Staying Full-time at Campgrounds for $200/month
By Stephanie Byrnes
If there's one aspect of full-timing as a novice that I found most overwhelming it was the actual cost. There was such a mystery to it. Campground membership websites are often confusing and vague. When I talked to others it seemed like they were spending a fortune doing this full-time, and I was determined to find a cheaper way to stay at nice, safe parks without doing month-long stays.
So after a few months of experimenting with different campground memberships, we finally found a system that averages out to $200/month at campgrounds with ample amenities and security AND in areas around the country that we actually wanted to visit.
What's the Investment?
In order to truly spend $70 on campground stays each month, there is an upfront investment. However, I have added this initial investment together so that you can see the average over the course of a year is only $200 per month. I'm an English teacher by trade, but I'm going to try to break down some math here. Hang with me! :)
RPI (Resort Parks International)
This was the first campground membership we invested in.
Resort Parks International (RPI) is not open to the general public. You must first be a member of an RPI park. The prices of these parks vary by park, but it doesn't matter which one you join. I would recommend that if you don't have a preference on where you want your home park to be, call various RPI parks to price the cheapest one to join. Our home park is in Branson, Missouri, at Treasure Lake Resort. This is a resort that other family members have and is close to our home state of Arkansas. It's also a really nice park. Much like you can purchase second-hand condo timeshares, you can buy a second-hand membership to an RPI park, as well. We purchased ours off an individual for $700. That gets us a membership for life with annual dues of $180. If we would have purchased the membership through the park, it would have been $2700. So definitely look on Facebook groups, Craigslist, and directly through the park to see if there others out there looking to sell their membership to a park. And as I mentioned before, I have seen some RPI parks as cheap as $500 to join, so check around. This has a pretty comprehensive list of RPI parks, but it may be out of date, so call to check.
In addition to the one-time membership to a home park, you will have an annual RPI membership of $200 to access nationwide RPI parks.
So what does RPI get you? I now have access to all the green and yellow parks on the map above for just $10/night. I can't spend more than 21 nights at one park (unless you have a long-term rental agreement with the park), but I CAN leave one RPI park at 21 days and hop into another RPI park. You don't have to go out of network ever. We never stay anywhere for more than a week or two at a time, so the 21 day rule hasn't been hard.
You also get the brown parks on the map at $15/night in the off-season and 30% off in peak season. These are TT/Encore parks and each park determines their own peak and off-season. For example, summer isn't peak for most Florida parks, but summer is peak season at most Northeast parks.
Ok, are you still with me?
So far we have an investment of $700 for our "home" park for life ($180 annually for dues until we die) and $200 annually for the actual nationwide RPI membership.
Now, with just this membership, you could realistically stay $10/night all over the country with some $15/night stops at Encore/Thousand Trail parks in their off-season. That would be $300/month or $3600 for the year plus the initial investment of $900 (home park + RPI membership). That's a total of $4520 for the year or $375/month average. That's great, right? A lot cheaper than my $1400 mortgage plus $500 utility bill in my sticks and bricks. And a lot cheaper than paying $50/night at most campgrounds!
But we can do BETTER and get MORE options!
Thousand Trails Zone Pass
Now, remember how I said with your RPI membership you get $15/night during off-season at some Encore/Thousand Trails parks? That's all well and good IN THE OFF-SEASON. When it's peak season, these particular parks are only 30% off, and depending on the park that could mean you are paying $35-$50/night. Nope, that won't do. This is when a Thousand Trails Zone pass makes sense. You can read more about this pass in a previous blog post here. But basically, for $425 annually you can get access to regional areas of TT parks at no additional nightly cost.
We purchased the Northeast zone pass because most of the parks int he Northeast we wanted within our RPI membership were Encore/TT, and it was peak season. But with the Thousand Trails Zone Pass, we can stay at each Thousand Trail park for up to 14 days for no additional cost, and then we have to stay completely out of network for 7 days before returning to a Thousand Trail park. Those 7 days are when we cash in on our RPI membership.
So our itinerary for a month looks a lot like this:
14 days at a Thousand Trails park=$0
7 days at an RPI park=$70
7 days at a Thousand Trail park=$0
Do you see what I just did? Are you still with me?
Final Wrap-up Calculations
Let's break this down:
$700 one-time for life membership to RPI "home" park (only $180 for dues after the initial year)
$200 annual RPI membership
$425 annual zone pass (can add additional regions for just $49 more dollars)
$70 monthly out of pocket for stays at RPI parks
TOTAL=$2,165 for the year or $180/month
What's the Catch?
There really isn't one. The parks we have stayed at vary in quality. Some are very well-maintained. Others could use a bathroom remodel or a little TLC on the mini golf holes. But all are safe and clean with amenities like pools, playgrounds, hot tubs, clubhouses, farm animals, activities, restaurants, country stories, and more. Most have 24/7 security or gates with code access. Some have big, wooded lots, and some are more like parking lots. I'm careful to read reviews when we are planning to check on quality, internet reception, and lot size.
A lot of the parks may not be exactly where you want, too. We often are an hour or so drive from trips we want to take. For example, this week we are in Front Royal, Virginia, and it's an hour from D.C., but we don't mind driving to see the city when we are saving considerably at our campground. But then other times, like when we stayed near Yosemite, Las Vegas, or Mammoth Cave, we were in the best location for what we wanted to see!
But the reality is when you only spend $200/month on average at campgrounds, you can splurge on a $50/night site every now and then if there is a park you really want to visit. These memberships, though, help us save money and make this lifestyle accessible to more people. And if we can help others with our experience, we certainly want to!
If you have any more questions, don't hesitate to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me through Instagram at @thosebyrnesgirls .