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50 days of traveling like the ‘old days’: No reservations, no itinerary

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My husband and I just spent 50 days traveling like the good old days: no reservations, no itinerary. Freedom! Many of you know that I write our weekly column “Campground Crowding” (here’s last week’s edition, a new one coming tomorrow) and hear many peoples’ frustrations with crowded campgrounds and their difficulty making reservations at their favorite parks. I also read a lot of comments from those that have no issues. Is there really crowding?

We just completed 50 days of traveling and made only one reservation a week ahead. That was to a popular and overpriced KOA near a National Park.

Experiment: Let’s travel like the “old days”

What would it be like to travel like the “old days”? No plans, no reservations, just wanderlust, and an end destination.

Having spent a lot of the summer in Minnesota with reservations and campsite-hopping, we are well aware of crowding in summer near cities at the popular state and regional campgrounds. So I was a little worried about this experiment…

Camping the shoulder season

We purposely started out after schools had started in the fall and when there would be [hopefully] fewer people out there vying for the same few sites. Amazingly, there were no problems finding a place to stay for a few nights on our journey from Minnesota to North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona. We did need to reserve as most parks—private and public—now require reservations. But we only did that on the day of or the day before our arrival. We used a mixture of private, state, and COE campgrounds, as well as Harvest Hosts.

No itinerary, no reservations

The shakiest part of the whole trip was having no solid itinerary, just a vague idea of going west or maybe going to Glacier National Park or maybe the Grand Tetons or maybe Utah? But being late in the season, watching weather reports for snow became one of the deciding factors.

My friends are shocked because I am a planner. I am one of the ones that will make reservations a year in advance and go to Google Earth to pick the best campsite even for just one day. But it has been a very emotionally trying year and I just couldn’t do it. My husband doesn’t particularly care as long as he can get a bit of TV or a movie at day’s end. He hardly ever asks where we are going… just how long he is driving!

It is dang expensive!

Without pre-planning it is dang expensive to travel by RV right now! Fuel is astronomical- particularly in California. Private RV parks have increased prices exponentially. I have never seen private Mom and Pop campgrounds so high. The private parks bought out by corporations are unforgiving, even in the off-season.

State and county parks can range from $40 to $65 a night. In some instances, it was a lot cheaper to stay at a private park than a state park, particularly when a state tacks on non-resident and booking fees.

Groceries, as everyone already knows, are at an all-time high. Small mountain towns are the worst, and I was just waiting for my credit card to melt. Eventually, I became kind of numb to the prices and began planning budget dinners with leftovers for the next six months.

Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome help, but we are 40’ towing and usually restricted on size. When I did find a site that we would fit in and that was not too far off the beaten path, it was full. That, of course, was not helped by my lack of planning.

Full-time residents

Many readers have been writing about the increase in RV parks’ full-time residents ranging from broken down, shabby RVs littering a park to well-kept-up sites with friendly residents. We found that the majority of parks that are open year-round have a number of full-time residents. In one park a school bus even stopped at the front gate. The number of overnight spots in these parks are really limited.

Why do it?

Why travel 4,000 miles when 1,600 would get us back to Arizona for the winter? And why spend more than the kids’ inheritance on a 50-day trip? This year has been filled with deaths—my father’s and dear friends—health issues, family disruptions and trauma. Do we wait?

Tomorrow is not promised

We are aging faster than I would like to acknowledge. What if we can’t go next year or the year after? What if we wait too long? This year has proven that you cannot rest assured of the future and tomorrow is not promised to us.

So as long as my husband can drive we will climb over rocks to reach the sea, walk through a rainforest, and look up in awe at the Redwoods until we get a crook in our necks.

Redwoods
Looking up at the Redwoods. Photo credit: Nanci Dixon

##RVT1078

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martin a
21 days ago

Thanks Nanci: we feel similar after being stagnant with covid restrictions in 2020,2021. We got out this year and did about 9k miles. Prices were high in many places especially near Glacier and Yellowstone. Happy to get out and about.

LJ
26 days ago

We’ve been full timers for 4 years. We travel 6 months and winter in Arizona. We’ve never made reservations, even from Arizona to Alaska. Never had any problems getting into rv parks. Although we do make our reservations for winter in Arizona. We don’t have itineraries, just fly by the seat of our pants. Sometimes we just drive 20 miles and see somewhere we like and stay a few nights. Yes, rv rates, gas and groceries are up, but we’re retired and living the dream. Happy and safe travels to you all.

Peggy Staver
4 days ago
Reply to  LJ

Hi LJ, I love that you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’. I am curious how you find where you want to stay. Are you using an app or searching on google maps along your route?

Rod
27 days ago

i really enjoyed your article. honest and very informative. i would like to read other articles of those who are going through the experiences out on the road and giving us what we could expect when we head out.

