RV park owners say: ‘Wal-Mart campers are cheapskates’

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By Chuck Woodbury
editor, RVtravel.com
Originally published in July, 2011 

My original essay back in 2011 sparked more than 100 comments from readers.

The idea was this: Why don’t some RV parks offer $10 a night “no-frills” camping for self-contained RVers (only) who just want a place to sleep — no hookups, no use of the restrooms, pool or WiFi, and no use of their generators? They can stay for one night only, after 6 p.m., and they must be gone by 8:30 a.m. As is, thousands of these RVers stay for free in a Wal-Mart parking lot, a rest area, truck stop or other place.

When I first wrote about this, I received letters from several RV park owners, who said they could not afford to offer a $10 campsite. They listed reasons that basically boiled down to “how could we distinguish the $10 campers from those paying the going rate?” They explained their need to cover their overhead: there were restrooms to clean, pools and a dump station to maintain, WiFi to pay for, etc.

Frankly, their responses were predictable.

It’s a whole lot easier to maintain the status quo than to change. A combination lock on restroom doors would keep the $10 campers out. With no password, they couldn’t use the WiFi. Few of them would want to use the pool anyway: they’d just want to park and sleep. Charge them $5 to dump.

Put the $10, self-contained campers in a corner of the park or overflow area with a self-pay box like at Forest Service campgrounds. I bet 98 percent of them would play by the rules. And some of those folks would return again if they liked the park — paying the going rate next time to stay awhile.

IF I WERE A CAMPGROUND OWNER I would ask myself, “Is it really THAT hard to provide a $10 no-frills service?” I would then address the problems and see if they were insurmountable. If I knew that every night there were 20 RVs down at the local Wal-Mart, I’d try my best to lure some of them my way. I could dispatch an employee there to put a flyer on their windshields: “Next time stay with us in a safe, secure place for $10.” And provide them with a two-for-one coupon for the next time they’re in town.

If five of them stayed a night for 200 nights a year, that would put an extra $10,000 in their piggy bank with no effort. I bet some of those folks would buy a quart of milk at the campground store. And if 10 percent of them came back once a year paying the full rate, that could add another $35,000 to the pot.

Almost all of the comments were in favor of the $10 idea. A few RV parks responded, claiming that RVers would abuse this budget offer. Some said they didn’t want “these cheapskates, anyway.”

One owner said that even if a password were required for entrance to the restrooms — which would only be provided to full-price campers — the no-frills RVers would “just follow someone else in.”

DO YOU THINK ANYONE would ever open a convenience store if they were afraid an occasional customer would steal something? Do you think book publishers would ever publish a book if they were paranoid that someone might borrow it from a friend and, heaven forbid, “not pay to read it?!” Do you think anyone would open a multi-screen movie theater if they thought someone might sneak into a movie without paying?

This “no-frills deal” is not right for destination RV parks where campers come to stay and play. But it will work for some parks along an Interstate or other busy highway where dozens of transient RVers hole up in a nearby parking lot rather than pay the campground $30 or more for services they do not need.

Better than Wal-Mart, hands down, but not worth $30 to $50 when all you need is a good night’s sleep!

There is a golden opportunity here for owners of RV parks by the highway who currently watch the local Wal-Mart lot fill up every night while half their sites remain empty. They don’t understand that $10 is better than zero when there is virtually no extra cost to them beyond setting up a dedicated area with a self-service check-in box. Heck, some of these budget RVers might like what they see and return one day at full-price. Instead, the park owners worry that someone will sneak into a restroom and cost them the price of a toilet flush.

Do you remember when Motel Six opened for $6 a night while everyone else charged two or three times more, and how Motel Six prospered? Or how about Southwest Airlines? It got you where you wanted to go for a whole lot less than the competition and prospered right out of the gate.

Any RV park that sets up a $10 self-service, no-frills area in his or her park can expect that I, for one, will publicize the heck out of it. The other parks can go ahead and ignore this great opportunity and continue to fume about all those freeloaders down at Wal-Mart.

The RV park owners dub the Wal-Mart RVers cheapskates. I call  those “cheapskates” smart: they just saved $30 or $40. And if they put that money in the bank, collect interest, one day it turns into a whole lot more.

No, staying in a parking lot is not “camping.” But we’re not talking about that here. We’re talking about sleeping in a self-contained RV without paying $5 an hour to do it.

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35 Comments
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Marc Rodstein
5 months ago

The reason I stay in Walmarts has nothing to do with money. Walmarts are easy in, easy out, with no need to unhook, back in, or maneuver around trees and other objects. Walmarts are located close to major highways and most campgrounds are not. Why should I camp 10 or 20 miles from the highway, when I will have to drive those miles to get to the campground and then the same miles the next morning to get back to the highway? Walmarts are quick in, quick out, with no long drive to or from the highway, and no tight maneuvering required. Which makes them perfect for a quick overnight stop. It is all about convenience and not about saving money.

