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]

Rent an RV – Road trip tip

For a longer road trip, renting an RV can be a great way to make your experience memorable. These homes-on-wheels come in a wide range of sizes and prices, so there’s something for just about everyone.

The big advantage of traveling in an RV is the flexibility it offers. With a kitchen, bathroom and beds in the vehicle, you can decide where and when you stop — which means you won’t be tied to an itinerary. And when you’re in an RV, the road can be just as fun as the places it takes you.

Bonus: the money you save on lodging and food should cover most or all of the cost of the rental and fuel.

The best-kept secret to saving on road trips

It could be the dream road trip. You want to see the US. You want to save money. And an RV company needs someone to make the drive, so they’re practically paying you to do it.

Hey, you just want to help them out, right? How altruistic of you.

Think about it. When customers are driving RVs to the far corners of the country, and the company needs the flock of vehicles back to the factory in Mesa, Arizona, how do they get the RVs back?

That’s where you come in. Cruise America‘s website lists 10 cities with RVs waiting to be picked up and driven to Arizona, and includes the date to return them by, vehicle size, number of nights allowed, and free miles allowed. And rather than costing you about $100/day for your home-on-wheels, you pay $24/day, although gas is an extra expense. Plus, you avoid the insane $1500 one-way drop fee that they normally charge.

Consider this: Denver is about 860 miles away, but they give you 1500 free miles. Indianapolis is about 1700 miles away, but they give you 2500 free miles. Detroit is about 1980 miles away, but they give you 3000 free miles. Where would you go with those extra miles and extra days?

Sign up on their website under “View our Rentals: Hot Deals!,” then “Rolling into Arizona” (or “Rolling out of Arizona” to depart from Mesa). You’ll need to fill out the request form three days in advance of your departure. All listings are first come, first served. Drivers must be at least 21 years-old.

They’re also running a few discounts to relocate RVs to other locations besides Mesa (i.e. Texas and east of the Mississippi River, excluding Florida). Check out their “One-way Specials” to save 50-60% and avoid the usual one-way drop-off fees.

Or else, if you want to scale down and go with a car rather than an RV, try Auto Driveaway. Their website lists offices and destinations across the US–just pick a pick-up/drop-off city that suits your fancy. Drivers must be at least 23 years-old with a valid driver license.

Idaho State Parks Plug In

Idaho State Parks are seeking to redefine camping. The places where Ernest Hemingway used to pitch his tent and cast his fly rod is going wireless. At least, some of them are.

Park officials are looking closely at an experimental program that currently connects five state parks to the internet. The parks in question are Bruneau Dunes, Harriman, Henrys Lake and Ponderosa.

So far feedback has been good; though purists are obviously a bit miffed at the combination of nature and tech. After all, state parks are one of the last remaining places where you can go to get away from those who compulsively check their email or MySpace friends list.

A survey conducted as part of the pilot program shows that most people are in favor of campground WiFi. Campers claimed that they would use the service for practical reasons like checking weather reports, contacting family, looking up information about the park, and making arrangements for future camping expeditions.

But who are these survey respondents? If you are thinking that most are the type who consider camping parking bus-sized RVs somewhere with lots of trees, you’re right. Kind of. Many of those in favor of the WiFi were representing the old school: tent campers. So, like it or not, it seems the marriage of tech and nature is going to go ahead in Idaho.

Talking travel with professional RV roadtripper Adelle Milavsky

Adelle and Ron Milavsky, a lovely retired couple who live in Connecticut, have been road-tripping across Europe for years. They’ve written the definitive guide on RV trips, Take Your RV to Europe: The Low-Cost Route to Long-Term Touring and now here to share a few more tips about this rather under-rated method of travel.

You recently came back from yet another RV roadtrip through Europe. Tell us a bit about it. How far did you go? What were some of your best memories?

Over the years, we’ve spent more than a year touring Western Europe. Our latest trip was in April and May this year. We only stayed for six weeks this year instead of our usual 10 –12 weeks. We knew that it would be considerably more expensive this year because of the low value of the dollar. Because gas was as high as $10 a gallon, we only traveled in The Netherlands, Belgium and France with one stop in Germany.

