Vagabond in America 2016 travel blog

Entrance to a Thousand Trails RV Resort

Palm Springs RV Resort (Thousand Trails)

Soledad Canyon RV Resort (Thousand Trails)

Jojoba Hills RV Co-Op (Escapees)

Border Inn RV Park (Passport America)


It never ceases to amaze me how many different travel styles exist.

For many people, “vacation travel” means enjoying one particular, favorite activity, which might be playing golf, skiing, bicycling, or shopping. For many others, it’s relaxing at their favorite location, which might be a beach, a lake, mountains, or the desert. For still others, it’s traveling on an escorted bus trip or on a cruise ship. Many people prefer staying at their favorite all-inclusive resort, like Club Med or Disney World.

In this blog, I’ve focused on a road trip, which is just one of these many, many different travel styles. What I’ve discovered is that even within this one tiny fraction of all possible travel styles, there’s an incredible variety.

I started out camping when I was young mostly because it was the least expensive way to get to the places where I wanted to go hiking. Many people go camping for the same reason. Campgrounds in Moab (Utah) attract mountain bikers from all over the world. Joshua Tree National Park is famous among rock climbers. The vast sand dunes in Glamis (California) beckon OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) enthusiasts.

According to statista.com, 40 million Americans go camping every year and purchase more than 350,000 RVs per year. I suspect that those 40 million campers have approximately 40 million different ways of going camping.

Tents come in ultra-lightweight sizes for backpacking up through elaborate structures with a full kitchen and several bedrooms. RVs come in an unbelievable variety, from pop-ups that can be pulled by a bicycle up to “suites” that are so large no pickup truck can pull them.

Camping sites also have a fantastic variety. Many primitive camp sites can only be reached by backpacking. Many RV resorts have more luxuries than you’re likely to have in a sticks-and-bricks home: like Jacuzzis, heated swimming pools, fitness centers, tennis courts, and more.

The vast majority of campers are what I call “weekenders”. They stay in tents, pop-up campers or small trailers. They take short trips close to home. The next largest category of campers is what I call “seasonals”. They leave their trailer at the same campground every summer year after year. That campground is almost always within an hour’s drive from their sticks-and-bricks home. Many of them don’t even own a truck that could pull their trailer. They hire someone else for the rare occasions when they move to a new campsite.

Most of those with large motorhomes or fifth-wheels are snowbirds who travel south each winter and/or north for each summer. They tend to stay at the same campground all winter (or all summer).

And, finally, I occasionally meet a nomad like myself who wanders around North America like I do, moving slowly but rarely staying anyplace too long.

For weekenders, the cost of staying at a campground is so low compared to the cost of staying at a hotel or motel, that it’s a bargain. To attract seasonals, every campground offers super discounted rates, if they prepay for the entire season. Snowbirds typically pay steeply discounted rates by staying for several months. Some actually purchase their campsite and stay at the same site every year. A few campgrounds are co-ops where every site is individually owned.

In general, none of these deep discounts are available to us nomads. We rarely stay in one place long enough for a monthly or seasonal special price to be of any use. Camping on Federal lands is sometimes free but these locations are almost exclusively to be found in the West and they often accept only tents or very small trailers.

So, what can we few nomads do to reduce our campground expenses?

I’m a member of several groups that give small discounts. Campgrounds that honor Good Sam generally offer a 10% discount to its members. KOA (Kampground Owners of America) offers a 10% discount at any of their campgrounds. Many campgrounds offer discounts to members of the Escapees RV Club. Some campgrounds honor other groups, like AAA or AARP. If you’re a full-timer paying for campgrounds 365 days of the year, the camping fees are the single largest expense even with a 10% discount.

Some groups offer larger discounts to their members. For example, I’ve purchased a lifetime membership in Passport America. This gives me a 50% discount when it’s accepted by the campground. Unfortunately, this discount is heavily restricted. It’s often not available on weekends and it’s typically not honored at all during their “high season”. For obvious reasons, it’s only available when their campground is unlikely to be filled with customers who are paying full price.

Last but not least is membership in a network of campgrounds. These networks allow their members to stay at any of their campgrounds for free or at low cost. They are the camping equivalent to resort timeshares, where the member purchases a share in the rights to stay at any of the properties within the group. There’s a dizzying array of options. How long can you stay at one of their campgrounds? How far ahead can you book a reservation? Which campgrounds are available? The cost of joining any of these memberships runs into the thousands of dollars. Plus, each adds an annual “maintenance” fee. After considerable study, I purchased a membership in Thousand Trails, primarily because it’s the largest membership network with campgrounds in 22 states. As a member, I can stay for free for up to three weeks at any of their 80+ campgrounds.

Fortunately for full-timers, the prices for these memberships are geared to the overwhelming majority of campers who travel infrequently. When camping 365 days per year, the savings quickly recover the cost of investment!

Armed with all of these options, I often can find free camping and rarely ever need to pay full price for a campground.

Now, I just have to staying healthy long enough to enjoy this lifestyle!



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