RVers guide to slashing campground expenses

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October 8, 2010

By Bob Difley

PROJECT AWAREUnless you’ve been out in the boonies for several months, way beyond the reach of a radio signal, you know that the recession is not quite over. Joblessness is still somewhere near the top of Mt. Whitney, services have been cut to the non-existent, and a nervous populace is burying money under the mattress rather than spending it. OK. So (1) How can we RVers work the current economic situation to our advantage, and (2) How can we save more and spend less until this mess is over?

A look at how RV park and campground managers think and function and how they act in response to their supervisors putting the handcuffs on all spending might cast some light on how to turn their apparent inability to get things done (can’t buy supplies or parts, staff cuts reduce amount of labor available, can’t work the employees overtime, can’t pay outside contractors, etc.)  into our personal opportunity.

As you travel around, tune in to the campgrounds and RV parks that you stay in–not to what you like about them, but what isn’t getting done. You will undoubtedly discover litter that needs to be picked up, grass to be mowed, brush to clear, trails to be maintained, weeds to pull, office files needing to be organized, an empty host position not filled, needed repairs to infrastructure (plumbing leaks, door hinge broken, sprinklers not working, painting restrooms and office), and much more.

You are likely to find these lapses more at government run parks (state, regional, national) where the unfortunate managers have been strapped with a smaller than needed budget and fewer than needed staff but still have to worry about being down graded or reprimanded by their next-tier-up-boss, who is also worried about his job and performance.

And here you are, a savior in an RV, to rescue the day–and maybe the job–for these beleaguered managers. Here’s the plan: Offer a trade out, where you provide the labor and expertise to perform the work that needs to be done–make a list, they sometimes tend to not see the obvious–for a free campsite. Depending on the current state of the campground, it could be for a few days, a week or so, or even for a month or more, depending upon how badly the manager needs another worker and how useful you are to his needs. And the cost of the non-revenue producing campsite you’re occupying doesn’t show up in any records–anywhere.

For the manager, it is better than a win-win. The park is cleaner, ignored repairs are taken care of, campers are happier–especially if you are the “friendly face” of the park, and whatever else you can “do for him” that will make him look good to upper management–and this is the key–without him having to request extra funds to pay somebody, without incurring overtime, with no expense to justify, all accomplished apparently due to his exceptional management abilities. You make him look good, you get free camping.

And you can do this from one campground to another, the more you add to your list, the more you will be trusted in each new situation. Two things to do to perpetuate your game plan. First, have a resume of your talents and the parks/campgrounds you have “served” at–and add the latest one to th list when you finish, and second, when your manager seems to be the happiest with your arrangement, have him write a letter of recommendation for you. Present these the next time you spot a similar situation.

I followed these tips several times. Once when passing through Georgia enroute to Florida for the winter, at a State Park we stayed in one night I found out that the host was leaving early for medical reasons and the next host wasn’t due for two weeks. We offered to fill the gap and ended up staying three months at no cost. After the two week fill-in, I traded out: (1) Becoming co-host with the arriving host for their days off (when the rangers had to collect fees–which they hated doing), (2)  Building a website for their Civil War re-enactment programs, (3) Photographing their re-enactment programs, (4) splitting firewood (with their mechanical log splitter that the regular rangers didn’t have time for) and selling the firewood to campers raising “mad money” without tracks for the manager to spend as he needed–you get the idea.

Survey your talents. Use those talents to talk yourself into a position–never mind that the position maybe didn’t even exist until you arrived. Make a deal. No idea is too far out if it works out for the manager. Think–and pitch–his side of the deal–what he gets out of it. It works.

Good luck. Oh–and if you’ve talked yourself into such a position, I’m sure the readers of this blog would love to hear about it. That’s what the comment space below is for. Let’s hear from you.

For more ideas on saving money on the road check out my ebook, 111 WAYS TO GET THE BIGGEST BANG FROM YOUR RV LIFESTYLE BUCK. You can find more RVing tips and my other ebooks on BOONDOCKING and SNOWBIRD GUIDE on my Healthy RV Lifestyle website.

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  1. Jennifer H-Q

    Thanks Bob for this great article. I would have never thought of offering a trade to hosts and managers of campgrounds, but I love the idea! We will definately be trying this when we head out fulltime early next summer.

  2. I am totally going to do this! Wonder if parks will want some marketing/internet or video services in trade?

  3. Hi Guys & Gals:
    We have spent $14 grand up front in membership money for Thousand Trails, Resorts of Distinction, Coast-toCoast & Passport.
    One year of camping on the west coast @ $40 a nite = $14 grand.
    Memebership dues run $550 per year.
    We camped 365 nites, with no boondocking, a total camping cost of $600.
    Also @ $5 a night in the midwest and southern US.

    Happy Camping,
    Fred b

  4. W6PEA

    Another great article as usual.

