Hi fellow Airstreamers,
I've never posted on this forum before so here goes. One of our favorite pass times is finding economical places to stay with our Airstream - so I'll share a few of those experiences. My wife and I have been doing this for more than 50 years and we're still discovering new places.
Sandie and I have found RV parking sites at bargain prices all over the North American continent, but especially at city, town, village, community, county, state and national parks and forests. Anyone who follows the Oregon Trail from beginning to end, will stumble onto dozens of them. We've stayed at each of the freebies along the Oregon Trail. There are free campgrounds along other Trails, i.e. Lewis & Clark, Sante Fe, California. It would take more than one lifetime to locate all of them.
Many of the free city parks are full service - even with public showers and bathrooms; some have a central water faucet and dump station, while others are merely a safe place to park. We've stayed in city parks across the street from the town hall and in rural parks where no one was within miles of us but the stars seemed close enough to touch. Itís obvious these communities are intentionally enticing RVers to stay in their towns and counties.
In Nebraska, we purchased a state permit ($16) which paid for itself many times over in entrance fees to historic buildings and in campsite fees. Our average cost per night in Nebraska was less than $1 and we usually stayed in a campground with a water faucet and a dump station.
In addition to finding bargains everywhere we go, we spend considerable money everywhere we go. We support the local economy by purchasing RV parts, groceries, clothing, gifts and all manner of mechanical and medical services. Plus we pay sales taxes (city, county and state) and federal taxes (fuel) just as we do when staying at our old homestead.
Many RVers are not interested in anything but full service campgrounds. As a result, they're not looking for anything less than that. When we want to learn about places to enjoy our traveling lifestyle and at the same time, to stay within our budget, we ask.
Here is a small sample of what weíve found. They are not in any particular order.
1 - A logging company in Maine used to let RVers park in the area where they were not felling trees. Those areas were so far out in nowheresville that we never got enthusiastic about them, plus they weren't near kayaking places we liked. The years when we tracked down these sites, we had to remind ourselves to keep an open mind and not generalize from a few clumsy experiences.
2 - A propane company's switching site near Albany, NY used to let RVers park overnight in the public picnic area - on weekends. Some years it was okay, other years it wasn't. The guard on duty decided. Maybe we didn't give him enough cookies the last time our group stayed there. The reason for mentioning this is to point out options that can be found with a searching mindset. They canít be found with a mindset ruled by unquestioning assumptions.
3 - Power and Light Companies throughout the United States offer free or low cost camping near their distribution stations. There is an inexpensive book listing sites available from the federal government's Superintendent of Documents. Without the book, these areas are often found by following the power lines and using one of the detailed State map books showing every dirt road, every pond and all the lakes and dams. Mostly, we find these sites adjacent to bodies of water.
4 - We've seen RVers parked in back of a museum in larger cities (even Key West). We have stayed three nights the Pima Air Museum in Tucson. Buying one ticket to the Pima Museum entitled us to park there. When we see RVs parked in nontraditional places, our curiosity gets the better of us and these RVers get a friendly, unexpected visit.
5 - We have asked for and obtained permission to park overnight at all kinds of restaurants and fuel stations in the USA, Canada and deep into old Mexico. Many provide brochures listing the locations throughout the country. Some restaurants openly target Airstreamers to stop for the night, i.e. Malta, NY, and then invite us in for breakfast the next morning. Along the Baja Highway in Mexico, restaurants blatantly invite RVers to stay overnight. In the USA, Cracker Barrel Restaurants have given us permission to stay overnight in their bus parking area. At Flying J Fuel stations, we stay overnight in the RV parking areas after using our Flying J RV Card for 1 cent per gallon discount on fuel. There's a truck stop directory called "The RVers Friend" available ($15) at truck stops which show where RVers are welcome and where there are dump stations and areas set aside for overnight RV parking.
6 - We have stayed overnight at ferry crossing parking lots up and down the East coast. A slightly different place is the island parking lot at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in Virginia. They have an 18-hour parking limit for fishermen. Anyone can be considered a fisherman. We chalk up the bridge/tunnel toll to overnight parking costs.
7 - In most states there are National Forest Campgrounds (NFCG) which don't charge anything. These are easy to locate on a AAA map and undoubtedly, the Superintendent of Documents has a listing of them although it may take some digging to identify the correct title. We've stayed at NFCGs in Florida and the Carolinas. Sometimes they are less than a block from a US highway, but more often, they are in a real forest.
