Camping for Cheapskates
OK, so I think I’d rather be called frugal. In any event, we’re always looking for places to park our RV for a night or more that won’t cost us an arm and a leg. That’s one reason we prefer public campgrounds, which are the focus of this article. Here are some things we have learned in our almost 50 years of camping.
Let’s start with the “bestest” price-saving deal of all – America the Beautiful: The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass Series.
If you are age 62 or older, a one-time fee of $10 will get you a lifetime pass that can save you LOTS of money at federal facilities. The two most basic benefits are: it generally will waive the entrance fee at National Parks and other federal places that charge an admission fee and it usually will get you a 50% discount on camping fees. The latter is not always true when concessioners are running the facility – some honor it, others do not. You can buy the pass at most any federal facility or by mail (the mail method will cost an extra $10 for an application processing fee).The Senior Pass was formerly known as the Golden Age Pass; that is no longer issued, but is still honored.
A number of other jurisdictions will also honor the Senior Pass, although not always at the 50% level. It boils down to a simple philosophy of “it never hurts to ask”.
Maryland honors the Federal Senior Pass, while Louisiana honors it if you are a resident of Louisiana, Maryland or Arkansas.
If you’re under 62, you can purchase an Annual Pass for $80 which will give you free entrance to parks but it does not provide for any discount on camping or other fees.
Active duty military members and their dependents can get a free Annual Pass.
U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can receive a free Access Pass with benefits similar to the Senior Pass.
For more details, go to America the Beautiful.
So, now let’s talk about some of the state park “deals” that exist. Quite a few states offer some sort of annual pass that can save you a bit of money. Usually the pass will waive the daily entrance fee for you and that’s about it. However, there are exceptions.
Most notable is New Mexico, which has undoubtedly the best deal of any state. For $225 an out-of-state visitor can purchase an annual pass that not only waives entrance fees at state parks, but also provides a very tidy discount on camping. In fact, if you do not want hookups, camping is free! And if you want hookups, the fee is only $4 for water and electric sites (normally $14) and $8 for full hookup sites (normally $18). A little math reveals that the pass can pay for itself in a very short time. For New Mexico residents, the pass is only $180 ($100 for seniors 62+). Details
Texas is another state with a good program. Its annual pass costs $70 and will provide you with free entry to parks. It also allows for a 50% discount on a night of camping for the second night of a stay in a park. You will also receive a 10% discount on purchases and rentals at state park stores. Details
For a $50 annual pass, visitors to Georgia state parks will receive free entrance. Adults age 62 and older are eligible for a 50% discount. Active military and veterans with a valid ID get a 25% discount. For just a few dollars more ($55-$80), visitors can join the Friends of Georgia State Parks. They will receive the annual parks pass along with a few other perks, including one or two free nights of camping (or one or two free rounds of golf) and a 10% discount on overnight camping and park store purchases. Details
Other states with an annual pass that waives only daily entrance fees:
Non-Resident Resident (if different)
Arizona $75 Excludes certain parks on weekends and state holidays from April 1st to October 31st.
$200 Covers above exclusions
Arkansas None Non-resident 62+ receive 25% discount Sun-Thu nights
Resident 62+ receive 50% discount Sun-Thu, 25% Fri-Sat
California $195 $125 for Inland parks only
Connecticut $112 $67
Delaware $70 $35 Pass is ½ price for seniors 62+
Florida $60 25% discount for military
Idaho $40 $10 Includes camping discount
Indiana $70 $50
Kansas $25 $15.50
Maryland $100 $75 US Senior Pass honored Sun-Thur
Massachusetts $85 $60
Michigan $31 $11
Missouri None $2 senior discount
Montana $35 $6
Single Park annual pass $65-$85 – good at only one park
Multi-Use annual pass – single park, covers entrance, boating, camping
New Hampshire $60
New Jersey $75 $50
New York $65
North Carolina None 3 parks do have entrance fee
North Dakota $25 ND Seniors $20
Ohio Earn points redeemable on future visits
10% discount for military and veterans
Passport America – 50% discount (certain parks and dates excluded)
Golden Buckeye Pass – 10-50% camping discount
Rhode Island $120 $60 For beach parking only
South Carolina $75 SC Seniors $37.50
Inland parks only - $50
South Dakota $30 – 1 vehicle, $45 for two vehicles
Utah $75 Utah Seniors $35
Virginia $66 Seniors $36
Lifetime passes available, priced on age
Wisconsin $35 $25 WI Seniors $10
Wyoming $53 $33 day-use, $40 for overnight
Early Bird discount (buy before 15 Feb) - $46 (Non-Res) $27 (Res)
A few states do not charge an entrance fee and do not have an annual pass program:
Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia
Whether or not it is worthwhile to purchase an annual pass depends on the cost of the pass and how many nights you plan to spend at in that state’s parks, so you’ll need to do a little juggling of the numbers.
