This question is not a new one. Just do a Google search with the words - "the cost of rving" and you'll see lots of articles from RVer's detailing their costs. But, it's a question that seems to keep surfacing.
I recently got some emails asking about the cost of RVing. I also got an email from someone asking if I would write a blog post about how to travel frugally in an RV. I'm not into writing "how to" articles or into giving advice. Also, there's already bloggers who do a really good job covering the frugal RV travel subject.
But the emails got me thinking. There's probably folks who read travel blogs or articles and aspire to get into RVing. They probably have questions about what it costs. Not about the cost to buy a rig but what it typically costs to travel in an RV. The idea for what I could write began to jell. I could do a post to share my insights and info about what an RV lifestyle really costs. And, while writing it, I'd figure out what it's really costing me.
Before I spent any money on RVing, I first had to answer some questions.
Planning My RV Lifestyle
The first thing I had to figure out was what type of RVer I wanted to be when I grow up. Was I ready to sell the homestead and go full-time or just be a part-time RVer? Was this RV travel idea just a temporary itch that needed to be scratched (like a one time year-long trip around the United States) or a permanent part of how I wanted to live? Did I want to do road trips and always be on the road or do more stay put seasonal RVing?
I figured out that I wanted to be a traveler and spend much of my retirement years exploring the United States. My wife wasn't into doing all the travel but she was fine with me traveling solo. We weren't ready to uproot and sell our house, so I'd be traveling part-time. I also wanted to do a little seasonal stay put RVing (e.g. wintering in Florida, vacationing in Maine).
My RV lifestyle also needed to support my regular lifestyle. I'm a minimalist and somewhat frugal person. I like to keep things simple. I also needed to travel within my means. Figuring this out was key to determining the type of RV I wanted and it was a driver in what my RV lifestyle would cost.
The Costs are All Relative
For me, my RV lifestyle is an added expense to my current living expenses. It hasn't displaced too many costs. I look at it as all relative to my current living expenses. Many things like food, health insurance, medical bills, taxes, car maintenance, property maintenance, other insurances, utilities, clothing, cell phones, and entertainment have all stayed pretty much the same since I started traveling.
Some have gone down slightly. I don't drive my car as much anymore, especially when I'm in FL, so I am saving some of fuel. Also, my electric bill goes down when I'm traveling and in Florida. I also got rid of the newspaper delivery, all subscriptions, cut my cable TV, and got rid to my land line. I did some of these things before I started traveling and even more after because I saw less value in them.
But, my RV lifestyle did add new expenses and those are the ones I'll discuss - the ones that are directly related to my RV travel. I won't get into minutia with spreadsheets of costs. I'll keep it simple and put them into three categories - RV Related, Fuel, and Lodging.
RV Related Expense
The upfront cost of an RV can be the biggest expense in an RV lifestyle. Which one you buy is all related to what type of RVer you want to be. Towable versus motorhome. Class A bus versus Class B van. Gas versus Diesel. New vs Used. And the costs for RV's are all over the place. You can buy a used towable for $5,000 or spend $500,000 on an upscale diesel pusher. Which one a person buys is all based on that person's needs and budget. I won't try to answer the question of which one is the right one to buy. The only right answer is the one that's right for you at the moment.
But, the type of RV will be a factor in the ongoing RV maintenance and related expenses. I wanted an RV to support road trip type travel. I wanted something I could drive anywhere. I wanted something that would be efficient and not be costly to maintain. I wanted something I could live comfortably in for weeks or months at a time.
My first RV was a Class B Roadtrek van. That RV fit all my needs except the "live comfortably in for weeks or months at a time". After two years, I traded the Roadtrek for a Class C Winnebago View Profile. The View provided just the right amount of added space and was still small enough to be able to go anywhere.
I wrote about my experience with the View in this post - My Winnebago View - A Two Year Summary. My ongoing annual RV related expense for the View over the past two years have been as follows:
- RV Maintenance: $1,800
- RV Vehicle Insurance: $763
- RV Excise Tax: $1,081
- RV Registration & Inspection: $79
- Incidental Expenses: $375
The RV Excise Tax expense is a value related tax that applies to my domicile state. Not all states have this tax or they may call it a license tax. Some have personal property taxes instead. Some states don't have this type of tax.
There are some incidental expenses that come up like replacing a sewer hose each year or replacing RV parts that break. This might total around $200 each year. Also, there's memberships (FMCA, Coach-Net, Good Sam) that total $175 each year.
These expenses are specific to my RV and they're some what static. The Excise Tax reduces as the value of the RV goes down. I do some of the routine maintenance on the RV (oil and filters) to save a few bucks.
