Tips for Finding Free or Low-Cost Activities While RVing

Fun, free, and cheap

You can save a substantial amount of money by finding cheap or free things to do wherever you travel in your RV. And, it’s easier than you think. Several go-to activities and strategies will help you tighten your purse strings.

Every dollar you save is a dollar you can put toward your next road trip. Granted, you still want to enjoy your current trip to the fullest. 

But, thankfully, most free activities are worth good money. Here are ways you can find inexpensive or free things to do on your next RV road trip.

Jekyll Island (Georgia) Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Head to the local visitor center

Make the visitor center or chamber of commerce your first stop. They’ll be happy to tell you about their city and give you an event schedule and suggest things to do in the area. Concerts, craft shows, farmers’ markets, fairs, and other events are fun, interesting, and often free.

Arkansas Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I’m a BIG FAN of visitor centers. They are packed with useful information including brochures and self-guided tour maps. Plus, there is always a helpful docent itching to tell you about their local knowledge and wisdom. If anyone is going to know about the best free and cheap things to do, it’s the visitor center staff.

Superstition Mountain Museum, Apache Junction, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Visit museums

Both the United States and Canada take pride in making history and knowledge available to the public. The U. S. is packed with FREE museums that are operated at the city, county, or federal level.

Museum of Appalachia, Clinton, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smithsonian Institute is the best example with incredible museums, galleries, and a zoo. While it is surely the grandest, it is by no means the only one. 

Most cities and even small towns have a public museum you can enjoy, often for free. Many do ask for a donation but in most cases, you’ll be more than happy to give it.

Texas State Aquarium, Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Use reciprocal memberships

If you don’t know what reciprocal memberships are, you’re not alone. Reciprocity programs offer access to many places to visit including historical museums, zoos and aquariums, and science and technology centers.

So what is reciprocity? It’s an exchange of benefits between two locations such as two zoos or two art museums. Except that the program participants are more than just a couple of locations; they typically span hundreds to thousands of locations nationwide and in some international locations.

Corning Museum of Art, Corning, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Five great examples of reciprocal memberships for travelers are:

  • Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)
  • Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)
  • North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM)
  • American Horticultural Society
  • Time Travelers (reciprocal membership network for historical museums, sites, and societies throughout the US)
Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. National and state parks

National Parks and Monuments offer wonderful visitor centers, free ranger-led tours, and informative talks. You can purchase an annual America the Beautiful pass for $80 which offers entrance access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. This includes National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Memorials, National Historic Sites, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, and the Bureau of Land Management. You can learn about medicinal plants in the Arizona desert, birds in Florida, and the gold rush in Alaska—all free at National Parks.

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State parks are also fun to explore. If you’re going to visit several parks in one state, it might make sense to purchase a state parks pass for that state as that covers entrance fees for all parks in that state.

5. Google “free things to do in…”

Include your destination and the search engine will take care of the rest. You’ll get plenty of lists to explore. 

Another great search resource is Tripadvisor. Users rank the best things to do in any place which you can easily skim through.

Cape Cod Potato Chips Factory Tour, Massachusetts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Check for local factory tours

Local business or factory tours provide not only a unique experience but also a great way to connect with a local community. It gives you a real insight into the area and often a glimpse into the local history. Many of these tours are free with the unspoken expectation that you make a purchase. For instance, many local breweries offer a free tour and end it with a sales pitch to buy their brews. Some wineries waive their tasting fee with a purchase.

If not free, most factory tours are reasonably priced. In many cases, you can take the tour for less than $10 each.

Walking tour of murals in historic Denham Springs, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Free walking tours

Many cities across the U.S. have guided or self-guided walking tours for free or cheap. You can simply google “walking tours in…” and fill in the space with your destination.

There are also a few apps and websites dedicated to walking tours. A popular one for U.S. destinations is GPSMyCity. It has thousands of self-guided walking tours.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Hiking

Go for hikes on the nature trails of wildlife refuges and BLM land. National Wildlife Refuges are wonderful places to see migrating birds and learn about native animal species. There are often loop drives with stops along the way where you can photograph wildlife from a safe distance. Many state and county parks have great hiking trails too. Visiting can show you all the hiking trails in the area. Not only is hiking usually free but it’s great exercise and a great way to see the area from a different point of view.

