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.
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.
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:
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):
|– Maintenance and Repairs||$1,388||$521||$17|
|– Parking||$19||$7||< $1|
|Food and Dining|
|– Alcohol and Bars||$716||$269||$9|
|– Gifts for Hosts||$155||$58||$2|
|Other Variable Expenses|
|– Misc. Shopping||$119||$45||$1|
|– Public Transit, Uber, and Lyft (affiliates)||$113||$42||$1|
|– Attractions||$39||$15||< $1|
|– Clothing||$37||$14||< $1|
|– Laundry||$7||$2||< $1|
|– Health Insurance, Phone, and HSA Fees||$362||$89||$3|
|– Van Registration and Insurance||$163||$61||$2|
|– National Park Pass||$43||$7||< $1|
|– 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:
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!
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.
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.
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!