When we first bought our RV, we had dreams of hitting the open road for month long treks. RVing is one of the more affordable ways to travel, but there are definitely costs that can add up – especially if you want to travel for long periods at a time. RVing on a budget is absolutely doable with a little work and planning ahead. We were able to save on campground fees, fuel, food, supplies, and activities just by doing some research upfront. If you’re looking for ways to save money on your next camping trip, we have all of our favorite tips and tricks.
1. Campground Fees
We’ll start with one of the biggest costs first. Depending on the campgrounds you choose, campsite fees can run upwards of $50-60/night, which can be a challenge is you want to RV on a budget. But not impossible! There are so many different ways you can save in this department, and we’re going to cover some that we’ve used ourselves.
Stay just outside a popular area
Start by researching all the campgrounds in your destination. And then look at those just outside it. You’ll quickly notice the campgrounds just outside popular spots tent to have a cheaper rate. For example, when planning to visit Grand Teton, we found a campground an hour away in Dubois, WY. The same thing when we planned to visit Arches National Park – Moab was full and expensive, but Green River, UT was super affordable. If you don’t mind staying a touch off the beaten path, this is a good way to stretch your RV budget and save money on your camping trip.
Shop around and look for promotions
If you’re thinking you want to go RVing on a budget, but you also want the amenities, this one is for you. We have kids, we like the amenities too. With a little bit of research you can capitalize on different deals or promotions RV parks run throughout the year. Sun RV Resorts always has some type of deal. We cashed in on their “buy two nights, get the third free” twice. Each night was $60, which may seem like a lot, but we got the third night free. So it ended up costing $120 for 3 nights, which was less expensive than many of the nearby state parks. Plus we got all the amenities to go with it.
Speaking of state parks, calculate entrance fees in your costs. A lot of state parks run about $35/night, but also charge entrance fees to the state park. Not a big deal if you were already planning to go in the state park, but can add up. It was an extra $11 a day for us to camp at a State Park in Wisconsin.
Find free campgrounds and don’t be afraid to mix and match
This one can end up saving you some serious cash on your RV trip. Walmart, Camping World, rest stops. All valid options. BLM campgrounds (Bureau of Land Management) is land managed by a government agency that offers many free camping spot. Much of the land is out west and for a lot of the sites, you won’t have hookups or other amenities, but that’s where part two comes in:
Mix and match the types of campsites you book. If the idea of camping without hookups and access to electricity makes you nervous, I totally feel you. Eventually you’ll want and need electricity, a place to get water, and a place to dump your tanks (otherwise, that could get messy). Try it out for a couple nights and then head to a campsite to recharge and maybe do a load of laundry. Even if you don’t BLM camp, the idea is to mix and match places with amenities and places without so you can stretch your budget.
This is probably our most favorite (and most fun) way to go RVing on a budget. If you plan on moving around a lot, sign up for Harvest Hosts. It will allow you to camp at a winery, brewery, farm, and a bunch of other places for free. Or mostly free, because it’s recommended you make a small $20ish dollar purchase. But we were totally ok with that because of the long list of benefits:
- You’re camping in some beautiful spots and not surrounded by other RVs
- It’s cheaper than camping at a campground
- You get to try out some really unique spots (they have alpaca farms) and taste some yummy stuff along the way
- The money you spend goes toward supporting a small, local business
On the other hand, only some of the locations offer things like wifi, electric, and water. And it will cost $79 to join (but they often have 15% off deals). But if you use them in between spots on your route, it can be a great and fun way to save money.
Sign up for a loyalty or membership program if you plan on camping often
We were hesitant at first to sign up for any loyalty programs. But after doing the math, it saved us money in the long run. This one is best suited if you plan on doing a lot of camping because it pays for itself over multiple night stays.
One of these cards is the KOA Value Kard. KOAs are EVERYWHERE. And because of their convenience, reasonable prices, and amenities, we ended up booking quite a few of them on our cross country road trip. It’s only $33 to sign up and then you’ll get 10% off your stays. If you plan on camping during their appreciation weekend, you get a night of camping for free so it already pays for itself right there. But the 10% off stays adds up quickly, too. Some quick math to illustrate how we saved money:
4 nights in West Yellowstone at $54/night = $216 ($21 savings from the KOA Kard)
6 nights in Grand Junction at $43/night = $258 ($26 savings from the KOA Kard)
Just in those two stays we saved $47 dollars and spent $33 on the card. It was a no brainer for us, but is predicated on traveling at least a week or two.
