Is Camping Still an Economical Way to Travel?


I have always enjoyed camping, first in a tent and then in a mini-motorhome. We’ve always found it to be an economical way to travel. It’s always been cheaper than flying or driving, staying in a hotel room, and eating out three meals a day. Campsites have historically been inexpensive and food is a non-issue as we’ve always cooked at the campsite rather than eating out. However, in recent years campsites have been going up in price because the popularity of camping is increasing. Many people also want swankier campgrounds and more amenities, which means higher rates for all. And we all know what the price of fuel has done to any kind of travel, and camping, particularly in a motorhome, has been affected just like everything else.

With summer vacation season looming, I’ve been questioning whether we should camp this year or just give it up and go the hotel route. Is it still the economical way to travel that it once was, or have higher gas prices and higher campsite rates eliminated the cost advantage of camping? I looked at the major aspects of any travel (lodging, food, and getting there and back) and compared camping to “regular” travel. Here’s what I found:

Lodging: Campsites are all over the map in price. You can stay in a state park for as little as $10 per night or you can stay in a swanky “resort-type” campground for over $100/night. We usually opt for something in the middle that offers a pool or lake, hiking or biking trails, and other forms of recreation such as planned activities. Looking over last year’s receipts, our average cost per night was $55 (and that’s kind of high because we spent two weeks at Disney World which is pricier than most other places we go). Looking at hotel rates for similar dates and destinations, I had a hard time finding much under $100 that I felt was safe, clean, and offered the amenities we would want (pool, proximity to attractions and restaurants, or a restaurant on property). To get the full complement of recreation activities that most campgrounds offer (planned activities, boat rentals, trails, etc.) I was looking at $150 or more. Even the priciest place we stayed last year (Disney), which offered more than we could ever hope to do averaged $50 less per night than an acceptable, but not great, hotel. Camping still wins as far as lodging goes, plus there are the intangibles: I know who slept in my bed and what happened there, no bedbugs, the bathroom is clean, there’s no risk of theft from housekeeping, and I have all my “fun stuff” with me such as games, the game console, DVD’s, etc. in case of bad weather.

Food: Camping still wins hands down in the food category. Since we are able to cook in our camper, we don’t eat out when we travel unless it’s something special. We’re not spending any more to eat on the road than we would if we were home. When we travel the regular way, we try to minimize food expenses by packing snacks or a cooler with sandwich fixings, but it doesn’t compare to the savings we get by camping.

Getting there and back: This was where I expected camping to lose out. After all, the cost of fuel has skyrocketed and filling up a motorhome, even a small one, is not cheap. Our last trip last year cost us about $700 in fuel to go 1600 miles. It seems extreme, but when I started comparing it to flying, it wasn’t that different. Fuel prices make airfares go up, as well. Tickets to the same destination were about $200 per person and that was the absolute best fare I could find. So it would have cost $800 to fly our travel party there. And it wouldn’t have been quicker. We drove it in about ten hours. To fly (counting early arrival time to get through security, the flight and connection, the wait at baggage claim, and the time to get the rental car and get to the hotel) would have taken, at best, eight hours. And that’s if none of the flights were delayed or the luggage wasn’t lost. The rental car was necessary to get around and it’s an added expense if we travel the “regular way” because we tow our own car when we camp. Driving our own car there and back would have been the cheapest solution, but we would need to eat at restaurants on the road (a cost we avoid by camping) and be cramped in a car for ten hours. Plus, there would be wear and tear on our car to factor in. Camping doesn’t win this category hands down, but given that flying was almost identical in price, the intangible comforts of having my camper to spread out in and not having to go through the airport hassle makes camping the winner in my book.

The bottom line for our family is that camping is still the most economical way for us to travel. It’s not as economical as it once was, but then any kind of travel these days is pricier than it once was. Airfare goes up along with oil prices, just like gasoline. Inflation and increased demand drives up the cost of hotel rooms, just like campsites. Food prices go up whether you eat at home or in a restaurant, it’s just that food you eat at home doesn’t carry the markup that a restaurant meal does (and you don’t have to tip). As long as we’re still coming out ahead by camping, we’ll keep going. It comes down to this: If we want to travel (and we do), camping is the more economical choice for us. The only way to drastically cut this expense is to stay home and that’s not a choice we’re willing to make unless we’re in dire financial circumstances.

These numbers might not be true for everyone, however. There are some variables that might make the above analysis come out differently for you. For example, I didn’t need to factor in payments on a camper into my numbers because our is paid for. If we were making payments, the monthly payment would have to be factored into the overall cost of any vacations. If you tent camp or use a pop up, you’re not going to have the same gasoline costs, so camping for you might be even cheaper. We are able to save money when we camp because we can take our dog with us. Otherwise, we’d have to pay to kennel her which would add to the cost of “regular” travel for us. If you don’t have pets, this isn’t something you have to worry about. If you eat out when camping because you’re on vacation and don’t want to cook, you won’t realize the same savings on food. If you only stay in the super pricey resort-type campgrounds, you may be able to pay the same and get a good hotel. And if your camping rig is enormous and drinks a lot more gas than mine, you might be better off flying. Then it comes down to a matter of personal preference whether to camp or not.

