How Much Does Van Life Cost?

Today, we’re kicking off a new blog post series in which we’ll share our cost of living as we experiment with different FIRE adventures and travel to various destinations around the world. First up: our three-month road trip around the western U.S.

[Note to readers: Also check out our second edition of “How Much Does Van Life Cost?” from our second North American road trip here.]

We jetted off to Europe so quickly last month that we hardly even had time to clean out our minivan, let alone put together a wrap-up of the first leg of our travels. Our twelve-week road trip was tons of fun – a perfect way to kick off a series of adventures around the world.

We had a blast cruising around in our ’96 Dodge Caravan, visiting friends and family, and seeing some of the most impressive natural wonders in the world. We had been dreaming about van life and reading inspirational travel blogs for a long time, and I’m pleased to share that it was at least as much fun as we expected – probably more so.

How-much-vanlife-cost

By the Numbers

  • Trip length: 81 nights
    • Van camping: 42 nights
    • Friends and family: 30 nights
    • Hotels: 9 nights
  • Distance driven: 10,336 mi (16,634 km)
  • Longest one-day drive: 644 mi (1,036 km)
  • Distance walked/hiked: 339 mi (546 km)
  • Distance flown: 0 mi
  • States visited: 8
  • Weddings attended: 4
  • National Parks and Monuments visited: 16
  • In-N-Out Burger stops: 9
  • Friends and family members visited: 26
  • Cactus-related injuries: 1
  • Tow truck rides: 1
  • Blog meetups: 4

We started the trip in late March, driving straight to Southern California for warmer weather. In spite of spending over a month in one state (my longest stretch in California since living there over a decade ago), we hardly did it justice, skipping over many must-see Northern California destinations that we’ll have to revisit in the coming years.

What we did see, though, was awesome: Beautiful desert scenery in Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Anza-Borrego. A week in Yosemite National Park. Mountain wilderness across the Sierra Nevada. And plenty of city time with friends and family in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Hiking with my dad in Death Valley National Park

Hiking with my dad in Death Valley National Park

We followed our California travels with over a month in the Southwest, revisiting the remarkable landscapes of Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands and the jaw-dropping formations of Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon.

Other highlights: Tons of great day hikes, four friends’ weddings, and the longest amount of time I’ve gone without getting on an airplane in eleven years! We also had the pleasure of meeting four of our blogger friends across the west, and every single meet-up was awesome. If you’ll be along our road trip route this fall, we would love to see you.

But enough about our travels… what about the money?

Though we had been reading plenty of RV and “van life” blogs, very few of them had discussed the expense side of things. We didn’t have a great idea of how much we would spend over the course of our journey. Back in March, we set a relatively uninformed budget of $100 per day, mostly based on the spending level with which we would be comfortable.

Here’s how it actually turned out:

how-much-vanlife-cost

Even with our aggressive pace, our daily variable expenses came out below budget at just under $81 per day. Adding in a few miscellaneous fixed expenses (like insurance and a cell phone bill) and a couple non-travel expenses (charitable donations, gifts, and tax filing-related expenses) brought our all-in total to $90 per day. Can I get a wooohooo!?

Here’s the more detailed breakdown, if you’re into that kind of thing (numbers may not total perfectly due to rounding):

CategoryTrip TotalMonthlyDaily
Van Expenses
– Maintenance and Repairs$1,388$521$17
– Fuel$1,223$459$15
– Parking$19$7< $1
– Depreciation$0$0$0
Food and Dining
– Restaurants$1,249$469$15
– Alcohol and Bars$716$269$9
– Groceries$638$240$8
Lodging
– Hotels$443$167$6
– Gifts for Hosts$155$58$2
– Campsites$66$25$1
– Showers$52$20$1
Other Variable Expenses
– Entertainment$173$65$2
– Misc. Shopping$119$45$1
– Public Transit, Uber, and Lyft (affiliates)$113$42$1
– Haircuts$87$33$1
– Attractions$39$15< $1
– Clothing$37$14< $1
– Laundry$7$2< $1
Fixed Expenses
– Health Insurance, Phone, and HSA Fees$362$89$3
– Van Registration and Insurance$163$61$2
– National Park Pass$43$7< $1
Non-Travel Expenses
– Donations and Gifts$310$116$4
– Tax Filing$21$8< $1
Total, Variable Travel Expenses$6,525$2,450$81
Total, All Expenses$7,424$2,731$90

Though we managed to come in under budget, there were still a handful of surprises and opportunities for improvement:

Van Expenses

The high cost of maintaining and fueling the van was without question our biggest surprise. We knew that this first leg of our trip wouldn’t be cheap (we were traveling quickly and ended up retracing our path several times for weddings and meet-ups with friends), but we were still astounded by the number of miles we put on the van: almost 128 (205 km) per day!

