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5 ways to save money on your RV road trip

Wildflowers bloom as an RV travels along the road near Badwater Basin in Death Valley, Calif. Heading out on a road trip in a recreational vehicle allows travelers a unique opportunity to explore the nation while enjoying some comforts, too. [Associated Press]
Published May 7

Heading out on a road trip in a recreational vehicle allows travelers a unique opportunity to explore the nation while enjoying some comforts, too.

"It's not so much about just getting to where you're going and stopping when you're there, but you really get to enjoy the journey," says Julie Hall, a spokesperson for AAA . "It's also a cost-effective way to travel, or it can be at least."

But RV travel still comes with some expenses. Here's how to keep them in check.

1. CHOOSE A SMALLER VEHICLE

RVs range from small campers and towable trailers to grand motor homes over 40 feet long. Whether you rent or buy, the bigger you go, the more it'll cost.

"People can opt for a big luxury coach and pay thousands of dollars a week, or they can get a small (one) for a fraction of that price," says Chuck Woodbury, editor for RVtravel.com, who adds that larger vehicles typically offer less fuel efficiency and flexibility. "When you decide you need to get some milk or cereal or want to go out and hit the local tavern, well, you've got to move your home to do that."

For some, a roomier RV may be necessary to accommodate large groups. In that case, save money by splitting the cost with fellow travelers.

2. USE FUEL EFFICIENTLY

Prepare to spend more at the pump; RVs get about 6 to 18 mpg, depending on the size and model, Woodbury says. Cars average about 24 mpg.

Hall recommends using AAA's gas cost calculator to estimate the expense upfront. If the total exceeds your fuel budget, try a few saving strategies:

* Use an app like GasBuddy to map out gas stations along the route and identify locations with the lowest prices.

* Pay with a credit card that offers rewards on gas purchases.

* Slow down. "The faster you go, the more you're going to burn. If you're not in a big hurry, then go 60 (mph) instead of 70," Woodbury says.

3. FIND FREE (OR CHEAP) DESTINATIONS

While you'll avoid the cost of staying in hotels, you could still face fees for camping plus hooking up to water, sewer and electricity. The good news: There are plenty of affordable campsites. With an RV, you can camp free overnight on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands and in Walmart parking lots, where allowed.

Ellie Quinlan and Brad Hartland, who have been traveling and living out of their yellow VW van for the past several months, search for free spots on websites like iOverlander.com and FreeCampsites.net.

"They include everything from campsites to free public land to truck stops," Hartland says. "For each site, there'll be a review. You can see the last time someone was there and get a sense of what you're getting yourself into," Quinlan adds.

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You can also save money on RV rentals if you're willing to drive between certain destinations. For example, Cruise America has "one-way specials," which discount fees for travelers who pick up and drop off their vehicles in specific cities. Look for other area-based deals online and ask seasoned RV travelers for recommendations via blogs and community groups.

4. BRING YOUR OWN FOOD

Many RVs come equipped with refrigerators and cooktops, making real meals possible on the road. Stock up on fresh produce and your favorite fixings for sandwiches for a cheaper — and healthier — alternative to eating at diners and fast-food joints.

Grocery stores can provide amenities along the way, too. "Trader Joe's has free coffee and samples, and almost all have private, clean bathrooms," Quinlan says.

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If you want to sprinkle in a few restaurant meals, research your options. Before the trip, plan where you might eat and see if there are discounts available, Hall says.

5. JOIN A CLUB

Memberships and loyalty programs offer a wide variety of perks. A one-year, $44 membership for the camping club Passport America includes a 50% discount per night on stays throughout its network of RV campgrounds. There may be exclusions, though, often during popular travel times like Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. Check availability at each location in advance.

"If a park fills up in the summer, they're not probably going to want to offer half price when they can get full price. But in the offseason, they will gladly take half price," Woodbury says.

Other memberships can help you save year-round. Find out about rewards-club benefits at places like gas stations, grocery stores and sporting goods stores.

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