Galt Farmers Market, Galt, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Flea markets, farmer’s markets, and festivals

Local flea markets, farmer’s markets, and festivals are wonderful ways to check out local produce and crafts. Some farmer’s markets also have entertainment, places to picnic, and a variety of fresh foods to try. In the Northeast, you’ll find Maple Festivals, Apple Festivals, and Lilac Festivals. Or look for the Potato Festival, Rattlesnake Hunts, and Chili Cookoffs in the south and west.

Placerville Historical Society, Placerville, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Visit the local historical society website

Most cities, big or small, have some kind of historical society. If you visit their website, you’ll often find visitor guides to historical sites in the area. In many cases, you can visit these historical sites for free, with a donation, or a small entry fee.

Simply google your destination with “historical society” and see what pops up in search results.

I hope these tips for finding cheap or free things to do while RVing has helped. I have one more recommendation for you.

The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bonus tip

RVing with Rex has posted a series of Ultimate Guides to…

These resources were written for RVers who wish to explore a location in depth and often highlight cheap and free things to do while traveling in the area. Having a tried-and-true itinerary can save you from wasting time and throwing money at something, anything to do. Selected guides include:

The Ultimate Guide to Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More cheap travel tips

To save even more while RVing consider these final three tips:

  • Eat in: Have a meal plan and stick to it. Cook in your RV kitchen, pack lunches if you’ll be out, and avoid spending tons of money on fast food.
  • Stay close to home: RVs are fuel guzzlers. Save on the cost of gas or diesel by choosing a destination close to home.
  • Set a strict budget: Before you start planning, decide on a budget and stick to it. You may be surprised how far you can make your money stretch using the above tips.

Worth Pondering…

Because the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.

—Emma Chase

11 Tips for Visiting a National Park this Summer

Before you head out on a National Park road trip, here are 11 important things to know

All told, I’ve been to 20 out of the 63 National Parks in the United States and numerous other National Park Service (NPS) sites including National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, National Seashores, and National Historic Parks. I hope you’re planning on seeing at least one this summer because they’re all amazing. 

Below are a few tips I’d give to those headed to a park (or parks!) this summer. It’s also worth checking each park’s respective website. Every park has one and they’re filled with maps, things to do and see, and most importantly, if there are any road closures or other important info including alerts.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Prepare yourself for crowds

National Parks are extremely popular—and for good reason. They’re amazing! As a destination, or stop on a long road trip, lots of people want to visit. This is especially true of the larger, most popular parks like Zion, Grand Canyon, and Arches but even many more remote parks like Glacier. Parking inside the park will be challenging. Even getting into the park will take time. Visitors to Sequoia recently reported there was a half-hour line just to enter the park.

This shouldn’t dissuade you from going but if you have smaller less-visited parks on your list, you might have a better or more relaxing time at those. 

There will be more traffic in the park as well, so if you’re thinking you can see it all in a day chances are you won’t be able to.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Book your reservations in advance at these parks

To combat overcrowding and human impact on the fragile ecosystems at some of the busier parks, the NPS requires visitors to make reservations in advance at seven national parks this summer: Glacier, Yosemite, Acadia, Zion, Haleakalā, Rocky Mountain, Arches, and Shenandoah

Related Article: What to Expect at the National Parks this Summer 2022

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Stop at the visitor’s center

Whether you’re the type of person that plans every moment of every adventure or not, the first place to stop is the visitor’s center. You’ll get a map and the park’s newspaper at the entrance but one of the rangers at the visitor’s center can help you figure out a plan for the day based on your interests, what’s open, and how much time you have, and any other considerations. They’re fantastic. This is absolutely worth the time.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Park in the first space you see

This relates to the first tip. Parking lots fill fast but in many cases the roads leading there support roadside parking. If you see a long line of cars parked on the shoulder, definitely assume there will be a wait for parking in the official lot. If the road signs say it’s ok, park as soon as you see an opening. You’ll spend significantly less time walking from that spot than you will drive in circles and waiting for someone to free up a better space. 

