Are you a planner or do you wing it?

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July 18, 2009

George and Jaimie with Denali Peak in the background

As an RV traveler do you plan your travels out in detail including making advance reservations? Or do you show up at an RV park and hope something is available? Or perhaps call on the way? Do you know where you’ll be next week- exactly? Or will it depend on how much you are enjoying this area, or the weather?

I’ll never forget meeting a couple in Estes Park, CO. She left our little get together to make more reservations. She didn’t feel safe unless she had six-eight weeks worth of reservations made and confirmed.

George and I tend to be more the opposite. We may call on the way to an area to make sure an RV park has space but we feel like we are in a box if we have too many definite plans.

Of course, there are times it can be prudent to have a reservation. A popular RV tourist area, the weekend of a holiday or festival, or even getting a winter site in some areas require advance reservations. I’ve been told that to get an RV spot in Albuquerque for the balloon festival, you must make reservations by February or March to be assured of a spot. Some RVers book winter RV sites a year in advance.

Most years we probably would have needed reservations for Denali National Park way in advance. WithTour bus into Denali National Park tourism down, we bought tickets for the Kantishna Experience, an all-day bus excursion in Denali Park, five days before the date we wanted and got on the tour. It was totally filled that day, though. We also camped at Riley Creek Campground in the park. Several nights there were empty spaces, though larger sites were usually filled. When George had been there in 2003, people told him not to bother checking when he arrived if he didn’t already have a reservation. They were full every night.

Those who don’t make any plans until the last minute risk being disappointed. RVers who are planned out weeks in advance lose spontaneity in their travels. Staying that extra day may lead to the adventure of a lifetime.

How do you travel? What type of traveler are you- planner or do you wing it? When do you make reservations? Leave us a comment to let us know what works for you. — Jaimie Hall Bruzenak

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  1. We definitely wing it! Except for very rare occasions, we typically just show up to campgrounds and see what is available. We like trusting in nomadic serendipity to lead us to where we need to be. After 2 years of full time travel, we’ve not yet been disappointed.

    Of course, it helps that we have a 17′ trailer that can fit in most tent sites if needed, and we’re solar powered so we generally prefer not having hook-ups… so that leaves us a lot more options than a lot of RVers traveling in larger setups.

    – Cherie /

  2. Charles or Joyce Walker

    We make reservations only if we are going to be in the area for week or two. We stop nights at Wal-marts Flyj, Rest Areas. We have been fulltiming for about eight years. The shortest distance was twenty miles from Reno one day and stayed about two weeks in a State Park Charles.

  3. Charles, now 20 miles is my kind of travel! Really, staying under 150 miles a day is ideal.

    Making reservations when you know you want to stay somewhere for a week or two makes sense. We do that too.

    Leanne, I believe you need to allow cookies for this site to stop that from happening. You can block cookies, yet allow select ones.


  4. Don

    We, like you, only make reservations after lunch when we know about where we will end the day. We do lay out our route very carefully for the whole trip, like to Alaska, but do not set the daily schedule. Really need the freedom of staying on or leaving early. We have never been turned away so far.
    However, for our winter three months in AZ those res are made a year in advance at our usual spot.
    Don & Ruth

  5. David Cross

    We make reservations for rallys and extended stays, sometimes months in advance, but much of the time we do it after lunch the day we will need it or we stay in Walmart or rest stops or Flying-J, etc. We have been fultiming for 2 1/2 years now.

  6. I like flying by the seat of my pants.I find more thrill if I just drive in and find a place to park.I love the solar it makes it so nice and quite.

  7. When we started RVing–I made detail lists and reservations. Then I found out that I did not pay attention to my plans! I would arrive early with no place to stay. So now we have a general plan of where we will be going and only make one or two reservations for a week at popular spots–like the Gatlinburg, TN. Makes for a more leisurely travel–also about 200 miles is full day for us.

  8. Sounds like most of you do reservations only when needed, except for Richard. That makes sense to me.

    Richard, my late husband and I almost never stayed in RV parks except when Workamping so we had no need to make reservations. If we didn’t find a place to park, we moved on until we did. It worked for 8 years.


  9. Strictly “Wing-It”. I may call ahead and see if they have a vacancy when I think I know where I’m going to try and make it to, but otherwise, wherever the wind blows me.

  10. Fred B

    We are new to camping so I have enough on my mind worrying if we have everything we need etc so far we have called ahead for reservations at least a week in advance dont want to be stuck with no place to park with a 40 foot 5th wheel toyhauler.