Many states have some rather creative ways to bolster their campground income, with a good variety of add-on fees that can really add to that overnight camping fee. Here are some:
- Entrance fee, often charged per person per day
- Reservation fee
- Cancellation and change fees as well
- Administrative fee
- Walk-in registration fee
- Pet fee
- Higher rates for weekends and holidays and/or seasons
- Minimum number of nights required for weekends and holidays
- Good old taxes – I suppose you can’t blame the park for that, though.
Local Municipal, County and Regional Parks
Occasionally you’ll run into a local municipal or county park that honors one or more of the club cards, such as Good Sam, Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA). We’ve also see Passport America members receiving a discount at local parks, although this is not common. And don’t forget to ask if they honor the America the Beautiful Senior Pass – a few do. And some local parks are also guilty of add-on fees.
Many communities, particularly in the Midwest, provide small campgrounds or RV parking spots as an incentive for visitors to spend a night or two (and hopefully a few dollars at local businesses). Many of these are free for at least a night or two.
If you happen to be a retired member of the US military, there are some wonderful campgrounds (FAMCAMPS) on military bases across the country. Prices are generally very reasonable and full amenities are often offered.
Now that we’ve covered designated camping sites, let’s talk about some other options that help you save even more pennies. Boondocking is a great alternative for the more adventuresome campers. Boondock camping is just about what it name implies – camping out in the boondocks. There are lots of designated boondocking areas, especially in the western US, where Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service (USFS) lands are plentiful and generally allow camping almost anywhere, with some restrictions. The USFS has published very detailed Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) which show every designated Forest Service road and indicate where camping is allowed.
Both USFS and BLM district offices have other excellent maps that detail public lands. I make a practice of stopping to pick up maps and talk to rangers about good camping spots.
Many Snowbirds visiting the southwest over the winter take advantage of the BLM’s 7 Long Term Visitors Areas (LTVA) in Arizona and California.
In these areas you can park your rig for up to seven months. Winter visitors who wish to stay in an LTVA, must purchase a long term permit for $180 or a short visit permit for $40. The long term permit is valid for the entire season or any part of the season which runs from September 15 to April 15. The short visit permit is valid for 14 consecutive days with the option to purchase an unlimited quantity of additional permits. Both permits are valid in any of the designated LTVAs.
By no means should they be considered camping spots, but there a number of businesses, most notably Wal-Mart, which often allow overnight parking if local ordinances allow. Some others are Cracker Barrel Restaurants and some truck stops. Before staying, you should always ask the manager or his designated representative for permission; he may ask you to park in a certain area. These are strictly spots to park for the night when on the road and you should do everything possible to minimize your visit – don’t set up camp with chairs outside, awning deployed, etc. This privilege is often at risk of being revoked due to folks who abuse it. It is also good practice to spend a few dollars at that business.
Having plodded through this article you’re probably wondering why it doesn’t discuss commercial campgrounds. That’s because the author has a definite preference for public campgrounds. That being said, however, there are some ways in which folks who prefer the comforts and amenities of private campgrounds can save a few dollars. For example, there are membership programs such as Passport America and Thousand Trails that offer members discounts at many campgrounds. Perhaps a future article will tackle the commercial side of camping costs.