    My wife and I just got home from a 2 week trip. We stayed in a nice campground in the east county of San Diego for a couple of days, enjoyed the wind rain and thunder & lightning. It was on the Indian Reservation about $7.00 a day and that includes a horse-corral water sewer & electric hook-ups. It’s a real hidden treasure. We then went to Joshua Tree National Park. We stayed in Jumbo Rock Campground $10.00 a day 50% discount for a Senior/Disabled Access Pass.(pit toilets no hook ups) We were there for several days then went to Cottonwood campground. $15.00 a day. 50% discount with Access Senior/Disabled Pass. It was recently repaved great sites. Flush toilets, water was available. No electric, but when you are self contained who needs hook ups. Another great place to camp is Tuttle Creek Campground near Lone Pine. $10.00 a day this is a BLM Campground

  5. Dwayne Burgess

    My wife and I just completed a trip from Nevada to Tennessee’s and back through South Dakota and Yellow Stone Park. We spent about an equal amount of time in privet RV camps and Government (Fed & State) camp sites. I found the federal and state to be far more reasonable, cleaner and friendly than the private camps. I have to say the worst was a KOA campground. It offered nothing more than a parking space with hook-ups a cost twice what we had been paying at other far better camp sites. Noise from the highway and a power generator across the road made sleeping difficult. There was no one available at 8:45 in the evening to help locate a space so it was totally in the dark self service. The best was a private RV park north of Kansas City. In spite of heavy rain and the late hour the lady owner was helpful in getting us situated and hooked up at a cost no more than the average. We marked KOA off our future travel plans and will look for federal and state camps sites first.

  6. Geoffrey Pruett

    Have always followed the policy of leaving little footprint behind, sometimes that means picking up after people who do not practice this. Probably started this way back as a boy scout, we always created our own campsite and it was always a walk in from the nearest parking. The idea was to leave the area such that only the members of the troop would be certain we had been there for a week. The current trend of starting fires in trash cans for “fun” has cut back on the numbers but not on their use. Plastic bags keep things until the proper deposit can be located. Have passed this forward to my children, if more were seen doing instead of just talking it might become contagious!

  7. Curtis McRee

    We just got back home from a 3500 mile trip from FL to N.MN. We tried a few campgrounds on our trip. They were over priced or shabby. We found a nice one by I-65 S. at exit 27, 50 miles S. of Nashville, TN.$25.11 a night. It is clean and well maintained and reasonable priced. We stayed at some Walmart parking lots and some rest areas there and back. We had no problems and left
    the area clean when we left it.

  8. Grampa Jim

    My wife and I enjoy the Corps of Engineer sites around the country, and we’ve volunteered 16 hours a week in exchange for hook ups. When the lake was about 24 feet low due to no rain in central Texas…..I’d pick up aluminum, plastic, tires, boat-rugs, etc. along the shoreline. Very rewarding to see it cleaner. And, with our Golden Age Pass, we’d get our site for free instead of the half price of $9.00 a night. Win/Win

  9. Bob Protomastro

    Good insight, I have done it once so far and plan on trading again this travel season. I enjoyed “puttering” at the park, fixing little things doing some yard work and sprucing up the main house. I worked at my leisure but I accomplished something every day so that at the end of the month alot got fixed or updated and all for the site to be our base to go visit and enjoy the area.

  10. Cindy

    Sometimes you just can’t stop to help out because you’re on a schedule of your own. In that case, I wish campgrounds would offer Wal Mart style overnight parking for a small fee. If I’m not using any facilities, why pay for them? Or maybe an ala carte menu of service (e.g. I want electric so pay for that, but not water, sewer, pool, laundry, etc.). I think a lot of folks, full-timers especially, would find that helpful. It’s safer than parking overnight in a parking lot , and I can get some basic services without paying through the nose for the things I don’t use.

  11. BrianI

    Good coments , you said it all about helping out in trade , anywhere we’ve been it’s $55.00 a night and parks were about 1/3 full .

  12. Barry S

    Some privateers have no concept of supply and demand, and think that if they charge more for less quality in their campgrounds, they will make a larger profit. It works, but only if they are the only campground within 100 miles and don’t have any competition. It holds true for gas stations that are located miles and miles away from any other gas station. They charge what they want because they know that they have you by the short ones.

    Yes, it is amazing that some campground owners just don’t get that if their fee/quality ratio is not up to par that they will probably not get repeat business that would fill their campgrounds and ultimately enable them to raise their quality, while even allowing their prices to plummet. It won’t happen with monopolies in either the private or public sectors.

    Personally, I have no problem paying more for a well-run RV park or campground if it has good clean facilities (preferably with a 12:00 checkout time, laundry area, location away from noisy freeways or highways, boomboxes, a WiFi that works (at least most of the time), full hookups, quiet neighbors, etc., and if it has an enforceable policy of kicking out trash who don’t abide by rules that are explained to each camper/RVer when they register.

  13. Gary Case

    This is as good a time to say ” CUT YOUR RATES”. No services and the rates keep going up. This only results in lost revenue. These politicians and their views of “productivity” are counter-productive. Bad campgrounds, bad campers. We were in Morocco, camping, $.50/night incl electricity and the area was clean.. Been in forest campgrounds in WA state, was ($9.00 , now $12.00 and no water, the outhouses were flooded, no electric and there was a notice that the rates were going up. Nobody was in the campground. Where are their heads. And the one flush toilet was not clean. No dump site either. 40 spaces and one dirty toilet. The outhouses were so bad as to be unusable. I won’t tell you what happened as it is not for polite company. And there was a campground host. He made sure you had paid. Period. I haven’t been to a private campground in 10 years. Tooooo expensive.

  14. Jan

    Great advice if you can get in. We applied to volunteer at a few Florida State Parks. We were told they had over 200 people apply. I don’t think they are lacking in the volunteer dept 🙂