If you spend any time on RV related internet forums, you’ll see a handful of questions that come up over and over and over, chief among them: ‘how much does it cost to live and travel in an RV fulltime?’ The topic has been addressed numerous times by people far more helpful than me, so I will (a) refer you to their posts (below); and (b) join them in telling you that the answer is: ‘it depends.’
The thing about this lifestyle is it’s just like any other lifestyle: you can spend as much or as little as you want depending on your tastes and your budget. Asking an RVer how much it costs to live in an RV is like asking a New Yorker how much it costs to live in New York. “Well, are you asking how much it costs to live on the 30th floor of a high rise building overlooking Central Park on the Upper West Side, or are you asking how much it costs to split a 2 bedroom apartment with 4 roommates in Queens?” Both are “living in New York” but, obviously, they mean very different things.
The same goes for fulltime RV travel.
There are folks who “travel full time in an RV” for 30K per year or less. They may boondock or work camp for large chunks of the year (meaning, camp for free out on federal lands or work for a campground in exchange for a free campsite). There are others who “travel full time in an RV” for 80K per year or more. Those folks may travel “plug to plug,” and consider any campground that doesn’t have full hook ups, a swimming pool, and a hot tub, unacceptable. Both our 30K friends and our 80K friends are “traveling fulltime in an RV,” but, obviously, they are living very different lifestyles.
The most important determination you have to make when budgeting for this lifestyle is: what does ‘this lifestyle’ even mean?
I figured what would be more helpful than trying to answer the overall question (because it can’t be answered) is to talk about what we are spending on our biggest travel related expense — campground fees — to give an idea of how much our version of this type of travel costs. There are two and a half years worth of data to look at right on this blog (see our maps page and our campground reviews), so, when I share our numbers, you can see what those numbers get you.
As for our other expenses, many of the sites I mention below provide information about other RV travel related costs — insurance, maintenance, connectivity, etc. My caution with that information is that it is all very personal and may not be all that helpful when trying to determine what your own costs will be. For example, our healthcare expenses are going to be utterly unhelpful to someone in a different age bracket, residing in a different state, or insured by a different insurance company. Our connectivity costs, for an unlimited Verizon plan we purchased on the secondary market several years ago, are going to be very different than what is currently available for purchase right now. And, as we learned the hard way last year, the maintenance costs we have to pay for our 17 year old tow car are a lot higher than the maintenance costs other people pay on their much newer cars. A lot of budgeting numbers are simply not “transferable” between people. Camping costs are, which is why I’m focusing on them here.
With regard to other expenses — grocery bills, entertainment costs, hobbies, clothing, etc, I will tell you the same thing that every other honest blogger will tell you: Your expenses for those things aren’t going to change very much. If you’re used to buying your groceries at Walmart, making most of your meals, entertaining yourself by streaming movies, and you rarely spend money on clothing or gadgets, you will likely do the same thing when you move into an RV. If, on the other hand, you do your normal shopping at Whole Foods, you enjoy eating out at high end restaurants in big cities, and you routinely purchase the latest iPhone as soon as it comes out, your tastes are — also — not going to change when you move into an RV.
People who think they’re going to start traveling and suddenly cut their costs by 90% are fooling themselves. Or, perhaps, they can do it, but they probably won’t be very happy doing it. Our grocery orders today look remarkably similar to those we made in 2015, and cost about the same too. And while we no longer have to pay for cable internet service, HOA fees, and property taxes, we now have to pay for our data plans, our fulltimer’s RV insurance, and our health insurance policies.
While our personal yearly expenditures have dropped enormously, that’s due almost entirely to us getting rid of our stupidly expensive mortgage and no longer living in a insanely expensive region. For most Americans, living in normal towns with normal home ownership costs, their expenses are not going to decrease all that much when they move into an RV. They’re simply going to trade one expense for another (assuming they travel the way we travel). If, on the other hand, you happen to be reading this post from an overpriced hovel in D.C. or New York or San Francisco, and you’ve been paying your mortgage on said overpriced hovel for 10 or 15 years and have lots of equity built up, congratulations!!! You can sell that shit and live in an RV for peanuts (relatively speaking)!!!
