Travel can be very expensive. But it doesn’t have to be.
There’s one simple way to save money on your trips:
Yep, not an earth-shattering secret, I know. But it’s still a powerful way to travel. Not only does it allow you to experience the local environment in a more intimate way, but it allows you to save some serious bucks along the way.
By camping instead of staying in hotels, you can often save enough to extend your trip by 30% or more. That’s huge.
If your goal is to travel cheaply enough to afford an additional vacation or two this year, camping might be the answer.
A fraction of the cost
I never stay at the high end resorts or hotels, but I usually try to avoid the bottom-barrel motels, too. For me, a clean room and preferably a good pillow is what I’m looking for. That means that I’m routinely spending $75-200 a night on a room. That adds up quickly, especially considering how little time I usually spend in the room.
By contrast, camping is a fraction of the cost. Campsites at developed campgrounds usually run between $15-45 or so, with full service RV campgrounds starting around $50. And you can also camp for free in dispersed campsites in most national forests and BLM public lands—that’s tens of millions of acres where you can sleep for free.
To put some numbers to it, here’s what a stay in Grand Canyon National Park would cost you for a 3-night, mid-week trip over July 10-13, 2017. The cheapest hotel currently available on hotels.com is a nice 3-star Best Western in Tusayan, about 6 miles from the park boundary.
Best Western in Tusayan: $270/night ($810 total)
Mather Campground: $18/night, ($54 total)
➞ Savings: a whopping $756
Maybe this is a bad example, and you’d be cool with staying 60 miles away in Flagstaff where you might be able to snag a $120 hotel instead. Ok, fine. But you’d still be saving $300 by camping. And you’d be within walking distance of the sunrise or sunset over the canyon. And yes, you’d still have flushing toilets and showers, plus a picnic table and fire ring—and even a free ranger campfire program.
It’s not just about not paying for a hotel
The most obvious expenditure you’ll save by camping is on hotel bills. For my travels, that’s usually the highest cost. But camping provides another possible cost-saving measure: the ability to cook your own meals.
Cooking for yourself will undoubtedly save you gobs of cash. Sure, it’s much more work to cook for yourself. But if you’re looking to save money, this is another great way to do that.
Don’t want to cook? No worries, you can just as easily eat out and head back to camp whenever you’re ready to unwind and go to bed.
Speaking of unwinding, is there anything better than an adult beverage around a campfire? Yeah, that’s a lot more fun than drinking in the hotel bar or alone in your room.
Camping isn’t always an option
Granted, camping won’t always be an option. If your goal is visiting Manhattan…well, camping probably isn’t a particularly viable choice. But it does work for a surprisingly large subset of America, especially when you’re on the move between places.
Weather plays a major consideration as well. I don’t recommend camping during your summer swing through Phoenix, for instance—though you could camp an hour north in the cool pines of the Mogollon Rim without any issues. Likewise, camping in extreme cold or snow offers other unique challenges that you might not want to deal with.
On the other hand, lodges in popular national parks often sell out weeks or months before the campgrounds.
Camping does require an initial investment
Now, you’ll need at least some gear to make camping a reality. But you probably don’t need as much as you think. Even better is that after that initial your gear will last years and years, reducing the cost of future trips.
The most basic gear needs:
- sleeping bag
- sleeping pad
You don’t need the very best of these, though the more you spend the better gear you’ll get. But for occasional use, some of the cheapest models you can find at Wal-Mart or on Amazon could be perfectly functional for your needs.
And you don’t actually need a tent, or a sleeping bag, or a sleeping pad—you just need to accomplish the same function. You can use your own blankets as a sleeping bag, or a foam mattress topper as a sleeping pad, for instance. And I often sleep in the back of my Subaru Outback instead of pitching a tent.
You can also rent gear from places like REI, or simply borrow it from friends. In fact, that’s probably the best way to get started.
The other benefits of camping
Saving money—often in order to extend my trip—is usually my primary motivation for camping during road trips. But there are quite a few additional benefits of camping you shouldn’t overlook.
- Camping provides a more intimate connection to place. You’ll learn more about your destination by spending time in its native environs.
- It’s also good to disconnect from screens, and it’s good to see the stars once in awhile. Disengaging from the digital world can refocus your mind on more important aspects of life—not just how many likes your last instagram post has gotten.
- Camping also fosters deeper personal connections with your traveling companions. Shared experiences such as camping create stronger memories and nurtures relationships.
But probably the most obvious benefit is the flexibility it provides. When you’re self-contained, your schedule has a bit more give in it and you’re not quite as locked in to your initial itinerary. So if you run across something unexpected that you really want to do, you can. And if you’re not enjoying where you’re at, you can move along to a new destination.