Bison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. The wildlife can kill you

Every few weeks there are stories of people getting injured or even killed by wild animals at National Parks. An Ohio woman was recently gored by a bison in Yellowstone and tossed 10 feet into the air when she approached the animal to within 10 feet.

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

NPS recommends all visitors to stay more than 25 yards away from all large animals—bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and coyotes and at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves. If need be, turn around and go the other way to avoid interacting with a wild animal nearby.

Related Article: From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks

A bison won’t eat you, but it will easily mess you up. The same goes for elk or moose. Bears… well, black bears are scared of you. Grizzly bears are most decidedly not. 

Rocky mountain goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The problem, I think, is two-fold. One, I think some people just don’t realize how fast animals can be. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have sharp teeth, if they hit you at 40 mph and then kick you, you’re going to be in a bad way. The other is that most phones have wide-angle lenses. So people want a cool photo (no judgment, me too), but can’t because of the limitations of their phone. So they do the “logical” thing and move closer. 

Ideally, keep something between you and the fuzzy friend, like a car. Or the best option, don’t get out of your car if they’re near the road.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Don’t expect cell reception

Cell coverage in National Parks, even the popular ones, is sparse. Some ranger stations and visitor centers have free Wi-Fi, but not all. 

Download maps and hiking info before entering the park. This is easy with Google Maps. Hiking apps like AllTrails allow for offline viewing as well, if you pay for the premium version. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Bring your own food and water

Some parks have small cafes or even full cafeterias. Many don’t. It’s advisable to bring your food and water. Especially the latter! 

If you’re camping in the park, check with the rangers about how aggressive the local wildlife is. Many parks require all food to be put in bear-proof containers. These will either be heavy metal cabinets at the campsite, or portable versions available at the visitor’s center.  Bears absolutely do love pic-a-nic baskets. And NEVER leave food inside your tent. See #4 for more on wildlife.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Get the year pass

The vast majority of Americans are within a few hours’ drive of a National Park. Not just any National Park but the best National Park: the one closest to you. Sappy as that is, it’s true. They’re all cool. Some are cooler than others, for sure, but there’s a reason they made it through the process of becoming designated a National Park. 

Related Article: Reservations and Permits Required at Some National Parks in 2022

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So for most people, the Annual Pass makes a ton of sense. This is also called the America the Beautiful or Interagency Pass. Each visit to most parks is ~$30 per vehicle but the year pass that gets you into all parks for 1 year for $80. That math is easy to figure out. You can buy them at the park entrance or online at the USGS store or REI. They also get you to entrance into 2,000 federally-protected lands like National Forests and National Wildlife Preserves. There are also lifetime senior passes and several other varieties.

That said, many parks don’t charge an entrance fee or don’t charge for accessing certain areas of the park. It’s worth checking ahead of time.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Plan additional activities for kids

From my experience with the small humans, I observed at the parks, they all seemed to be having a fantastic time. If you want to give them something else to do while you’re all enjoying the parks, consider National Park passports, journals, and activity books.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Stay near the park, not in it

If you haven’t booked a campsite or lodge inside a park by now, you’re probably not going to get a spot. Some parks also have first-come-first-serve campsites but don’t count on getting one of those either (see #1). While staying in the park is undeniably cool, it’s not required. Most parks have a nearby town or towns that exist pretty much entirely to service visitors to the park. For instance, on our trip to Arches and Canyonlands, we stayed in Moab and Torrey was our base when touring Capitol Reef. Jackson for Grand Teton, West Yellowstone for, you guessed it, Yellowstone, West Glacier for—wait for it—Glacier, and so on.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Leave with everything you brought

This includes wrappers, food, water bottles, annoying children, everything. In select places, there are wildlife-proof trash containers. Use them. Some people felt it was ok to leave bags of their dog’s poop and trust me, this is not OK. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check ahead to know if your chosen park allows dogs and if so to what extent. Many don’t want them on hikes, don’t want them on certain trails, but all require them to be leashed at all times. It’s downright dangerous to hike with a dog in bear country, especially off-leash.

Read Next: 9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers

Most of all, I hope you have a grand adventure!

Worth Pondering…

However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.

—Michael Frome