Pack Up The Winnie, We're Going To Wal-Mart

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Summertime means ceiling fans and lemonade, trips to Disneyland and a parade of recreational vehicles on the highways. But RV parks fill up fast, and travelers who can't find a spot for the night often head over to the local Wal-Mart parking lot. Call it a new version of camping in America.


This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. As you know, gas is now more than four dollars a gallon. So, a summer vacation in your RV, it'll be a lot more expensive this year. RVers, though, are coming up with some creative ways to save money. One of them involves camping, not under the stars, but under the fluorescents. Reporter James Nelson explains.

JAMES NELSON: If you're looking to save money on your next RV trip, maybe you should follow the example of Richard Derry (ph) from Jonesborough, Tennessee. He's on a camping trip in Rexburg, Idaho, and has just set up for the evening. He's not in a wood, or forest, or by a small rippling stream. He's in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Mr. RICHARD DERRY (RV Owner): It's the best campground in the country. Well, it's handy. It's close to the Interstate. Most of us run on the Interstate, and the price is right.

NELSON: That price, of course, free. Every night throughout the country, this scene is repeated. From high-end RVs to small camper shells on trucks, people wheel up to a Wal-Mart for the night. Instead of crackling camp fires or wildlife stirring in the night, highway noise and shopping carts fill the air.

(Soundbite of shopping carts moving)

NELSON: Take this Wal-Mart parking lot in Draper, Utah. That's where Max Beldon (ph), his mother, Alice May, and their two dogs will spend the night. Max points out some simple reasons why.

Mr. MAX BELDON (RV Owner): The thing I like about Wal-Mart, you can always see them from the freeway. They're easy to get in and out of, and when you're putting 350 to 500 miles a day on a rig, you don't want to spend an hour looking for a place to park. We can live without hookups.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

NELSON: As the RVs roll in and out of the big-box store lots at this Wal-Mart in Central Utah, Rebecca Scouse (ph) says camping here offers her family a sense of security, and she adds, her children love it.

Ms. REBECCA SCOUSE (RV Owner): Actually, we're all asleep before we...

Unidentified Child: Nuh-uh.

Ms. SCOUSE: No, you were awake.

Unidentified Child: Nuh-uh.

Ms. SCOUSE: They woke up this morning and was, like, we're so close to a Wal-Mart. So, they were excited...

Unidentified Child: Uh-ah. We knew we were at Wall-Mart.

Ms. SCOUSE: We could go in a Wal-Mart and get a few things.

NELSON: Floridians Richard and Sally Knoll (ph) had been camping in Wal-Mart lots around the country for over five years. They say many Wal-Mart parking lots have signs saying "No Overnight Parking," but they are seldom turned away.

Mr. RICHARD KNOLL (RV Owner): A few times, we have run into it. We've asked the manager and he says, you know, as far as Wal-Mart's concerned, you're more than welcome.

NELSON: Wal-Mart issued a statement saying many of their locations allow overnight RV parking, adding it's primarily up to the discretion of store management. For the Knolls, it fits the budget

Mr. KNOLL: If we had to go on a campground every night of the week, we wouldn't be out on the road. It'd be another 175 to 200 dollars a week. And we're going to be out a month. So, that'd be another thousand dollars for the month, and on top of the extra - almost an extra thousand we're spending on gas because of the four dollar. That's something we have to figure into the budget.

NELSON: And now that four dollars a gallon is inching its way up five dollars, it makes free overnight stays at the local Wal-Mart lot even more attractive. For NPR News, I'm James Nelson in Salt Lake City.

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