8 - We've found when there are more than two or three US Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds in a geographic area, one of them will be free. Camping World has a book ($15) listing all 900+ of these CGs. They charge 1/2 price with a Golden Age Passport, as do the 300+ National Park Service Campgrounds.
9 - For a more challenging experience, there are 16 free unimproved campsites in the Adirondack Mountains near Lake Clear on a dirt side road off the same road as the DEC Fish Creek Campground. The only marking is a small sign on a tree near each campsite. That was the extent of knowledge we had when we first started looking. We went down every single dirt side road off Route 3 and finally found them. I mention this only because places like these can be found by RVers who have a little curiosity and a lot of persistence. We have found similarly little known campsites in many states. All it takes to get us going is a casual comment by someone in the barber shop or hardware store or around the campfire.
10 - We've parked at Fairgrounds and Fish Camps around the country. We stayed at a County Fish Camp near Tallahassee, FL which had free field camping and flush toilets. Fairgrounds sometimes charge a fee for full hookups. There used to be a booklet listing them. RV families with horses told us of FGs that were not listed in the booklet and a fee wasn't charged. There's another booklet listing Fairgrounds on the Rodeo circuit where camping is listed as an option.
One time in Montana on our way back from Alaska, we pulled into a Fairground and found a group of teenager boys hooting it up around the picnic tables with their boom boxes blaring loudly. They told us that RVers often parked along the fence near the picnic tables and they'd be leaving shortly. It was a pleasant and quiet night for us. Around dusk, the local cop stopped by and welcomed us. He was father to one of the teenagers who had told him we were there.
11 - Another often overlooked option is to stay at campgrounds which normally charge a fee, but only charge a fee during the camping season. Out of season, we've stayed free at COE CGs during the week just before they open for the season and during the week just after the campground is closed for the season. In NYS, DEC Campgrounds like Fish Creek CG have a similar option.
12 - We've had our share of working as a Volunteer in exchange for a lakeside RV campsite in a State Park. Typically, the volunteer requirement is 4 hours a day for 5 days a week. In our opinion, that's an expensive campsite when my hourly wage is calculated - UNLESS we have a VERY BIG reason for wanting to stay at that particular campground. The upside has been a highly enjoyable experience with other RVers volunteering in the same campground. Iíve painted buildings, installed sign posts, repaired electrical junction boxes, supervised adjudicated delinquents on a work detail, rerouted plumbing where lines were damaged by RVers, organized tools and spare parts in the CG garage to make them accessible. Some Volunteers plant elaborate flower arrangements at the Parkís entrance. When our Volunteerís time was finished, the paid employees put on a hot dog roast, hugged us and encouraged us to come back any time at all.
13 - Hikers and Kayakers know about campgrounds that are not listed in any commercial directory. As a mountain climber and Adirondack 46er, I've stayed overnight at the Adirondack Mountain Clubís RV Campground near Lake Placid, NY. Itís designed for self contained RVers to use as a home base. Anyone may join AMC and become a mountain climber. Many hiking clubs throughout the country have similar facilities and are described in their website. All it takes is a little homework to find a contact person and phone number.
14 - Astronomy Clubs have favorite places for star gazing. A casual reading of any Astronomy magazine invariably shows a gathering place used by a local group. If there's a tent in any picture, I look for a small motor home or travel trailer. One picture is worth a thousand words. Magazine Editors have always replied to me when I've asked for the exact place the picture was taken.
15 - We've stayed at Casino campgrounds in the Southwest where they don't charge a dime for full hookups. Of course they expect we'll spend our money in the Casino and buy food in their restaurant. Some Casinos require that we obtain a parking permit (free) to use their campground. Then, we get junk mail for a year. Other Casinos could care less - and still others will charge $5 for a full hookup site (but the meals are at give away prices). Go figure. BUT - the Casino Campgrounds in the Northeast and Southeast have been expensive, although the price of fuel is often much lower than surrounding fuel stations.
16 - We've stayed on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property in Why, Arizona. We've never stayed on BLM land where they provided a dump station and dumpster. To stay in those areas, there is a $25 annual permit. In Why, AZ, the Coyote Howls Village Park charges a nominal fee to use the dump station, refill water and collect email. RVers routinely refill their water tanks there OR at the local gas station faucet (free) in town. Itís located away from the gas station itself in a huge parking area.