Even when we camped multiple nights in the same location, we ended up driving a lot to reach trailheads, vistas, and other natural attractions. Death Valley National Park, for example, covers over 5,270 square miles (13,650 km²), which resulted in our driving for many hours each day without even leaving the park. Fuel was also more expensive than expected in many of our remote destinations: twice the price in the eastern Sierra, for example, compared to just off the interstate in Arizona.

The high cost of maintenance and repairs for the van was more predictable. We’re driving a twenty-year-old vehicle, after all. We ended up replacing the van’s battery, alternator (twice), ignition switch, fan motor, and drive belt. We knew a few of these parts needed fixing going into the trip; others were exciting roadside surprises!

Our car insurance covered this late-night towing adventure in the middle of nowhere, Arizona

Our car insurance covered this late-night towing adventure in the middle of nowhere, Arizona

In exchange for the occasional afternoon in a repair shop, we get the benefit of low opportunity cost (more money working for us in the stock market) and near-zero depreciation. In fact, Kelley Blue Book says the van is now worth more than when we purchased it. Maybe we’re boosting demand!

Food and Dining

If you wanted to slash 20-30% off our daily budget, this would be the easiest place. While we almost exclusively cook our own meals when camping, we didn’t hesitate to drink and dine out frequently in great culinary cities. We went wine tasting in Paso Robles, brewery-hopped in Portland and Los Angeles, and even accidentally ended up at a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco.

We don’t have any regrets here, but it’s definitely the category with the biggest potential for major budget overrun, so we’ll continue to monitor it closely.

"Roughing it" with a campsite meal in Stanislaus National Forest

“Roughing it” with a campsite meal in Stanislaus National Forest

Lodging

The greatest pleasant surprise of our trip was the low cost of accommodations. We spent many nights in the homes of generous friends and family members, but even camping ended up being free nearly everywhere thanks to our discovery of dispersed camping on BLM and National Forest Service land. We did occasionally grab a hotel room, which provided a nice break after many consecutive nights in the van.

Our friends and family also kindly provided frequent access to showers and washing machines, which kept our spending on those items low.

Entertainment and Attractions

We expected to spend more on entertainment and attractions (like going to a movie or hitting up a small-town bowling alley), but we ended up with next to nothing in this category. Thanks to our America The Beautiful National Park pass, almost all of our park entries were pre-paid. We splurged on expensive concert tickets to see Jackson Browne one night in California, but the impact on our daily spending was minimal.

Other Expenses

We spent very little on anything else: some propane fuel for our camp stove, a hat and some new socks (thrilling!), the occasional postcard, and a few miscellaneous additions to our van storage setup. Though we came close to going for it, we chickened out on cutting our own hair and sought professional assistance instead. Maybe some day!

We’ll be back on the road again in mid-September, working our way east from Seattle to the Midwest to see more National Parks, visit with more friends, and attend a wedding in Michigan in early November. I guess we’ll save “slow travel” for next year!

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40 Comments

  1. Looks like you guys did great on the lodging. Camping can be so expensive if you go to all the beaten path places. Free camping is super awesome if you can find it. Not having a place to refrigerate food I think you did excellent on the food as well, especially since you still splurged a bit in that category. I love how your van is worth more now than when you bought it….and you put 10,000 miles on it. Take that depreciation.

    • It definitely can. There was one campsite in which we were interested on the California coast near Santa Barbara: $45 a night! But free camping on public land is surprisingly easy to come by when you know where to look. We managed pretty well with food. We could usually make an ice block last three days in our cooler, but it definitely required more meal planning than we’re used to to avoid throwing anything away.

  2. It looks like you might be coming through Phoenix in December and we would love to meet up. You’re welcome to stay with us for a break from your van- your trip looks like a ton of fun and adventure!

    • We’ll definitely give you a shout, Julie! We’ll be headed back west pretty quickly, but I’d prefer to avoid taking the northern route home in November-December.

  3. How did you snag a parks lass for $43? I see them for $80! This is so helpful- I’m taking a 4 week road trip through thr west this fall, and seeing your numbers is so great for planning. Your trip sounds heavenly btw- great way to start FIRE!

