The popular cooking show "No Reservations" encourages spontaneity when eating out. But when it comes to camping, that philosophy can be problematic - depending on the time of year and your destination.
The question is a "spark point" among RVers and is debated frequently when we gather around the campfire. Although it is purely a matter of individual choice, many are rather passionate about defending their side of the debate. So, we thought it might be fun to look at the pros and cons of each side to help you make a more informed choice for your next adventure.
The Pros for Making Campground Reservations
I have to admit, I am a travel planner by profession, so not making reservations was a foreign concept for me. In the early days of our RV travel, I made reservations for each and every stop. As a newbie, it made sense to eliminate as many variables for disaster as possible!
You may not be new to RVing, but if you have a limited amount of time to travel, making reservations is the better way to go- especially if you are taking a short vacation. You always have the night's stay settled so you can enjoy the day's activities without the concern of finding the evening's accommodations. And, should you find a fabulous spot and want to stay longer, you can always cancel your waiting campground reservation in favor of boondocking or a closer campground.
Making reservations also keeps your budget intact. You don't have to be concerned with finding the "right" parking lot or blowing the budget on an unintended RV Resort stay. You know in advance what you will spend.
Although boondocking is a time-honored camping tradition, it's not so great when you weren't planning to do so. If you happen to have a full gray or black tank, or an empty fresh water tank it makes the overnight a lot less comfortable. Not to mention a lack of air conditioning in hot weather!
With a campground reservation, you choose your accommodations to fit your budget. You have adequate hook-ups for water and electricity and can choose the amenities that are important to you. No anxious search at the last minute and no settling for less-than-desirable places.
The Cons of Making Campground Reservations
For those accustomed to traveling for business, making campground reservations is just an extension of booking a hotel room. Your time is limited and you don't want to be scouting for overnight accommodations at the last minute. But, what you gain in security, you lose in serendipity.
And since the whole idea of RV travel is to experience adventure, an over-planned itinerary may seem antithetical. If you happen upon a beautiful place but have a campground reservation elsewhere, you are more likely to cut your visit short to make that reservation. Changing a campground reservation is not difficult, but if it is last minute you may incur penalties or forfeit your deposit. If you had more flexibility you might find a campground nearby or even choose to boondock just to have more time to explore.
The Pros of Not Making Campground Reservations
Part of the joy of RV travel is the serendipity of a trip. When you come upon a beautiful place or a fascinating town it's nice to have the flexibility to stay and explore the area. Unfettered by a waiting campground reservation, you have the freedom to adjust your travel plans without penalty.
When traveling in the off-season or during the week it's easier to find last minute availability in many campgrounds. And there are always the old standbys of boondocking at a Walmart, a BLM site, or Harvest Host. This free-roaming style is cherished by long-time RVers who feel confident in finding a place to stay. Even in the busiest areas, they seem to know which campgrounds have an overflow area where they can boondock for the night.
Because boondocking becomes part of the adventure, it's easy enough to always be prepared by monitoring tank levels and using solar panels to make an overnight without hook-ups more comfortable. Boondocking regularly can also save money, making the travel budget go a lot further.
The Cons of Not Making Campground Reservations
Some people prefer to keep their plans “loose” and don’t like making advanced reservations. That’s OK for off-season travel or if you have unlimited time to vacation but it's not always as relaxed as it sounds.
Often, not making reservations means you’ll have to take what you can find. It may be a parking lot, an expensive RV resort, or a wilderness area. And, if you don’t find a spot when you’re ready to stop, you’ll have to keep driving until you do find something.
It used to be true that traveling during the work week and during the off-season meant it was easier to find availability at campgrounds. But, with the increased popularity of RVing that dynamic is changing. Adding to that situation, many communities are banning RV overnights in parking lots (This seems especially true in popular tourist areas).
Many lovely older campgrounds have been converted to spectacular RV resorts with spectacular prices to match. State and National parks are often booked months in advance. And, if you’re traveling to a popular vacation destination, plan on stiff competition for a campsite.
To us, all these considerations mean a little planning goes a long way towards making your RV trip less stressful and more enjoyable. You may find yourself wanting the best of both sides of the discussion.
We understand - and embrace - the desire to keep your options open when traveling. Sometimes you want to stay longer in a lovely spot or take a detour to visit an interesting small town. Having to stick to a campground itinerary can put a crimp in your adventure.
If this is you, then at least do some scouting for campgrounds and alternate accommodations before your trip. Identify the overnight options along your main route. If you decide on a side trip, at least you know how far it is to the next identified overnight spot. You might also want to call ahead and ask about typical availability for the time you will be traveling. You will at least have a list of options for overnight accommodations without having to scramble so much during your trip.
As a member of one of the campground clubs like Passport America or Escapees, you may want to check into their policies on last minutes stays. That may help you decide which campgrounds are better candidates for last minute reservations. Some online trip routers give listings of campgrounds along your route as well. That may be helpful if you travel without reservations.
Remember, if you're traveling during peak season or to a popular destination, you'll probably need to make advance reservations if you want a campsite near the best attractions. That goes for National Parks, almost any beach area, and most anywhere in Florida over the winter months (snowbirds often book a year in advance!).
If you still choose to wander freely, pick up a copy of the book "Free and Low-Cost Campgrounds" for a state-by-state listing. You may also want to join Harvest Hosts since they do not take reservations more than a few days prior to arrival. (Harvest Hosts is a group of farms and vineyards who welcome RV travelers for one overnight at a time. Typically no hookups, but it is free. You can learn more at harvesthosts.com)
Maybe you are more like us and are concerned about "no reservations" but would like more flexibility in your trip scheduling. Try making reservations for just a few portions of your trip - perhaps at the spots you know there is high demand. Then, keep a list of potential accommodations for your overnights along the route where there is lower demand. This will give you a bit of leeway without causing too much anxiety over finding a spot at your favorite destinations.
We've tried RVing both ways - with and without reservations. We prefer to make reservations for short trips so we don't waste a lot of time looking for our next stop. But, for long trips, we usually make reservations only in high demand areas and then see how things go in between.
So, which "camp" do you prefer - reservations or no reservations? We'd love to hear your experience!