A firsthand look at what it’s like to travel by RV with no reservations

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By Nanci Dixon
No reservations, campground crowding, and our annual southern migration. We decided to live dangerously and follow our usual “no reservations policy” when traveling our snowbird route from the Midwest to the Southwest earlier this month. We wanted to see what it was like, and if it was even possible, in this time of massive RV sales, crowded campgrounds and COVID. 

Below is our eight-day travel journey. Next year, hopefully non-COVID, we will stop longer, explore more, and make reservations early for destination campgrounds. Below that, you’ll find tips on how to find a place to stop for the night (all the things I learned along the way…).

Our travel journey

Day 1: Minnesota – Friday during MEA. All of Minnesota stops for the Minnesota Educational Academy meetings, which means no school, which translates to “vacation time!” This year with COVID, it is camping time. We left during a snowstorm. Wind gusts were at 38 mph, so we needed to stop. Saw that two spots were available online at a state park. Nobody at the office. Got a site… just barely got a site. 

Day 2: Iowa – 40 mph gusts. Found a private campground online that was first-come, first-served. No problem finding open sites at that one, and now I see why. It was filthy, the office was deserted, the site availability was indecipherable, and the envelopes to put money in were non-existent. Judging from the packages and mail stacked up, the office was as little used as were the junky cars and trucks scattered across the area. It was bad. Pulled out and kept on driving. No way we were staying there.

The next park was full. Had to keep going. Found an RV casino park ahead and called. They said they had plenty of sites, but that was another 90 miles ahead in the wind. Arrived, checked in remotely, and never even saw a person.

Day 3: Kansas – I called a private campground ahead to check availability. They said they won’t fill up on a Sunday, no reservations needed, no need to call back. Got a call several hours later. They were full.

Vacant for one night

Luckily, we found a state park with a system of yellow tags that posted “One night only” on open sites. Just two sites out of hundreds were open. It was a great value, just $22. The camp host came by for payment. No masks anywhere to be found.

Day 4: Oklahoma – Called on the way, middle of the week, no problem. We got an amazing end site and it finally was warm enough to sit outside and watch the sunset. Masks on.

Day 5: New Mexico – Researched online and read reviews of a few different parks. The reviews at one enticing place said call early in order to get a site. We arrived at noon to an almost empty campground. By five o’clock, every single site was taken and most RVs didn’t unhook. Travelers’ wayside rest with great WiFi and full hookups. Few masks, even in the office. New Mexico is under a mandatory mask order.

Day 6: New Mexico – We wanted to stay two days so we could visit White Sand Dunes National Park. Yup, finding a campsite near a National Park is difficult. We found just one site available and for one night only (even though it was midweek). So, after driving 300 miles, we quickly set up at the campground and took a quick trip to White Sand Dunes. My husband, the driver, was exhausted. Everybody was wearing masks, even outside when hiking the boardwalks at the Dunes.

Day 7: Arizona – Called a park early in the day and was pleased to hear I could reserve a site on the end… yeah, the end of the campground. They didn’t mention it was up against a double-wide trailer. Masks on in the office and most folks walking in the campground.

Day 8: Arizona – Our hosting spot for the winter!

What I learned: Tips to snag a spot

1. Call ahead or go online, even if it is the same day. Pulling up to a campground and driving to an available site is a thing of the past. Some state and county parks now allow same-day reservations. Weekends are still almost impossible to get a same-day reservation, especially near big cities. Think about your estimated stopping time early in the day. 

2. Use websites or apps to find campsites or alternative campsites. There are many great resources available. My all-around go-to is AllStays. I also use Campendium, ‎Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder™, Campground Reviews, RV LIFE, and some of the individual state apps. I have liked RV Trip Wizard, although I do pay an annual fee for it. Add your reviews to whatever campground app you use. It is so very helpful for the next camper.

3. Many private, state and county ranger stations are closed due to COVID. Without anybody there to check you in, you must fill out the envelopes, drop in money and read the maps.Campground Map

4. Speaking of maps, know how to read them! Take a photo of the wall map if no paper copies are available. Many times this season no one was at the check-in to draw a nice marker line from “You are here” to the campsite. If it is a back-in site we usually disconnect the car and I find the site first and note any issues: parked cars, poles, sharp curves or trees in the way? Extremely less frustrating than looping the motorhome around a campground a few times.

5. Don’t be too picky. I had to remember the campsites were stopovers, not a destination. I could pull the shades down if I found myself too close to my neighbor.

