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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 sometime no fee, you can wander through Civil War forts or lighthouse keeper quarters.

Boca Chica Beach, South Padre Island, Texas

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 hour.

Rio Grande Valley

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.

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 southern most 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 a winter vacation 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.
  • Farmers 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 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.

BLM land near Quartzsite

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 are 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 yoldeling to gospel to country music to comedy acts.
  • The big RV show in Quartzsite takes place in mid January and attracts thousands of RVers. Its 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 www.geocaching.com 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!"


Copyright ©2012 Stephanie Henkel

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.


Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 13, 2018:

Thanks for all the great ideas for frugal living in your RV.

JNPK on October 29, 2018:

Thanks for the great ideas.

We hope to long-term or full-time rv soon, but until then some of the places we find low- or no-cost entertainment:

* Larger cities and many counties have tourist boards designed to bring in visitors. We use a search engine for "events" or "calendar" and come up with whole websites with lists of activities from which to choose.

Often the sites include the function to narrow your search by date, interest & even cost. Among other things, we attend free outdoor concerts-in-the-park with our dog in various nearby towns many weeks each summer.

* Even smaller towns have libraries, recreational departments, colleges/community colleges and churches which host workshops, talks, community dinners, art shows and celebrations. They are also good resources for info regarding non-sponsored local happenings.

* In addition to farmers' markets, many farms have added pick-your-own options as well as other agri-tourism activities (computer search the county + "agriculture", "agritourism" or "farms"). When travelling, one is apt to come across farm businesses very different than those in one's home state.

* Don't forget wineries, distilleries and factory tours. Often free or low-cost, but the 1st two choices also often schedule music or festivals.

* Seek out local newspapers and free magazines and newsletters. Lots of info available, even if you have to trudge through lots of ads. One side benefit may be finding coupons as well.

* Look for volunteer opportunities, either similar to those you had at home, or like the most-loved or most-valuable aspects of your work. Or consider something completely new and different. Making your time on the road meaningful to others can make the whole experience more worthwhile to yourself as well.

* Go out of your way a little bit in your travels to catch up with distant family, old friends and new friends you've only met on-line through forums & hubs. Visiting doesn't have to cost much, but can make the best memories.

* Learn something new via a book, on-line course or new friend met travelling. Perhaps a new hobby, skill, language. Maybe something travel or rv related (a whole new method of cooking to perfect?).

If you have a travelling companion, it could be a new shared interest. Travelling together may be a chance to relate with each other in whole new & fulfilling & exciting ways.

Hopefully, someone can come up with something from my going on and on! Let's all get started brainstorming...

Phyllis on January 29, 2018:

I'm 84 yrs old

I want to be a nomad

Only can afford car right now.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 14, 2016:

Talmadge - It sounds like you have a wonderful plan for RV living! I think most RVers would tell you that there is no one "best" brand of RV because so much depends on your needs, likes and dislikes. I would suggest going to a few large RV dealers and looking at a variety of different RVs to see what's out there and what you like best. I think you will find several in your price range. Also, there are good used RVs out there, too, and that would bring the price down quite a bit from new models. Look for things like convenient storage inside and out, comfortable furniture, duel power fridge (gas and electric), on board generator and check out sizes of storage tanks. When you see a couple that you really like, go to RV forum sites like the Good Sam forum or the Escapees discussion board and ask members if they have any comments or recommendations on the model you like. You are sure to get a lot of opinions! We all have our favorites. I know people who think Lazy Days is the only RV to buy. We have a Winnebago that we love while our relatives love their Allegro. Good luck, and happy RV shopping!

Talmadge L Williams Jr on October 13, 2016:

My mother bought an RV about 18 years ago and before that she went popup tent camping for many years. Mom went on small trips to all sorts of places. In 2000 my Step father died and my mom started going to Loners on Wheels and Joined the Good Sams club.. In 2004 she met a very good man and married him and they were married 10 years before he passed. In those ten years my mom enjoyed life to her fullest doing the RV camp ground host with her husband. She got muscled up from the raking and the cleaning of the campground camping sites. She lost weight and looked 5 years younger at least. It was a good life to her she spent the later years of her 60's and much of her seventies living 9 months in an RV. NowMy wife and are interested in Downsizing to a permanent Rv Home. We are in our fifties and I am wanting to retire in a few more years.. We will be living on our land in the RV because zoning will not allow but one house to be built on the acreage that is joint owned by me and two of my brothers. Here is my problem? What is the best Class C motorhome to buy that is less than $90,000 dollars.. I was looking at The Thor but found out the the Thor Elite is really a store brand for Camping world. I studied about the Jayco brand of products and of course the Winnebago .. Thanks in advance for any help here from anyone.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on February 15, 2015:

