The first saving tip I can offer is to stay longer and always ask if there is a weekly or monthly rate. There usually is in private parks. The monthly rates can be very good.
Compare parks in the area and the costs. While 2 parks may have the same or similar price, if park A costs X + electric and park B costs just X, well you get the picture. Does one park provide free WIFI while the other charges for it?
Compare amenities. Do you really need a swimming pool or clubhouse if you don’t regularly use them or are at a place with lots of tourist things to do? Parks with fewer amenities are sometimes cheaper. To my surprise, I found a park I was going to pass up because it does not have sewer hookups but, lo and behold, they have free honey wagon service 3 days a week which is just fine. Most parks will charge for honey wagon service but they still may be worth it. The park also will accept mail and is in an area notorious for huge crowds January-February and very long lines at the post office. That is certainly an amenity to consider. Speaking of amenities, if you are only staying 1 or 2 nights or even a week, do you really need to pay for sewer hookups? Many campgrounds offer electric+water only sites which are cheaper. It may not be a huge savings but a couple bucks here and there really do add up over a year.
Another great tip is camp in the best places out-of-season. For instance, I was able to spend a week in the Florida Keys in November one year at a cost I could afford and the weather was gorgeous the whole time. I could not possibly afford to pay double what I paid had I gone in December which begins the Winter RV snowbird season. Sure you don’t want to roast in southern climates in the Summer or freeze in northern climates in the Winter but take advantage of Spring and Fall. You may also find fewer crowds at those times.
The cost of state parks has risen quite a lot to the point where they charge as much for partial or no hookups as you may pay for full hookups in a private park. They also do not have discounts (some do honor senior and handicapped discount passes for state residents only). Compared to a private park with a discount or a weekly/monthly rate, state parks are no longer a deal. I rarely stay at them anymore. That is not to say you should never check them out. The cost to camp in some areas such as the Florida Keys is so ridiculously high that the state parks are the better deal there in-season though they are so full that you have to reserve a site a year in advance to get in. I have used them anytime in Massachusetts too.
National parks can also have a high cost or a reasonable cost but if you are a senior or permanently handicapped, you can get half off camping with their senior or handicapped access passes which includes free entry to the parks. Be aware that few national parks have electricity available. They are revamping some and I did find one in the middle of the Everglades and Big Cypress in Florida with electricity but no water or sewer. It still worked well for me.
Corps of Engineer campgrounds can be a good bet. Many of them are near a lake, offer utilities, are reasonable, and honor senior and handicapped passes for half off. I stayed at a quite lovely CoE campground in Ponca City, OK.
Regional, county, and city parks can be very reasonable. There are some free still (no utilities) and others at very reasonable cost. Don’t expect a lot and the electricity may only be 20 amp but a smart RVer learns to manage their use and what items cannot be on at the same time without blowing the breakers. I stayed at the city park in Miami, FL for a week or two and can honestly say it is truly lousy and not free but it has the perfect location at the crossroads of all the best southern Florida has to offer and was the cheapest around. I have also stayed at a regional park just outside Washington, D.C. which was not great but would have been just fine had it not been for bad campers nearby.
Joining discount camping clubs is a definite must and by all means join more than one. The one most RVers belong to is Good Sam Club. Personally, I rarely use the 10% discount they provide because it is just not enough for a full-timer. However, I use most of the services, insurance, etc. they provide and do attend the Rally and Samborees when I can. It is a good place to start.
Escapees is another good one. They offer great rates at their own Rainbow parks and coops and 15-50% off at other parks. I have stayed very happily in their Florida parks and the one near Branson, MO. Their discount came in handy in Bangor, Maine too. They also have a yearly rally to attend, interest clubs, HOPS for arranged tours, and CARE at a park in Texas for injured or sick Escapees.
Passport America is a great discount club I have had a lot of success with and saved a lot of money camping at 50% off. Many full-timers use them. Watch out for listing clauses such as cash only required for camping fees, reservations required at some places, extra charge for electricity which may eliminate most of the savings, and limits to 1 night, Sun-Thurs only, no holidays, etc. Most of the time these are not an issue but be sure to read every listing carefully and keep in mind campgrounds are added and drop out during the year after the book has been printed. Their website will be more up to date. Happy Camper Club is similar to Passport America but PA is still the king.