Even if camping isn’t the money saver you thought it was, the lifestyle still offers a lot of intangibles that make it worthwhile for many. There’s the comfort of having your own stuff and the joy of not being crammed into an airline seat and processed through security. Families seem to bond a bit more when they camp as opposed to crashing in a hotel room. If you like the outdoors, few hotels can beat camping at any price. You don’t have to worry about packing limitations or paying for extra luggage; you can pack whatever you want. You can travel with your pets. Your kids can watch TV while you drive, keeping the “Are we there yet’s” to a minimum. True, camping costs more these days, but so does everything else. For us, camping still wins out both monetarily and in the intangibles. So I guess I’ll go get the camper ready for another year.

Image courtesy of m_m_mnemonic

This entry was posted in Holidays, Personal Finance, Saving Money, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Is Camping Still an Economical Way to Travel?

  1. Annie J says:

    Don’t forget that camping is also part of the fun of the overall vacation experience. Sitting in a car or an airplane really isn’t.

  2. ben says:

    I love camping and can’t think of a better family vacation for a family. Great memories and bonding experience for all.

  3. gruntina says:

    Camping in my experiences can be expensive, especially since we are the type to have a boat and water skis along on our trip for activities or even fishing equipment. Personally I would be bored camping with no other activities than to cook at a campfire and look at trees unless I went with a large group of friends.

  4. derrick says:

    Isn’t camping dangerous? Isn’t it a good way to get your kid’s kidnapped? Camping just doesn’t seem safe to me and if you aren’t safe, then any amount of money you save is a waste.

  5. Joan says:

    Derrick, I’ve never heard of a correlation between camping and kidnapping. Are you a motel owner?

  6. greenday says:

    Camping in National Parks is wonderful and part of the reason that we pay taxes. Take advantage of these campsites. it’s also great if you love the outdoors and hiking. It’s a great way to see the country.

    I love tents, but have noticed that RVs are taking up more and more camping spaces these days. Kind of sad seeing everyone inside watching TV instead of looking at the stars at night around a campfire.

  7. gruntina says:

    It is easier for a kid to be kidnap from the grocery store parking lot than camping!

    Camping and Kidnapping sounds more like a hollywood script

  8. luis says:

    My only advice is never take your girlfriend camping if she has never been before. That is a recipe to no longer have a girlfriend.

  9. MKB says:

    Oh yes, camping is soo dangerous. Please don’t bother, leave the camping to us professional campers who know how to keep our children safe. Big City folks stay away, keep yourselves safe. I hear about drive by shootings, kidnapping and drug deals all the time at campgrounds.
    We love it!!!!

  10. dede says:

    You do need to enjoy the outdoors to enjoy camping. If you are a person that is used to 5 star hotels, camping isn’t going to be a good experience.

  11. baselle says:

    On roadtrips, I very much enjoyed the freedom you get when you put camping gear in the trunk. If you’re in a spot where hotels are few and far between, the ability to camp gives you a lot of flexibility.

  12. Darlene says:

    I have a stranger take on camping as a vacation and particularly the safety issue. I am a single lady, so for me, safety actually does become more of an issue. My solution was to join an historical recreation group.

    A weekend event, with food included, starting Friday evening and with everyone going home on Sunday costs less than $20 (not counting the gasoline to get there). But that is the site fee *and* evening “traveler’s fare” on Friday, breakfast and feast on Saturday, and breakfast on Sunday. There is usually a $5 fundraiser lunch on Saturday, so you’re up to $25, not counting gasoline. They charge less for children.

    They offer classes for free on anything and everything from lacemaking to calligraphy to Renaissance dancing, classes for children and fighting (rapiers or the armored combat style or target archery) for those that want to get into that sort of thing.

    NO ONE bothers such a group, because they all carry weapons and they know how to use them. (I’ll bet it’s the same with the Civil War reenactors.)

    And as lagniappe, since they are big into the whole ‘chivalry’ thing, I am pampered by gentlemen who treat me like a lady and carry my chairs, help me set up my tent, etc.

    Now this is what happens to work for me, but I suspect that almost any good “camping group” would offer much of the same benefits, whether it is the Civil War Reenactors or even just a normal “camping club” that gets together on a regular basis. Of course, if you aren’t into history, the historical groups wouldn’t do you much good. But it’s just another option to lay out on the table.

  13. Laurie says:

    Luis, better to take her camping then to marry her and find out later. She was not the right one for you.
    Derrick- Kidnapping? Are you serious? Are you ok?

  14. While I love camping, doing so with diaper-aged kids is a lot harder than it sounds. Unless you do it often enough to make them comfortable, they’re going to be up at all hours crying because of the weird surroundings and strange sounds.

    Just something to keep in mind. My older kids love it though, and as soon as the little ones are a bit older we’ll definitely do more camping on cross-country trips.

