How Much Does Van Life Cost? – Volume II

This is the third installment in our series in which we share our cost of living as we experiment with different FIRE adventures and travel to destinations around the world. Our first #vanlife trip in the western U.S. came in slightly under budget, while our backpacking trip around Eastern Europe was a bit more expensive.

We spent another three months on the road in our van this fall, reaching 25 states and 3 Canadian provinces. It was a great adventure, and we loved seeing new places and returning to some old favorites. I can’t say I’d recommend such a brisk pace (or van camping in the northern states late into autumn), but seeing our friends and family around the country was well worth it. If you have the flexibility, though, leave in spring!

Our trip started with a cold but gorgeous few weeks in Montana and the Canadian Rockies, took us through Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and hauled us all the way out to the Midwest for a good friend’s wedding before we took the long southern route home.

How Much Does Van Life Cost? - Volume II - The Resume Gap

By the Numbers

  • Trip length: 86 nights
    • Van camping: 33 nights
    • Friends and family: 39 nights
    • Hotels: 14 nights
  • Points used:
    • Marriott Rewards: 95,000 and 1 Free Night
    • Starwood Preferred Guest: 14,000
    • World of Hyatt: 2 Free Nights
  • Distance driven: 13,114 mi (21,105 km)
  • Longest one-day drive: 833 mi (1,341 km)
  • Distance walked/hiked: 325 mi (523 km)
  • States visited: 25
  • Provinces visited: 3
  • National Parks and Monuments visited: 16
  • Friends and family members visited: 23
  • Tow truck rides: 1
  • Bison-related traffic jams: Several
  • Trump signs seen: Too many
  • Fried cheese curds eaten: Not enough (never enough)
  • Blog meetups: 8

One of our favorite parts of this trip was the fun meet-ups we had with fellow personal finance bloggers. We had a great time hanging out with Mrs. Montana, Penny, Amanda and Travis, Kate, Fervent Finance, Kara, TJ, and Courtney and Steve. Seriously, this community is awesome! I hope we’ll get to meet many more of you, bloggers and non-bloggers alike, over the coming months and years.

Another friend we met, in Chicago’s Field Museum

We did a lot of driving this time, partially to accommodate our working friends’ schedules. We didn’t want to arrive at our friend’s place in Minneapolis in the middle of the work week, for example, so we made a detour down to Omaha and Kansas City. When we showed up a week before our friend’s wedding in Michigan, we took the opportunity to head east to Toronto. When we needed to kill a few days before arriving in Arkansas (can you believe we have friends in Arkansas?), we used the time to finally visit Asheville, NC.

All told, we put over 13,000 miles on the van – more than 150 per day!

Our insane route

How much did it cost?

In spite of the high mileage, this was the most successful leg of our travels so far from a financial perspective. Not only did we beat our target budget of $100 per day, we also spent the biggest share of that money on things we really enjoy (like food) rather than unexciting things like motels or van repairs. Average daily variable expenses totaled $75 per day. With the addition of our fixed expenses and some non-travel expenses, our all-in expense this time around was $89 per day. Pretty good for two people seeing half the country.

For the number nerds, here’s the full breakdown (as usual, figures may not total perfectly due to rounding):

CategoryTrip TotalMonthlyDaily
Van Expenses
– Fuel$1,324$468$15
– Maintenance and Repairs$1,051$372$12
– Parking and Tolls$34$12< $1
– Depreciation$0$0$0
Food and Dining
– Restaurants$2,096$741$24
– Alcohol and Bars$655$232$8
– Groceries$541$192$6
Lodging
– Hotels$0$0$0
– Gifts for Hosts$165$58$2
– Campsites$58$21$1
– Showers$43$15$1
Other Variable Expenses
– Attractions$198$70$2
– Public Transit, Uber, and Lyft (affiliates)$197$70$2
– Misc. Shopping$64$23$1
– Haircuts$37$13< $1
– Entertainment$15$5< $1
Fixed Expenses
– Van Registration and Insurance$182$64$2
– Health Insurance, Phone, and HSA Fees$125$44$1
– National Park Pass$43$15< $1
Non-Travel Expenses
– Donations and Gifts$699$247$8
– Other$166$41$1
Total, Variable Travel Expenses$6,480$2,292$75
Total, All Expenses$7,694$2,721$89

Van Expenses

When it comes to fuel prices, it’s great to get away from the west coast. We had paid as much as $4 per gallon in California in the spring, even when using an app to find the cheapest spots. This trip, we probably averaged around half that, seeing prices as low as $1.67 per gallon in Arkansas (sold at a Walmart gas station, of course). We had fewer repairs this trip, too: just a new belt in Wyoming, new spark plugs in North Carolina, and another alternator replacement in Louisiana, along with routine oil changes.

I must have gotten a good deal on our van, because Kelley Blue Book claims that it still hasn’t depreciated below what I paid for it last year. That’s great news for our total expenses and yet another reason I love our ancient vehicle.

I might part with it for $5,000. Maybe.

