One of the ways you can experience America is by staying at KOA campgrounds around the country. They are normally competitive with lower end hotels for cabins and hookups for motorhomes can vary a little. I have found staying at these campgrounds to worth the effort.
As a kid, we use to stay in a cabin on our trip to Branson and I remembered that so when I started traveling for Last Kodiak, I made it a point to see it other KOA campgrounds were similar.
So, early on, I became a card carrying member of their program (high recommended) and book my first stay at one of the campgrounds. I figure it can’t be that bad. It was actually quite positive to be honest. They have done a good job of building quality control in their system for people traveling the country.
The one thing that did stick out to me is they have places that they are quite popular and some other places that they have hardly any presence at all. For example, they have 18 campgrounds in Michigan but they only have two in Mississippi. I would have guess that exact opposite.
Bring your RV to KOA Campgrounds?
The bulk of people going to one of the sites will be bringing their RV with them so what is that like? It is normally just as simple to make a reservation on the internet, check in, hook up and relax in most cases. The only limitations that I have ever had was the fact that sometimes checking in can be a pain. In one case, I had to hook up and then just check in the next morning. That is the worst case you would have.
As far as requirements, I have found that every park is a little different. A few of them have length requirements and other have limited on vehicles. In one case, we could not set up a small tent next to the camper due to the rules. However, the general rules is you could not have any issues unless you have a very long rig.
One concern that many might have (as I do) is about what type of sites each site has. I am not a fan of backing in a travel trailer in the dark. I really like the pull through slots. They make life so much easier. This is something that you can’t determine without contacting each park you are considering going to as well.
One benefit that I have seen using KOA Campgrounds is they do seem to give you more space between slots for cooking on the grills, socializing, etc. That is something that a lot of RV parks just don’t do.
What about the cabins?
For the more “tourist” types, many of the campgrounds offer cabins for rent. The cabin are normally pretty basic with a large bed, a big futon, and a fan. Bathrooms is outside the cabin. I have stayed in them in Arkansas and Utah and they are very nice. While some would say that you could get a decent hotel room for the same price, it is not as peaceful as some of the campgrounds I have been in.
The main benefit to using them that I see is not having to pull or drive a RV across America to camp. You can just come with your basic camping gear and have the cabin to sleep in. The cost of fuel difference between bringing the 24 foot trailer pulled by a Ford Expedition and coming in a Honda Accord makes the added cost of a cabin realistic.
Depending on the campgrounds, some of them have full kitchens to cook and others do not. It has never been an issue for me as the barbecue smoker is normally in the back of the truck. Grab some firewood from the store and off to smoking some barbecue brisket. Again, it is all depends what you needs are and what the campground you are going to has to offer.
One thing that I have noticed is that many times, the cabins have the best view in the whole camp. They build them to walk out and see the best nature has to offer no matter the location. As a photographer, this is ideal when I am walking out of bed at five thirty in the morning to get a sunrise picture. No need to walk to a spot, I just start clicking!
What does the campgrounds offer?
It is pretty standard to find all the campgrounds to have a club house, a general store, and snack shop of some type. I have seen everything from a pizzeria to a ice cream parlor to a hamburger joint at the locations across America.
In most cases, there is also a swimming pool during the summer that is normally close by the club house. I have even been to one of the sites that had a large water slide that went into the deep end of the large Olympic side pool.
As far as the store, it is good for things you will need for camping on the fly like firewood and propane. It is handy because it saves a long drive to the local Wal-Mart or Target to pick up what you need. As you can imagine, the stores do have a markup from big box retailers but the convience of walking to pick up what you need does have a premuium.
Lastly, this is the place you go to check in and out as well. Most site claim to have someone there around the clock but I have found that most times, it is only until mid evening. If coming after that, make sure you contact them to have someone to meet you or agree to check in first thing in the morning.
How much does KOA Campgrounds cost?
This is not an easy number to stay as the numbers seem to be all over the place from $25 a night to $150 a night for motorhomes and up to $250 a night for a cabin depending on the location.