This expense is driven by how many miles I travel, the fuel efficiency of my RV, and the price of fuel. I drive all over the country each year and log about 20,000 miles per year. Some drive more and some drive less. If you stay in a certain geographic area, then it's easy to limit the miles you drive and save money on fuel.
My RV is a very fuel-efficient vehicle. I average 16.5 miles per gallon. Some days I get 18 mpg and some days I get 14 mpg. At 16.5 mpg, driving 20,000 miles per year, I burn about 1,212 gallons of fuel per year.
My RV uses diesel fuel. This year the price of fuel has been falling, which has been great. Using an average of $2.30 per gallon (It's lower now), my cost for fuel last year was about $2,800. Last year, when diesel was close $3.80 per gallon, my cost was $4,600.
Price is a big factor as is efficiency. If I had a similar sized gas RV that got 8-9 mpg, my fuel cost would almost double. The fuel efficiency of my a rig was a big factor in selecting my specific RV because I planned to drive a lot each year. If you don't drive a lot then fuel efficiency will be less important.
By far, the largest RV lifestyle expense can be for parking the RV overnight. It's also the one that can be controlled the most by where and how often you travel.
Campgrounds and RV parks all charge fees for overnight stays. The rates can be all over the place based on type and location. National and State Parks usually have rates lower than private campgrounds. I've seen fees typically in the range of $20-30 per night. Some places with minimal facilities can be as low as $12 per night. These places may be lower in cost but they're also at some of the most beautiful places.
Private campgrounds or RV parks are usually slightly higher in cost. These usually can be in the range of $30-$45 per night, but it can go a lot higher. I've seen some high-end RV parks in Florida with water front sites charging over $100 per night. Prices at private campgrounds can also vary by season or special event. Campgrounds near Daytona all raise their rates for Speedweek and Bike Week. RV parks tend to have more amenities like full hookups, wi-fi, swimming pools, and cable TV. And some offer discounts for weekly or monthly stays.
But there's also some places where you can stay for free. Many federal lands such as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or US Forest Service areas allow free camping for a certain limited time period. These areas are usually undeveloped (undeveloped = no hookups or facilities) and many are in the western states. A good resource to find these areas can be found at this website : Ultimate Campgrounds.
It's also possible to park overnight for free at many Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel Restaurants, and truck stops. The OvernightRVParking website is a great resource to find these locations. It cost $25 per year to use this website, but it pays for itself with just one overnight stay. The key to staying at these places is to always ask permission to see if overnight parking is allowed.
When I travel across country, I try to stay at truck stops or Wal-Mart while I'm going to or from a destination. Once at a destination, I usually stay at public or private campgrounds.
When on a road trip, I try to use free overnight stays about 15-20% of the time to save some money. When I'm in Florida or on a stay put vacation, I'll stay at a campground of RV park because I want water and electricity hook ups. I don't track my detail expenses in this area. I'm usually in FL for at least 12 weeks each year and stay at an RV park. That's my largest lodging expense at around $4,200. There's another 12 weeks of road trip and vacation travel that I do each year. Looking at the number of days and an average rate, I probably spend another $2,100 for that lodging. That adds up to around $6,300 for lodging for about 6 months of travel.
Many probably pay much less for lodging. You can boondock in Quartzsite, Arizona for the whole winter for less than $200. You can find RV parks in California, Arizona, or Florida that have monthly winter rates for around $500. If you're don't care so much about location and don't want to pay a lot there are many opportunities to save money on lodging expenses. And there's some who do all their road trips staying at truck stops or Wal-Mart.
So, I figured out what it's costing me for my RV lifestyle. It adds up to around $13,198 per year for me to be part-time RVer. I didn't include food as an RV travel expense because I pretty much eat the same or more simply on the road as I would at home. There are also some incidental expenses like tolls and propane for the RV that are minimal (maybe $250 per year).
I buy a National Park pass each year for $80 which gets me into all National Parks / Monuments for free. I'm not much of a shopper so I don't tend to buy souvenirs. I may take a tour sometimes, but that's part of normal entertainment expenses.
When I plan a trip, I use an average daily expense of about $100 per day to plan the budget for a trip. That figure includes food, fuel, and lodging but it's what I use to figure out the cost. Some do it for less, but it's good have this type of figure for planning a trip.
When I retired and before I started RVing, I budgeted around $6,000 for a two month Florida condo rental each year and still had a vacation condo that cost me $6,000 per year in fees and taxes. I sold the condo to buy an RV and use the RV now for Florida so my savings close to what it costs me to be a part-time RVer.
For me, that $13,000 is money well spent. Some spend that much keeping a vacation home or taking a couple of week-long cruises each year. That amount would probably only pay for one day stay in a hospital. But for me, it's buying some priceless experiences and memories. I'm traveling 6 months of the year, seeing some great sights, and having a ball.
You can read more about my travels at: http://jdawgjourneys.com.