaining
a typical home that stands still. Now, I'm the first one to admit that
I'm not the most frugal of Fulltimers.... my philosophy is to maximize
the adventure and that can lead to greater expenses along the way. Sort
of a "quality vs. quantity" approach. Still, I try to save money along
the way whenever possible. Some of these tips will apply whether you are
a fulltimer or just like to travel on the occasional weekend.
Let's break it down into categories, examine where the money goes and
talk about ways to save some green.
These are expenses like Insurance, payments for services like a Cell Phone,
Internet Access or Mail Forwarding, Medical expenses, Club Dues, just about
anything that is a repeating monthly expense. There are some possibilities
for saving money here, but it's mostly limited to shopping around for the
This is Gasoline, Diesel, and Propane mostly... Well, there just aren't
many opportunities to save a lot here... Gasoline or Diesel prices vary
from one part of the country to another, but usually don't vary more that
a few cents a gallon in any given area.
If you want to use your cell phone a lot, some companies offer plans that
will exempt you from roaming fees and long distance charges, but require
a fairly hefty monthly fee. Consider signing up for the least expensive
plans with few or no 'local' minutes and then pay as you go, using the
cell phone for emergencies only. Most cell providers offer a 'safety' plan
for about $20 a month. When you want to make non-emergency calls, use a
Get a good calling card with a good rate. For instance, both Escapees and
Good Sam offer calling cards with per minute rates as low as $.13 or $.14
a minute. These will save you big time over calling collect or feeding
coins into the slot. Beware some pre-paid phone cards offering impossible
low rates like $.02 a minute, as most have 'catches' that will actually
cost you more in the long run.
Most full service providers charge about $20 a month for unlimited access.
Many also offer non-advertised lower rates for a limited number of hours
per month, and these plans can offer significant savings. Call the provider
and inquire about special limited access plans. Some can be had for as
little as $6.95 a month.
Sign up with a free service. Some are quite acceptable, if you don't mind
the ads. Only problem is that most do not offer a toll free number and
have limited 'local' access areas. You may be forced to use your calling
card to get connected, and that's billed by the minute. If you use more
than a couple hours a month, it can run into more money than you'd pay
for a full service provider that has many local access numbers all over
The ultimate free access can be found in libraries all over the country.
Many have computers that you can use to get your email and browse the web.
Be aware that most libraries limit use times and do not allow you to use
your own computer on their lines. This is an option if you have a limited
need for access to email and the web.
Most mailbox providers charge between $8 and $12 a month to provide you
with a mailbox and forwarding. You can save a bunch if you have a reliable
friend or relative who is willing to collect your mail and send it to you.
Alternately, you can look at mail forwarding as provided by some RV clubs
like the Escapees club. The rates are a bit lower, but you must be a member
and pay yearly dues for the membership. If you have bills that must come
by mail or other important correspondence that must get to you on time,
my suggestion is that you don't scrimp on this one... the larger professional
mailing services will offer better response time and greater piece of mind.
When it comes to Insurance, Medical Expenses, Satellite TV, etc., you just
have to shop around for the best deals. Everyone has different requirements
and will need different levels of service. Just do your homework and find
the best deals you can.....
Items like admissions to attractions, museums, movies and tours. Not too
many chances to find big savings here. If you're a senior citizen, take
advantages of reduced rates when possible. Some popular attractions offer
off-season rates that you can take advantage of if you plan carefully.
Really, though, the only way to save significant money on these kind of
things is by not going. The bright side is that these kinds of expenses
typically don't make up a large part of your travel budget. Be frugal,
but don't pass by things you really want to see just because there's an
Shop around, but don't be foolish and drive 20 miles to save $.03 a gallon....
when you find a good deal, fill 'er up, but be prepared to be annoyed when
you drive 40 miles down the road and see it $.10 a gallon cheaper! ...Seems
to happen to me a lot, anyway.
One exception I have found is that many Indian Reservations sell fuel at
a significantly lower price. If you're passing through one, keep your eyes
One way to save a lot of money on fuel is to slow down. No, I don't mean
driving at 25 MPH everywhere, but slow down your traveling pace. Stay longer
in one place.... when you're not rolling, you're not burning fuel.
Propane is in the same boat... pretty much, you'll have to pay the going
rate locally for whatever fuel you need. However, I have found that you
often get a better price if you go to a propane distributor rather than
a RV dealer or campground. It's worth shopping around a bit for the best
You can save a lot of propane in the winter by replacing your inefficient
RV furnace with a Catalytic or unvented heater. These units use less than
1/2 the propane that your furnace does and also do not require large amounts
of 12V power to operate... a real plus when you are boondocking in cold
Campground owners are going to hate me for this one... You can use an electric
heater to supplement or replace your propane heat when you're plugged into
AC power. Also, many water heaters have an electric heating element or
you can buy an add on kit to retrofit your gas water heater for electric
operation. This saves you on propane, but runs up the electric bill big
time. Many campgrounds have been forced to charge extra for those folks
who use electric heat. This is a great money saver for the RVer, but be
reasonable and don't abuse the campground's rules.
