Nearly a month ago, I set off on an 8,000 mile cross country road trip from Los Angeles to Maine and back. With about a week left in my journey, I’ve racked up so many amazing experiences, photos, memories ― and credit card points.
Many people assume that buying or renting an RV is a cheap way to travel. And it can be. But there are also a lot of expenses that come up, especially if you’re putting many miles on an older vehicle, like I am. I knew I’d have to invest some money into getting my RV ready for a long road trip, but I didn’t realize how much I’d actually end up spending.
So before you join the thousands of other RV enthusiasts hitting the road this summer, get an idea of what you’re in for. I spoke with a few fellow RVers to find out what their biggest costs are and how to mitigate them.
You burn through a boatload of gas
I didn’t expect my 30-year-old Winnebago Warrior to be fuel-efficient by any means, but I was surprised at how often I need to fill up. On a good day, I may get 10-11 miles to the gallon. But if I have to drive along an uphill grade, against headwinds or in a high speed limit zone, my efficiency drops to about 8 miles per gallon.
Plus, I’ve been traveling through areas that reach 100-plus degrees during the day, which means I need to run the generator to power the air conditioner and keep my dogs cool while they hang out in the back. That’s another fuel-suck, albeit small.
Bionca Smith, who travels in a 1989 Class B Ford Econoline, agreed that gas is her biggest expense, often spending $200 per week on fuel. “I get 11 mpg, so we travel slow and strategically budget and map out almost every mile using GPS,” she said.
Fees add up if you’re renting
When I first started planning my trip, I thought I would rent an RV. Once I started comparing costs, however, I realized that a monthlong rental with extra mileage fees would put me halfway to buying a used one.
“Many rental companies or peer-to-peer rental owners charge over the basic rate for excess mileage, insurance, cleaning fees and generator usage,” said Julie Chickery, co-author of “Full-Time RV Finance.” When renting, it’s crucial to read the fine print, she added.
Ultimately, I decided that renting wouldn’t be worth it since I’d have to spend around $5,000 and have nothing to show for it at the end of the trip. If I had been traveling closer to home and over a shorter period of time, renting would have made a lot more sense. Instead, I decided to commit to owning an RV.
Camping isn’t cheap
When I planned my cross-country route, I thought I’d be staying in RV resorts with full hookups and showers every night. I quickly learned, however, that staying in an RV park or campground can be just as expensive as booking a motel room.
“If a family is looking for a campground with a swimming pool and activities, they could easily spend $75 to $100 a night. This is especially true if the campground is near a tourist attraction or the beach,” Chickery said. Plus, she added that many new RV owners think they will save money by staying at state or national parks, not realizing that during prime season, they need to make reservations up to a year in advance.
For that reason, I’ve been boondocking ― staying in an RV in a place without connections to water, electric or sewer ― most nights at truck stops, Walmarts and Cracker Barrels. I use apps such as RV Parky, Allstays and Flying J to find RV-friendly overnight spots.
There’s more to maintain than with a regular car
“RVs need additional maintenance that your typical vehicle doesn’t,” said Tory Jon, owner of CamperFAQs.com. That’s because an RV is essentially a car and a house in one, so you have to pay to keep up both.
For example, since you’re basically carrying around your sewer system with you, keeping that smelling fresh and clean with black tank treatments is important, Jon said. There’s also a propane tank, generator, air conditioner, heater, fridge, stove and potentially many more components that need maintenance on top of the actual vehicle chassis. The more features your RV has and the older they are, the more likely it is that you’ll need repairs.
Smith said that in order to minimize the wear and tear on her RV, she doesn’t drive it coast to coast (oops) and instead hops on a plane if she needs to get somewhere fast and far, or if she needs to travel back and forth in a short amount of time.
Smith added that the older accessories needed for her RV are harder to find, so she usually doesn’t replace anything cosmetic until she can find a used part somewhere online or at a junkyard. “We do everything we can to take good care of our campervan by oiling and lubricating parts as needed. We keep oils and basic tools in our van to repair things on the spot if possible.”
You need a lot of gear to get going
Since you’re basically living in your vehicle, you need a lot of the items required for daily life along with you. I went wild at Target in preparation for my trip, snatching up kitchen utensils, towels, toiletries and camping gear.
Plus, there are a ton of RV-specific gadgets you’ll need. “A few basics can easily cost over $1,000 right out of the gate,” Chickery said. For example, the water hose, water pressure regulator and sewer hose combined will be approximately $150. “Every RV owner should also have what is called an electrical management system, which is like an enhanced surge protector. These range between $100 to $300, depending on the RV type,” she noted. Another must-have safety item is a tire pressure monitoring system, which typically runs around $300. “Add in a grill and camp chairs and you can see how the costs increase,” Chickery said.
Keeping the lights on isn’t free
With lighting, appliances, a kitchen and bathroom, heating and air conditioning, you’ll need access to various utilities. “Expect to pay for water, electricity, and sewer in some way,” Jon said. You will also need to have your propane tank filled from time to time.
If you live in an RV on your own property, you’ll have to pay for all of them. If you’re vacationing at a campground, you’ll at least pay for electricity out of pocket (sewer and water are typically rolled into the campground costs). “The cost will vary depending on the size of your RV, its amenities, your lifestyle and so on,” Jon said.
You have to store it somewhere
The first night I had my RV, I assumed I could just park in on the street. That was a big mistake. In less than 12 hours, I had an expensive parking ticket. It turns out that most cities have laws against parking oversized vehicles on public streets overnight.
“Often, RV owners are unable to park their RV at their home due to HOA covenants or city/county zoning restrictions,” Chickery said. “Depending on where you live in the country, a basic outdoor storage space (out in the open, no power) can cost between $50-$150 a month,” Chickery said.
Because I live in a townhome complex, I couldn’t park my RV on my property even if I wanted to. So I had to scramble to find storage and ended up renting a spot about 8 miles away for the lowest price I could find, at $159 per month.
Toll roads cost more for RVs
Driving around California, I rarely come across toll roads. And if I do, there’s usually a way around them. On the East Coast, it’s a different story. Going through states such as Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey meant paying many tolls, which I learned are double for RVs. One day, I spent more than $30 in tolls.
Don’t forget about insurance
Like your personal vehicle, it’s important to maintain adequate insurance coverage on your RV.
“RV insurance falls under automobile insurance, not homeowner’s insurance, so prices are pretty reasonable,” Jon said. The cost will depend on factors such as your RV’s value, how many days per year you plan to drive it and your driving record. “It’s a good idea to get an insurance quote before buying an RV so you have an idea of what the monthly cost will be,” Jon added.
In addition to insurance, you should also get RV-specific roadside assistance. The last thing you want is to break down 300 miles away from the nearest RV shop without towing coverage. I signed up for Good Sam, which also offers a separate discount membership that gets you deals on purchases at places like Flying J, Camping World and more.