By Kimberly Button
Are you dreaming about packing everything up, hitting the road and going wherever you desire, whenever you want? You’re not alone! It’s no surprise that RVing has surged in popularity recently as we’re all exploring more of the United States and want to have a safe place to stay. While planning an RV getaway might seem intimidating, it doesn’t have to be! In fact, you don’t even need to buy an RV to enjoy the freedom of a great American road trip.
I spent a year RVing the country and learned a lot along the way. Here are the tips I wish I’d known before we took off on a memorable year of travel. (They work just as well for shorter vacations, too.)
Best Places to RV
One of the best things about RVing is you can go anywhere and bring your accommodations with you. Whether you want to see unspoiled wilderness, urban camp or park by the ocean, you can do it with an RV. Here are some bucket-list worthy destinations that should be on your itinerary. But be sure to plan ahead (up to 18 months out). Popular sites book quickly.
Most people dream about RVing to America’s national parks and for good reason. Many of these destinations are remote, with limited accommodations and supplies. Bringing your own food and lodging is a smart way to enjoy them. Plus, staying within a national park can often save you time by not waiting in lines to get inside, or having to drive to your destination once in the gate.
In January, we tried booking a campsite for July at Glacier National Park and were surprised to find out it was almost fully booked. We chose to do shorter stays at two different campgrounds within the park that had availability, so be creative when looking at reservations. Campsites in these national parks (regardless of which campground you choose) are among some of the most coveted, so if you see availability, grab it!
- Yellowstone National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Zion National Park
Many state parks are so amazing that they feel like national parks. They’re often not as crowded or offer less expensive campsites. We marveled at how awesome South Dakota’s Custer State Park is and we had never heard of it before! The following stunning state parks have RV camping:
• Custer State Park Near Mount Rushmore and two national parks, this 71,000-acre wilderness has roaming bison and plenty of wildlife, along with beaches and five lodges (four of them with restaurants).
• Bahia Honda State Park A waterfront park in Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys that offers fishing, kayaking and snorkeling boat tours.
• Denali State Park Almost half the size of Rhode Island, this massive recreational area has everything that you dream of in an Alaskan getaway and borders Denali National Park and Preserve.
Want to escape the winter? Or just dream about a waterfront view out your backdoor? Many campgrounds offer sites directly on the waterfront. These are highly popular and usually require reservations far in advance.
• Fiesta Key RV Resort and Marina Located on a private island all its own in Long Key, Florida, this is one of the most coveted beachfront destinations for RVers.
• Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area With the Atlantic Ocean on one side of the barrier island and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other, you’ll be surrounded by waterfront views in this popular RV destination at Flagler Beach, Florida.
• Camp Hatteras RV Resort and Campground If you dream about lazy sunrises and sunsets, you’ll enjoy this quiet barrier island campground in Rodanthe, North Carolina surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound.
Family Friendly Campgrounds
These campgrounds are perfectly suited to campers who want luxury camping and plenty of amenities. You’ll often find luxuries such as fast internet, pools, hot tubs, ice cream socials, organized activities, mini golf courses and more. Many also have alternative camping sites, such as yurts or cabins, so that friends or family can stay with you even if they aren’t RVing. Expect to pay a higher price for these campsites, but as destinations in themselves, it might be worth it for you.
• The Campgrounds at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Located in Walt Disney World, you’ll have fireworks views at night, a beach to enjoy, plus plenty of Disney magic!
• Williamsburg/Busch Gardens Area KOA Not only is it close to historic attractions and a theme park, but the large campground has plenty of activities such as campfire get-togethers, a game room and pool.
• Ocean Lakes Family Campground This Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, destination is one of the largest campgrounds in America, boasting its own water park, mini golf course, pools, cafe and beachfront access.
RV Renting Tips
• Not familiar with driving large vehicles? Opt for the smallest RV you can fit in. The stress of trying to navigate traffic or back up a larger RV into a campground is not worth extra space you might not need.
• Have an idea of your trip route and your camping style before finishing the reservation. If you will be staying in campgrounds with full hookups, there’s no need to pay extra for generator use. Planning on eating out a lot? Don’t pay extra to have pots and pans supplied in the RV. Driving long distances? You might be paying a lot extra with mileage add-ons to the base price of the rental.
• Know the model of the RV you will be renting? Watch YouTube videos on tours of that type of RV to familiarize yourself with the storage areas, how the slides work, how big the refrigerator is, etc. You won’t have to waste precious time once you have the RV trying to figure those things out.
• Give yourself some time to get used to the RV. Bring it home for a night before leaving. Or allow yourself a few hours after picking it up before needing to get on the road. On your first travel day, only plan on driving an hour or two. You need to have time to load all of your belongings, figure out the equipment and feel settled in before taking it out.
• Take time to test drive the RV before hitting the open road. Practice making turns in the facility where you pick up the RV. Go to a large parking lot and practice backing up. If you are not comfortable driving the rig, you can cause damage and harm to others.