6. As always, make room for the wind and inclement weather. Slow down, and stop when needed.

7. Overnight parking at Walmarts, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrels, some rest stops and truck stops are all options. In a pinch, ask the manager of a store with a large parking area if you can park for the night. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they don’t.

8. Destination camping? Make those reservations well ahead of time: weeks, months or even a year.

RELATED

Read our weekly column, Campground crowding, here.

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PennyPA
3 days ago

Nanci, why were you two wearing masks while watching the sunset in Oklahoma?

Craig
16 days ago

This year, my family went from Southern CA to Gatlinburg TN, down to New Orleans and back. I found the website https://www.rvtripwizard.com/ and used it to find campgrounds along the way, there’s a annual fee which wasn’t too bad, I’m usually a cheapskate. My wife had a few places that were ‘must see’ so we made sure to book those campgrounds in advance. Many of our stops, we would figure out where we thought we’d end up and start looking using that website. Finding spots has gotten worse over the years, we used to pull into places and find something, even if it was a dry spot for an overnight, we could always find something. This past summer was the worst I’d seen it. With a 32′ Fifth wheel, I don’t feel comfortable stopping at stores, truck stops or rest stops because if something happens, I have to get out of the trailer and go into the truck to leave. I suppose it wouldn’t be an issue in a motorhome.

Jim Ham
27 days ago

This is great to have a report on the current camp reservation situation as we snowbirds try to plan on either AZ or FL for winter escape from IL. Many IL camps shut down after this weekend, but few seem to be very busy during our brief local trips the last 2 weeks.

We will be looking online for roadtrip reports while enroute. Usually the weather is our big concern looking ahead for high wind, snow, and ice reports. Finding just an overnight spot apparently may be a larger concern this year. We are flexible and can pause to explore locally, wait out weather, or get rid of stress after a tough drive. If all else fails, Holiday Inn Express is only running at about 15% of usual load, so rooms are likely going to be available for 1 night.

SDW
28 days ago

Ultraviolet light kills corvid 19 so if the suns out you don’t need a mask outside as long as you keep a safe distance from people.

pursuits712
26 days ago
Reply to  SDW

Takes up to 35 minutes, so instead of 6 feet, stay 35 minutes behind the guy in front of you!

Rory R
22 days ago
Reply to  SDW

Can you point me to a website, etc so I can read up on Covid-19 and ultraviolet light. This is the first time I have heard that….

Vanessa Simmons
28 days ago

Just drove from MT to NV. The only full campground I encountered was a KOA near a National Park. Drove 10 miles back up the road to a place I stayed the month before and took my pick of sites. I rarely/almost never make reservations until the day on the road. I don’t know how far I will get. Being solo makes it harder since there is no one to do calling/research moving down the road. I decide where I’ll be when I’m ready to stop and when letting the dogs walk around I’ll call one or two places in that area and find a spot. There are a lot of campgrounds not listed on the major sites so look for the trailer on the road sign and google RV parks near me to find some gems.

Toni
28 days ago

Camping from CO to FL. Left CO Oct 4th & had no problems pulling into a fairly nice campground around 4:00pm & getting a nice site. We traveled the “northern” route. Kansas, MO, TN, KY, AL & FL. On the return trip, (Southern route) only had an issue in TX. We arrived at a KOA in Denton, after hours, about 5:30. It was almost dark & the office was closed, but they left info on which sites were still available on a table outside. For those arriving late, who had already made a reservation, an envelope was taped to the door. The only sites listed as available were their most expensive sites for big rigs. We have just a small 19′ camper van. We decided to pass, but had to drive through 2 rows of sites to turn around. Well, those 2 rows there were about 90% empty! I am sure if we had arrived before the office closed, we could have had one of those less expensive sites! Shame on KOA! I would rather pay extra & stay in a hotel/motel, which we actually did that night!

Michael
28 days ago

To all the valuable resources mentioned, I’d add the Elks. Over 600 lodges in the US have RV facilities and you can often be permitted to dry camp at others. Always friendly. We have stayed in over 25 from Fairbanks to Florida Keys in 4 years of full-timing.

pursuits712
26 days ago
Reply to  Michael

You have to be a member, correct?

Bob
21 days ago
Reply to  pursuits712

Yes, most require that you are a member.

