This blog post is for people planning to become RVers, for those just beginning their RV journey, or just for people who don't RV at all, but are interested in how we make things happen on the road. It will contain no cute pictures of our grandson, Jace, nor any pictures of majestic scenery or beautiful campsites.
It's our self-imposed challenge to see how RV life on the cheap can be accomplished going a significant distance. Frankly, it's a life more than a few RVers do on a regular basis, eschewing campgrounds unless absolutely necessary, and finding opportunities to boondock for (relatively) free wherever possible. This will also detail our search for gas stations in an area which doesn't have our usual RV-friendly Flying J truck stops that can accept our 38-foot motorhome and 15-foot attached towed Mini.
So first, why are we doing this travel on the cheap? “Because we can” is not enough. It's basically because of the time frame in which we find ourselves heading north to Vermont and New Hampshire as late in the camping season as we are doing. A planned high school reunion for Barbara had been scheduled for late October, so instead of our usual “no later than Labor Day” rule for traveling to colder climates, we were forced to push our Fall trip up north to after Columbus Day.
In addition to making things chillier for us thin-blooded former New Englanders, when the weather gets colder, campgrounds close for the season (usually the Monday of the Columbus Day three-day weekend is their last day), making finding a spot a bit problematic for a late-October class reunion. Having done some initial research and planning, I had found a campground in Brookline, NH, just over the Massachusetts border, which stays open year 'round, so an early booking for the 2nd and 3rd weeks of October was accomplished early. Of course, then we find out they're canceling the reunion until next year due to COVID reasons, so we could have avoided all this and just headed up sooner!
“So what's the reason for this post, Dave, since you got your campsite all set after Columbus Day?” you ask. Well, the answer is that getting up to New England in late October is only half the problem.
It's getting back to warmer weather this late in the year which can be the challenge.
To prepare for the travel on the cheap, our fresh water tank needs to be filled to at least 2/3rds full for the 4-day trip to our first campsite in Vermont, where full hookups await. Next, as usual when we leave a campground, the black tank is emptied and flushed as clean as possible, and the gray tank is drained fully. Since we'll be on generator and battery power for successive days, I check and top off water levels in each of the four 6-volt batteries stored under our front steps to make sure they're fully capable to take repeated charges. These batteries can power the coach for about 12 hours or more without recharging, based on how much power we use during the day. I also check the oil level in our Onan 7000 watt generator to make sure that it will keep running for extended periods. If it's a driving day, I don't have to worry about charging our house batteries with the generator, because the alternator on our Ford V-10 engine does the work.
One of the easiest ways to camp on the cheap is Wallydocking, which is staying at a Walmart along your travel route. Not all Walmarts allow for overnight RV parking, but most do. We use an app called RVParky to scout out which Walmarts are RV-friendly based on fellow traveler's reports, then pull in and ask the store manager if it's still OK to stay. We then spend some money to thank our host, so it's not entirely free camping, but it can be. Most Walmarts that allow for overnight parking only let you stay for one night, but we found two in central PA (we stayed at the one in St. Clair) that actually have signs posted that tell you that RV parking is allowed for up to 48 hours. Very accommodating.
Other places for inexpensive boondocking are Cabelas, some of which may even have a dump station on site, or Harvest Host sites, which allow for an overnight stay at a winery, distillery, farm or museum. Just pay back your host with a purchase, and you're good to go. One other app we don't use at all is Boondockers Welcome, mainly because the people offering their areas to park don't have room to accommodate an RV and toad of our length, but it does work for shorter 5th wheels and travel trailers. Finally, Cracker Barrel restaurants can be RV-friendly, but you have to be very careful in finding one whose parking lot can take your RV without blocking too many of their parking spaces. Basically, arrive as far after their dinner rush as possible to find a spot, then get breakfast the next day and scoot!
Finding gas can be a challenge heading up to the northeast, mainly due to two factors; available real estate and limited camping opportunities. People create businesses when there is a need, and there is simply less need to build a travel stop that can accommodate a large RV when there are fewer parks which can accommodate a large RV in that area.
Stations are also smaller in footprint due to higher real estate costs, and those smaller footprints can make is tough to thread something 53-feet in length into and out of a gas station. You also have to be careful in making sure the overhang above the pumps is tall enough to take your over 13-foot high RV!
So unfortunately there are no Flying J travel centers in New England. None. Ditto Love's, which doesn't have dedicated RV gas pumps like Flying J does, but can usually take something our size if we check it out properly. We'll get to an app that let's us do that in a moment. Shell stations can be RV-friendly at times, because they build more of their locations with pumps that run parallel to the road and their buildings than other providers do, making it a straight pull-in / pull-out experience, but even Shell doesn't have a lot of presence in northern states. In New Hampshire, there is a brand called Irving which has mostly decent room for us, but they're a local brand and not very plentiful.
So what's a gasser RV owner to do? Google Earth to the rescue!
If you have never used Google Earth, it's a really cool app that gives you a bird's eye view of anyplace on Earth, and searching is as easy as can be. You can input the specific address, or just the name of the store or gas station and the town you're looking for, and the screen does a little corkscrew thing and gives you an overhead shot of your potential destination!
One Love's station in Binghamton, NY we were looking at just happened to have their picture snapped as a large 5th wheel was pulling into their pumps, so we THOUGHT that that particular location would be good for us. Found out we needed to look at the distance from the pumps to the entrance, because when I tried to pull in, I would be blocking the exit for the drive-thru Wendy's on site. Being a considerate driver, blocking an exit doesn't sound like a good idea when you need to pump 60 gallons or more in your tank. Needless to say, we moved on to a nearby Mirabito station that had room for us. Lesson learned. Google Earth also confirmed a Cracker Barrel north of Albany we were thinking of stopping at. Fortunately, that worked out better for us, with plenty of room to maneuver to stay overnight. So instead of Wallydocking, we Crackerdocked!
So as you can see, the art of traveling on the cheap is a bit more like a science, with a lot of experimentation involved. Planning for the trip back to warmer weather and a likely 2-month or more stay in Georgia, we found a Walmart in New Jersey which will allow us to stop and see an old friend in New Brunswick, and a campground still open until November 1st further south which will find us near the outskirts of Philadelphia to visit a couple of other friends, and hopefully partake of a real, honest-to-goodness Philly cheesesteak. Staying there will also help us officially knock another state off of our list and add a sticker to our map.
But our practice at traveling on the cheap will go a long way towards making life more flexible for us on the road when we need it.
We're Dave and Barbara Richard, and we're living the ultimate retirement experience - traveling the U.S. and Canada in style in a Tiffin Open Road 36LA Class A motor home, playing golf and stopping at every weird and wacky roadside attraction we can find.