Gene Cheatham
27 days ago

We’re planning on retiring to full time RV’ing with a 40′ to 42′ 5th wheel in the next 18-24 months (an eternity in this climate).We are seasoned campers and RVTravel fan with mixed gut feelings about being successful finding space and putting together a realistic site budget. Not glampers, COE and decent state parks are our fav here in the MidWest.

Horror stories seen here on availability of sites and corporations buying up mom and pop owners have me scratching my head trying to sort fact from frequently published fiction. Suggestions? If the norm is hitting $60 -$70 night for water and electric, that’s a big budget item to consider. Thanks!

MattD
27 days ago

Hi Nanci, just wanted to say I enjoy your articles here, they’re very thoughtful and insightful. I’m sad for your losses and turmoil this past year, I truly hope 2023 is a better for you and your husband. Wishing you both safer travels and more colorful sunsets.

Steve H
27 days ago

We traveled to the PNW in early fall just as Nanci did. We had one reservation–at a tiny “farm” RV park in Kelowna, BC. The other nights we made reservations the same day or one day in advance of our stay. Our cgs included two state parks, two terrific FHU fairgrounds in prime tourist areas (Bend-Redmond and Coeur d’Alene), a FREE dry camping rec area cg in the middle of North Cascades NP, several private RV parks, and a night of boondocking on BLM land. And, just as Nanci says, one if the most expensive was a weekend night in a completely full, beachfront Oregon SP where non-resident RVers are charged an additional fee. But few of the other cgs were full and we generally had a choice of multiple sites when reserving or just “walking in”.

We just returned from an 11-day trip using one FHU and one 30A-only city park cg and one museum Harvest Host where we were the only campers in all 3, and 4 COE cgs, where there were as few as 3 RVs!

Cindy
27 days ago

We prefer to travel “as the wind blows”. Although we haven’t been doing any traveling lately. My dad is 94 years old and lives in an independent living apartment. There’s no other family here so we have put our travels on hold. My grandparents had a travel trailer and travelled all over the country. I watched them and knew that’s what I wanted to do. We did take a 10 month trip in 2019 before my step-mother passed away. I think the camping gene skipped my dad so going with us is not something he would enjoy.

Greg
27 days ago

We just completed a three-month trip (July 28th-October 27th), covering 7 Canadian provinces and 25 states (18,000 miles.) We only had reservations at the beginning of the trip (Santa Fe, NM; Colorado Springs, CO; and Fort Collins, CO) since we had reservations for other locations (e.g., Pike’s Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park.) We had no problem finding camping and generally stayed two nights (sometimes three) at each location. If we needed to get some miles in between stops, we spent those night at rest stops and a couple at Wal Mart parking lots. Even spent some nights (boondocking) next to lighthouses in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. There were plenty of available sites at each campground we stayed at and there is no way that we could have made advance reservations for such a long trip. We sometimes opted to stay longer than planned in areas we found more to do, or altered our route to see more. The time of year we travelled likely helped, but it can be done!

Neal Davis
27 days ago

Sounds like a grand experiment, and I am very pleased by your success.

Greg Bryant
27 days ago

This summer we went from Missouri to Oregon for two months. We left the Wednesday before Memorial day. We made our earliest reservations two days in advance. We had no trouble finding places to stay. We stayed at a couple of Harvest Hosts on the way west. Our routine was as we headed out each day, my wife would look for places along our route that fit into how far we wanted to drive that day. She was able to find places within an hour or so of or Target time/distance. Once in Oregon, we stayed on my sisters property so that was huge. It was expensive especially fuel but like Nanci said, there are no guarantees for tomorrow so we did it because we could!

captain gort
27 days ago

You are 100% correct! Life can turn on a dime- and DOES!
Suddenly- what once was possible…vanishes.
Seize the day!
But the camping industry is aware of this, too….and will gouge you wherever possible as hard as they can. Hey- that’s how our “free market” works (tongue in cheek).

Dave Pellegrino
27 days ago

So, Is there campground crowding? How long did you stay at each location? I saw mention of a couple days. Maybe your next experiment should be a week stay with no reservations. Wonder how that would go. Thanks for the article…

Caren Kelly
27 days ago

What’s that saying, “today is a present, tomorrow is a gift”.

George
27 days ago

Nanci,

A wonderful travel opportunity. I would love to have read about “hidden gems”, “surprises discovered along the way”, “wildlife” and even an “oh crap, never expected that to happen” events that you and your husband shared over your 50 day road adventure. You were in some of the most beautiful and varying landscape this country has to offer.

I look forward to hearing more about your trip. Maybe 7 in-depth features for each week you and your husband were on the road. This sounds like a wonderful opportunity to share, and highlight, with us, your readers, the wonders and positive experiences you found along your way. Take us along and let us see the world through your eyes. : )

My condolences to you for those near to you who have passed. Feeling the freedom and adventure of the open road can be a very cathartic and therapeutic. I hope this was the case for you.

As always, Safe Travels, and I look forward to reading you next week,
george

Bob S
27 days ago

Tomorrow is not promised: I couldn’t agree more!