  11. robin p

    We pretty much wing it. The last couple of summers (not this one) we have escaped the Arizona heat with trips to places unvisited by us previously. Last year we spent 75 days on the road making reservations on a day-day basis with the exception of planned 4 day stop overs or longer. Even those were only made at most 2 weeks in advance, with the exception of Seattle for Seafarer Weekend! While we experienced one or two “disappointments”, some of them actually provided for un-anticipated adventures – like a 6 hour kayaking adventure on the Kootenai river when we were “rejected” at every campground in Sandpointe Idaho the music festival weekend (unkown to us!). We love the spontenaity and flexibility that this provides, and when necessary we can always find a place to dry camp!

  12. Bill

    I make no plans. As the day rolls on my wife consults some directories and usually calls ahead for a reservation at some RV park she has found. She is the navigator (and wears her title proudly enough to argue with the GPS woman) and I just drive where she tells me to go!

  13. AW

    Good topic. When we decided to buy a motor coach, we also made a decision on why we were doing so. We figured one reason was accentuate camping and travel conveniently to get there, and another reason was to focus on traveling conveniently and camp when we got there. There’s a significant difference. One focus is on camping, the other is on travel. We decided that for the most part, we were going to enjoy the travel aspect. Just sitting and camping somewhere would be a secondary enjoyment. For now.
    So, with that in mind, we have travel days in which we only need an overnight stop, and we have other days in which we stay two or three nights and use the RV as a base camp, and still other times where we will be in a spot a week or more as in a vacation. When we only need an overnight, we decide between whether we’d like the services of an RV park (any combination of water, elect, sewer, cable, or shower) or whether we’d like to just dry camp in a lot somewhere. For an overnight in a park, we predominantly get a reservation, though we don’t obtain it until the afternoon of the day we expect to arrive. We estimate our ETA and call ahead shortly after lunchtime, when the park staff is likely to be in the office. We like to arrive between 3 and 5, after driving 250-300 or so miles.

    For a 2-3 night stay, we are more likely to make a res a couple days or so ahead of time. Too often, we have found that a site that is available for one night has been reserved by someone else for subsequent nights. We’ve been disappointed when deciding to extend a stay while parked, without checking a couple days in advance.

    For a weeklong stay, we will reserve two, three or more months in advance, because in doing our pre-trip planning, that is our most desired location. And for dry camping, we usually will look a day in advance for possible spots, and have two or three choices at least just in case the local Walmart or FlyJ has local restrictions, or it just doesn’t ‘look safe’.


  14. Maggie

    Like most of you, we wing it, calling ahead only when we know where we’re going to wind up. That has worked for us splendidly until this year. On the Friday before Memorial Day, I started to get antsy around noon and told Other Half he’d better get on the phone. Sure enough, every CG we called was full for the three-day weekend. Finally, we found a spot in Luray, VA, their last site. We had planned on only an overnight, but the campground was beautiful and the location devine. We knew we would have the same problem on Saturday and Sunday nights and the roads would be slammed on Monday, Memorial Day, with folks heading home. So, we hung out for four nights.
    Fortunately, we are in a position to be extremely flexible.

  15. Great to see so many responses! It sounds like all of you have come up with a strategy that works for you and can be a little flexible unless you must be in a certain place at a certain time. And, as AW points out, it depends on your style of travel – overall and from day to day. Good job!


  16. Catchesthewind

    If we have a specific destination then I plot point A to point B. I allow for side trips and extended stays. Generally the journey is more important than the arrival. We pick cg WM Fl J or whatever is available. Our greatest trip was from Md. to Mont. and back. We did 25 states in two months driving 5000 miles. Still paying the credit cards but we loved every day of the trip. We hope to do something similar soon.

  17. Judy

    We have been full-time for 10 years. We wing it, but call ahead if we know where we would like to stop for the night. We use Wal-Marts when weather permits, or the campgrounds are full around, found a sign in the window with “This door answered after dark by Smith & Wesson” is effective, if the area seems questionable. We always shop in the store.

    If we are staying for a couple weeks, we try to make a reservation, and we don’t travel on the weekend, or holidays, that ‘s when things break down and service is rare.

  18. Cathesthewind- sounds like you have learned to enjoy your travels and go with the flow. Part-timers and newbees often find that hard to do. “-)

    “we don’t travel on the weekend, or holidays” – we follow that most of the time too, Judy. Traffic and full RV parks are less likely if you stay put.