As I normally stay in a location for a month (cheaper that way) I found that the cheapest I could find was at Springfield, Missouri for $425 a month and the other end of the pricing was $1,500 a month (plus electricity) in New York City. The campgrounds by Los Angeles Fairgrounds does not even offer monthly stays anymore.
The following table is a sample of prices for staying a night or a month if you have a motor home and how much a cabin in each location would be. I tried to get a sample of different spots around America to give you a clearer picture.
[table id=5 /]
The benefit of using KOA campgrounds over a state park is the added cost. These parks normally are a little more developed (commercial) in many cases, in a much better location in connection to population and tourist attraction. State Parks are, by design, in the middle of nowhere. These parks, on the other hand, are made to be closer to things people would want to do. When the dusk settles, I found both to be close to the same cost.
What is the membership card about?
They offer for a one time fee of $30 a special card that you can use at all their locations. The most important feature of it is the 10% discount. Basically, if you stay at any locations for more than a few times a year, it pays for itself.
It also have a point system connected to it that rewards you for staying at the sites. Just like with any reward system, the more you use it, the more rewards you get as a result. This can used for free nights in the future. Currently, it would be a free stay for every 28 paid stays. If you are a full time camper, you get 75 points a day which is 2,200 points every month.
They also have a few days a year that people who are members of the reward program can stay for free at campgrounds. It is normally twice a year from what I can tell. It is just a great way for the company to say thank you to the people who use their sites often.
To add a nice touch, they also have worked out deals with different vendors that campers would use to offer some great discounts on things. Some of the examples is Dish TV, Gieco, and RV Trader.
At the end of the day, it just makes sense for people to look into being a member of the value Kard rewards program. After all, $30 is not that much considering the discounts you will get as a result.
KOA Campgrounds vs State Parks
The big question for many people, myself included would be how do they compare with the national and state parks and forests across America. One of the most beutiful things about America is how we take care of our parks and set aside large amounts of lands for public use. All of these sites offer camping in some form. How does KOA campgrounds compare to them?
The main benefit that I see is, as stated earlier, the campgrounds are normally better located to things you would want to do when visiting an area. If you are going to Silver Dollar City in Branson, the KOA is just a few miles away while the closest state park is about an hour’s drive (or more considering all the old ladies behind the wheel).
The other benefit is that the campgrounds are often more commercial which means you have access to things. The store is better stocked, there is some type of restaurants, there is a pool, etc. At state parks, besides Firewood, many times you are miles from the closest store to get anything.
To the credit of the parks, you will enjoy more natural settings and privacy. The only person you will probably see all day is the ranger who comes by to check if you are still there and make sure you have a current permit. The parks also do tend to be a little cheaper.
In the end, both have their place and I use both of them for different purposes. If real camping is the plan, I end up at the State Parks around the country but if I am working or visiting things for the website, I am heading to the KOA campgrounds.
What about how they compared to the many other RV Parks out there? This is not an easy question to answer and that is the actual problem. When you are talking about any park, you have no idea how good it is or even it is still operating. Most of the time, you are going into it completely blind.
At least with KOA Campgrounds, you know what to expect in the general sense. You know they will have a clean spot, a store, a small eatery and in most cases a pool. They have done a great job of normalizing operations at all their locations. There has never been a customer service problem at a site. I would guess if there was, I would at least be able to take it up with their corporate office. Independent campgrounds would not give you that option.
In general, I find the staff at the sites to be much more easy to work with than I have at the smaller hole in the wall parks. Due to my disability, I can’t drive sometimes and needed meds, they took me to the drugstore to get them with a smile on their face (their idea, not mine). I highly doubt the same would happen at some of the parks that they frown just handing you your mail.
While I am still a lover of the national park system and a big fan of the state parks across the country, I do find great value in the KOA Campgrounds. They are for a different purpose and one that I find to be very handy sometimes when I am on the road.
As stated, this is alternative experince to what you will find in our national parks and forests. While they lack privacy, they make up for it with opportunity for community and location. The decision of what value that brings to you on the road is one only you can make.
My advise is to give them a try next time you are traveling and see if they work for you and have the experince of staying at one of the iconic names in the campground industry.