We also have a Good Sam Club card, which is 10% off stays at select campgrounds. There are tons of campgrounds and you can see which are included on their website. Unlike the KOA card, with Good Sam there are lots of different brands.
2. Fuel Costs
The next BIG way to save money when RVing on a budget is to find way to cut down on fuel costs. It’s still going to be a major cost no doubt, but there are things you can do to chip away some of the costs.
Optimize your route planning
It may sound thrilling to just take off and fly by the seat of your pants. But it will also cost you. If you leave home without nailing down your route, chances are you won’t end up taking the most efficient path. And more mileage leads to higher fuel costs. We recommend planning out your route, while giving yourself flexibility with your stops along your planned route. That way, if you’re driving along and you come across the midwest version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you can stop.
Download our road trip calculator! It’s how we build (and stick to) a budget when we plan trips. It has built in calculator for gas cost, travel time, stop planning, and campsite cost. We should add that this will come from our sister site, Family on Standby, which, if you haven’t checked out…. you should!
The other part of the equation is the actual distance you plan to travel. Our initial goal was to travel from Chicago to California and back within a month. Once we started calculating mileage, we realized it would be heavy on the fuel costs. So we switched up our route to cut down on fuel costs. You can plan a budget RV trip by cutting out some of your mileage. Plan out a couple different routes and use a fuel cost estimator to calculate the cost differences.
Reduce the amount of stuff you bring
This is an easy way to RV on a budget, but probably more difficult in practice. It may be appealing to toss things in your car and RV because you have the room and it still fits under your tow capacity. But just because you can tow that much doesn’t mean you should. The less you bring, the more fuel efficient you’ll become. So bring the necessities and leave all the extras at home.
This also includes your fresh water tank. We thought it would be nice to have a full tank so we wouldn’t have to fill it later, but boy do you feel the difference in weight. If we are boon-docking somewhere, we plan on keeping our tank 1/3 full or less. It helps to have a little bit of water so you can still use the bathroom when you make potty breaks along the way.
Watch your speed
You may be able to successfully tow at 70mph, but it’s not going to be as fuel efficient as driving at 55-60mph. That’s the magic number we were given and it can pay off in the long run. You may get passed left and right, but think of all those mountains you’ll get to admire as you slowly pass by.
Stay longer at each campground
More stops can certainly add to the excitement, but it’s not a great way to save money on your camping trip. As obvious as it sounds, the less your camper is driving, the less money you are spending on fuel. Plan some longer stays so you won’t be burning fuel every 2 days.
Depending on how much/what you buy along the way, it can make or break your budget.
Eating out vs. staying in
The easiest way to save money on your camping trip is to do your own cooking. Trying local foods when you travel is half the fun, so we are right there with you if it’s not exactly what you pictured. But if you do most of your own cooking and sprinkle in some local restaurants here and there, you can really save in this area. You can also hunt down some local farmers markets to sample the area produce. This is one of the easiest ways to save on good and make RVing on a budget possible.
Make regular food stops instead of bringing everything at the beginning
If you do a big grocery stocking trip before, you could end up buying a bunch of stuff you’ll never eat. Bring food for the first few days and you’ll quickly figure out what and how much you’re eating. It will prevent overbuying and ensure you aren’t buying a bunch of perishables that may go bad before you end up eating it. Though if you’re bringing teenagers or ravenous toddlers…good luck.
Bring a water filter pitcher and water bottle with you
A water filter pitcher will allow you to fill up with local tap water instead of buying water bottles every 5 seconds. I mean, it’s crazy how thirsty you get RVing. We probably spend more time chugging water than doing anything else. And bringing a reusable water bottle while you are out hiking or partaking in other activities will cut down on the costs to buy beverages while you’re out. I feel like I talk about this every time I mention camping, but I can’t recommend the Yeti water bottle enough. It seriously blows my mind every time I go to bed and wake up with ice still in there. Life changing.
Plan your meals ahead of time and save leftovers
Ah, the thing we hate to do, but saves us money. As with all things in life, the more planning you can do ahead of time, the more efficient you’ll be with your money. My go to strategy is to make a list of RV/campfire friendly meals before leaving home along with the ingredient needed for each meal. And then the day before you plan to make a grocery run, choose meals from your list. You’ll have your shopping list right there. And then it’s only one painful day of meal planning rather than doing it frequently when you’re on the road. For some campfire meal inspo, we documented some of our favorites on our Family on Standby site.
As for leftovers…well, they’re leftovers. And they save you money. We’re big fans.