• There are lots of gadgets you can bring for better camping. Among the most important are a surge protector to protect against power surges at a site, as well as additional hoses for extra length to reach power and water hookups. An electrical converter might not always be necessary but can come in handy. On a 90-degree day, we parked in a campground and the air conditioner kept shutting off. It turns out the 30-amp electrical connection was bad. We used a converter to make the 50-amp connection work for our 30-amp trailer and were able to stay cool.
• Invest in a water filter (even for a rental RV) to attach to water hookup. It will save you from needing to buy expensive bottled water for drinking and cooking.
• Don’t worry about bringing firewood. Many places forbid bringing in wood that’s not local to prevent the spread of disease. You usually can buy or source firewood at your destination. You might be surprised with how many areas out west have fire bans in place, which means no campfires.
• Thinking of using a generator for power and cooling? Pay attention to rules about allowed hours for use. Be prepared with battery-operated backup fans if needed.
• All RVs have a Cargo Carrying Capacity weight limit, which includes people, gas, fresh water tank, food, outdoor gear, etc. You will be surprised at how fast you can reach a 1,000 pound weight limit. Be sure you check the allowable weight on your RV and pack accordingly.
• Driving an RV is much different than driving a car. You cannot go as fast or as far in a day. It’s tiring, and you’ll be stopping for gas more. Adjust plans of how far you can go. As we found out, when you ask your GPS for distance in time, always add 60 to 90 minutes to what it says to allow for “RV time.”
• Don’t trust your GPS with directions. Always look at what it suggests and confirm whether it’s a smart route. They don’t take into account narrow roads, winding roads, bridges and overpasses, driving through small towns, etc. We entered a Virginia state park into our GPS and the directions brought us off of the highway, down a country road that was narrow and had switchbacks, and we had to drive at 30 mph. When we got to the entrance of the state park, there was an off-ramp from the highway that came directly to the park. The GPS had rerouted us unnecessarily through farmlands and residential areas.
• AAA RV service and coverage is a must! (Available as AAA Plus RV and AAA Premier RV memberships.) In one year, we called AAA three times. First, we got accidentally locked out of our RV and needed the lock picked. Twice, we had tire blow outs on the side of the highway. Once, the shredded tire ripped off the panels of our RV and damaged the electrical system. You do not want to try to figure out how to change an RV tire on the side of a highway. And you likely won’t be bringing a jack and tools to do it. Our AAA Plus RV and service was extremely valuable and definitely paid for itself many times over!
• Always look ahead of the route to plan for fuel. RVs use more gas than cars, and not all service stations are accessible, especially those in small towns. Use an app like GasBuddy to find gas stations on your route. Never wait until you are near empty to fuel up, because you might not find a gas station for an hour or so when in remote areas. There were many times we wouldn’t see a gas station for a couple hours. And in one small town, we barely fit under the canopy over the gas tanks to get much-needed fuel, but it was our only option for several hours.
• If you will be out of cell-service range, be sure to download weather reports, driving directions, details about where you are staying, etc. before losing connectivity. Turning an RV around to drive back to where you have a signal is no fun. When staying in South Dakota’s Badlands, we went to Mount Rushmore several times because it was the only place where we could get a cell signal. We would go to the park just to figure out driving directions, get work done, call family, etc.
Choosing the Best Campground
• Pay attention to size requirements for campgrounds. When the reservation says 30 feet or less, they really mean it. Many sites are backed up to woods or other camping sites. If you are too long, the RV will be hanging into the road (and they will make you leave). Sometimes the reservation is vague, and you might not know if the size includes just the RV or your RV and a tow vehicle. We reserved sites that should have been big enough for our rig, but once we got there it was really hard to fit in the space. Every campground seems to be different. Always call ahead and confirm if necessary.
• One of the most important considerations is to know what services you are getting. Full hookups will include water, sewer hookup and electric (although the types of electric can be 20-, 30- or 50-amp). Dry camping is just a place to park with no hookups. Many campgrounds have some sort of hybrid. (For example, you might not have a sewer hookup in your spot, but there could be a dump station in the campground.) You must know this in order to be prepared.
• The best campgrounds will likely be booked well in advance, sometimes a year ahead. However, people often change plans and reservations become available at the last minute, so keep looking. While you might like the flexibility of parking wherever you drive to that day, you probably won’t be able to get into campgrounds with amenities, best locations, best views, etc.
• Trying to get into a first-come, first-served campground in a national park? Start lining up at 8 a.m. (or earlier), even if check-in isn’t until afternoon.
• If staying connected is important to you, be sure to call the campground or do research about the Wi-Fi or data strength in the area. When a campground says they have Wi-Fi, it might be very weak and only able to handle sending an email, not being on social media or streaming videos. We stayed at a campground in Charlottesville, Virginia, that promised Wi-Fi. What we found was absolutely no signal strength and we were in a data dead zone. We had to drive 10 minutes down the road to park in a parking lot (along with other campers) to get any data coverage to download weather reports and driving directions.
The open road is calling! Plan your RV adventure today. Click here for AAA discounts on RV Rentals from Cruise America!