Food and Dining

About half of our total spending went to food, our favorite splurge. We did a ton of cooking early in our trip while camping in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, but we mostly ate out when visiting friends east of the Rockies. Highlights included the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted in Kansas City, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, the second-best barbecue I’ve ever tasted in Tennessee, craft beer in Michigan and Wisconsin, the third-best barbecue I’ve ever tasted in Texas, and awesome New Mexican food in Las Cruces.

If you wanted to travel on a tighter budget, you could easily cut our dining spending in half by cooking a few more meals in. That would drop the total price of our three-month road trip to just $30 per person per day. Travel really does not have to be as expensive as most people think.

Our chipotle veggie camp stove soup might not be Instagram-worthy, but it is delicious and affordable

Lodging

Do we lose our #vanlife cards because we spent less than half the trip camping in our van? I hope not.

We designed this trip around spending time with our friends and family, and we happily took them up on places to stay wherever we went. Our longest consecutive stretch of free van camping (on BLM and National Forest land) was 16 nights in a row, but things got more challenging with limited public land east of South Dakota. We opted for more hotels after that.

We travel-hacked the crap out of this trip, netting 14 free hotel nights thanks to credit card sign-up bonuses from Hyatt, Marriott, and Starwood. Lower-tier hotels in “secondary markets” like Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Lafayette, Louisiana, offered some of the best exchange rates for points, so it felt like a good opportunity to use them.

We also spent five nights van-camping (legally!) in Walmart parking lots. Although they weren’t our favorite camping experiences, you can’t beat the convenience and price, especially when there aren’t any traditional campsites for many miles.

This West Yellowstone campsite view came at the bargain price of $0/night

Other Expenses

Once again, our other travel expenses were minimal. When hiking and dining out are your main forms of entertainment, there isn’t much left to buy (nor time left to spend on it). We spent a couple hundred bucks on attractions, including admissions to National Parks in Canada, the Art Institute of Chicago, Custer State Park, and mandatory tours of two National Parks in South Dakota. We took public transportation in lieu of driving around cities like Chicago and Toronto, and we got two really bad haircuts in Kansas City. No souvenirs or shopping sprees this time; I guess we’ll save those for another life!

Assessment complete. Please proceed.

With another road trip in the books, it was time to get out of the States again. Next stops, Mexico and Southeast Asia!

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18 Comments

  1. Thanks for swinging by on your travels to meetup. Way to go keeping costs down. Hoping to poach ideas from your Mexico and Southeast Asia trip write-ups 🙂

    • Glad it worked out! We’ve inflated our lifestyles a bit in Mexico and SE Asia, especially on dining out, but I don’t think it has translated to increased expense. But I haven’t run the numbers yet to be sure!

  2. This is awesome! I’ve been in Albuquerque for a few days now and I’ve been thrilled just to stay in one spot and not have to spend so much of the day driving. I actually didn’t even drive at all yesterday and Saturday, with plenty of stuff walkable. 😀

    I definitely can’t imagine driving the 800+ miles in one day, but I assume that was split between the two of you.

    • Our daily average was really high, which surprised me since we did spend many days not driving. We had a whole week in Chicago, for example, where we only moved the car once. But we also had some long days of 8-12 hours in the car, especially on the long haul back to the west coast. Glad you’re enjoying Albuquerque. Eat some sopapillas for us!

  3. this must be the best part of your Van ravel: Bison-related traffic jams: Several. I would ove to have a few of those every week!

  4. I’d take bison related traffic jams over my altogether too many cars jammed on this highway traffic jams any day of the week. Less than $90 a day for the two of you? That is fantastic.

    • Agreed, and they tend to clear up much more quickly. Though we did see one bison that got hit by an SUV 🙁 Not a pretty scene. We were pleased with the $ total, too!

  5. Wow how cool! I would love to take one of those sprinter vans one day and do something like this! Now if I can only find the time!

    • It takes some effort to carve out enough time to do it, but it’s well worth it. We love eyeing those cool Spinter vans, too!

  6. Love all the details! It really helps to see everything broken down. It’s amazing how well that van has done! It gives us hope 🙂

    • Thanks, Vicki. Yeah, in spite of the occasional annoyances (and two tow trucks), the van has held up pretty well. We put almost 25,000 miles on it in about six months of driving!

  7. I’m so bummed I was in London and didn’t get to see you as you passed through. Next time!!

    • Us, too! 😢 Not that we’re in any position to criticize you for doing some travel, of course. You’ll be in Dallas, right?

  8. wow, sounds like you had some great experiences. Good luck on your next adventure. Look forward to reading about it.

  9. 14 free hotel nights? Very cool! Glad you had fun and got to meet so many people, not to mention all the scenery and bison. What was it like hanging out in BLM land? Were you the only ones there or were others taking advantage of the great and free outdoors?

    • Thanks, Mrs. Groovy! The BLM experience totally depends on the specific site. On this trip, we were mostly out there alone — probably both because of the locations (like rural Wyoming) and the time of year. We love that experience. We’ve also stayed on BLM land where every potential camping spot was taken. There’s an area outside Arches National Park in Utah, for example, that has dozens or hundreds of campers at a time. Still a lot of space between each site, though, so it feels nicer than a typical established campground.

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