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Budget camping vs. budget motels: Which is cheaper?

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Each week we reprint one especially interesting "discussion" from our RVtravel.com forum. This installment begins with a forum member living overseas who is about to head to America. His question: Is it cheaper to stay in campgrounds or budget motels? Others weigh in after his posting. If you would like to add a comment, please see the link at the end of this article. Here are some highlights of how the discussion was going as we went to "cyber" press.

The original post

Hi, I am currently overseas and planning to return in about a year to retire. I have been thinking about traveling around for about a year (more or less). I am considering buying a travel trailer, truck, and motorcycle, which I will use at campgrounds to sightsee.

However, I have been reading about the prices of campgrounds, and was wondering if it would be cheaper to stay in budget motels instead? Besides the cost of campgrounds and motels, there is also the difference in the amount of gas used. A truck pulling a trailer uses a lot more gas than an economical car or a motorcycle. I also have to figure in the cost of the trailer and truck. Of course, I can keep them and use them occasionally or sell them.

I was hoping that someone has thought about this or made some type of comparison that they could share with me.


If you are going to stay at motels I'd say you daily cost will likely be in excess of $45 for the room. In addition the room will not be secure as all of the staff will have access to a room key for it. Even a Motel 6 in out of season rates will cost you at least $35. If you are willing to forgo the KOA campgrounds, you should be able to find plenty of one-night stays (the most expensive, as longer stays are almost always cheaper) in the $20 range in many parts of the country. Some areas, like the far north, are more expensive as they are not open year-round.

A campground should give you a more secure place to stay and leave your belongings while you look at the sights. You'll have a better option to stay longer with cheaper rates so you can really see what is in the area, cook your own meals (WAY cheaper than eating out) and keep your own schedule.

Fuel usage depends on you and how much you want to tow the rig each time you move. Sightseeing is still going to require fuel no matter which way you go, but the cost savings in meals and space rental should help that angle.

The "which is cheaper" question is trying to compare apples to kumquats; there are too many points of difference in the two travel styles to make a valid comparison. Overall cost is only one factor in determining which travel style is going to "fit" you better. But, if cost is paramount in making your decision, I suggest doing an inclusive spreadsheet to "cost out" all the "real" expenses associated with each choice.

* * *
For me, cost was not the deciding factor in choosing an RV lifestyle over driving or flying/motels/restaurants. I want my own bed, my own kitchen, my own bathroom, and the freedom to use any and all of these while going and doing pretty much where and what I want to. I don't have to stay in dirty motels with who-knows-what kinds of substances on every surface (and I don't care how expensive or "fancy" the motel is, it's not my dirt!). I don't have to eat unhealthy, poorly-prepared, expensive food in restaurants. I don't have to use public restrooms. I don't have to suffer the ridiculous hassles that flying anywhere these days imposes on air travelers. I can take my dog and cat along on any and all trips. I wouldn't ever trade my RV lifestyle for "moteling" even if somebody else was paying the bills! -- YMMV.

People don't get into RVing to save money. They do it so that they can go places they want to go where there are NO motels, and as jrf said, so they can sleep in their own bed and use their own bathroom. (Have you ever seen the reports on TV where they've gone in with a blue light and shown the stuff that's still all around the room even after it's been cleaned? It's disgusting enough to swear off motels/hotels forever!).

As for budget camping, we do a lot of boondocking and dry camping spending from zero dollars up to less than $10 per night (since my husband has a Golden Age Passport, this really helps). Our per-night average is under $10. Of course, if you plan on staying in full hookup RV parks, you'll have to spend more. But, even then there's a range of prices...from around $15 per night to over $100 per night!

Why stay away from KOAs?
I rented a van and took my grandchildren on a trip in June. I used a 12 x12 ft Eddie Bauer tent. We stayed mostly in KOAs with a discount card, one non KOA, and one state park. Every campground had electric for my Coleman Sterling cooler/freezer, fans, notebook, and portable DVD player, and the grandkids' Gameboy charger. I have to go back and check but I think rates ran $21 to $33 a night. Great bathhouses, game rooms, laundromats, swimming pools, mini golf, lending libraries; secure campsites. The only place I've felt safer was way in the backwoods with my Boy Scouts where we hadn't seen any other people for days. I am pretty sure that motels in the areas would have been at least three times my camping rate, or maybe four times higher. The social aspect of moteling vs camping is different also. Campers, to me anyway, seem more friendly and outgoing. It's like riding the train versus flying. Every time I rode a train, I spoke to a lot of nice people with fascinating backgrounds. When I fly, everyone is white-knuckled and grumpy, wrapped in a don't bother me mental miasma. If you have the money for motels and restaurants and wish to be solitary, moteling would meet your needs. My grandchildren are already asking if we can do another month-long trip next summer! I loved almost every minute of the trip, with the exception of searching for a specific destination in ill-marked Pittsburgh!
In summation:

Avoiding KOAs is a way to save fairly significant amounts of money. They have the highest rates for the same services in the RV community. I spend $20 to $24 a night for full hookup camping with 50 amp service, a pool, wi-fi, a club house and so on, on a night-to-night basis in high expense areas. KOA has consistently cost a third again or more for the same thing. I don't have money to throw away on a campground just because it has initials on it.

Some of the KOAs are also involved in trying to get communities to pass laws forcing RVers into campgrounds. That alone offends me that they would try to use force of law to push people to use their services instead of using competitive rates as an economic incentive. I don't stay in a Wal-Mart and have only done so twice when there was no RV park in the area, but I resent a park owner or group who thinks that RVers owe them their patronage. As such I boycott KOA and refuse to pay them a dime.

Our reason for avoiding KOAs, besides the cost issue, is a purely political one: KOAs, along with ARVC, are usually behind the "can't park any place but an RV park" ordinances in local communities. We refuse to support any business or organization that tries to push these kinds of ordinances.

Our average per-night fee so far this year is under $8.50. Of course, we do a lot of dry camping (NOT parking lot overnighters, either), and when we do stay in an RV park, it's usually a Passport America park (50% off), or one of our C2C or RPI parks ($8 per night). There ARE ways to keep the cost of camping down. The more willing you are to dry camp or boondock, the more you can keep the costs down. If, however, you insist on having full hookups every night, it's a bit harder.

I have a spreadsheet for determining what works best each trip. (I know--what a geek). Using the motorhome is almost always the least expensive. Short long trips are the only time a car/hotel is cheaper. The main thing is that you are not schlepping stuff in and out of a motel. In an RV it is all right there with you. Nothing like having your own little nest. If you're a vet, check out the Access Pass. It is free, gives you free access to all federal parks, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation parking facilities. It also gets you a 50% discount on parking fees.

Would you like to add a comment to this discussion? Do so here.

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