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Frugal RV Living: Fun, Free and Cheap

As a full-time RV'er, Stephanie writes about many natural wonders to be found in the U.S. National Parks and Monuments are her favorites.

Camping at Crater Lake National Park is a bargain!

Camping at Crater Lake National Park is a bargain!

RVing on a Budget

Many full-time RVers follow the sun, spending winters in warmer southern climates and summers in the mountains or near lakes and ocean beaches. Having the freedom to move your house to the most comfortable climate is a great advantage of having a house on wheels. Living on tight budgets, full-time RVers have learned that there are frugal ways to enjoy the things they love: nature, camping, social activities, hobbies, and entertainment.

Here are some tips for free fun and cheap entertainment practiced by budget-minded RVers.

Where to Find Cheap Entertainment:

  • Make the visitor’s center or chamber of commerce your first stop. They'll be happy to tell you about their town, give you an event schedule and suggest things to do in the area. Concerts, craft shows, fairs, and other events are fun, interesting, and often free. If not for a visitor's center in Michigan, we would have missed the Posen Potato Festival, their wonderful parade, and their incomparable potato pancake breakfast.
  • Trolley and subway systems are the perfect way to get around in many cities. For a few dollars, you can often get an all-day pass on public transportation. The subway systems in Washington, DC, or the trolleys in San Francisco are efficient, fast, and much more fun than trying to drive and park a car in these cities. Visitors' centers can provide maps of routes and things to see along the way and even some discount coupons.
  • Private campgrounds often bring in entertainment once a week. Campground listings will usually advertise their entertainment which is often free, though sometimes a nominal fee is charged.
  • Local museums and parks give you a taste of unique local history. Many are free or very low cost and offer interesting insights into the history and culture of the area.
  • State or National Historic Sites usually have small museums with knowledgeable staff members. For nominal entrance fees, or sometimes no fee, you can wander through Civil War forts or lighthouse keeper quarters.
Free beach access at Boca Chica on South Padre Island, Texas.

Free beach access at Boca Chica on South Padre Island, Texas.

Free Fun

  • National Parks and Monuments offer wonderful museums, free Ranger-led tours, and talks. If you have an America the Beautiful Senior Pass, entrance to all National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and many historic places is free. You can learn about medicinal plants in the Arizona desert, birds in Florida, and the gold rush in Alaska -- all free at National Parks.
  • Local flea markets, farmer's markets, and festivals are wonderful ways to check out local produce and crafts. Some farmer's markets like the one in Ithaca, New York on summer Saturday mornings also have entertainment, places to picnic, and a variety of ethnic foods to try. In the Northeast, you'll find Maple Festivals, Apple Festivals, and Lilac Festivals. Or look for the Potato Festival, Rattlesnake Hunts, and Chili Cookoffs in the south and west.
  • Go for hikes on the nature trails of wildlife refuges and BLM land. National Wildlife Refuges are wonderful places to see migrating birds and learn about native animal species. There are often loop drives with stops along the way where you can photograph wildlife from a safe distance.
  • Get walking tour maps of historic cities like Savannah, Georgia, or New Orleans at city visitor centers and learn about the history by walking historic streets and tasting local fare.
  • Impromptu jam sessions occur whenever RVers gather. Many full and part-time RVers are also musicians and will have regular jam sessions wherever they are. Sometimes the jam sessions are around the campfire, sometimes in an activities center, but wherever they're held, other campers are more than welcome to attend or to bring their musical instruments and join in.
  • Take advantage of free classes and social activities at your campground. Even if your campground doesn't have a paid activities director, sometimes residents get together for exercise classes, craft classes, card games, or happy hours.
Donna Farmer Market in the Rio Grande Valley.

Donna Farmer Market in the Rio Grande Valley.

Zebra butterfly at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.

Zebra butterfly at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.

Yucca cactus in bloom at the  Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Yucca cactus in bloom at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Palmdale Campground in The Valley.

Palmdale Campground in The Valley.

Green Jay at  Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Green Jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

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Great Places for RVers on a Budget

RVing snowbirds have discovered some wonderful, inexpensive places to have fun in the winter. Two of the most popular are the Rio Grande Valley (The Valley) in south Texas and Quartzsite, Arizona on the southwestern side of Arizona. Although vastly different, both of these areas attract thousands of RV snowbirds every winter because of the mild climate, the friendly people, and the wealth of inexpensive and/or free things to do.

