Planning Trips with your RV or Travel Trailer
So you've been thinking of going somewhere!
Are you one of those people who loves the idea of just getting on the road with your small travel trailer and going? Do you like the adventure of not knowing where? Do you just love figuring it out as you go along? In other words, you don't like the idea of planning trips. If so, you can skip this section.
But that's not me. I'm a pretty organized person. I like the idea of planning trips, although I do try to leave a fair amount of flexibility in them. We often refine our trip as we go along. If you're more like me, keep reading and see if you can get some ideas from what's been working for us.
Do you have some favorite place to go or people to visit? Do you have places you've wanted to visit for a long time? Or maybe you've just been browsing places on the Internet or watching TV shows and thinking about places for your bucket list. In any case, there are two things you will need to do when planning trips...determine your route and find places to stay.
When estimating the time, be sure to factor in items that will affect you that are not considered by the mapping programs. How fast you drive, stop lights and traffic, rest stops, etc. all come into play.
First, you need to decide on the route to take. If it's a short weekend trip, you may already know your route and there's nothing new to consider. But if it's a longer trip to somewhere new, you should do some planning. Do you want to get there the fastest way possible? Or are you like me and want to take more time, avoid the Interstate traffic (and boredom) and take old highways and back roads? Whatever the case, you should explore your options and estimate how long the trip will take. Once you've settled on your route, you'll need to document your plan and get your schedule organized.
Over time, you will come up with your own approach for planning trips and choosing your routes. But to get you started, let me tell you about the free web-based tools I use and how I go about it.
After trying a lot of mapping tools, I always end up going back to Google Maps. It's very easy to drag your route around on the map to explore alternatives and see how it affects the time. I also like the fact that you can switch and see actual photos along the way on most main roads and streets. If you're not already familiar with Google Maps, you really need to give it a try. It is great for deciding on a route when planning a trip and may be all you need for a short trip. It does, however, have limitations as to the number of stops you can add and has no provisions for adding notes along the route.
My Scenic Drives
After trying several possible solutions to documenting our routes, I've settled on the MyScenicDrives website.
As you add your stops, it allows you to enter other details such as time planned for the stop as well as your notes. I use it just to document our trips, but it can do much more. You can actually enter the amount of time you wish to drive each day and it will suggest where to stop. You can also enter costs and it will develop your budget. After you have everything entered, it will generate your route map with stops, as well as your basic itinerary. You can really go crazy with this tool if you want!
Once I have my itinerary complete, I put the schedule for my trip plan on a calendar for easy reference. There are a lot of calendar programs, but I use the Google calendar because I can access it from my phone and it is easy to share with others. It's also very quick and easy to use.
Researching Places to Stay
So where are you going to stay? With a small travel trailer, we can stay great places that the big RVs can't always squeeze into. You need to decide what kinds of places you are interested in before you begin. We don't like to rough it. We stay at places where we can take long showers if we want and can plug in our microwave. We even go for cable TV once in a while. If this sounds good to you, be sure to start by checking out the reviews of the places we have actually been to. See if any of them fit your plans. I've compiled a database that includes our reviews and ratings of the things that are important to us, traveling with a small trailer. Depending upon your travel rig and your priorities, they may vary a bit from what all you look for, but hopefully, they will help. For most of the places, I've also included photos (quite often including the showers). I also started and manage a Facebook Group full of campground info and photos by all its members. Since most posts include the state in their text, you can easily use Facebook to search the group for places you are interested in.
Researching and finding good places to stay is very time-consuming. While our Campground Reviews and the Facebook Campgrounds, Trailers and RVs Group are a great place to start, you'll certainly be visiting areas we've not even thought about. You should develop a good method to conduct your research. The Internet is loaded with all the information you could ever need. The challenge is having a productive way of finding it and being confident in what you've found. Having a good approach will save hours and assure that you don't have a big surprise when you arrive at your destination.
If you are on a tight budget, always check out Passport America.
When planning trips, I start my search for a particular area by checking Passport America (PA) first. PA is a discount camping club you can join. It gets you a 50% discount on overnight rates at about 2,000 campgrounds across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The discounts are often limited to times when the campgrounds are not that busy. For most places that excludes the weekends, but in places with a lot of tourism, it may also exclude their busy seasons.
You do need to check out these campgrounds thoroughly in advance. Some of them are old and rundown, and some of them have mostly full-time residents. But beyond that are some really great places (including upscale RV parks with full amenities). Many of the ones we've stayed at have been in seasonal locations and it's been during their offseason. Others were new campgrounds that were not yet well known. Then we've also found a few that focus on local markets and are busy mostly on weekends and holidays. Many of these have been great one or two night stops, frequently with full hookups for only $15 to $20.
I can't always find a good PA campground near where we want to stay. However, when I can, we've been able to save some money and/or stay somewhere much nicer than we normally do. The best part, is that it only takes a few nights in a year to pay back the annual membership fee.
RV Park Reviews
When you read reviews, keep in mind that traveling with a large RV is much different than with a small travel trailer like ours. Both positive and negative comments by others may not matter to your situation. Be sure to pay attention to comments and not just depend on the ratings.
Next, I move on to RV Park Reviews. This is the best site I've found overall on user reviews of campgrounds. They have almost 300,000 reviews on over 15,000 campgrounds. Every campground I've ever looked for was included in their database. You can easily search by state or Canadian Province and zero in on the area you are interested in. If I am lucky enough to find something in Passport America, I always look it up here to read the reviews from other campers.
Do realize however, that there is no assurance that the reviews here or anywhere else are accurate or unbiased. We've had a few surprises when we arrived at our destination. This is mostly a concern when there are very few reviews posted for the particular place. Overall, this site has been a great help.
The Campground or RV Park Website
When I've identified a place that looks good so far, I go to the campground's own website to learn more. Each place in RV Park Reviews has a button providing a direct link to the campground's official website, otherwise, you'll have to use Google and do some searching. Often they will have a gallery of photos, but be careful. We've had times when we arrived, that the photos were not really representative of the actual place.
If all the photos you find include only large RVs or small travel trailers, be sure to check and make sure they are a good fit for you. Some RV parks don't allow small trailers, and some campgrounds cannot accomodate big rigs.
My final step is to go to Google Images and search for photos. You can usually always find some for State Parks, National Parks and larger RV Parks. Sometimes it's difficult to find photos of the smaller campgrounds.
Using a computer and not a phone makes this research much easier. I open a web browser with four tabs, one for each of the websites above. For each place that I'm checking out, I then work through the tabs in order.
Walmart and Cracker Barrel - Free places to stay overnight
The majority of the Walmarts and Cracker Barrels will allow you to park free overnight in their parking lots. This can be a good solution if you don't need facilities and hookups. Always check first with the manager of the particular location.
We have never spent the night in a parking lot. Our main reason is that we like having at least water and electric hookups. We've talked with many people who have though, and most of them have felt good about it and would do it again. The biggest warning has been to make sure it felt like a secure location...some do and some don't.