This category includes, well, food... I also include those non-edible items
that are needed to keep house when I budget my expenses. Things like cleaning
products, paper plates, napkins, toiletries and the like. Since these things
are often bought at the same time as food supplies, I just find it easier
to lump them together. Also included would be money spent at restaurants
Now here's an expense that you can really control! All the above is just
diddly compared to the cost savings possibilities available to the dedicated
frugal camper. This is the one category that you have maximum control over
and can really make a huge difference in your overall expenses. Defined
simply, this is what you pay to park your RV each night.
Everyone knows how to save money here. Be a smart shopper and watch for
sale items. You can't stock up the way you might like due to limited storage
space, but try to take advantages of good deals when you find them
Take the time to fill out the application and get a savings card if the
store you're in offers them. Do it even if you don't expect to be back
this way anytime soon. This costs you nothing and can save you some bucks.
I have quite a collection of savings cards from all over the country!
It can be a paying proposition to pick up a newspaper and clip coupons.
The savings will offset the cost of the paper and you can read the funnies,
Take a look at some of the membership stores like Costco or Sam's Club.
They are all over the country and offer some great deals, but you have
to pay a yearly fee to get a card.
Cleaning products, etc.
Take a look at restaurant supply stores like Smart and Final. You can get
great deals on paper products, cleaning stuff and some kinds of food at
these stores. Check the local phone book under Restaurant Supplies.
Consider browsing through 'dollar stores'. These are places that advertise
"everything's a dollar". Many offer non-name brand cleaning products and
such at significant savings. There are also several chains found all over
the country like "Family Dollar" stores. Check these places out!
Flea Markets. Not just for junk anymore, many Flea Markets offer a wide
array of consumer products and you can save some $$ here. Plus, it's fun
to look at all the junk, too. Be sure to curb your collector's urges, though....
remember that your storage capacity is limited!
Save a lot by cooking your own meals most of the time. Your RV has a kitchen....
Take advantage of 'early bird' specials when you do eat out.
Paper plates and misc.
Use washable dishes and utensils whenever your water situation allows it.
I only use paper and plastic when I absolutely must conserve water. It's
lots cheaper to wash dishes than it is to throw them away.
Save money on bottled water. Keep a few gallon jugs handy and when you
have good tasting water available, fill a few jugs for making coffee and
drinking when the water from the tap is icky.
Don't spend a fortune on "RV" toilet paper.... just buy the cheapest single-ply
tissue at the supermarket. It works just fine and costs 1/4 as much.
Minimize your use of toilet chemicals. Dump your tanks more often when
it's hot and you won't have serious odor problems. Cut way back on chemicals
in the winter, when cold weather reduces the odors anyway. Those chemicals
are expensive, and let's face it.... no chemical in the world will actually
make sh*t smell good! ;-)
Boondocking The best way to save money is to not spend any
at all. There are a lot of great scenic places to camp for free. Called
Boondocking, this kind of camping can be found in some of the most beautiful
spots in the country. Here are some ways to find a spot.
Invest in one of the several books on free camping available from any of
the camping retailers. These books have info on the free spots to be found
in each state and will pay for themselves the first time you use them.
There are several lists of prime boondocking spots available online. The
Escapees club publishes a list that is very good. Check them out online
Boondocking is an art form and some fulltimers are true artists when it
comes to finding free camping. Many of your fellow campers can tell you
of excellent spots if you just ask.
Check with local BLM (Bureau of Land Management) authority in your area
for info on free camping on BLM properties.
Many State and National forests have 'dispersed sites' that are free for
use. Ditto with many reservoirs and Corps of Engineers projects. Again,
the best way to go is to inquire locally about free camping areas.
Many popular State and National park campgrounds offer free camping during
the off season. There are no services or water available during these free
periods, but there are no charges either!
Most, if not all, boondocking sites have no hookups or facilities of any
kind. Some may have a source of water available seasonally. All require
you to take advantage of your RV's self-contained capabilities. Remember
to pack out all trash and never dump sewage on the ground.
City Parks Almost as good as boondocking, there are many small
towns and cities that offer free or very inexpensive camping spots inside
of their municipal parks. A lot of these are scenic and quiet and offer
a pleasant camping experience.
There are books, such as the 'Camping on a Shoestring' guide, that
list a lot of very low cost municipal camping spots.