    • Haha, I was wondering if some savvy reader would notice that! Sadly, we paid full price ($80 + $5 shipping) — I just allocated half to this leg of the trip and will allocate the other half to our national park-hopping later this year.

      Where are you headed on your trip??

  4. I love it! I love all the numbers. The lack of entertainment expenses was the most surprising to me as well. But having something like that national park pass is totally awesome! It gives your trip defined stops along the way (and what could be better than national parks?!).

    • Yeah, we found that we just didn’t really need extra entertainment on top of all the other things we were seeing. Our spending on attractions has definitely gone up in Europe, though, where we’re doing more pay-to-enter activities. Glad you appreciate the number-crunching!

  5. Thanks for sharing this! We’re still in only the vaguest planning mode for future road-tripping, but it’s helpful to have a starting number, even if we expect our gas prices to be higher because we hope to have a micro class C RV instead of the minivan you guys are rocking. (Though we’ll also have a bathroom on board — I hope — and so maybe can avoid some of the hotel nights. Maybe that will sort of balance out?) I still vote for you to come crash FinCon, so maybe you wanna change those plans up a bit?? Haha. 😉

    • The good news is that you could easily offset the lower fuel economy by not hauling around 4,000 miles a month like we did. I think we may have ended up in hotels just as often even if we were traveling in a nicer rig, but part of that was wanting to spend time in a few cities where we didn’t have local friends — and not wanting to roll into a wedding after sleeping in a minivan the night before!

      I cancelled my reservation at the San Diego Sheraton, but maybe we could sleep in the parking lot?

  6. Great job keeping it below $100 a day! That’s some resourcefulness to say the least.

    • Thanks, Fervent! Frankly, we weren’t overly budget-focused on this leg of the trip, so it was a pleasant surprise to come in under target. Amazing what you can do without all the fixed expenses of home.

  7. Great stats. You do not often see a FI blogger mentioning 4 weddings in one road trip.
    The campsite meal looks really nice. If this is the average you eat, you re well off.

    And about the hair cutting: no risk, no fun… My wife does my hair since we met…!

    After an in-garden-camping, our kids now want to go camp somewhere else, on a real amping site. I do hope our cooked meal looks as good as yours!

    • I think we’re just at that age. We have attended almost twenty weddings in the last three years! Sadly, we don’t cook salmon every night, but we do pretty well with our two-burner camp stove. Lots of stir fry, tacos, eggs and toast, and soups.

      We very well may give the hair cutting a try at some point soon, though I might need a few beers beforehand.

  8. SUPER impressed by less than $100 per day. It sounds like you guys are having the best time 🙂 It’s actually so funny because I always thought that I wanted to travel the world and live out my suitcase (or a van or whatever) but now I’m torn between wanting a legit home complete with dog, etc and living like a vagabond. Perhaps both are possible and 1-2 month long trips will be the perfect solution 🙂

    Next time you’re in Southern CA, let me know!! My girlfriend and I would love to host you two or grab dinner or whatever 🙂 (You’re also always welcome to use our shower, hahah) Safe travels!!

    • I totally relate, Taylor. I actually have a blog post in the works right now on the topic: we are absolutely loving traveling, but there is a lot of appeal in a more “legit home” life, too. We definitely can’t have those fixtures of stability right now.

      I’ll let you know when we pass through Southern CA again!

      • Awesome! I can’t wait to read it 🙂 I’ve always been curious about how full-time travelers feel about those things. And yes please! Looking forward to it 🙂

  9. Great post! It’s always nice to see specifics. I’d love to take a similar trip after hitting FI, and it’s really helpful to have someone else’s experience as a reference point.

  10. Thanks for these numbers, I think it is great to look at where the money goes and checking you are in budget, we do this on all our trips. Campsites can be a big expense and free camping in Europe varies enormously but is a great way to make trips affordable.

    • I need to learn more about free camping options in Europe. Do you happen to know of any good resources? I could definitely imagine doing a similar road trip on a different continent.

      Love your blog, by the way. What a cool idea!

  11. If your November travel plans drop you through Atlanta, let us know! Happy to share our cooking and showers.

  12. I am eager to see how gas prices affect our travels once we do finally set sail. We don’t plan on driving a lot (we will become bikers), but the price of diesel for the truck may have an effect on our planned travel. I can definitely see how that can be more expensive than originally thought. We are spoiled down here in Arizona. Well under $2/gallon for unleaded!

