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Janet and Carl Reeves parked at Whippoorwill Campground in Marmora, N.J.

Dale Gerhard • Associated Press,

John and Nancy McIntyre of Minneapolis camped at Joshua Tree National Park in California in 2012. The couple logged about 60,000 miles in their RV in three years, traveling from Alaska to Florida and California to Newfoundland.

John McIntyre • Special to the Star Tribune,

Family RV road trip can be within reach even on a budget

  • Article by: Myscha Theriault
  • McClatchy News Service
  • February 14, 2014 - 1:30 PM

While many dream of hitting the open road with their family in a bus-sized recreational vehicle, the thought of the gas bill and loan payments as high as a traditional mortgage can dampen the enthusiasm of actually giving it a go. If you’re willing to think outside the box with regard to vehicle size and related camping expenses, however, you just might find it costs less than you think. Here are a handful of ways to make the ultimate road trip more affordable.

Minivans

The traditional approach may be to tow a camper or go for a larger motor home, but a growing number of people are putting their efforts into minivan conversions. Not only is the mileage significantly better than standard RV options, but the maneuverability is much easier as well. Similar to the campervans popular throughout Europe, modifications can be accomplished through hiring an independent contractor or taking on the task yourself.

One vehicle that’s gaining popularity for camping use is the Ford Transit Connect. While I suspect the mileage numbers have as much to do with that as anything, the greater cargo capacity probably doesn’t hurt, either. A quick Internet search on the topic will result in a wide variety of examples and YouTube videos. Sinks, small beds, chemical toilets and more can all be installed.

Prefer to keep it simple and rent? JUCY Rentals, the campervan rental company popular in Australia and New Zealand, has now set up shop in the United States. With branches in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, it makes an easy drive-and-camp option for international visitors as well as locals interested in an affordable alternative. The compact size of the company’s vehicles allows travelers to combine their accommodation and transportation costs into a single bill.

Off-season rates start at $35 per day, and include a pop-up pod tent on the roof, DVD player and television, sink, stove and even a small fridge. High-season rates average closer to $100 per day, with unlimited mileage packages starting at $25 per night plus tax.

Amenities

The availability of amenities can have a significant effect on your vacation budget, especially if you have to leave the RV park or campground in order to find your chosen activity. Choosing one with access to play infrastructure and affordable entertainment options just makes good sense.

A popular option in Florida is Westgate River Ranch. Family activity options include $5 archery sessions, complimentary access to an extensive network of walking trails, a free petting farm, $5 mechanical bull rides and an authentic $15 weekend rodeo that’s free for children under 5.

In Minnesota, the state tourism website www.exploreminnesota.com/campgrounds shows campgrounds by location as well as amenities.

Location

Thinking creatively about where you park your recreational vehicle can save you significant cash. Just ask Michael Boyink, who has been living the RV lifestyle with his family full time for more than three years. When he and his wife decided the children would benefit from gardening experience and do-it-yourself knowledge, they arranged to park their rig on a farm in Texas in exchange for an agreed-upon number of chores. The experience also allowed Boyink’s daughter to learn some horse riding skills. Boyinks4adventure.com has the full details of their RV odyssey.

Forgoing electrical access for more primitive sites can also save money. Jeff Wilson, HGTV host and author of “The Greened House Effect,” puts this strategy into play nearly every summer when he takes his family camping. For starters, he has two marine batteries that charge while his tow vehicle is running. This allows him to arrive at a site fully charged and ready to skip the more expensive spots in the campground. He also travels with a small solar panel and a portable windmill to generate power with the support of Mother Nature.

Arrangements

Gopetfriendly.com’s Amy Burkert travels in a recreational vehicle throughout the year with her husband and two dogs. Figuring out how to get campground access for less has helped her family maintain their travel habit in a financially sustainable way. And how you arrange your stay can make a huge difference.

Her top tip? Discount membership organizations. Organizations such as Good Sam, Escapees and Passport America provide savings as high as 50 percent on RV sites at campgrounds across North America. Booking your stay with these types of membership cards has you saving money before you ever even hook up your vehicle. Says Burkert, “The annual membership costs are quickly offset by the savings when you’re traveling full time.”

Burkert also advises arranging longer stays, as they are often more affordable. Weekly rates are cheaper per night than booking a night at a time, and the monthly rate typically provides an even greater savings opportunity.

© 2014 Star Tribune