The Rio Grande Valley in South Texas

The Rio Grande Valley (known as The Valley to most visitors) is located in the southernmost part of Texas. Starting in Brownsville, Texas, a string of cities along the South Texas/Mexican border welcome RVers with open arms every winter. Some snowbirds head to South Padre Island to be close to the Gulf, others find their way to one of the hundreds of private campgrounds and RV parks that dot the Valley competing for snowbird business with great monthly rates and many activities. Here are some of the free and cheap things to do in the Valley:

  • Music Shows. Usually, at a cost of between $7 and $10 a person, music shows at campgrounds are open to everyone. Sometimes performers are local people, other times they are snowbirds themselves on winter vacations from Branson or Nashville.
  • Activities and classes. Many campgrounds offer craft and exercise classes, Bingo, cards and games, arts and crafts shows, and other fun, free things to do. There are also competitive shuffleboard tournaments between parks.
  • Socializing. Parks have frequent free happy hours and luncheons and dinners for less than $5 or $6 a person. In addition, there are often potluck dinners and dances.
  • Nature appreciation, bird watching, beach combing. From The Valley, snowbirds can visit South Padre Island for beach combing and shell collecting. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge along the Rio Grande includes the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, both within easy drives of Valley campgrounds and wonderful places to view migrating birds and other wildlife.
  • Farmer's markets are irresistible in The Valley in the winter as the best and freshest citrus fruits, melons and vegetables abound. Prices are so cheap that you'll want to buy much more than is practical. You'll be nostalgic for those juicy oranges, sweet pink grapefruits, and perfect avocados all summer long.
  • Visit Mexico. Walk across the border into Mexico for shopping and lunch. Be sure to take your passport so that you can join the many snowbirds who cross the border each day. While some border towns have been in the news as unsafe, there are still small towns, like New Progresso, where tourists feel safe and have fun. Check with your campground office for the best place to go and plan to park your car in the parking lot on the U.S. side and walk across the bridge into Mexico. Restaurants have wonderful fresh seafood and produce, two for one specials on drinks, and upbeat entertainment for a party-like atmosphere.
View of Scadden Wash

View of Scadden Wash

Abandoned miner's camp
Desert Golf at Quartzsite.

Desert Golf at Quartzsite.

Giant Saguaro cactus near camp.

Giant Saguaro cactus near camp.

A Good Bird Guide is a Must!

Quartzsite, Arizona

Thousands of RVers looking for cheap or free camping winter in and around Quartzsite, Arizona. One of the major attractions of the area is the Bureau of Land Management camping areas which sell permits good for 7-month stays in the Long Term Visitor's Areas for $180. Two-week permits are available for $40, or camp free in the short-term 14-day areas. Admittedly, the camping style in the desert is far different than camping in private campgrounds. In lieu of utility hookups, campers either learn to live without electricity or rely on generators and solar power. Everyone is extremely careful with water use as you have to drive your RV to a source of water and to a dump station. But thousands of people who boondock in the desert love it and come back year after year. For less hardy souls, there are a few private campgrounds in Quartzsite with full hookups, too, but the boondockers prefer a more rugged lifestyle.

Fun, Free and Cheap Things to do in Quartzsite:

  • Stop at the Visitor's Center when you arrive and pick up a schedule of events as well as maps of the back roads (mostly 4WD roads). These maps are harder to find as the area gets busier, so pick one up as soon as you arrive.
  • Check out events at the QIA (Quartzsite Improvement Association). They have a very nice building and hold craft classes, line dancing classes, lunches, and pancake suppers through the winter. The QIA also has live entertainment twice a week for a nominal fee, usually between $5 and $10 a person. You'll hear everything from yodeling to gospel to country music to comedy acts.
  • The big RV show in Quartzsite takes place in mid-January and attracts thousands of RVers. It's definitely worth seeing at least once as the whole town turns into a giant flea market. RV parts, camping gear, clothing, rock hounding equipment, crafts, food, books -- everything is there somewhere. Entrance is free, parking is a free-for-all!
  • Take walks in the desert and look for rocks and gems. If you're new to rock hounding, check out local rock shops for information. You can find everything from quartz to agate, copper, and even turquoise if you're lucky.
  • Explore back roads and trails if you have a 4 wheel drive jeep or truck or an ATV. They will lead you to abandoned gold mines and miner's camps, expansive views, and a wonderland of cactus. Later in the spring, you may be lucky enough to see some of the cactus and wildflowers in bloom.
  • Play desert golf. Winter RVers have laid out several "golf courses" in the desert. The courses are 9 or 8 holes set among the stones, washes, cacti, and brush of the desert. Rules are simple -there aren't any rules! Play for free, but do bring only one or two of your yard sale golf clubs to play with as the rough terrain is not suitable for expensive equipment.
  • Geocaching. Using a handheld GPS to go geocaching is another cheap entertainment. Log onto to find coordinates for hidden caches and head out to solve a few puzzles. It's a great outdoor activity that costs nothing.

The Best Things in Life are Free

Those who are able to lead the snowbird life as full-time RVers are indeed fortunate. You can find more elaborate and expensive entertainment where ever you go, but it's not necessary to spend a fortune to have a lot of fun. Many snowbirds have rediscovered the truth to the old adage, "The best things in life are free!"

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2010 Stephanie Henkel

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