Debi - Congratulations on your upcoming retirement! While renting a motor home for a week might give you some idea of what is involved in RVing, it really isn't enough time to get a real feel for RV living. If you've never driven or spent time in an RV, it will take you a week just to get used to the daily chores like hooking up your vehicle, connecting and disconnecting from utilities, dumping, and figuring out how things like the storage tanks and tv work. But renting might give you some idea of what you want or don't want in the RV you eventually purchase.

The best advice I can offer is when you decide to purchase, buy something that fits your budget and expect a learning curve. Remember that you can always change your mind. When my husband and I started out, we bought a small, 29' Class C motor home expecting that we would only use it for trips to see our kids and for vacations. We loved our first long trip so much (a 3 month trip to Alaska) that we decided to sell our house and go full time and never regretted the decision. We later upgraded to a larger rig with more space and conveniences, but starting small was the right way for us to go.

Best wishes for a happy retirement and adventure filled RVing!

Debi on February 15, 2015:

Hi, I am retiring next year and we are considering purchasing some type of RV. Do you think renting a motor home for a week is a fair judgement of our deciding that this is the life for us?

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on July 06, 2014:

Sholland10 - We have several friends who also RV and it's fun to meet them on the road when our travels coincide. The music jams are great! I'd love to go to the Ozark Arts and Craft Fair some day. We've been to Branson, MO, but never at that time of year, and it sounds like a lot of fun. Would love to see you on the road when you become RV'ers! :)

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on July 06, 2014:

Teaches12345 - There's no time like the present! :) Seriously, I do wish you the best in following your dream. Sometimes it's difficult to take that first step, but you'll be well rewarded when you do! Thanks for stopping in to comment!

Susan Holland from Southwest Missouri on July 06, 2014:

Stephanie, RV'ing sounds like a wonderful way to see the country! I think going to the music jams would be so much fun! Do you find that you know fellow RV'ers? I would think some might choose a similar path.

I notice you mentioned craft fairs and flea markets. If you ever make it to MO, come the first week of October for the Ozark Arts and Craft Fair in Ozark, MO - just 25 mile north of Branson. Our countryside is beautiful that time of year and we have some great flea markets.

Enjoyed reading about your adventures! Thanks for the tips! We may be RV'ers some day. :-) Votes and shares!!

Dianna Mendez on July 05, 2014:

It's my dream to one day travel in an RV. Your post makes me want to go today.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on July 05, 2014:

Sunshine625 - Thanks, Linda! We're still enjoying it!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on July 05, 2014:

fpherj48- Thanks so much for your comments! Sometimes we just have to stop and enjoy the journey...keep on dreaming!

Suzie from Carson City on July 05, 2014:

Stephanie......I'm happy for you & hubby for this wonderful, adventurous life you have.....Thus far, I have only been "dreaming" of such a situation. I know it's never too late to make dreams come true...so I keep working toward my specific goals.....

Happy Camping!!...UP+++

Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on July 05, 2014:

You had me at your title...Fun, Free and Cheap! Great tips for RV'ers! Keep on RV'ing! :)

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on July 05, 2014:

Trisha Roberts -When the time is right, I'm sure you'll enjoy some lovely adventures on the road. Glad to know you enjoyed the hub and found it useful. Thanks so much for your comments!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on July 05, 2014:

Vocalcoach - I'm sure that the campers enjoy meeting you, too, and most RVers really like talking with and learning about the area from local residents. Thanks so much for your comments and share!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on July 05, 2014:

Starstream - As with any lifestyle, you can adjust your spending to your budget limitations. I think that by full time RVing, you do have even more flexibility to enjoy life on a limited budget. Thanks so much for stopping in and for your comments!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on July 05, 2014:

Mary615 - I hope you enjoy RVing as much as we do! Your road trip from Florida to Oregon will take you through some wonderful places...you have a great adventure in store! Thanks for your comments and for sharing!

