KOA campgrounds are a staple in American camping. When you see the big yellow sign, it’s unmistakable. You probably think family-friendly, smores, and shuffleboard when you think of a KOA. But are they as inviting as they seem from the outside? We’re about to spill the beans and give you reasons why to avoid KOAs. Let’s dive in.
What Are KOAs?
KOA stands for Kampgrounds of America. There are more than 500 of them across North America. Marketed as a home away from home for people of all ages, KOA campgrounds started in 1962, by Dave Drum, on land in Billings, Mont. Four years later, the first KOA franchise opened in Cody, Wyo. After that, franchises popped up from coast to coast and today there are more than 485 KOA campgrounds in the US.
KOA campgrounds promote traditional camping with modern campsites and conveniences. They pride themselves on friendly service and staff up with workampers who often escort you to your site. Most KOAs include RV sites and rental cabins.
The KOA brand is committed to giving back to its communities. They partner with organizations, including their Care Camps, in which they offer children with cancer a chance to relax with friends and have fun at a KOA.
What’s The Difference Between a KOA and a Regular Campground?
Honestly, you can find everything that KOA has to offer in other campgrounds. The brand and franchise name just helps customers know what to expect. A KOA campground is simply a part of a larger franchise, similar to your favorite restaurant or hotel chain. With a KOA franchise, owners and managers have access to branding, tools, brand reputation, and other resources to help their campground succeed.
However, not all KOAs are cookie-cutter similar, as there are different types of KOA campgrounds that lead to confusion and varying experiences.
Types of KOA Campgrounds
Not all KOA campgrounds are created equal. There are three main distinctions you’ll notice as you encounter KOAs across the country: KOA Journey, KOA Holiday, and KOA Resort. As you might expect, these different types have different levels of amenities included and are geared toward certain types of travelers.
KOA Journey campgrounds are designed for convenience for the traveler. They have big pull-thru sites and may have fewer or simpler amenities. These are typically not located near major attractions, or are more conveniently located next to main roadways. While you can stay longer periods in these parks just fine, you may notice a lack of features one may be accustomed to in one of the other park types.
The KOA Holiday parks are the next step up. They are designed for staying and relaxing while you explore the attractions an area has to offer. While they have more fancy campsites available and more amenities than Journey parks, they don’t quite have the resort-feel of the KOA Resort parks.
KOA Resorts, as you may expect, are in the fanciest tier. Complete with pools, activities, and on-site features like restaurants, shops, and more, your vacation could simply be the park – no need to leave the campground.
5 Reasons to Avoid KOA Campgrounds
So far, we’re making it sound like KOA campgrounds are pretty great, right? Well, they can be, but they aren’t for everyone. We’ve come up with five reasons you may want to avoid them, depending on what type of camper you are. But keep reading to be sure if these parks suit you or if you should evaluate other options first.
#1 They’re Expensive
KOA campgrounds are expensive for the type of properties they are. They’re not all luxury RV resorts, but we would classify them above a state park since they usually have full hookups and amenities such as pools and more.
However, it’s challenging to rent a site at a KOA for less than $50 per night, even some of the lower-tier KOA Journeys. Depending on the location, type of KOA, and season, you might pay upwards of $100 per night. While camping at KOA may help ensure you’re in a clean and well-appointed campground, these generally high prices might be hard for all campers.
Why are they so expensive? Well, for starters, you’re paying for a brand name. The KOA campgrounds are privately owned and operated and have to pay for their overhead costs, which may include franchise fees or other maintenance or upgrade costs to keep their park within the requirements of the KOA name. These parks are also known for having family-friendly amenities like pools, playgrounds, and other activities on-site that you can expect to pay a premium for.
#2 They Get Crowded
Since KOAs are well known, and they’ve been around for many years, they’re popular. Getting a campsite at a KOA campground usually requires reservations well in advance. If you decide you’d like to stay longer, either you won’t be able to or you’ll likely have to switch sites.
With the family-friendly nature of the brand, activities like the pool and playgrounds are usually quite busy. Facilities like laundry and showers might also have lines and wait times. If you’re looking for a laid-back, slow-paced camp spot, a state park might be more your speed!
Pro Tip: Have to work while on the road? Or maybe there’s a can’t-miss sports game you must stream! If you need internet, this is How to Find Campgrounds with WiFi.
#3 They Can Be Noisy
With kids, dogs, and a crowded campground, there’s inevitably going to be noise. If you prefer a quiet getaway, a KOA is likely not going to suit your needs. KOA campgrounds are active and, therefore, noisy. There are always activities going on and people coming and going.
This is exactly the goal of KOAs, however, so if you’re looking for an active, social space to bring your family this might just be the ticket. If you dislike loud neighbors laughing around the campfire until midnight or children shouting and playing games at 8 AM in the morning, you may not find your camping trip very restful here.
#4 Sites May Be Close Together
Campsites at KOA campgrounds tend to be close together. This isn’t only a KOA issue, but we bring it up as it’s a fairly consistent issue across their campgrounds. Even some of their larger pull-through sites are tight on the sides, giving you little room if you have slide-outs on your RV.
If your idea of camping is lots of greenery and nature, with space to set up your chairs, campfire, hammock, grill, corn-hole, and other yard games, you’re probably going to feel cramped. You may prefer an Army Corps of Engineers campground or a State Park.
#5 You’re Closer to People, Farther from Nature
KOA campgrounds tend to be closer to people and conveniences in towns, if not right next to a major attraction. While some are near nature, they’re not necessarily off the beaten path. If you’re looking for a camping experience that is slightly off the beaten path with hiking trails, a KOA probably isn’t the best option.
For those wanting to go completely off-road, boondocking on public lands is a great option. You can get out into nature and may not see people for days. It’s the perfect way to have a quiet getaway in the great outdoors.
Pro Tip: Camping with your furry friends? Keep them comfortable with their own camper! Read more about Are Dog Campers Ridiculous or Awesome?
KOAs Aren’t All Bad
Now, not all KOA campgrounds are bad. Your camping preferences are largely going to inform whether a KOA is right for you. And since KOAs are franchised and owned individually, each has its own look and feel (once you get by the big yellow sign).
The reality is that some aren’t managed as well as others, which can exacerbate issues. Everyone’s experience will differ, and you may need to see for yourself how you like the campground giant.
However, KOAs often have pools, activities for kids, and a camp store. Some even serve food and have full-service dog parks and wash stations. The Palm Springs/Joshua Tree KOA, for example, has a cafe that serves breakfast and lunch. Plus, they have mini golf and a thermal hot springs-heated pool, and spas. While their sites are close together, they do a great job of putting bushes and flowers in between to give you some privacy.
Is Staying at KOA Campgrounds Right for You?
We’ve given our case for reasons to avoid KOA campgrounds, but they might be right for you. If you have the opportunity to stay at a KOA, let us know how your experience was. Being part of the RV community affords us all opportunities to learn from each other and find those hidden gem campgrounds along our journeys.
Have you ever stayed at a KOA campground? What was your experience like? Drop a comment below!
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