Joe Allen
6 months ago

As a past business owner, this is a no brainer for RV parks in general. Why have empty sites and the wally world down the street, has 10 RV’s in there overnight? Easy to work around, personally, they are just too lazy to improvise. No, they would rather complain to the chamber of commerce how they are being cheated out of money from RVer’s who stay for free. Duh! We have full timed for well over 6 years now and refuse to pay 40 plus dollars a night for a drive in at dusk and leave at dawn park! Just isn’t going to happen, not in my lifetime. Just another reason why we don’t stay at KOA’s or GS parks. Always over priced and have amenities that we don’t use anyway!

Magnus Aronsson
8 months ago

I think this is a great article and I found it because I myself is new in this country, currently renting and is about to buy a piece of land on and a motor home to live on it while I build my house and at the same time I can utilize the hotor home to go camping in. So I started to study how things work in this country. Well, first of all, camp sites dont allow dumping at their dump stations for a fee…. What??? Seriously why not take $5 and earn $3?
Second what I am missing is what we in Sweden call Ställplats or in Germany stellplatze.
These are not regular camp grounds but usually setup in collaboration with the city as it provides tourist to the not so often visited town, tourists shop and spend money which is good for the local economy.
A Ställplats translates word my word Ställ (to put/place) plats (place). It is usually a smaller lit parking lot arranged by the municipality or an external facility of a regular camp ground.
The charge is usually between $5-14 a night but some are actually completely free. It depends on amenities. I even seen free with electric.
May of them have electric and bathroom but they are optional. If you want to use the shower or toilett you just pay some coins. If you want to have electric you pay for whatever Kwh you want. If you dont use it all when it is time to leave you just paid to much and if you run out you just have to fill your payment up.
There is a culture among RVers and Motor homers to keep the Ställplatses clean and tidy. There is never a need for any workers to come and clean the place up. Only the garbage needs to be emptied.
I really think you should install this in the states. Perhaps its a perfect business startup. Supply the technology and let the town give you a piece of land and pay for the water and sour to be brought in.

scubasteve
7 months ago

America already has what you are referring to. Some small cities offer free electric, water, RV dump & garbage disposal … you just need to do some research to find them.

Philip H. Wood
8 months ago

I have had the opportunity to have done balance sheet forcast for two parks. If you have a 100 space park where you can operate all year (my studies were for parks in north Texas) and have mostly long term at $350/mo, you can net close to $200k without too much trouble if you are actually interested in working. I am retired now and have worked as a workamper for the past three years (heck I have fun). Unless you have a terrible location (your own fault) or you are where people do not go, I have found this to be true. I see too many operators who just cannot or will not adapt to changes in the industry or have no idea how to operate a business. Instead of complaining about Wal-mart, start imitating them. If Wal-mart is smart (and believe me they are) you will see water fills and dumps for a modest price (for RVs) and a good profit for them in the near future. Pilot/Flying J is already doing that and you can stay for no charge as well. So don’t jump on Wal-mart. Look in a mirror tofind the problem.

Jim O'Briant
8 months ago

A few years ago, the State of Maine tried to pass statewide law saying that nobody could sleep in an RV except in a licensed RV Park. The RV Park owners were all for this. But when they realized that this meant being open all year and staffing the office 24/7, and maintaining their roadways to handle RVs of any weight (and trimming branches for RVs of any height), the proposed law was withdrawn. They make a lot of noises about hygiene and safety when they propose this stuff, but what it boils down to is this: They are incompetent at marketing their RV Parks, so they want the government to legislate all of us into becoming their customers.

Ray
9 months ago

During my road time I stay over and fuel up at pilot , flying j,or loves travel stops!

Sue
9 months ago

great article and it is spot on! The denigration of Walmart “campers” as cheapskates is both funny and pathetic. Those of us who have stopped overnight at Walmart have also spent – generally more than $10 – there as well. It would be great to have another option – and I for one would gladly pop in my $10 – and pay $5 to use the dump station. These guys are missing a huge opportunity. JMHO.

Dennis H Gregory
1 year ago

I overnight in a Walmart only when I need groceries, and always ask the manager to make sure it’s okay to park. I’ve never had any issues … I do think the RV park overflow parking idea is a good one for more reasons than it isn’t.

Jimmy Zelski
1 year ago

Walmart is truly a “last resort” for me. I really dislike staying there as there are usually unsavory people around. But you won’t find me in a commercial campground either, unless I’m truly desperate. I’m not a fulltimer (nor do I want to be one) but I do spend a couple of months in my camper every year, and I opt for boondocking whenever possible. It’s the only way to have half a chance of getting away from people and their noise (whether that noise comes from screaming kids, drunk adults or my favorite pet peeve, those @!#$#@@ing generators that people imagine nobody else can hear). Ugh.

Susan Callihan
4 years ago

With the campground associations putting the cabosh on property even for one night, the overcrowded campground issue will keep on escalating. What’s next? Hotel owners associations lobbying for legislation to keep people from allowing friends/relatives to stay in their guest rooms? RVers need places to park and if campgrounds are full, or charging as much as a hotel room, or are simply unfit, where are we to go?

