Guest post: the costs and awesomeness of full-time RV travel

One Weird Globe note: I first came across Kate’s story while reviewing her book. It was so fascinating (and something I might be trying myself!) that i invited her to put together a guest post.

At some point almost everyone dreams about quitting their job and heading off into the sunset. Those days when your boss is being a jerk or your client calls you at 6.30am before you’ve even got in the shower might just force you to lose your mind. Those are the days you fantasize about packing it all in and disappearing from civilization. But that could never happen…. could it? What would it really cost to walk away from it all and start a new unencumbered life?

Two years ago I was working a corporate job and living in downtown San Diego. I had a California-sized mortgage and all the other crazy bills that kept me tied to my office chair. I also dreamed of leaving it behind, until one day after lots of soul-searching and late-night alcohol-fueled discussions, I actually did. My husband and I sold our home and everything in it and decided to travel full-time around the US in an Airstream trailer.

Many full-time travelers today don’t fit the traditional RVer stereotype. Like us, many pre-retirement age people on the road work remotely.

But what does it cost to live this lifestyle? After 18 months traveling around the western US I have a pretty good idea. One of the main things I have learned is it can be as cheap or as expensive as you want. It all depends on what is important to you. Here are a few things you should consider:

Start-up costs

You will need something to live in; a recreation vehicle (RV). Your options fall into two main categories — a motorhome, i.e. something that has its own engine, or a towable, i.e. a trailer.

A motorhome has the advantage that it is self-contained and, in theory, you only need to buy one vehicle. I say in theory because, with the exception of people who drive vans and smaller motorhomes, most people who live in a motorhome choose to tow a small car behind it. After all, no-one wants to pack up their entire home just to pop out for a pint of milk so a second vehicle comes in handy now and again. An advantage motorhomes have over towables is that while you are driving, your traveling companion can go into the living quarters and make lunch or take a potty break. Many people perceive that a motorhome is easier to drive than a towable but as I mentioned already most full-timers tow a second vehicle. Generally, there is a motorhome to meet any budget, ranging from small vans, converted buses, mid-size RV’s to huge apartments on wheels that can actually cost more than a condo.

We also parked for free for over 70 nights last year, mostly on National Forest or Bureau of Land Management land.

For towing you have two main choices; a travel trailer that fits onto a hitch on the back of your vehicle, or a fifth wheel that couples to the bed of a pick-up truck. Fifth wheels are often larger and consequently a more expensive option. Travel trailers tend to be more affordable, unless you go for something like an Airstream, as we did. The market demand and higher-end design that we picked make these costlier than the average travel trailer. Don’t forget to add in the cost of a decent truck to tow your new home on wheels.

Buying new or used is another choice. Like a car, most RV’s lose value once they are driven off the lot, but buying new means you have a warranty and are not inheriting anyone else’s problems. You can expect to get anywhere from 15 to 25% off MSRP and I recommend you work with at least two dealers to get the best price on any model you choose. You will of course have to factor in the cost of any upgrades you might want to add. For instance, we invested around $10,000 in a solar powered energy system so we could live off-grid when we choose.

Buying used is a great option if you can find what you are looking for. You should consider the cost of any updates for modern conveniences such as power-saving LED lighting, or replacement of any appliances that may not work reliably. For a small fee you can hire an RV Inspector and given that this is your new home I would recommend it.

One other consideration when buying an RV for full-time travel is that you often get what you pay for. Many RV’s are built for an annual family vacation to Disneyland or a national park and are just not up to the wear and tear of full-time use. After a few months, drawers won’t close, or cabinets will fall off. Buy the most reputable and robust brand that you can afford. Skimping on this will be a false economy as you have to repair stuff further down the road.

What else?

Firstly, you’ll need to think about where you park it. Camping fees can vary hugely depending on where you are and the facilities you want. Hook-ups (connections to water, electricity and sometimes sewer and cable TV) usually cost more. If you are self-contained, as we are, you rarely need them. Fancy RV parks with swimming pools, tennis courts etc. can reach $100 a night, although they discount heavily for longer stays.

You may think that one thing we spend more on is fuel.

The most we pay is about $55 a night to camp on the California coast. We also parked for free for over 70 nights last year, mostly on National Forest or Bureau of Land Management land. These agencies typically allow you to stay for a few weeks as long as you follow simple “leave it like you found it” rules. These “boondocking” opportunities are plentiful in the Western US where there is a lot of public land but are harder to come by in other parts of the country. Overall we averaged about $640 a month on camping fees in 2015. We know we could cut that down considerably if we stayed on public land more.

Many full-time travelers today don’t fit the traditional RVer stereotype. Like us, many pre-retirement age people on the road work remotely. Therefore, a major consideration is connecting to the internet while traveling. I am a freelance marketing consultant and a writer so I need a solid connection and even if work was not an issue, access to entertainment sites like Netflix and Hulu are a must for us. We are not stargazing and toasting s’mores around a fire every night. Sometimes we just want to stay in and watch House of Cards.

Internet connectivity can be a challenge but technology is always improving and we function solely on high data cell phone plans. We use three carriers to ensure the best chance of having a signal wherever we find ourselves; Verizon, AT&T to get the max coverage, and T-mobile because they offer the best value plans with the ability to stream content without data limits using their Music Freedom and Binge-on features. On our favorite campground-finding website Campendium ( fellow travelers share their real-world experience of cell phone coverage. We are connected more than 95% of the time and tend to move on quickly when we are not.

We have no utility bills at all on the road. No electricity, water or garbage collection. We do buy propane for cooking and heating but that is a minor expense for us. We are not big sports fans, but for those who are you may need to budget for a satellite subscription. We subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, Google Play Music and Amazon Prime for a total around $36 a month.

You may think that one thing we spend more on is fuel. But that’s not the case. We used to run two cars and had a 50 mile daily commute. We now drive a diesel truck and find we get about 15 MPG when towing the trailer and around 18 MPG with the truck alone. It’s a lot less economical than our old gas cars but we don’t have that daily commute. We also have the costs of only one vehicle, so I would say our overall expenses are about the same.

Another expense that hasn’t significantly changed is food. We are spending more on groceries than before. Partly because we buy in small batches due to space constraints but also because we don’t eat out as often as when we lived in a city. The higher grocery bills are compensated for with the reduced eating out budget.

The only area we spend more on now that we are no longer employed is health insurance. It is our largest individual monthly expense. Since we have a large deductible plan we operate on a mostly cash pay basis and save money by buying meds and having dental treatments in Mexico.

Overall the huge reduction in our living expenses means that we live on a drastically smaller budget than we did in the past. I would estimate we have reduced our cost of living by almost two thirds compared to our old life. With those kinds of savings maybe quitting your job and walking away from it all is not such a dream after all.

For more about our lifestyle, check out some of our popular posts:

About the guest poster:

Kate Gilbert is the author of The Happy Camper: How I Quit My Corporate Job and Sold Everything to Travel Full Time. She spent 20 plus years pursuing the typical American dream of working hard, getting promoted and acquiring a house, two cars and all the trappings of success. In the spring of 2014, she realized that she was not happy enough and wasn’t willing to settle for what she had. At age 45 she and her husband walked away from their executive jobs and sold everything they owned to travel full-time.

She splits her time between apartment rentals around the world and traveling around the US in an Airstream Trailer. You can read about her experiences at The Scenic Route blog.

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