Trisha Roberts from Rensselaer, New York on July 05, 2014:

Such a wonderful hub. I don't own an RV but I'd love to have one to take on a fun road trip one day! Thanks for the information!

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on July 05, 2014:

I've never been rving, but now I live in the forest right across from the camp grounds. I usually take my fitness and nature walk there and meet so many nice folks. This is a wonderful hub Stephanie. Voted up and more and will share!

Dreamer at heart from Northern California on July 05, 2014:

Your article is full of great and fun ways to live on a limited budget with RV camping opportunities. Thank you for addressing the ways to enjoy a simple life which is full of fun and adventure. I enjoy your articles so much.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 05, 2014:

My daughter and her hubby just bought a motor home and we plan on taking a road trip from Florida to Oregon very soon. I thought of you and your hubby's adventures in your RV

Voted UP, etc. and shared. Mary

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on April 15, 2012:

Hi Marcy,

Yes, we've spent quite a bit of time in Texas, and have even enjoyed a couple of winters in South Texas. Texans are some of the friendliest people we've encountered while traveling. We do love your state and the way everyone welcomes the Snowbirds! It keeps us coming back!

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on April 15, 2012:

Color me green! I'd love to be doing this all year - I love to travel and see the real communities along the way (in addition to tourist spots), and I love camping. It sounds like you've come to Texas a time or two? We love our Snowbirds - many of them become family to those of us who live here!

Voted up and awesome!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on April 15, 2012:

Hi cclitgirl,

Good for you! While many full time RVers wait until retirement age to begin, there are also others like you who change their lifestyles to live and work on the road. It can be done! Good luck, and follow your dreams!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on April 15, 2012:

My hubby and I are sooo going to do this. We are in our 30s, but have talked about this as soon as we pay our mortgage off. We are tightening our belts for a few years until we do so, but then TRAVEL is the word! :D

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on March 26, 2012:

Jengen - Thanks for stopping by to read my article on RVing. There are many ways to full time RV while on a budget, and I know you'll find these tips helpful. Good luck with your new adventures!

jengen@mncable.net on March 26, 2012:

We're just ready to start full-timing, I'm searching/reading tips you all hv to offer!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on January 28, 2012:

HTodd - We find a lot of cheap and free entertainment while traveling in our RV. It was fun to share some of our experiences. Thanks for stopping in to read.

htodd from United States on January 28, 2012:

Thanks for the nice post..awesome

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on October 19, 2011:

Point2Make - I love writing about our RVing travels, and hope to have more travel hubs soon. My next one will probably be on RVing on the Florida Panhandle... I think. I'm so glad you are enjoying my hubs and find them useful. Thanks so much for your very kind comments and your votes!

point2make on October 19, 2011:

Another great hub Stephanie. For a long time I spent hours in front of the computer researching places to visit and things to do. Now all I have to do is wait for your latest hub and my travel planning is done for me. Thanks for the assist. Voted this hub up!

point2make on October 19, 2011:

Another great wealth of information. Thanks Stephanie. There was a time when I spent hours researching locations and things to do now all I need to do is wait for your next hub. What a great hub. Information always seems much more useful when it comes from someone who has actually been to the places and done the things they write about. Voted this hub up!

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 28, 2010:

Hi Happy! I'm so glad that you are checking my hubs. You sound like an experienced traveler as you are definitely already taking advantage of many money saving ideas. It's about time to transform into a snowbird again with lots of new territory to discover. Would love to hear of your experiences, too.

We did have a lovely Thanksgiving -- hope you did, too!

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on November 26, 2010:

Hi Stephanie,

I so enjoy your hubs and the great pictures you take from your many travels. A quick stop by feels like a mini-vacation!

Though my husband and I don't have an RV, we do travel a lot and take full advantage of coupons, park passes and free concerts, museums, festivals and parades. As you suggest, we always stop off at a Visitor Center or Chamber of Commerce and I also look up events online.

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Stephanie Henkel (author) from USA on November 06, 2010:

Hi Linda, That's a great idea, and one that I forgot! I'm going to add it to my list. Thanks for checking my HubPages. It's good to have a fellow RVer comment.

Linda Sand on November 06, 2010:

Geocaching is another cheap entertainment. Buy a GPS, log onto www.geocaching.com and head out to solve a few puzzles.

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