Fred
29 days ago

Our experience was exactly the opposite when we left Michigan for Arizona a couple of weeks ago. No reservations, no calling ahead the day of, & never found a full park. Even in Arizona in late October, when they are usually full or close to full. The Canadian snowbirds can’t come across the border this winter, so many of their normal winter destinations have plenty of spots available. We just drove north of Yuma to a BLM long term visitor area where we plan to spend the winter in the desert, & is usually filling up by now. There would normally be 600-1000 campers there by now, but there were less than 200. This is going to be a strange winter, with closed borders, Covid , & hotter than normal weather in the southwest. I’m sure there are selected areas that are filling up, but there are also many areas that are begging for campers.

Nonni S
29 days ago

Thank you for the information. Trying to figure out the best way to go south (Texas or Florida) from Colorado!

Ingrid
29 days ago

We completed a very similar route recently … northern Wisconsin to Phoenix and stayed at a combo of campgrounds, Cabela’s, and casinos. The casinos in NM via I-40 were all closed but most allowed overnighting in the parking lots. The Cabela’s in KC has signs all over ‘no overnight parking’ but there were lots of semi’s staying so we asked staff and they said no problem parking for the night. So ya never know. I’m thankful we missed the high winds and left WI before the snow hit.

pursuits712
26 days ago
Reply to  Ingrid

I think that’s the point for many of us…you never know. Some of us are just lower on the risk-meter. Hate to make my husband drive another hour or two when he is already so tired. Somehow, for us anyway, knowing that we definitely have a spot in two hours, versus knowing we “may” be able to find something in two hours…or not, makes the drive so much easier.

Bill T
4 days ago
Reply to  pursuits712

Agreed. I do the driving and I like to know that after 4 – 6 hours on the road I have a place to stop even if it’s just for the night.

CeeCee
29 days ago

We aren’t snowbirds, but just returned to the Pacific Northwest from a trip to Death Valley. While we had reservations for our stay in Pahrump, we had no trouble finding places to stay coming or going. We do keep the option to dry camp at times. I did call ahead to one place, which said they had plenty of space. Though a number of less attractive places appeared to be filled with permanent residents, we still had plenty of choices as long as we were flexible. I always keep a list of possible places to stop when we travel, particularly since we often don’t decide where to stop until after noon. The AllStays app is very useful for this.

Cheryl
29 days ago

We did our normal snowbird trip using the same RV stops as always. Down I5 and over to Bakersfield. I5 at Sacramento is almost impassable! First stop 7 Feathers Casino. Food restricted, masks and distance rules iffy. Next was Rolling Hills did not even go in due to 7 Feathers experience. SANTA Nella Andersons Pea Soup practices were great. Orange Grove Bakersfield was empty as was Rolling hills. Havasu packed with 4 wheelers. Was surprised at the numerous empty RV spots along the way. Our winter home is in Mesa. Our park is not busy yet but expect to pick up. At least 40% are Canadian so know that will effect things. Events have many rules and are held outside in parking lot. Laundries, pools, and exercise rooms are open with lots of restrictions. Very different season for us. But the weather more than makes up for it.

dave
29 days ago

As Ron just said, “No Hurry”, find a spot or spots for the weekends and enjoy the area where you are.

Ron H.
29 days ago

Interesting story and good advice. One thing that we have learned is to avoid the weekends. However, to cover the weekends, we try to find a good location first, then reserve a spot for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. That gives us two full days to relax and explore the area. No hurry.

Laurie
29 days ago

This sounds a lot like our trip from Arizona to Texas, minus the snow.

Michael
29 days ago

Hey Nanci!

We’re about to leave from Massachusetts to travel to Mesa, AZ in a 45′ motor home. What were you traveling in?

dave
29 days ago
Reply to  Michael

I would take all or most of the State campgrounds off the list as they rarely can fit a 45footer.

Ron Cravey
29 days ago
Reply to  dave

We have a 40 foot motor home and have had no problem fitting in state parks. This has been true in all the Western states. If there is a doubt, we call the Rangers at the park and ask them.

Sherry
29 days ago

Very Timely Article. We leave Sunday morning from East Texas to Monterey to help out the kids. I have never made reservations for this trip during the week before but last March and now I have

Tom
29 days ago

Nice to have a short Class B+, 28’8 bumper to bumper. Just doing reservations into Florida. One State campground that we like was down to 2 sites for anything much bigger. Bigger is not always better.

pursuits712
26 days ago
Reply to  Tom

Good point. When we see an opening, it is often the sites no one else wants for that reason and similar ones.

Michelle Eason
29 days ago

Great information Nanci. Thanks.