Where we Stay and Why
Before getting into details, it’s important to understand what kind of campgrounds we stay at. And that’s an important point — we almost exclusively stay at campgrounds. We rarely dry camp and we haven’t work camped. For reasons I’ll explain below, we almost always stay in developed campgrounds with at least some services.
Additionally, while we don’t care about campground amenities (e.g., pools, tennis courts, and activities for the kids), we also don’t want to end up parked next to Breaking Bad. I research every place we stay and we’ve never once stayed anywhere we felt unsafe.
Finally, we plan our travels around seeing certain places (national parks, cities, etc.) Oftentimes, that means we pay a premium for our campsites. For example, the picture above was taken at Zion Canyon Campground which is located right outside the gates of Zion National Park. We could have saved money by staying farther out, but we were willing to pay a premium for the convenience of being able to walk from our campsite into the park each day.
If we wanted to save a lot of money on camping, but still stay at campgrounds, we’ve seen monthly campground rates as low as $350… We might be parked in the middle of nowhere, but it could be done. Alternatively, we could boondock more. Many RVers spend way less on camping costs than we do because they dry camp more often. The problem for us is our rig kind of sucks for boondocking. Our all-electric, residential fridge requires us to run our generator for about 5 hours every day in order to keep our batteries charged. And because we don’t run our generator when we’re sleeping, if we dry camp, we end up burning a whole lot of our day (and our gasoline) waiting around. If, on the other hand, we’re plugged in at a campground, the day is ours to spend as we wish.
The alternative, of course, is to invest in solar panels. Lots of RVers do this and it’s something we might do at some point as well. But solar isn’t cheap — you can easily spend 5 or 10 thousand dollars (or even more) depending on the set up you choose, and even with a pretty robust system, you may still have to run your generator for an hour or more each day. Given that we spent our first 18 months on the east coast where opportunities to boondock are limited, and given that we’re headed back there again this year, investing in solar just hasn’t been a huge priority yet (Pro-Tip: if you think you might want to boondock a lot, don’t buy an RV with a residential refrigerator. Get one that uses propane).
So, with all that in mind, how much does our brand of fulltime RV camping cost? For 2018, our grand total for all camping across the year was $13,174. Cue one half of blog readers recoiling in horror as they gasp “How could they spend that much???” Cue the other half of blog readers exclaiming: “Oh… that’s not that bad!” For us, personally, it’s about $1,000 more than we wanted or expected to see.
During 2018, we traveled through 11 states and stayed at 57 unique campgrounds. Our nightly average was $35 per night.
How does this all break down? Let’s go to the charts!!
Government vs. Commercial
We spent 134 nights at state and county parks, and 226 at commercial parks.
This is actually the exact opposite of what we want to be doing.
For starters, government campgrounds are usually cheaper than commercial ones:
But more importantly, government campgrounds tends to look like this:
…while commercial ones often look like this:
So, why do we end up with this backwards ratio? A couple reasons. First, sometimes in order to be where we want to be, our only option is to stay in a commercial park. There are no state parks in downtown New Orleans or San Diego, or Portland. If we want to stay in these cities (not 20 or 30 minutes away), we have to stay in commercial parks.
Second, just because there’s a government park, doesn’t mean we can stay there. Many federal campgrounds were built back when RVs were much smaller. So, there are a lot of places we just won’t fit.
Third, even when there are government parks that have campsites and roads large enough for us, sometimes we still choose commercial places because they offer us more certainty. A lot of government run campgrounds are first come/first served, which means we don’t know if we have a place to stay until we drive up to the gate. It’s not a big deal in the off season or at lesser known parks, but when you’re dealing with Bryce or Grand Teton or Joshua Tree in the middle of high season, it’s nice to not have to roll those dice. Now, there are plenty of folks who will tell you:
Just wing it!!
Drive around and let serendipity be your guide as you explore the many possibilities of a life of travel!
Embrace the uncertainty of living in the moment to allow your free spirit to shine from within as you throw caution to the wind and let fate be your guide!
