Free Wal Mart parking? I don’t think so!

Since part of the service of my site is to show people how to save money and stay safe in their travels, I like to stay on top of what is happening with other people who are also trying to save money and stay safe.

One of the topics that is both hot and controversial is whether or not to use Wal Mart parking lots for free overnight stays. So rather than post my feelings on countless blogs and forums, I choose to do it efficiently… once… on my own site!

Here’s the way I see it… I have just spent several hours following link upon link to sites that talk about or provide information on various free parking spots. There is a tremendous amount of controversy and many pros and cons regarding this practice, especially when it comes to Wal Marts. I can’t say that I have ever had the experience, but that doesn’t mean I am opposed to it. I think it can be a good option, but should only be used when you really need to do it. But is it “free”? Only if you are a cheapskate who won’t buy anything in return for the privilege of parking there!

Common sense says that if someone gives you something or provides something for you, that you should do something for them in return. In nearly every post I have read by rational, caring people, they buy something from Wal Mart, and even some surrounding businesses, whenever they use a “free” Wal Mart parking spot. That’s fine, and I commend their fairness. But where does it stop? Many of these people speak of spending upwards of $100 to even as much as $500 if it includes refueling a large rig! One commenter days he spends upwards of $7600 a year at Wal Marts because he parks there regularly!  Is he nuts? Probably! If they make as little as 10% gross profit off his purchases, and their parking spot is only valued at $10 or less per night for what it offers, that means he has spent more than double what that site is worth, even if he used it every single night of the year!

OK, so they “may” be buying things that they would need anyway… but maybe not. Many people have said how they get carried away and end up buying things that wasn’t on their list, just because it was a good buy!

What does the camper get in return for all that generosity? They get a parking spot with no hookups, that is sometimes out of level, lights on all around them all night, traffic coming and going at all hours of the night, the chance of being hassled by “under-educated” store employees (and sometimes even higher authorities), and with no really accurate guide as to which ones allow parking and which ones don’t!

Sure, there are all kinds of guide books and sites out there that purport to provide up-to-date information on the stores that allow parking and the ones that don’t, but from what I have just read on several different sites, even those “guides” aren’t always up to date! Readers were writing in corrections to them!

In many cases, stores are even bending the laws set out by their commnunities to try to compromise between accommodating their customers and satisfying the local laws! That’s a recipe for trouble for unsuspecting RV’ers who don’t know what the local laws are! I don’t like getting caught in the middle of other people’s problems!

One gentleman said he pulled into a Wal Mart and was treated very cordially by the night time security guard… only to be awoke at 6 AM by a different guard on a different shift that told him that he had one hour to be out of there or the authorities would be called, and that he didn’t have a right to park there in the first place! Is that the fault of the manager for not training his employees properly? I would think so!  The policy should be consistent on a store-by-store basis… not change with the shifts!

Another person said that after not seeing any “no parking” signs, and getting settled in, that two people in Wal Mart “looking” uniforms came to his coach late at night and said he had to leave immediately (which he did)! Upon calling the Wal Mart manager the next day, the manager did not recognize the descriptions of these two people! That’s scary!

The big question is this… is it worthwhle to try to get “free” parking in a place like that when you are going to end up spending more for “supplies” than what you would pay for a cheap (and much safer) campsite in a place that is designated, licensed and insured for such use?

This is why we made the decision many years ago, to buy into membership resorts. Granted, we bought as newbies and paid way more than what we should have, even back then, but have since gotten “savvy” to how to get them for free, and only pay the maintenance fees to keep them active. Now that we are retired we can pull into any of about 500+ luxury resorts around the country (with a few in Mexico and Canada as well) and stay for up to two weeks with full hookups, and all the activities and amenities we can handle… and it doesn’t cost us a dime (other than those maintenance fees). And if there isn’t one of our system’s parks nearby, we also have Coast to Coast, where we can get other luxury resorts for under $15 a night.

OK, so even with all that, they aren’t literally “everywhere” that we may want to travel. There are some parts of the country where our membership parks are few and far between. So then we have a choice… either travel sometimes long distances to get to the next park, which may or may not be near what we want to see… OR… use an alternative.

No matter which camping club you belong to, there are going to be some that overlap with other clubs, and there are going to be some that have “unique” campgrounds in areas where others don’t. This is why you should have more than one discount membership (provided you do enough traveling to make it worthwhile). Even then, there may be times when there’s nothing close to where you want to be, but at least it puts the odds of finding something more in your favor.

When all else fails, I would still try to find a low cost or free spot in a DESIGNATED area (meaning something meant for RV parking, such as a truck stop) to spend the night, rather than take “pot luck” with someone’s parking lot in an UNDESIGNATED area!  I would rather spend a paltry $20 for the night (if I had to go that high) for a cheap campground with no amenities than to weasel my way into a “supposedly free” shopping center parking lot and end up spending more than what it’s worth just to have a sub-standard parking spot.

Let’s face it… if I wanted a free parking spot with no hookups, on unlevel ground, and take a chance on getting hassled by someone, I could pull off on a wide spot on the side of the road! What’s it worth? Absolutley NOTHING… because they can be found anywhere!