    Thanks for posting your budget! It’s always cool to see how other people are managing their financial life while on the road. 🙂

    • If you end up sticking with your plan to travel relatively slowly (at least compared to our all-over-the-place itinerary), I bet it won’t end up having a huge impact. That said, we were definitely a bit jarred by prices of $4 or even $5 a gallon in some of the more rural spots! We used the GasBuddy app a lot to find cheaper fuel along our routes. Thanks for commenting!

  13. Okay so I found this blog linked from the MMM forums. If I didn’t have 2 kids and a FT job, I’d totally binge read. Sadly, I will have to work my way through slowly. I love what I’ve read so far!

    Questions about the dispersed camping…what do you do for dishes? My family enjoys camping (tent), and I’ve got a husband and 2 boys. Our most common place to camp is Joshua Tree (we live in So Cal), and there’s no water. So we have to take it all in with us. Do you basically do the same? Carry a lot of water? I need practical advice here.

    I love reading about the travels. I’ve been to some of the places in CA that you have been to, but not others. We visited Bryce and Zion earlier this year and I want to go back and see them again and see the others… this year we got into the parks for free because I have a fourth grader and they had an “every kid in a park” special this year. Sadly, his free pass expires in a few weeks. (And of course, all in all he’s a net financial negative, ha!)

    • Happy you found us, Marcia! We do haul a lot of water. At full capacity, we’ll have around 11 gallons, plus full Camelbak packs for hiking and some water bottles. That can last the two of us three or four days, and we are usually able to find places to fill up regularly (at Joshua Tree, for example, there are faucets at each visitor center entrance). We wash all our dishes in a plastic tub, though we occasionally resort to paper plates if we are really running low on water. I’ll do a post when we get back to the states about exactly what gear we carry.

      That’s great that you took advantage of the 4th grader pass! If you’re going to more than 3 parks in a year, the America the Beautiful pass pays for itself. We’ve already saved over a hundred bucks with it.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  14. The trip sounds epic! The western states are gigantic, they look so small on the map: 😉

    Truth is yo could spend months just touring California or Oregon and never see it all.

    • Totally true. I’ve lived on the west coast almost my entire life, and there are still a hundred places on my “to see” list in the area!

  15. I’m a numbers girl – nice breakdown! I plan to do attempt a couple month long trip in the near future. Hoping my 01 CRV will do me the honors of surviving it!

    Oh – and the socks were socks were totally worth the splurge! Nothing makes you feel better than fresh socks on a long trip. 😁

    • That’s awesome, Miss Mazuma. Your CRV sounds fresh off the dealer lot compared to our ride! 😉

      And yes, definitely no regrets on a Costco bag of socks!

  16. It’s so cool that you were able to get your daily average down so low. This sounds like an amazing trip.

  17. I love how you laid out your expense numbers. (hum… Now I kind of want to re-write ours!) We didn’t spend a lot of entertainment either, it just seemed we were too busy having fun. There were so many free things we had to pass, even though I had planned a slow pace of travel. I think we could have traveled the same distance and spent 50% more time.

    • That was definitely an eye-opener. We felt fully entertained without spending anything besides the occasional park entry fee. And like you, we could have easily spent twice as long in each place.

  18. I like it! I’ve been pondering a 8-9 week road trip across the US during summer 2018 in our much newer 2009 Toyota Sienna minivan (bought specifically for road trips; also our only car!). We have 3 kids so camping out of it would be a little trickier but not impossible. We would probably do all hotels and airbnbs though (we’re lazy 😉 ). So we will spend more.

    We did a “quick” test run this past summer to Canada (via Kentucky – not exactly on the way to Toronto from Raleigh 😉 ) and put 2400 miles on our van. And just got back from a 900 mile round trip to Florida. That’s more than half the 4,500 miles we have on our minivan since buying it earlier this year! We’re loving it and it’s nice and spacious for our family of five plus our relatively minimalist gear (a few bookbags and a suitcase plus a rice cooker and some food).

    • With a couple tents, you could pull off camping with the kids out of the van, and it might be really nice to have that option if you’re planning to see some of the more remote National Parks. But even then, it’s nice to intersperse that with Airbnbs and hotels!

      That’s awesomely low mileage on your vehicle. We’ve been traveling more quickly than I like … probably over 25k miles on the van this year alone!

      • I camped all the time as a kid (probably 200+ nights by the time I was 18). Just never got around to taking the girls camping. They are kind of girly girls so I imagine the first time they saw a microscopic spider (or scorpion, if we’re out West!) we would all be piled into one tent.

        It would certainly make for an interesting road trip though! 🙂

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