RVing is Awesome — But Not Necessarily Cheap. Here’s How to Cut Costs

A woman makes coffee in her travel trailer.
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What you may know about RVing: It’s a great, cheap way to travel, or even a low-cost alternative for living full time.

What you may not know: RVing costs can stack up, and even eclipse the cost of traditional car-and-hotel travel, or living in a sticks-and-bricks home.

Here, we’ll detail the primary expenses associated with the RV lifestyle, with tips to help you reduce them.

How to Go RVing on a Budget

As someone who’s traveled extensively by RV, and even lived in a travel trailer, I know exactly how much of a burden RVing can be on your budget. Here’s what I’ve learned.

The Vehicle Itself

The first thing you need to go RVing … is an RV. And depending on how you source it, this first thing can be very pricey, indeed.

First-timers are more likely to rent than buy, but if you end up falling in love with the lifestyle, you should know that even modest motorhomes cost tens of thousands of dollars. Super luxurious ones can go for over $1 million. (Yes, seriously.)

Travel trailers tend to be less expensive than motorcoaches for a comparable level of quality, from entry level all the way up to the top. Keep in mind, though, that you need a vehicle capable of towing the rig around. 

But let’s go back to the rental option. Expect to see per-night prices of $250 or more, which can easily outstrip a moderately priced hotel room. Additional fees for mileage and insurance can push your bottom line even higher in a hurry.

The fix: 

No matter what you do, you’re going to have to pay for your RV, and chances are you’ll pay a decent amount of money.

But if you’re renting, you might consider looking at peer-to-peer RV rental marketplaces, like RVshare or Outdoorsy, where you can rent a rig directly from its private owner, which often means lower rental prices. (Think of it like Airbnb for RVs.)

Two men load a generator in the bed of man's truck at an RV repair shop location.
Zachary Hollingsworth, middle, and Patrick Atherton, right, load a generator in the bed of Kevin Hertz’s truck in El Cajon, Calif., on Dec. 7, 2018. Hertz rented an RV from the men through RVshare. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

You may also be able to find super-cheap rentals through RV relocation deals, in which you serve as a rental company’s courier, delivering RVs to destinations where they are in demand. In return, you get use of the rig for a steal — but keep in mind you’ll be limited in your ability to personalize your itinerary. You’ll have to stick to the company’s route and timetable.

As far as buying is concerned, shop around — and consider shopping gently used. RV does stand for recreational vehicle, after all, and although the loan you take out might look more like a mortgage than auto financing, you probably aren’t going to be building equity. You don’t want to go too old, because maintenance starts to become a problem, but something three to five years old could save you a nice chunk of change.

Fuel

The appeal of RVs is simple: You get to bring everything along with you for the trip, including the kitchen sink.

But all of those accommodations and extras are weighty, which means that all but the smallest RVs are pretty serious gas guzzlers. Case in point: The largest Class A motorhomes often get as little as 4-6 miles to the gallon. 

The fix:

Generally speaking, the smaller the RV, the better the fuel economy — although there are certainly exceptions. If you’re hoping to save at the pump, you might consider taking a vacation closer to home or narrowing down to a single destination. Not only will you spend less money on gas, you’ll also spend less of your time driving.

Campsite Accommodation Costs

Many people think you can load up into an RV, hit the road, and just pull off to the side when you’re ready to catch some sleep.

But in most cases, that’s not true. Although some rest stops and big box store parking lots allow overnight RV parking, many do not. Besides, do you really want to spend your vacation sleeping under the glare of 24/7 floodlights?

The most comfortable campgrounds — the ones where you can hook up to electricity, water, and sewer connections — can cost a pretty penny, especially in highly sought-after destinations. Malibu Beach may be an extreme example, but during peak seasons, you’re looking at about $100 per night for a basic site, and up to $230 for a premium location. (Remember, that’s on top of your rental price. And fuel.)

The fix:

Depending on where you’re going, you can find resort-style accommodations for $35 to $50 per night, often with discounts available for veterans, military members or those staying a full week or longer. There are also a variety of camping discount clubs that can help you score lower-cost campground accommodations.

You’ll also want to look into state parks, which often offer RV sites with hookups for prices much lower than privately-owned campgrounds (though they may not have a cell signal).

Finally, there are places you can camp for free (or super cheap), but even in an RV, you’ll kind of be roughing it. On BLM-managed land and in certain other wilderness locations, you can do “dispersed” camping, otherwise known as “boondocking” or “dry camping” — basically, camping without any hookups. 

But you need to double-check ahead of time to make sure that cool-looking space is actually okay to park in and not privately owned. There isn’t always appropriate signage, and if you accidentally end up in someone’s backyard, you may be asked to move or even ticketed. Some great resources for finding spots include Campendium and FreeCampsites.net.

FROM THE SAVE MONEY FORUM

Maintenance and Storage

If you buy an RV of your own, you should be prepared for costs associated with maintenance — and, if you can’t park it on your own property, storage. In Portland, Oregon, I pay $75 a month to keep my travel trailer in an uncovered lot. More desirable, secure storage is almost $200.

Then there are the maintenance costs of both the vehicular and household systems of an RV, which need regular upkeep. Doing it yourself may be time intensive, but even a minor trip to the repair shop can mean a major bill.

The fix:

If you’re going to buy an RV, it’s best if you already have a place in mind to keep it — and the initiative to learn some DIY mechanics. Fortunately for us 21st century dwellers, there’s a YouTube tutorial for almost everything imaginable, including most RV repair and maintenance basics.

Overall, the great thing about RVing is that the expenses are easily modified to fit almost any budget — you may just have to rethink which RV you drive, where you’re going and how you’ll be staying once you get there.

Jamie Cattanach’s work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool and other outlets. Learn more at www.jamiecattanach.com.