Ok, so…this is RVing for Beginners- Course 102. Yup!.. we are starting off on course 102 because the information we are about to share is definitely not on your “What to do before bringing your first RV home” list. This post is more about “OMG, we made it home in one piece without the camper flying off the hitch, where do we go from here” kind of post. My thoughts are you already figured out which camper your family wants, brought it home (safely, of course), started buying ALL the things to go in it (hello Amazon!), started packing it, and went to book your first weekend away like the spontaneous person you are….. only to realize you purchased your first camper at the end of June, in North Carolina, wanted to camp on a lake, on a holiday weekend, where 2 out of 600 sites were still available… OH….NO?…was that just us?!
Well, if that is not you, then good for you, you lucky duck! But if you are someone who is still on Course 101-Picking your RV and Getting Home Safely, I will save you from endless research and multiple blogs I had to read to get this information about booking your first campsite.
If you are starting off your search like I did, it might be your first instinct to head to Google and type in campgrounds near me. This will bring up quite a few places (some probably right in your backyard you had no idea were even there) which might range from private campgrounds to chain campgrounds to state campgrounds. From full hookups to no hookups. From membership requirements in order to book to no membership requirements. The search can be overwhelming to say the least. Here, we will break it down to get you on the fast track to your first (or next) weekend getaway in your new RV.
Important Details to Note Before Starting Your Search
A few things I had to look up specific to our truck and RV… or more like quickly ask the hubby!… when trying to book our first weekend getaway. Know these key details to make sure you don’t show up a campsite that just won’t work:
- What kind of site do you need? Do you have and “RV” or do you have a “Travel Trailer”? I was surprised to find out what we owned was not specifically called an RV but a travel trailer. At some campgrounds this does matter but in others it doesn’t.
- The length of your truck, the length of your RV (including the tongue!), and the entire length of your set-up. This is something you should get very familiar with. Most sites will have total RV length maximums, meaning if the length of your RV is 35 feet (including the tongue), and the site is 20 feet deep, your weekend is doomed before you even get there. Want to park your truck in that space as well without having to find alternate parking? Account for the total length of your setup! Upgrade your vehicle from a Chevy Tahoe to 3500 Dually? Your set-up just got longer!
- What amperage does you RV need? 30 amp or 50 amp? These plugs are slightly different from one another. If you have a 30 amp RV and book a site that is 50 amp , make sure you order a 30 to 50 amp converter. On the other hand, if you book a 30 amp site and require 50 amp…well…BUMMER!
- Does your RV have slides? What sides are they on? Now, this one may not make a difference at all sites, but some sites will require you to filter by a yes/no and others will ask what sides they are on. Some campsites will be small and narrow with no option for slides at all, other sites will have trees or maybe something else in the way that will require you to know the sides of your slides.
Choosing a Campsite
Maybe we were naïve, but we had NO idea this camping thing was as big as it was when we wanted to purchase our RV. When I went camping when I was younger, it was either in our backyard or at a state park. We honestly bought into the notion that we would wake up on a Wednesday morning, feel like going camping that weekend, would book a site and BOOM…there we would end up on Friday at 6pm eating dinner outside by a campfire. Boy was I wrong! This camping thing is a LIFESTYLE and there are tons of people already ahead of the curve. We feel like we showed up late to the party- no one told us what time to be there and now the room is at max capacity!
So let me break it down for you- Here is a list of the campgrounds you can book (and I’ll even throw in some helpful tips and hints we had to learn the hard way!):
State Parks ($20-$40 per night) – the absolute best bang for your buck. I definitely underrated state parks when we first started, but the cost per night was just too good to overlook and not at least try. For $99 for 3 nights, I couldn’t say no to water/electric hookups and parked literally on sand 15 feet from lake water. That weekend changed my views of state parks. Do not underestimate these campgrounds! So far we have not gone to a state park that hasn’t been really well maintained or isn’t clean. Now these can vary from park to park and state to state but in NC, most sites have a picnic table, fire ring, and our own garbage can. The perk: our Key West trip coming up in Dec 2019 has 2 or 3 nights at state parks scattered in between our planned stays at more expensive resorts to offset the cost of our entire trip. Florida has some parks with full hookups for….no joke…$23 a night! The only downside is how popular these parks are in high season because of the price- people…take my word for it- BOOK EARLY! Like…its Aug 2019…what are you doing in Aug 2020? because you should start thinking about booking a site at the state park if you want a good one.
KOA ($30-$200 per night) – yes, yes, KOA’s for any seasoned camper should fall under the category of private campgrounds, BUT, these nation wide, chain of campgrounds is a league all of their own. There are so many of them in all different areas and states, it is hard to ignore they have their own community of KOAers if I might call them. Prices are dependent on location, season and amenities. If you are looking for kid-friendly activities, some of these locations will have it all when it comes to amenities- bounce-houses, pools with kiddie areas, playgrounds, etc. We have a site booked near Charleston, SC in Dec For $80 per night. Our site overlooks a lake, has a paved site, paver firepit, 2 seater wooden swing, and full hookups. KOA’s do have a membership you can purchase to get a discounted rate, but you don’t have to have one in order to book a site.