  19. I am afraid I am a planner!!
    We do the Snowbird thing for close to 4 months during the winter and before we leave I have pretty well all the reservations made. Fortunately we are Thousand Trails members and can reserve 5 months in advance without having to put down any advance deposits. On our trip down to CA and AZ from Manitoba, Canada we always stay at Walmarts and Flying J’s as one never knows what driving conditions will be like and where we will be and that always works well. Occasionally we stay at casinos for a night and boondock on BLM land between reservations.

    I am usually planning next years trip a year in advance as we meet up with friends and arrange to see them next year.

    We have no problem making minor changes to our schedule if the need arizes but we feel that the early bird gets the worm and we never fail to get any campground we want by doing a little preplanning–a lot of peace of mind too!

  20. Liz Bard

    We are new to RVing. I know 2 years ago traveling from Texas to Wisconsin, to Ohio, then back home to Texasa took us 3 weeks and sometimes I drove 350 miles and was exhausted. Since my husband cannot drive anymore, it is up to me. That previous trip was in the car and needing to make reservations for hotels, etc. We got the RV to do the trip to Savannah, GA from Texas this year and learned a few things.

    I had made reservations ahead of time, but if it was longer than 200 miles, I felt I had to get there since I made the reservation. At times we would stop for an afternoon nap at Walmart, truck stops or rest areas. Sometimes that was the only way I could do it. Now, we only make reservations if we want to stay at a military post and they have a limited amount of sites. Plus we do not know if the post has an exercise going on with reservists and there will not be room for us. Or if it is a holiday and special tourists sites are there.

    We have to make lists of things to remember since we both have medication and other supplies that cannot be left in the RV between trips.

    We are enjoying learning about what to do. I have learned a lot from reading these blogs.

    I just watched my girlfriend’s kids and they were very cooperative. Could it be because I have reservations at an RV park in Arlington, TX for Labor Day with paid for tickets to 6 Flags and Hurricane Harbor?

  21. Stevanne Powers

    We are weekend and vacation RVers in Wisconsin. I always make all our summer reservations about 10 months in advance. The state parks in Wisconsin are very popular in summer, and to get a site with electrical hookups, you have to be the early bird! I’m expecting I’ll need to make reservations 12 months in advance for the national parks we want to visit.

  22. For some places/events, if you don’t make reservations you won’t get in. Since some places have limited sites for a big rig, it could be prudent to make those reservations sometimes too.

    As for national parks, it might be necessary in some of them. Tourism is down, though, so it might be easier this year. A couple of weeks ago we got into Riley Creek in Denali National Park only a few days in advance. Their larger sites are limited. You might not have any luck even this year if you just showed up that day hoping for a large site. In 2003 when George visited the park, he was told not to even bother trying to get in without reservations.

    It’s fun seeing the different styles of travel! Thanks, everyone, for sharing.


  23. Hi,

    I really like your camping site. So does my main man Stephen Dent who specializes in this exact sort of thing.

    Take care!

  24. Bob H.

    Since my wife and I were still working, we generally have been planners because we have been restricted to weekend trips. We have camped primarily in the Washington & Oregon State camp grounds, and our favorite (but very popular) spot is Fort Flager. This facility you have to book up 9 months ahead for summer stays.
    But now we are retiring and have planed a two month road trip beginning July 30th beginning at Cape Dissapointment, then heading North to Baniff and Lake Louise area. The first week we have reservations along the route, but plan to wing it as we get closer to the Canadian Rockies. After the first week, we do not want to be tied down to a schedule which will allow us to time to see the sights and smell the roses along the way.
    Not sure how many Flying J’s or Walmarts there are in the Canadian Rockies, so might be interesting.

  25. Glenn A

    Wih the exception of wintering in Florida, I make very very few reservations. I look at reservations as a schedule and all our working lives. My DW and I were on schedules every day of the week. Get up, eat breakfast, got to work. go to lunch, go back to work, go home and eat dinner, read the paper and watch the news, watch some stupid sitcoms, go to bed and do the same thing for the rest of the week. On weekends you had chores and a little time to yourselves. When we retired we decided no more schedules and ALL the time to ourselves PERIOD
    We have been Fulltiming for nearly 6 years and in those 6 years I can count the number of resvervations we have made on both hands. Most everyone of those were made due to attending a rally.
    We start our adventure knowing generally where we will be spending the next night. But too often we were genearlly going to point B from point A not realizing that halfway to point B was a little known attraction. IF I had a reservation at point B I had 2 choices, 1- Continue on and miss that little known attraction. 2- Stop at that little known attraction and lose my reservation deposit.. OR #3- Don’t make a reservation in the 1st place.
    In nearly 6 years we were only disappointed twice about not finding a close by camp site but in both cases we did find something just 20 or so miles down the road.