17 - Then, there are the really unusual places like ďThe SlabsĒ in California or the desert in Quartzite, AZ where thousands of RVers go every Winter. Our four 75 watt solar panels provide abundant electrical capability. Staying a month at these locations without any hookups is doable by paying attention to details and being organized. For those wanting a less spartan RVing experience with showers every afternoon between 4-6pm when the Campground generator is turned on, there is Snowbird West at Exit 69 near Quartzite, AZ.
18 - Each Winter when we go west or south, we stop at Elks Lodge Campgrounds along the way. We intentionally visit new Lodges instead of always staying at the same places. Hundreds of Lodges provide RV parking places on grass or macadam. Some provide water and electric. Others provide water and a dump station. A few provide full hookups. The cost ranges from nothing to a donation to $12 (full hookups in Tallahassee, FL). In our experience, all have been a safe place to park, even in metropolitan areas around New York City.
Although the price is right, the real plus for belonging to one of the fraternal organizations is the immediate camaraderie and readiness to assist us in solving problems or dealing with concerns. Having a local resident with local knowledge is particularly significant when searching for competent and reliable mechanical or medical services. Plus, the fact of having a safe and secure RV parking is a very large bonus.
19 - For several years, we subscribed to a campground membership system which guaranteed a campsite for $5 a night. That worked well for us, but when the per night cost increased to $8 a night, we dropped our membership. I had kept a spreadsheet for 1200+ nights and realized our per night costs outside the campground membership system averaged between $6-7 a night. That taught us we know how to do as well on our own, without subscribing to a membership system with their annual subscription fee, the need to update their directory monthly, the requirement that we purchase camp cards for each overnight - IN ADVANCE - and the $8+ per night fee charged by the campground owner, plus random fees assessed sometimes, i.e. cable TV, modem hookup.
Also, we used Passport America for one year but the 50% discount was rarely as inexpensive as we could do on our own, so we dropped it, too.
20 - We use courtesy parking. On more than one occasion, we and the host family share our list of campground gems not found in any directory. With those, both of us are off and running again. Learning about families who offer courtesy parking can be as simple as being directly invited by a fellow traveler or looking up names in the WBCCI directory.
The same goes with the ďDayís EndĒ listing in the Escapees magazine. I used to keep track of these locations on 3X5 cards, then I simplified it by entering the data in my PDA Palm Pilot which synchronizes with my Mac laptop. Now, the data is available on a CD which is even better for us.
21 - When in Florida, we make reservations during peak season if we want to be at a specific place at a specific time. When it's not peak season, we don't make reservations. We wing it and find options not listed in any directory. Some of them challenge our creativity, but these experiences reinforce our enthusiasm for figuring things out on the fly and staying quick witted.
Bottom line. These few recollections are only a smattering of what's commonly available to anyone who pays even the slightest attention to alternative options. In July 1989, we embraced the full timers lifestyle after 28 years of exploring the USA during our Summer vacations.
Since then, weíve found options everywhere. All we do is keep an open mind and not get bent out of shape by a few surprises. The inevitable snags are more than balanced off by serendipity. For example, during the Winters of 2002 and 2004, we stayed at a State Park in Louisiana while visiting our son and his family in New Orleans. Surprisingly, the state of Louisiana honored our Golden Age Passport. At $16 a night ($8 for us), we were still within our average zone for overnight expenses - and our sonís home is in a nearby neighborhood.
To our way of thinking, attitude is the key to enjoying this lifestyle. While exploring the continent, we like to have a little adventure along the way. Although Sandie and I have a good time with the uncertainty that goes with not knowing where we'll stay the next night, we aren't reckless and we try not to do dumb things. After all, we aren't spring chickens, we carry our own electric wheel chair with us and our tow truck has half a million miles on it.
The full timer's lifestyle isn't for everyone, but it provides us with an enjoyable way to stay sharp, think smart and avoid doing things in the "same old, same old" ways. Since 1987, we have wandered this continent and are still thriving on living what amounts to a rich and satisfying way of life. Someday, each of us will become "settlers" but until then, we're happy being "explorers."
Occasionally, we use one of our antique tow vehicles and Vintage Airstreams just for a change of pace. Where else but in the United States of America, do ordinary citizens have the right and the freedom to live their lives in whatever way they choose?
22í Airstream Flying Cloud
22í Airstream Safari
1989 32í Airstream Excella
1975 Mercury Station Wagon w/460CID V8 and factory tow package
1978 Ford Van E-250 w/460CID V8 and factory tow package
1987 GMC Suburban w/6.2L diesel V8 and factory tow package