Clubs that require a “home park” such as Coast to Coast, RPI, Thousand Trails, AOR, Outdoor World, etc. can be very good for the full-time RVer on the go and have saved me a ton of moola while also letting me stay in very nice private membership parks with lots of amenities in places I could not afford without them. There are classic or basic memberships which allow you to stay one week at a time, twice a year at each member park and there are deluxe memberships which allow two weeks at a time, twice a year at each park in-season and more off-season at each member park for only $10 a night at this time. Deluxe memberships can also be used by your adult children with limits and both types of memberships can be passed on to family as can home park membership so these become a family asset for generations. Watch for the rare extra charge for electricity, blackout dates such as all holidays and special events, inability to use another park within 125 miles of your home park, fewer parks than Passport America, etc. Home park memberships can cost several thousand dollars but you don’t have to choose one near home so shop around. Look for resales in the RV magazines and believe it or not on Ebay. Home parks have yearly dues so pay attention to that amount as well. I rarely use my home park due to its location but I had a great time there last year, the yearly dues are very reasonable at less than $50, the cost when I stayed there was only $2 a night (that is not a typo!), and they let me stay for more than a week. Best of all, it gets me into Coast to Coast and RPI with all the other member parks I can use. I got to stay on Cape Hatteras, NC with them, Orlando, FL, Fredericksburg, VA (near Washington, D.C.), near Atlantic City, NJ, Myrtle Beach, SC, etc.
UPDATE 2013: Thousand Trails now has Zone Passes. You don’t need a home park for these. For $525 a year, you can access all the parks in a zone for two weeks at a time then you must be out for a week. They have proven an excellent deal for full-timers and others who camp a lot. If you watch for deals, they sometimes offer 2 zones for that 1 price. You get 30 days of camping free and then it costs only $3 a night to camp all year. The parks tend to be older and some do not have sewer hookups but all offer dump stations, activities, clubhouses, etc. Many have excellent pools, hot tubs, and WI-FI. Making reservations online is very easy and there are no blackout dates so it is much easier to get a great place to stay over a holiday. The Zone Pass is an excellent way to check out their parks before committing to one of their other memberships. Then if you want to upgrade to get all the zones and more weeks with no week out, let the Zone Pass expire and buy a resale online. 😉 I have used and highly recommend The Thousand Trails Zone Pass.
Another part of the “home park” type clubs is the other parks they affiliate with under what they call Good Neighbor parks, Enjoy America parks, Encore Parks, etc. While they cost more at $15-$20 per night, they really expand your choices, many allow you longer stays, they are not subject to the 125 mile rule, and they are still reasonable. Again, read the listings carefully.
If you belong to the Elks, they do provide free or cheap camping at many of their lodges.
If you are retired or active military, there are many good RV parks they offer so don’t waste a valuable benefit.
Of course, there is always rest areas and Walmart for the overnight quickie. I don’t stay overnight in rest areas both due to the danger and because what few are now open are very much needed by truck drivers and therefore full by early afternoon. Walmart I have used when necessary. They can be noisy in the middle of the night when they clean the parking lot but survivable and I always make a point of shopping there before I leave to pay them back.
I have heard good and bad about truck stops. They can be noisy and some truckers resent us using those. Some folks use truck stops a lot though and have very good experiences. I have no experience with them.
Other possibilities are the driveways or backyards of family, friends, or fellow RV club members. I love introducing myself to my son’s friends as the mother he keeps in his backyard. 😉 I have also stayed in his in-laws driveway which is both interesting and fun. As a member in several clubs, I can sometimes stay with other members who choose to share their backyards or driveways. Please be aware that some cities, counties, etc. forbid RVs in driveways or even in sight. I think they’re just jealous.
Lastly there is boondocking on public lands which I have no experience with since utilities are not provided there and I require at least electricity to work and play. Boondocking is free usually or a very inexpensive permit may be required. You can check it out on the Internet by searching for “boondocking”. There’s some great tips and advice out there on it. http://cheaprvliving.com/Boondocking.html and all their other links will blow you away.
I hope this helps those of you thinking of jumping into the RVing lifestyle either full- or part-time. It’s a great life so see you out there!