10 Ways to Save Money on Your Next RV Road Trip

A helpful guide for planning an affordable RV trip including budgeting techniques, free places to camp, and useful travel discounts

Going on an RV trip doesn’t have to mean big spending or months of saving. With a little bit of research, careful planning, and some simple techniques, you’ll quickly realize just how affordable an RV trip can be.

Rental RVs at Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Advice for non-RV owners

For many non-RV owners, the cost associated with renting an RV for a trip might seem sky high. And while it’s true that renting an RV can sometimes be more expensive than booking a hotel room, there are actually more opportunities to save with an RV.

You have the ability to cook all meals which greatly reduces the amount of money you have to spend on food. You can pack extra gear (bikes, kayaks, canoes, surfboards) and eliminate the need to rent these items elsewhere.

If you’re traveling with a family or large group, it might be tough to squeeze everyone into one hotel room (most standard hotel rooms can accommodate four people). And some hotels don’t even allow pets or charge an extra pet fee. But with a wide variety of RV sizes and layouts to choose from you’re likely to find one that fits your whole crew—dog included—without having to pay double.

Class A motorhome and toad at a rest area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Before you hit the road

While most people think of food, fuel, and campground costs when putting together a travel budget, one factor that is often forgotten—but is still extremely important—is maintenance. Taking good care of your RV goes a long way in preventing major, costly repairs.

Just like a car, your RV’s oil should be changed regularly and the tires inspected daily. If something in your rig needs fixing, do it sooner rather than later. Letting a problem sit for too long can end up costing you more in the long run.

Double-check that your insurance and roadside assistance plans cover not only your tow vehicle/toad but also your RV. There’s nothing worse than breaking down and finding out that your insurance won’t pay to tow your rig to a repair facility.

Fall colors along the Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Plan around peak travel times

When considering prospective destinations, take note of the peak travel seasons and accessibility—for example, fall foliage in New England or holiday weekends at national parks. Peak seasons will not only impact reservations and campgrounds rates but fuel and grocery prices as well which can vary based on demand and time of year. Tours and entry fees may also fluctuate by season, day of week, or even time of day.

To help save money, when possible travel during shoulder seasons (commonly early spring and late fall) and visit the most popular destinations on weekdays or during slower hours. If you’re thinking about taking a longer trip—a few weeks or even a few months—consider staying in one place for more than a few days. Most RV parks and campgrounds offer weekly and monthly rates which will reduce your per night cost. Minimizing your driving time and staying put can help keep the cost of fuel down as well.

Newfound Gap Road, an RV-friendly route through Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Be mindful of fuel prices

When deciding which route to take, try to use an online fuel calculator to help budget. 

Once your RV-friendly route is set, search for fuel stations along the way and compare prices. Even if the difference is only a few cents per gallon, the cost can add up quickly when you’re averaging 8 to 10 miles per gallon. Try to fill up well in advance of national parks and other popular tourist destinations, top off your tank before you hit a stretch of road with limited fuel stations (these have a tendency to be more expensive), and keep any border crossings in mind. Fuel prices vary by state based on taxes, types of fuel, and other variables like real estate.

Boondocking along Utah Scenic Byway 24 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Venture off the beaten path

Humans are programmed to do what is familiar and popular, including visiting well-known tourist destinations. However, with a little extra research you can often find a similar view, a little-visited roadside attraction, a self-guided tour, or an alternative hike without the added crowds or cost.

Also, keep in mind is that not every night has to be spent at a five-star luxury RV resort. While you may want to budget for one or two nights at a more upscale place, your other nights could be budget camping or boondocking on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. 

To prevent trespassing or illegal overnight stays, always read posted signs and generally don’t stay longer than 14 days. 

6. Pack for various situations

Always check the forecast before you leave including average temperatures and storm seasons. Being prepared for various weather conditions will prevent unnecessary shopping trips for warmer clothes, rain gear, or alternative footwear. Travel with an umbrella, a rain jacket, waterproof pants, and warm layers just in case. Other essentials include a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, bug spray, and extra batteries as these tend to be more expensive at travel plazas and RV parks.

Driving Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Plan inexpensive driving routes

You’re always going to spend money on a road trip but the route you take heavily influences how much you spend on things like fuel and overnight stays. For example, the highest fuel prices are in Washington and California. You still want to find pleasant campsites with electrical, sewage, and water access, if possible, but compare prices to locate the cheapest campsite in each area.

Other considerations you should have when planning an RV route include:

  • Points of interest along the route
  • Cheap gas station/truck stops availability
  • Avoiding areas of congestion and toll roads

When researching your route and destinations, look into various pass options for state and national parks. Figure out how often you will visit to determine whether paying for each entry is cheaper or purchasing a multi-visit pass, such as America the Beautiful.

8. Cook in the RV

An RV is a home on wheels which means you can limit the cost associated with restaurants by cooking your own food. However, if you do want to eat at a local restaurant, consider eating there for lunch instead of dinner—lunch menus allow you to experience the regional food without paying the premium pricing.

Include some healthy road trip snacks and beverages. This will prevent you from pulling over to buy higher-priced, less-nutritious gas station treats. Additionally, food prices will vary by location. Produce, meat, and dairy are almost always more expensive in remote areas and can be harder to find, so stock up before you go.

Make use of campground grills and enjoy the ever-changing scenery with home-cooked meals. A small crockpot or slow cooker can be another great time and money saver when it comes to food on the go.

Not a good way to care for your tires © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Keep your tires properly inflated

It may not be something that you associate with saving money but keeping the tires on your RV properly inflated will not only make it easier to drive and handle but it will save you money over the cost of the trip on fuel, as well. The U.S. Department of Energy states that for every 1-psi drop in tire pressure, you can expect your gas mileage to lower by 0.4 percent. This can certainly add up over a lengthy trip, so take the extra time to make sure your tires are properly inflated.

RVers should give a visual inspection of their tires before every travel day and at each stop along the way. But that’s not all! It may seem tedious but you should also check your RV tire pressure before you hit the road—every time!

Tucson/Lazydays KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Consider a membership

There are many different RV clubs and other types of travel memberships including Good Sam and Passport America. One of the biggest benefits of joining is the discounted camping rates. Some other cost-saving perks include promotions at RV retail stores, fuel savings, propane discounts, and free dump station privileges. Other memberships to consider include Thousand Trails, Escapees, Harvest Hosts, Boondockers Welcome, and KOA (Kampgrounds of America).

If you and your family enjoy visiting museums, botanical gardens, plantariums, and science centers, consider a membership. Reciprocal museum memberships allow you to visit other participating museums which grant free or heavily discounted entry to members.

Worth Pondering…

Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think.

—Lawrence Durrell