  15. fractalbrothers says:


  16. A confused person says:

    “Our last trip last year cost us about $700 in fuel to go *1600 miles.* It seems extreme, but when I started comparing it to flying, it wasn

  17. Kimberly says:

    My husband and I have camped all over the U.S. and Europe. We went to Switzerland for two weeks this summer and it was great. We have really enjoyed camping in Europe, and it has also made these trips much more affordable.

    On the safety issue, we’ve never had a problem, not to mention, the whole point of camping is family time. So, it seems unlikely your kid is going to be that out of sight. I would imagine a kid in a hotel is more likely to be kidnapped.

  18. Ray says:

    I will assume that the 1600 miles you drove was round trip. So, that means that you drove 800 miles in 10 hours. I bet that was one scary ride for an RV averaging 80 mph for 10 hours – Woooo-Hoooo!!! Hang on Baby, I’m gonna make you regret ever draggin’ me out here amongst all these lions, tigers, and bears…oh my!

  19. hannah says:

    I live in a rural area where incomes are below average, and quite a few people take frugal vacations this way:
    There are small campgrounds, both commercial and community-owned, which have a flat fee for the whole season. Lots of people set up a travel trailer permanently, and go there every long weekend, and for their summer vacation. It’s like having a cottage, except that you use the washrooms and showers at the poolhouse. It also saves gas, hauling the camper around. Most of the folks I know who do this, bought older travel trailers, so it is quite affordable.

  20. David says:

    Great read ! camping is a beautiful way to explore whats out there besides our everday lifes.

  21. mohit says:

    camping is all about waking up smelling the grass and the mud with dew drops on it. Camping is all about waking up seeing the sun peeping from the peek its not about being in your comfortable bed and concrete marble floors but to reclaim and get reborn again.

  22. Susan says:

    Some years back, there was a little girl taken in the middle of the night from her tent in a National Park. The parents were in a camper and the kids were in a tent. The kidnapper slit the tent, kidnapped, and killed the girl.

    We have a camper and I would not recommend tent camping. If you must, put an adult in with the children.

    But most of all……have FUN!!

  23. Faz Harris says:

    I am from Malaysia and I camp a lot. Sometimes with a group and sometimes with a couple of friends.
    It depends where you camp. If you camp right on the edge of a cliff, 1 feet away from a river or nearby a small town and everyone (including the town’s badass)then it might be dangerous as you might roll off the cliff, get eaten by a croc or wqashed away or even got mugged by the local badass.
    However, if you are camping far from people, and know how to camp, what to do and waht not to do, then its one helluva fun.
    By the way, I do motorcycle camping.

  24. jeans clemm says:

    You have to factor in the cost of the camper — monthly payment – which means you are paying to camp even when you aren’t. And then there is the insurance. And once you factor those in you can actually make a comparison.
    I was very surprised to find that your comparison was so biased as I am very interested in a true evaluation of the benefits of camper ownership.
    Even purchasing one outright, one would have to take into consideration other uses for the money. Heck if u could purchase in full, saving money might not be a prime consideration.

  25. Paul says:

    Jeans, you are right you have to factor in the cost of the camper, plus the cost of maintenance, storage, insurance and the accessories that make your experience more enjoyable. I’ve been looking for a way to RV that is less expensive than other types of travel without much success.

    My wife and I have looked at small, lightweight basic campers with the minimum of a toilet and inside shower. For sake of argument a rig and basic accessories like water heater, propane tanks, porta-potty and so forth would cost us around $18 grand when all is said and done. Unless you are happy with a tent, it is difficult get into camping for much less without buying a used-up pre-owned camper.

    In a camping vs hoteling comparison, you would deduct the campsite charges from the hotel cost to compare. Let’s say campground fees average $50 per night and hotel fees average $125 per night, making the hotel $75 per night more expensive. Again for sake of argument, lets say that when you take an RV the fuel will cost a little more and the food a little less, and when you take your car, fuel will be less but food a bit more. You can, of course, carry a cooler in the car and make some of your meals along the way. The calculations would vary depending on who you are and what you do, but it is not unreasonable to think it would cost $75 more per day for hoteling vs camping.

    So if I were to spend $18,000 for a camper I would have to use it 240 times to break even with the cost of more expensive hoteling, and that does not include the maintenance, storage and insurance costs for the RV. If you are a full time camper it won’t take but a year to recoup your investment. But if you are like most people and go for a couple of weeks and a couple of weekends each year, then it would take 13 years to break even. Since there are maintenance and insurance costs associated with all RVs, it would take longer, if at all, before you could call it a wash.

    That is not to say that the camping experience is not more desirable in many ways, but it is hard to say that camping is less expensive than vacationing in other ways. It is all in how you spin it. I do take exception to the argument that it doesn’t take any longer to get there by camper than by flying. Jennifer’s example of traveling 1600 miles in 10 hours versus flying the same distance in 8 hours leaves me wondering on what roads can she average 160 mph with her camper, not to mention the excessive amount of fuel it would take to run at that speed.

  26. Nik says:

    Well that’s not very nice. I live in the country on a dead end road and a little girl was kidnapped at the end of it and killed. I care about my kids as if you have kids I’m sure you do, and after hearing about the girls kidnapped for 10 years I want to be cautious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *