Dreaming Of The RV Life? Here’s Exactly How Much It Costs

The story of a Colorado family of 14 currently trekking and blogging around the country in an RV made “The Today Show” recently, highlighting a particularly dreamy type of wanderlust – and one that reached a peak in 2011 with 8.5 percent of U.S households owning an RV, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. But it’s been hard for the media to get past the sheer absurdity of the Colorado family’s size and talk about the number we really want to know: what’s the price of a permanent vacation?

Luckily, another family with an RV and strong Internet connection has been keeping track of those important nitty-gritty details. RecalcRoute.com’s Jon and Amy Arnold of Indianapolis are 20 months into the cross-country life with their three young daughters, and they posted a detailed cost analysis after a year and 15,689 miles working, homeschooling and playing their way around the western half of the country.

The biggest expense after the $18,500 RV itself? Not gas.Groceries tallied $13,500 for the health-conscious family of five. Though visiting farmers markets is one of the joys of traipsing the country, “it’s not bargain food,” Amy says.

They’ve found that the best cost-saving measure is joining a campground network. Campsites can run around $50 a night in premium locations, and $20 or $30 in state parks. A membership in a network (and the occasional free night “boondocking” in a Wal-Mart parking lot, where RVs are welcome) can lower the expense to an average of $15 a night, freeing up funds to splurge on a site you really want to visit – say, when a relative joins you on the road or you want to stay on Key West, where rates are the highest the Arnolds have encountered.

An $80 annual national-park pass and a space heater (an alternative to burning through your RV’s propane to stay warm) will pay for themselves over and over again, but the Arnolds’ best advice is to think of the trip as your life, not a constant vacation, and to stick to the same kind of budget you would at home.

Studying their thorough cost breakdown will help, too.

[Photo credits: Jon Arnold]