Private Campgrounds ($30-$250 per night) – the most variable due to price, location and amenities. I could go on and on about the different types but the easiest way to see all their differences is experience. Everyone will have their MUST HAVE list- must be on the water, must be less than $50 per night, etc. Use your MUST list and reviews to find a campground that fits your criteria.
BEST User Friendly Websites
Since we are still pretty new at this RV thing, we generally only use 1 or 2 websites to find our future campgrounds- Reserve America and Good Sam listed below. It wasn’t until we were trying to book a major holiday weekend and our month long RV trip around December holidays that we even branched out from solely using those two. If all popular campgrounds are booked, back to good ol’ Google it is! We have our Labor Day weekend coming up and we only used Google Maps to find an available campground near the location we wanted. Sometimes the smaller campgrounds aren’t associated with any of the major websites, but don’t discount them!
www.ReserveAmerica.com – HANDS DOWN, the BEST, most USER-FRIENDLY, website we have used so far. This is our go to site for just about 90% of our campsite bookings. From booking state parks to private campgrounds, this site allows you to filter by date, location, RV needs, availability, and more. It shows you all the campgrounds in that location (by list or map view!) and even whether they are associated with a membership such as Good Sam. I found this site has the best compilation of campgrounds than any other site and no membership to join or to reserve!
www.goodsam.com – Similar to Reserve America, Good Sam is also a great search engine for campgrounds. You don’t need a membership to book at a site through Good Sam, but if you do decide to pick one up, expect a discount around 10% off over 2,400 different locations throughout the US. Though the filtering out of parks is not as comprehensive as Reserve America, Good Sam does let you filter by different categories of rating such as Facility, Restroom, and Appearance Ratings which is awesome if you are clean freaks like we are. The other perk to mention about is the amount of detail that is listed once you get to a campground of choice. Because we have 85lb pup with us, we always want to know the policies right away to make sure we can all stay there- Good Sam lists their policies right on this overview page along with many other good details about the location and campground. Good Sam is our second choice to Reserve America- I really tend to use Reserve America to find our campground and search for that particular campground in Good Sam to find out more details and get better reviews.
www.google.com/maps – Good ol’ google! This one is pretty self explanatory- I am pretty sure you have to be hiding under a rock for the past 10 years not to know and utilize google maps to find whatever you are looking for. I will just say that some of the best gems are found using the overhead view of a town you are interested in traveling to. Type in “campgrounds near X town” and it is the easiest way to figure out distance, location (let’s say proximity to water or a lake, etc) and reviews of any campground you find. When all else fails… GOOGLE!
www.rvonthego.com – another search engine for campgrounds with the caveat that all of these campgrounds are associated with Thousand Trails or Encore RV Resorts. Again, great search engine offering different campgrounds that may not be listed on Reserve America or Good Sam. Good news is you don’t need a membership to book a site, but know that some of these campgrounds are just a little pricier than others based on amenities and location. Having a membership does help with pricing but we have not picked one up just yet. The perks of having a membership include being able to stay at one of their Thousand Trails or Encore RV Resorts for little or $0 at the time of your stay- you are only paying for your yearly membership. Keep in mind that once you have a membership, some campgrounds do have restrictions. In our case, if we wanted to stay at an Encore RV Resort with a membership in Key West in Dec, they required us to book no more than 60 days in advance for their advertised price of $20 per night with membership. God speed to anyone trying to book Key West at prime holiday time only 60 days out… we seriously had trouble 6 months in advance finding a site. Either way, we ended up booking the Encore RV Resort without a Thousand Trails membership but used our Good Sam membership instead for 10% off.
www.KOA.com – a super user friendly search engine for only KOA associated campgrounds. All the perks of the other search engines with filtering for date, location, RV specs, but only with KOA locations. This may be limiting in some places, but generally, you will find KOA’s near every major city or highway along your route.
Types of Memberships and Their Benefits
- Thousand Trails
- Encore RV Resorts
- Good Sam Club
- KOA– Kampground of America Value Kard Rewards
- Passport America
- Harvest Host
- ..and more
We will save the details for another post as some of this information is super overwhelming and really…I am even still learning the in’s and out’s of some of these myself- the only advice I will give for memberships is to always weigh the perks and monetary savings/value against not getting the membership. Bottom line- what is it really saving you?
Meaning: If you stay at a campground such as KOA and your stay will run you around $500 for the week, purchasing a membership for $37 will save you 10%, or $50 off that one stay. Now, here you are only saving $13, but if you plan on staying at any other KOA in the next physical year, the savings will more than outweigh the cost of the membership. That’s a WIN in my book!