Allow your journey to BE the destination!!!!!!”
We are not those people.
I want to know where we’re sleeping at night and I don’t feel like driving our 55 foot swirl covered monstrosity all over hell and creation trying to find a place to park.
Usually, it’s just easier and less stressful to book a commercial campground a couple months before our trip and know that we’ve got a place to go. Pro Tip: If you have your heart set on parking in lots of national forest and national park campgrounds, and you don’t want to be a slave to reservations, don’t buy a big RV. Keep it under 30 feet for maximum flexibility.
Most Popular States
We spent the most time this year in California, mainly due to our spending two full months at Mission Bay RV Resort in San Diego. Come to this park on a normal day during high season and it costs $95 per night (for the cheapest site). Stay for a night during their low season, and it costs $70 per night. But, stay for a month in the off-season, and the price drops to $35 per night. For us, this was a reasonable price to pay for access to a location we adore.
Our next most popular state was Arizona, where we began and ended the year. However, because we spent a lot of our time in state parks, it was one of our less expensive states, on average.
Our stats for Oregon, where we spent the third largest amount of time, are instructive for a different reason. Because we needed to fly back to the east coast, we ended up canceling some of our state park reservations and extending our stay at a higher priced commercial park, making our overall costs for the state higher than they would have been otherwise.
Like many of our numbers for the year, these statistics were thrown off because sometimes life takes a dump on your head and you get stuck paying for it. Pro Tip: Have an emergency fund. A big one.
Speaking of skewing the numbers, you may have noticed that our most expensive state, as far as nightly averages go, was Louisiana of all places.
Why? Because we spent four nights at the most expensive campground we’ve ever stayed at anywhere – the French Quarter RV Park. It costs $108 per night to park your house just two blocks from Bourbon Street. The good times roll…right over your good intentions.
On a related note, other than a couple random outliers, we are generally paying consistent prices across the board. Commercial parks have usually been between $35-$45 per night, while government parks have almost always been between $25-$35.
One thing that has saved us substantial money over the years is our membership in Passport America. This program costs $44 per year and gets you half off a number of campgrounds. There are all kinds of restrictions and the campgrounds are almost always rather forgettable, but they’ve always been good enough for our needs.
The other discount program we are members of is Good Sam. It costs $29 per year and offers 10% off member campgrounds. Good Sam’s network of campgrounds is much larger than Passport America, so we use the discount more often, but at only 10% off, it doesn’t move the needle all that much.
Pro Tip: If you’re going to join just one discount program, join Passport America.
So, that’s it… those are our camping stats for 2018. While, as I mentioned above, our camping expenses were about $1,000 more than we expected, a good portion of the end of the year involved things beyond our control. If I knew how the year would end, I would have limited our stays at some of the pricier campgrounds we picked earlier in the year (e.g. New Orleans), or chosen free overnight stays at Walmarts or wherever rather than Passport America campgrounds, but hindsight is 20/20 and, other than two or three campgrounds that really weren’t worth what we paid for them, we have no regrets about where we stayed. More importantly, we have no regrets about the awesome year of travel we had.
Below are several posts by other bloggers about the costs of RV travel and/or individual expenses. It should go without saying that there is no right or wrong way to do this. There are as many different budgets and styles of travel as there are RVers, and it’s nice to know there are lots of ways to live and travel in a home on wheels.
Nina at Wheeling It wrote a comprehensive two part series about the costs of RVing.
Ingrid at Live Laugh RV also wrote a two part series.
Chickerys Travels wrote a post about budgeting for RV travel.
This family usually stays at campgrounds so their camping costs are similar to ours.
Here’s an interesting post capturing prices at some RV resorts across the country. A lot of these make our numbers look positively cheap.
Our buddies, Celena and Shoam, shared their numbers last year.
Shannon and Ken at Zamia Ventures recently discussed their 2018 expenses
RV Dreams is a popular site that’s been a resource for camping budgets for many years.
Jim and Carmen at Living in Beauty share all kinds of interesting information about their full time travels on this page.
(If you know of other good resources that should be on this list, please let me know and I’ll add them).