If there’s a common retirement dream across many personalities, budgets, and lifestyles, it’s probably traveling more. Though there are some retirees who prefer to stay on the home front during their golden years, the majority seem to envision traveling more often or further afield. Whether it be visiting children and grandchildren, taking a tour of the national parks, or jetting to exotic overseas destinations, increased travel of some sort figures in the majority of retirement plans.
We are no exception. But we had to fit our retirement travel dreams into an early-retirement budget. How did we do it? Well, the seeds of our retirement travel solution were planted long ago with tent camping, giving way to a simple pickup truck shell, next a Volkswagen camper van, then a slide-in truck camper, and now, finally, a small RV.
The theme is the same: save on travel costs by bringing a small version of your home with you. On many trips, especially extended travels, being able to drive your own vehicle, cook your own meals, and sleep in your own cozy bed can save significantly. Plus it provides an element of flexibility, independence, adventure, and a feeling of “home,” that many of us enjoy.
But, even if you enjoy camping in some form, owning an RV is not a slam-dunk route to cheaper vacations. There are many variables to be analyzed, and some tradeoffs to be made. An RV is essentially a 2nd home, and the cost implications can be similar. For example, it is very easy to spend more than 6 figures on a new RV, and create for yourself the same financial and maintenance overhead as your primary residence. For most of us, it is hard to visualize a cheap or early retirement that requires keeping up two full-size homes.
As is the case with cars and many other big-ticket items, buying used is one way to save big on an RV. A few years ago, we bought a used Class B (van-size) RV with about 20,000 miles on it, for under $50,000 — essentially half price. It’s small enough that we can park it out of the way in our back yard, so there is no storage cost. The gas mileage is stellar, by RV standards, at 13-14 mpg. (The new crop of small diesel RVs can average over 20 mpg.) And our “van,” as we call it, is easy enough to drive around town on occasion, so it serves as our 2nd car, eliminating the cost of another vehicle.
When looking at RV travel as a cost-saving measure, it’s important to do the math carefully. Many RVs can be very expensive to own because of the high fuel and depreciation costs. And the savings on lodging, in particular, are not as compelling as you might imagine — because modern campgrounds with all the amenities such as landscaped pads, full utilities, and recreation facilities are relatively expensive. To really save with an RV, you must drive a relatively small one, use it for lengthy trips, and minimize camping costs where possible. A small RV really shines for long-duration, low-mileage trips. For short, high-mileage trips, you are probably better off staying in hotels and eating out.
Doing the math, our “van” costs about 50 cents per mile to drive, figuring in depreciation (the cost of ownership) and current fuel costs. That’s compared to about 20 cents/mile for our passenger car. Analyzing the savings in lodging and meal costs, it’s about $75/day cheaper for us to live in our van than to pay for hotel rooms and dining out. But if we are having to drive a lot, those savings are quickly eaten up by additional fuel costs. The breakeven point is around 250 miles. So, if we average less than that per day, we do, in fact, save money by traveling in our van.
But that’s for our small Class B RV. Costs for larger Class A (bus-size) rigs can be much higher, given initial purchase costs that can run well into 6 figures and fuel consumption in the mid single-digit mpg. Thus the total operating cost for a big rig could be more than 10 times higher. Some will choose larger RVs for the comfortable accommodations, and others will trade in their primary residence to live in one full time. But these large rigs don’t really fill the need I’m discussing here for cheap retirement travel. They’re more accurately viewed as home replacements.
There are some other things you can do to economize traveling in an RV, especially campground fees. As mentioned, modern campgrounds are a far cry from the rustic camps of yore. And the prices follow suit. It’s difficult to find a paid RV spot for under $25/night these days, and the cost can easily run to $40/night, or more, in popular destinations.
One simple way to save is to pay for multiple nights: most campgrounds offer weekly and monthly rates. Another option is to downsize your campground: stay in less popular locations, or in state and national parks, which generally offer cheaper camping rates, at the cost of reduced amenities. And the final way to economize is to “boondock” (run on battery power with no utility hookups) and pay no fee at all. There are a variety of places to do this legally and safely, including many spots on National Forest and BLM lands. We often boondock at RV-friendly businesses such as Walmart and Flying J. This makes especially good sense when you are traveling from one destination to another, and there is no need for plush camping facilities.
For those who are curious about livability in a small RV, here are a few observations: Our E350-based Class B RV is about half the size of a small hotel room, but is definitely not half as livable. There is plenty of space for two to move around and stretch, and plenty of storage room. The kitchen is highly functional, and the beds are comfortable. The one drawback to this size of RV is probably the shower — cramped but usable. (We generally opt for a campground shower when one is available.)
As long as we get outside some during the day to sightsee and exercise — which is usually the entire point of vacation travel — we are very comfortable in our mobile home away from home. It also helps that we are a relatively organized and compatible couple that have been camping together for decades.
Be advised that living out of an RV is a bit more labor intensive than a conventional vacation, which contributes to some of the savings. You will be cooking simple meals and performing light housekeeping. But, RVs are designed to be lower maintenance than a conventional home, and their compact size keeps everything within easy reach.
In sum, travel is a focal point of many retirements. But it can be expensive. Finding your own personal angle to reduce costs is an essential part of retiring on a budget. For us, a small RV has been a good solution. Of course, your mileage may vary!
Do you have any tips or secrets, RV-related or otherwise, for holding down retirement travel costs?
Related Article: Choosing a Compact RV or Camper for Retirement Travel