RVing Without Reservations

A stress-free how-to guide for not booking in advance.

Jon & Nadia Bajuelo Jon & Nadia Bajuelo  |  11.05.2018

Do you feel your stress levels rise if your RV travel isn’t planned and reserved down to the day? Or, on the contrary, do reservations make you feel rushed and limited?

At some point as an RVer, chances are you’ll find yourself either wanting or needing to RV without reservations. From an approaching hurricane to last minute tickets to a special event, there are many reasons you might need to forgo reservations, even if you prefer them.

We rarely make reservations because we find it much less stressful to RV without reservations. Since we do this for most of the year, we’ve learned a few tips and tricks that can make RVing without reservations a breeze.

Tip 1: Avoid Going Without Reservations on Holidays, etc.

Long weekends, holidays, and special once-a-year vacations are not the times to go without reservations. Campgrounds, USFS sites, and BLM land quickly fill up during long weekends and holidays. At these times you’d risk spending your holiday at the nearest Walmart parking lot.

If your RV trip is a special vacation you’ve planned with must-see sights, you’ll want to make sure you have reservations. Is it possible that once you get there you’ll realize you want to spend more time in an area where you planned a short stop? Sure. But knowing you won’t miss any must-see stops is worth any cancellation fee you may have to pay to tweak your plans a bit.

rving without reservationsUSFS campgrounds and BLM land are great options for RVing without reservations, but even they can fill up during holidays. Be sure to plan ahead for holidays and long weekends.

Tip 2: Know Your RV Basics

Although we don’t make many reservations nowadays, we certainly didn’t start out that way. If you’re brand new to RVing, there’s a lot that you’ll inevitably learn as you go. All these things you’ll be learning are going to be your funny RV stories of tomorrow. So, at this stage, it’s best to swing the odds in your favor and make reservations.

Wait until you know how your RV works before attempting to go without reservations. Also, wait until you’re comfortable driving and parking your RV, as well as knowing how to boondock. You would need to know how to boondock in case you end up needing to overnight at a Walmart.

Tip 3: Arrive on Tuesdays or Wednesdays

Early on, we began to notice that while campgrounds were booked solid starting Fridays, the weekdays were a different story. On Sunday afternoon, campgrounds emptied out and we nearly had the whole thing to ourselves. Our favorite campsites soon ended up being those we chose as walk-ins.

RVing without a reservation is pretty easy if you arrive at the campground on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Sundays and Mondays are sometimes part of long weekends. Thursdays can also be a bit busier as campers get a jump on the weekend. Although Tuesdays and Wednesdays are best, you’ll often be fine as long as you’re not arriving on Friday or Saturday.

Tip 4: Seasons Matter

Just as you don’t want to arrive at a campground without a reservation on a Friday, you generally don’t want to arrive without a reservation during summer. When all of the kids have gone back to school in the fall, it’s fairly easy to RV without reservations. Winter can be even easier. In some places, you’ll even enjoy discounts.

You’ll also want to keep in mind other kinds of seasons, like football season. During football season in the south, for example, you may want to leave your weekdays open-ended, but still reserve your weekends.

Tip 5: Have Options Within a Desired Radius

We have RVed in the Pacific NW during summer without reservations. That’s typically not a great idea, as camping is incredibly popular in that area, especially during their beautiful summers.

One thing that helped us was to know how far from our first choice we were willing to drive. Once we knew that, we made sure we had three to four options (in our desired price range) within that radius. Sometimes we got our first choice and sometimes we didn’t find a site until we arrived at option four. Still, RVing with no reservations allowed us to escape the heat waves and forest fires that kept chasing us that summer.
rving without reservationsWe fell in love with this state park in Portland, OR. This time our first choice didn’t pan out, but we were able to stay at a lovely county park within the desired radius.

Tip 6: Confirm in Advance There are Walk-Up-Only Sites

Confirming ahead of time that campgrounds have non-reservable sites also makes it possible to RV without reservations in areas like Portland and Seattle during the summer. We occasionally broke our own rule and arrived on a Friday, but still snagged a site due to walk-up-only sites.

If you can confirm ahead of time that a campground has non-reservable sites, and you combine this with arriving on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you’re in really great shape. We found these sites were often non-reservable, but were renewable, on a day-to-day basis. This made it possible to keep the walk-up site for more than just one night.

Tip 7: Only Attempt When Ready to Boondock

Be sure your rig is ready to spend the night off grid before you attempt to RV without a reservation. Make sure your propane tanks are full. Your batteries should be fully charged. The fresh water tank should be full. And, your black and gray tanks should be empty.