In all we drove about 1500 miles. Our main stops were Bruges, Ypres, Waterloo and Gent in Belgium; The Hague, Amsterdam, and Keukenhof Gardens in The Netherlands; Metz, Nancy, Strasbourg, Troyes in France; and Aachen in Germany. Our bills from this six-week stay were still affordable. Our total outlay for six weeks of travel (not counting airfare) was about $3,000 more than what we would spend at home for food and entertainment. For our 42-day stay, gas costs us $1200, campgrounds just under $1000.
Why Europe and not the US for RV trips?

Once we had begun, we found RV’ing in Europe was even nicer than RV’ing in America. Distances are much shorter, most cities have campgrounds in or near them, and public transportation is good. All of this adds up to a great way to travel – no set itinerary, complete freedom to go where you want and a minimum of driving. And of course, no packing or unpacking between stops.

Worst experience while RV roadtripping? Best?

We’ve had some uncomfortable moments when we were lost (or rather, taken the scenic route). But in all this time, we’ve never had a bad experience, except for the memorable time we decided to take the “2.8 meter Tunnel” to Caen in Normandy, France and found that our RV was 3.1 meters high. (We knocked the cover off our air conditioner and it never worked again.) But we’ve loved our extended stays in all the big cities in Europe – including Amsterdam, Bruges, London, Paris and Rome. We’ve been to Roman ruins, medieval cities and castles, towns built into the sides of mountains, museums of all sorts, caves of neolithic paintings, cathedrals, zoos, wonderful gardens, historic homes and more. And countless open-air markets.

When did you guys get the travel bug? What’s your traveling background?

Before my husband, Ronald, retired, we had traveled the “usual” way to about twelve countries. Most were in Europe but we’d also been in China, Thailand and Korea as well as Venezuela. We stayed mostly in hotels, and ate most of our meals in restaurants. So we were “experienced” travelers.

In 2001 we bought a small motor home and traveled across the U.S. We fell in love with this style of traveling and decided that driving a motor home in Europe might give us a chance to really spend time there in an affordable way. Even better it would allow us to do something that we’d always wanted to do – go to the outdoor markets and buy food to eat at home as the Europeans do.

With gas so high, are roadtrips still affordable?

This way of traveling allows great flexibility. We used various published guides to European campgrounds, but there is a great deal of information available on the internet. We choose our next destination using three criteria. First, how far away is it from where we are now (we like to drive no more than a couple of hours per day). Second, what is interesting in that city? Third, is there a campground with bus service to the tourist area close by?

How can travelers take their own RV trip?

When we realized that how enjoyable and affordable it was to travel leisurely and extensively through Western Europe. Ron decided that someone (namely Adelle) should write a book about our adventures in Europe. So I did. Take Your RV to Europe was published in 2005 by The Intrepid Traveler. It goes into detail about how to ship and what to expect when you get to Europe. Any one who is interested, can go to our website and blog, where we publish our letters home detailing our experiences. Ron is working on a very informative web site that combines our experiences with an enormous number of links on the internet for information about the places we have visited.

Is it possible to rent a RV in Europea? US? How?

It is possible to rent an RV in many places in Europe. Renting costs from $124 per day in the “low season” to $194 per day in the “high season”. This year, renting an RV for six weeks from April 24 to June 4 would have cost us just about the same amount as shipping our RV both ways. But, if we had stayed our usual 12 weeks, the cost would have been approximately $13,000 for a comparable size unit. You can see why we chose to ship our RV.

What about shipping a RV to another country?

The price to ship a motor home is computed per cubic foot. In 2002, we paid $2000 for our 21 ft. rig, but now the cost runs a bit more than $3000. If you can stay in Europe for three months or more, shipping a small RV would still be the most inexpensive way to travel. That $6000 round trip for the RV translates into about $66 per day. Together with campground fees, that is $100 a day, but that includes both overnight accommodations, the equivalent of a rental car to travel in, and the possibility of eating “at home” which saves a huge amount of money.

Incidentally, there is one other big “reason” to ship your own unit if you can. Traveling in the UK with a rented rig where the driver is on the “wrong” side of the vehicle is very hard and can be dangerous. But in your own motor home, you are able to judge the size and shape of the rig. The hard part is not sitting in your accustomed position. It is easy to remember to drive on the left!

Final thoughts?

We have literally visited hundreds of cities and villages in Europe, and it’s been a wonderful experience. We think that other Americans should consider it.