Robert Alexander
4 years ago

Chuck, I think that this is a much bigger issue than what you present. Being a full timer, we have seen campground prices increasing as fast as health care prices , food prices and college tuition. Supply and demand is growing out of balance. In their effort to maximize $$, cramped campgrounds are starting to have a negative experience on their customers which will be their eventual downfall but they will take the rest of the RV industry with it. I believe we are seeing this in Canada now in negative RV sales. It may behoove us all if the RVIA and the ARVC started talking to each other concerning this issue.

Cowcharge
4 years ago

I believe it’s a matter of limited land more than anything. It’s not like these parks have 10 acres of land sitting there idle to convert to spots for Walmart parkers. Every campground I’ve ever stayed at is so crowded already that you can’t spit out your door without hitting the neighbor’s camper. Every spot they convert would be a full-price spot lost. That’s losing money, not adding it.

Scubasteve
7 months ago
Reply to  Cowcharge

Then those particular campground owners would not be the ones complaining. It’s the ones that are greedy and won’t adapt to fill vacant spots.

Jim
4 years ago

Great conversation – we have all seen the Motel 6 digital signs with changing room rates. It’s called “yield management” – airlines and hotels have used it for years. It’s the best “mathematical” process for making the most money on an “inventory that expires every day. It would be wise for campground owners to explore ways to get the most $$$ (and offer a much needed service to RVers) each day. Models like ride share and AirBnB are coming to the RV industry …. get ready.

Ron Orgis
4 years ago

My wife and I are full timer and have ben wondering if any one else was having this problem with high rates to camp.We belong to passport America and love it.We wouldn’t be able to afford to do this without it.We have found most of the parks have ben taken over by younger people and now they say they bare business people and no one is going to tell them how to run it when I try to explain to them we have to work together . We need you and you need us if we don’t work together neither one of us will be able to do what we are doing.I always ge too What would yo be paying for a motel room and I say like Comparing apples to a train NO comparison are you going to come clean my mh. in the morning and wash my towels and linnens because they do in a motel. You would think someone like Good Sams and the other RV providers would try nto help but I guess they think $40to$50 is ok but $0 a night for a month is $1200.00 a month way more than the mortgage on my new house that I sold to be able to do this.

Silvia
4 years ago

We have often wondered why there aren’t $10 or $15 quick and easy in and out no frill overnight rv spots available. We would certainly prefer that to Walmart, but Walmart sure beats taking half an hour to check in and paying $30, $40 or often more to arrive after 6pm, not use any services, and be gone by 8am. I won’t even get into the extra person charges!

Virginia S Vess
4 years ago
Reply to  Silvia

and a walmart parking lot comes with it’s own entertainment. and the home depot next door (or parking lot over) has better wifi than a $40/night campground generally

Randy Morris
4 years ago

I see two issues here , rest stop camping and destination camping . If I owned a campground I would provide a couple free spaces with a stipulation that I would be provided the opportunity to give the campers a tour of my facility the next morning

living.boondockingmexico
4 years ago

Lots of options for rv park owners. They need to think out of the box. In Mexico, several rv parks have gone to metered sites where you pay for your electric that you actually use. New Mexico state parks offer a yearly pass for non-residents, $225 a year for camping that includes water. Electric is $4 more per day. That works out to $138 a month with electric and water. You can’t beat that. With the advent of solar power, more and more rvers are turning to boondocking. Parks need to accommodate the changes that are coming. I’m all for the rv park owner, I’m not their enemy but they just don’t offer the services I need.

Stephanie H
1 year ago

We love New Mexico parks and think that their yearly pass is a great deal. However, it’s not always easy to get a site with electric and water as these fill up quickly. Make reservations in advance, and you’re good to go! I love the idea of paying for electric that you actually use as we have solar that meets most of our needs and only use electric to run our convection oven and/or AC. It seems that RV parks in west of the Mississippi are more accommodating to RVer’s. On the east coast, prices are skyrocketing and it’s even tough to get into places like state parks and National Forests as weekends are booked solid by locals. We often resort to WalMart because it’s the only thing available.

John Candler
4 years ago

We use Walmart’s – rest areas traveling from point A to point B – then in normal campgrounds

If along the way – I only had to pay $ 10 for a night without any normal privileges – I’d Love it – we would use this as often as it fit into our travel route

Mike
4 years ago

Spent a night at the Walmart in Cody Wyoming on our way to Yellowstone last year. Bought $150 in merchandise in the store. It would have been cheaper to stay at a campground.

friz
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike

And you may well have driven over to Wal Mart and shopped. So your $150 in tangible merchandise could have cost $200!

Patricia
4 years ago

With that opinion of RVers, who’d want to stay at their park?…just because they don’t understand the needs of those who would like s no frills spot in expensively, doesn’t mean they ought to be verbally abusive..