If your rig is ready to boondock, you’ll be ready to spend the night at a Walmart in the event you can’t find a site. It’s also possible that a non-reservable site is a no-hookup site or is electric only. You want to be prepared for any of those scenarios.

Tip 8: Know What Back-Up Plan is Available in the Area

If you arrive once the gates are closed or otherwise need to wait a day until something becomes available, know what overnight options are nearby.

Walmarts and Cracker Barrels often allow overnight RV parking. Most of the time they’re not far from campgrounds. If you’re in an area where these aren’t an option, look for rest stops and truck stops, or other boondocking options. Looking at a map ahead of time will ensure you go in with a Plan B. If plan A were to fall through, you can switch to Plan B without a second thought.

Tip 9: Ask a Friend

We spent some time this summer visiting Banff National Park. We knew we needed to make reservations for Banff in the summer. We were hoping to add on as much time as we could in nearby Jasper National Park, but we weren’t going to be able to determine how much time we’d have ahead of time.

Before our trip, we ran into friends who lived in Canada for a few years. We quizzed them on Jasper and Banff. They confirmed we needed reservations for Banff, but knew from experience that we would have no issues visiting Jasper without reservations. We’ve found that people generally love to give tips about their hometowns or places they’ve been. Sooner or later the tips come in handy.

rving without reservationsFor epic trips, you really do want to plan ahead. We made reservations for Banff NP, but were comfortable going without reservations in nearby Jasper NP based on our friends’ prior experience as locals.

RVing without reservations is bound to happen if you RV frequently, and especially if you full-time. Whether it’s an unexpected option, your preference, or necessary to keep your schedule open, it can be done. In any case, a combination of the tips above can make RVing without reservations stress-free.

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  1. Chuck Dunn Posted on 05.08.2019

    I feel that reservations are worth the time and effort to have the peace of mind knowing there is a place for you at the end of the day. We don’t drive much over 300 miles a day so we aren’t rushed to get settled in. With no reservations it may be quite later before you are propping your feet up after not a hard day. It is called recreation for a reason.

  2. Roger tankersley Posted on 11.17.2018

    We just recently started to RV again. We love casinos and they are 98% good for parking dry. We have hit on casino that had no parking, for they only had covered parking, understandable. We use the casinos for 3 or 4 days then a campground with hook ups. There is a book with almost all the casinos, casino rving. And the book is quick and easier than the internet while trying to make a last minute decision.

  3. MARK DUERR Posted on 11.17.2018

    I would add these tips:
    A reservation is a pretty tiny investment in peace of mind, usually only about $10 over the cost of the camping, per stay (even multiple nights), well worth the peace of mind.

    Don’t feel locked in by a reservation. We sometimes have reservations for, say 4 nights, arrive and see a much better non-reservable site available. We will often take the new site, cancel our reservation (you’re out the reservation fee and one night cost, maybe $25 on average), but you spend four days in a dynamite location for only about 25% more than you would have spent anyway. You’re spending thousands a year on any kind of self-contained RV, don’t get cheap when it comes to the experience you got the RV to experience!

    In National Parks, even during shoulder season, get reservations. We’ve been turned away at Madison Campground in Yellowstone in October! Same with any Pacific coastline state park in the summer. This applies to Tuesday and Wednesday too.

    I end with this. It is easy to say to yourself before you leave, “I see several campgrounds in that area, I’m sure we’ll get something.” But when you had an unexpected (often, road construction) delay, and you are arriving at 8:00pm and you’re tired and frustrated, absolutely nothing is sweeter than knowing you can just pull in to your reserved spot. And nothing is worse that getting there and seeing that “Campground Full” sign. … Really.

  4. Keith Posted on 11.17.2018

    Along with time of week and time of season, time of day (may be obvious) is important too. Early arrivals snag the last reservable spots. Better yet we will call the night before or morning of to reserve (call that ‘RVg with last minute reservations’). We have found the AllStays and Good Sam apps to be most inclusive, and also carry the paper campground directories if cellular is spotty. Any other apps people find helpful?

  5. BrokerDon Posted on 11.06.2018

    If you’re told the campground is full, ask about “Overflow” campgrounds / campsites. We stayed at Lake Louise (Canada) and Banff Overflow campgrounds in the middle of summer.

    Also check the Harvest Hosts app for busy booked month in advanced destinations… especially on 3-day holiday weekends. Not only are many Harvest Hosts locations great destinations themselves, often you’ll be the only one on their camping area.

  6. Scott & Jaime Sichler Posted on 11.05.2018

    Great tips! We travel the same way. Another option in addition to boondocking and Walmart, many casinos will let you stay in their parking lots if you join their player’s club.