4. Maintenance Costs
Some of this is unavoidable. You never know when you might pop a tire. Or something unexpected comes up that you didn’t plan for. There’s certainly nothing you can do about that, but you can play the odds game by taking some preventative measures.
Get a good old fashioned checkup for your RV and tow vehicle (if applicable)
Time for a checkup, it’s time for a checkup. Hopefully Doc McStuffins isn’t running diagnostics on your vehicle, but you should have it checked out by a trained professional. If you’re seasonable camping, this may not apply to you quite as much. But if you are planning a long cross country road trip, this is so crucial. Emergency maintenance can be super expensive, but you can reduce your risk by patching up any small issues before they become big ones.
Speaking from a not-so-fun experience on this one. Our car battery died the day before we were supposed to pick up our new camper. And it ended up opening a can of worms to a few other issues, but definitely glad we addressed it ahead of time rather than in the middle of Wyoming on the way to Yellowstone. Consider getting both your RV and tow vehicle checked (if you are towing).
Emergency Roadside Assistance
In the event you do need emergency assistance, it’s good to have a plan. Often RV insurance won’t cover these emergency maintenance costs, so I recommend looking into the Good Sam Roadside Assistance. It may seem counterintuitive to add this extra cost when your goal is to RV on a budget. But it also protects you from being stuck in the middle of nowhere with a lofty emergency maintenance bill. A couple things the basic Good Sam roadside will get you:
- Tow fees covered at 100% no matter what distance you to the nearest tow center. This is huuuuuge. Tow fees are so expensive.
- 24/7 service
- Flat tire service, battery jumpstart, emergency fuel, and lost key assistance
- All of your vehicles covered, including both your car and RV (your car is covered when you drive it without the camper)
We went back and forth initially and after looking up some of the maintenance costs, we realized the $70/year is a drop in the bucket in comparison.
Perform some maintenance tasks yourself
This may come down to how comfortable you are performing maintenance, but it can save you spendy professional prices and make RVing on a budget that much easier. We installed our own power jack rather than taking it to an RV shop. We installed our own backup camera. And troubleshooted when our sewer meter wasn’t reading correctly. These may seem like small tasks, but the more you can do yourself rather than enlisting professional help, the more you can save. We won’t touch a lot of the electrical tasks though. Some things are better left to the professionals.
5. Be strategic with your travel dates
If you have the ability to be flexible with when and where you camp, you can save boatloads. This has always been one of our favorite money saving hacks when we fly, but it also applies if you’re RVing on a budget. If you’re traveling in peak season, your budget is likely going to take a hit. And traveling the US doesn’t mean you’re automatically limited to RVing only in the summer. You can find places to camp all year round as long as your strategic about it.
The sweet spot is shoulder season. It’s the time in between peak season and the off season. For many places, this is spring and fall. For Yellowstone, we’re planning on visiting in late September right after the summer rush and before it starts to snow (fingers crossed). Decide where you want to go and choose dates just before or after peak season. If you have firm dates but can be flexible on route, do some research on which locations are in shoulder season during that time.
6. Save money by being scrappy with RV supplies
It can be super tempting to go wild and turn your house into an Amazon shipping and receiving warehouse. Who doesn’t love new things? RVs can quickly turn into money pits if you opt to buy everything new. And that doesn’t lend itself to RVing on a budget. Instead, choose a few new things and repurpose the things you already have at home. Old towels and kitchen supplies are a good place to start. Extra sheets and bedding instead of buying all new. The more you can find lying around the house, the more budget you’ll have for other things. Of course, there’s always going to be things you need to buy like sewer hoses and water filters, but you can lessen your shopping list. If you already have a potholder at home, that’s as good as any.
Another good way to save on supplies is DIY your own. We built our own bed rail for the bunk beds. Our own lder for the bunk beds (who knew ladders were so expensive! We cut a piece of extra carpet for an inside doormat instead of buying one. Created a step out of wood to help the kids get into the camper. And repurposed old Christmas lights for awning lights. Also, to be clear when I say we built these things, I really mean Nick. I can’t take credit for any of it. And in fact, being handy with a hammer is kind of a pre-requisite. Unless you decide now’s the time to learn! It can really save you some big money if you build as much as you can from what you have.
Research and planning is key to RVing on a budget
Figuring out how to save money for your camping trip isn’t exactly the sexiest part of the planning process. With all the cool place, campground amenities, and fun gear out there, it can be challenging to stick to a budget. But being more money conscious will allow you to travel longer and really stretch your travel budget. And all of these things come back to planning. Research as much as possible and you will set yourself up for an affordable, but also epic, road trip.