It can really pay to drop in at the local Chamber of Commerce and inquire.
Alternately, you can stop in at the local Police station and ask. Many
towns have such camping available, but it isn't advertised anywhere.
Check out the local fairgrounds.... many have parking spots for RVs and
some even offer hookups!
State and National Parks
Definitely consider a Golden Eagle or Golden Age card. These cards waive
the entrance fees at any National park and also provide reduced camping
fees for seniors. The Golden Eagle passport is $50 and will easily pay
for itself in a year of use.
If you plan to spend some time in one state, look into their available
camping passes. Most will waive your entry fees and can be a good bargain
if you will be staying a lot in one state's parks.
Asphalt Camping This is my term for camping in parking lots.
A useful way to save bucks, but the scenery is somewhat lacking. Also,
if you camp in public parking lots, it's best to be as inconspicuous as
possible. That means no tables, BBQs, awnings etc. Even with those restrictions,
it's still a great way to stay a night or two at no cost. Here are some
possibilities to consider:
Wal Mart: Many Wal Mart stores welcome overnite parking. Check with
the store manager for permission first.
Truck Stops: Can be noisy, but are usually safe and truck stops are
everywhere. Park out of the high traffic areas and never block access roads
or scales. Some Truck Stops are beginning to cater to RVers and even have
propane, dump/fill stations and partial hookups (there may be a fee).
Police Stations: Parking behind a police station is a pretty secure
spot. Sometimes it's your best bet inside a large city where RV parks are
few and far between. Ask permission first!
Public Schools: In the summer and on weekends, most school lots are
empty. This can be a good spot, but remember that some classes start as
early as 7 am.
Museums, churches and visitors centers: Often, you can overnite in their
parking lot if you get permission first.
When staying at a private campground, consider staying for a week instead
of a few nights... weekly rates are often much lower than overnite rates.
Consider workcamping.... many RV parks are chronically in need of workers
to do light maintenance and misc. duties. You'd be surprised how easy it
is to find a brief workcamping job and usually you will get your site free.
Shop around... most campgrounds located near a major access road or highway
will be more expensive (and loud!) than the smaller, older park located
a few miles out of the way. Best source for information would be either
the Trailer Life Directory or the Woodalls Directory. Both books are worth
having and list thousands of campgrounds, including amenities, rates and
directions. Both are also available on CD ROM.
Always ask if the campground takes any type of discount card. AAA, Good
Sam, Escapees, these can often get you a 10% or 15% discount.
Consider taking a site with only water and electric... most parks charge
more for full hookups. Many offer a great rate for drycamping.... if you
don't have to have hookups, this is a good way to get a better rate.
Consider joining Passport America. They are a great value at only $39 a
year and have a directory of parks that offers members camping at 50% off
Consider joining one of the other discount camping clubs. There are always
ads to be found in camping magazines and many offer significant savings.
Be careful and read the fine print!
The Escapees club should get a look from anyone who is a fulltimer or wants
to be. They are a club that offers fulltimer specific support services
and they are real nice folks besides. They have their own 15% off
camping directory and a network of member parks that offer very good rates.
You may want to consider one of the big resort membership organizations
like Coast to Coast, RPI or Thousand Trails. There are always ads for these
organizations in camping magazines. You can often buy a resale membership
at a significant savings, but be sure to do your research carefully before
signing on the dotted line. Despite their larger buy-in expense, these
memberships can be a real money saver for a full time traveler.
If you are an Elk or a Moose, many of your lodges all over the country
offer RV parking, of either the Asphalt or Boondock kind. Some even have
full up campgrounds with hookups and everything. Prices are always reasonable
and there are added benefits. Contact your local lodge for more information.
Driveways and Unique Spots
Never pass up a chance to park in someone's driveway! It's a great way
to visit friends and family and it's easier than being a house guest. You
have your own space and don't disrupt your host's household routine too
Some privately owned businesses will let you park on them. I have stayed
at a sawmill, a farm museum, an internet service, a cafe and a gas station.
Get creative! Make some new friends and see some unique places while parking
on the cheap!
Resources A partial list of books and clubs out there to get
Guide to Free Campgrounds by Don Wright. Published by Cottage Publications
Camping on a Shoestring by Don Wright. Published by Cottage Publications
Exit Authority Published by Interstate America, 5695 Oakbrook
Pkwy, Ste. G, Norcross, GA 30093
Elks Travel Guides Published by Carmichael Travel'n Elks, PO Box 765, Carmichael,
Passport America: www.campsave50percent.com
or call 800-283-7183.
Good Sam: www.goodsamclub.com
Trailer Life Directory: www.tldirectory.com
or call 877-209-6680
This page last updated on March 8, 2002