Don’t get me wrong… I still agree that you should do “something fair” if you are going to use a Wal Mart parking spot for the night. Grabbing some groceries or a meal while you’re there is not unreasonable. After all, there isn’t that much of a mark-up on groceries, and only slightly more on restaurant food. Even if you buy gas, the portion the station keeps is very little of what the gas price is. So if you spent $100 TOTAL… for everything… they might have made back $10-$15  in gross profit for the courtesy of letting you park for the night. I can see that as a “somewhat” reasonable trade (although still overpriced).

The fact that it may have also been a convenience to you can be factored in, but the reality is that the actual site is still only worth very little for what you get! If a normal business tried charging $15 for a site with no more amenities than Wal Mart has, they would go broke! If you trade for anything more than that much in value, it’s foolish spending, and YOU could go broke!

The guy who spent close to $500 between supplies and fuel probably gave Wal Mart closer to $100 in pure gross profit for one night’s parking privieges!  There is no way that what he received in parking for the night was worth that kind of trade!  I wouldn’t even give a luxury resort that much per night for all the hookups they could provide nor all the emenities that went with it! So why would I want to give a Wal Mart that much for something that I could get for free anywhere else?

Besides that, if you blow your entire month’s grocery budget at that one store, what are you going to do if you need to stop at some other store the next night?  You can’t keep “over-buying” just to get a free parking spot! Just like in a race, you need to pace yourself and remain on a steady course of action. Only buy what is fair to make the transaction fair for both you and the store! Otherwise you are going to run yourself broke trading for “free” parking spots, and will have more in it than what you could go and buy a full membership in a resort for!

I can’t say I would “never” use a store parking lot… if I absolutely had to, but I hope I am never in that position to find out! That’s NOT what they were designed for, built for, licensed for, nor insured for! If you stepped out of your coach in a dark spot and broke your ankle in a pot hole in the parking lot, the ensuing legal battle would be a circus!

Nor would I want the uncertainty of knowing which of several emplyees were going to make a decision to let me stay or boot me out when the shift changes! Many of you are going to say, “Gee, I’ve never had that kind of problem!”  Good for you… and good luck with that in the future! The odds are that sooner or later, it will happen!

This is another reason why I like the idea of a minivan camper that doesn’t even look like an RV. With my extra dark windows, and then dark colored curtains behind them, I can park in a Wal Mart parking lot anywhere I want to, and curl up in the back and take a nap, or even park for the night, in a normal sized parking space, right under the security cameras if  want to… and I dare them to say anything about it!  Since it isn’t an RV, and isn’t any different than any other vehicle on the lot, they don’t have any reason to know what I am doing there! I’m in MY vehicle, and I have a right to do whatever I want in my vehicle as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else! As long as I am in MY vehicle, I can eat, cook, sleep, watch TV, or whatever my heart desires. If they try to tell me I’ve been parked there too long, I’ll just tell them I got so tired out from my first round of shopping that I accidentlally fell asleep, but will be rested nicely for my next round of shopping!  And then I’ll ask them where the signs are that says there’s a  time limit on parking in one spot! At worst, I can always drive around the lot and into a different parking space, and there’s nothing that they can legally do about it, unless they enjoy going to court! Their “no RV parking” signs don’t mean a thing to me because I’m not an RV!

Only if I had a “pop-top” up, or had an awning out, would they have reason to suspect that it was a camper. As long as it looks and acts like an ordinary van, and nothing has been done to it to classify it as anything but a van, I can park wherever I want… including inside a commercial parking garage (not that I would want to camp there)!

But again, that kind of convenience comes at a price (mainly lack of square footage) and it’s not for everyone. If you even have a remote inclination that it “might” work for you, there is one sure way to find out without going out and spending thousands of dollars on a commercially-made minivan camper. Read my free 94-page book to get ideas on how you could do it with an ordinary minivan, and if it doesn’t work, you can recover nearly all of your money in the camping equipment that goes into it by re-selling it. You won’t have lost anything at all on the minivan itself, because it will remain just as you bought it… no holes drilled into it, nothing mounted in it. And if you decide you do like it, you can always upgrade the equipment or the van at any time… a piece at a time…without losing any of what makes it a “camper” in the trade! And you can can put it all right back into the next minivan.

RV’ing and camping is supposed to be stress free. It’s a time to relax. How can you relax in a Wal Mart parking lot… with lights and traffic at all hours of the night… never knowing if the next undertrained employee is going to reverse the decision of the the previous one and wake you at any time of the wee hours of the morning and tell you to hit the road again?! In anyone’s definiton of the word, that is a form of stress and worry! You may not think of it as that, but it is! Subconciously, it affects how you do things, and you can never fully relax! Even driving that monstrosity down the road is not relaxing. I know… I have owned everything from a 40-footer pulling a tow car, down to a tent.

The most relaxing, stress-free times I ever had was when I didn’t have to worry about anything… no payments on the RV, no high-ticket gas fill-ups, no traffic nightmares, no worrying about how to turn around if I made a wrong turn, no worry about getting stopped in time in an emergency, no worry about getting stuck anywhere, and no worry about having to use “free” parking spots because I needed to save money to afford a monstrous RV in the first place.

But everyone has a choice. Good luck with yours. As always let me know your thoughts!