  26. I think doing it both ways, only if you have to be somewhere. Last year my DW and I got caught without reservations during the 4th of July in Newport, Oregon. A nice lady at one of the local campgrounds told us about a owner/renter campground right along the coast. Yes, it was double the price per night, which we had to book 3 nites and ended up staying an extra night because of the view and great folks we met. I guess we are just lucky 99% of the time. Shortest drive last year, 30 miles.
    We are going full time starting July 24th, 2009 and will wing it most of the time, unless we want to do extended stays.

  27. Having just returned from a solo trip to Alaska and back, I did a bit of both – took my chances and called ahead for reservations. On the way up, in mid May, I realized most places thru Canada were relatively empty. However, coming back and over 4th of July weekend, there were more RVers. I also took the Kantishna bus tour….fabulous!

  28. kellie

    I’m still fairly new to RVing but I make far fewer reservations than I did at first. Just got back fronm 2 week trip thru WI and the UP made no reservations at all and had no problem staying at my first choice cg in each location. Holiday weekends or specific time/locations I would still reserve. Does it bug anyone else when sonme state parks want to tack on an extra fee for reservations? WI wanted $10 more!

  29. Bob H- There’s a Wal-Mart in Lethbridge near the border. Once you leave Calgary for Banff and Jasper- no Wal-Marts of FJs. However, the national park campgrounds are beautiful.

    Glenn A- we agree, some reservations are a necessity, but a series of them feel like a schedule and we feel boxed in. Fritz- sometimes it does cost you if you don’t make reservations for busy holiday weekends. At least it turned out to be an excellent experience!

    Cindy- you went up pretty early. This year was a good year for traveling to AK. We also made a res in Anchorage because we wanted the 8 day special and Anchorage has lost some campgrounds. Not too many pickings there.

    Kellie- $10 extra is steep, but state and national parks do pay an agency to handle the reservations. That extra fee is how they pay them. It seems that all online reservations using an agency have that charge- even for events – at least in my experience.

    This sharing is great- keep ’em coming!


  30. rrrick08

    Hi Jamie, Last summer we drove our RV from Florida up through the Maritimes across on the car ferry into Newfoundland and as far North as you could drive on land. The only reservations we made were in Bar Harbor ME where we met up with another couple we RV’d with and for the car ferry to and from Newfoundland, about 1 week in advance each way. Greatest 3 month trip we have had in our 3 years of RV’ing, winging it all the way.
    We rarely reserve unless we need to get from point A to B in a certain time frame or it’s around the holidays.

  31. rrrick08- sounds like a wonderful trip! That area is on our list. It is great when you can wing it and everything works out.


  32. Tireman9

    Given the 100% penalty RV parks have for canelations, which for some reason most RVers tolerate, We only make reservations when our plans are very firm and usually no more than a day or so in advance.
    One has to wonder why almost every hotel chain accepts cancellations up till 6PM of the evening of the reservation day for one day stays and may only charge 10% if you have an extended reservation and cancel within 7 days. Why do we as a gorup seem willing to accept the 100% penalty most or all? RV parks charge.
    If I had a choice I would always choose the campground with the more liberal cancellation policy

  33. Tireman9, we too only make reservations when our plans are firm. It’s not so much because of the cancellation policies but we don’t like being tied down to a schedule.

    Hotels differ in their policy, and also, you generally have an idea of what the hotel is like, especially if it is a chain. Many RVers arrive much sooner than 6 pm. If they hold a site that long, the RV park could lose the opportunity to rent it out. Just a guess.


  34. C Condit

    After a lifetime of corporate structure and deadlines, I prefer to wing it. We have a 19′ Roadtrek RV purchased just so we could park anywhere. We make reservations for little trips near us because we live in So Ca, but long trips, we wing it.

  35. A Roadtrek gives you a lot more flexibility. Why not take advantage of that!


  36. Winging it on holidays isn’t always a good idea if you want to stay in a campground! In Moab once, we got the last site for the Memorial Day weekend. We did NOT want to be traveling then.