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Darrow’s articles about traveling in a Recreational Vehicle (RV) in retirement have been popular on this blog over the years. Pursuing an adventurous RV lifestyle is something many people dream about doing with their increased time freedom in retirement. I’m one!

RV set up at North Rim Grand Canyon

I invited Mary, who writes at the blog Reflections Around the Campfire, to share her experiences with RV life. She left her original career in 1990. Her family has been traveling around the United States in their RV on a part-time basis for the past fifteen years. She and her husband fully retired about five years ago in their 50’s.

Like many readers of this blog, Mary is a numbers geek who tracks the financial implications of her decisions. She breaks down the costs and benefits of their RV lifestyle over the past fifteen years in this fun and insightful post. Enjoy!

The Appeal of the RV Lifestyle

The COVID-19 pandemic opened the eyes of many people to a fact that countless camping families have known for ages. The RV lifestyle is appealing for a wide variety of reasons. 

The appeal during a pandemic, of course, is the social distancing aspect of RVing. You’re traveling in your very own bubble, complete with a kitchen and bathroom, thereby eliminating the need to overnight in an “I-wonder-how-well sanitized-it-is hotel room,” dine in a not-so-socially-distanced restaurant setting, or use a highly trafficked restroom in a plane or at a service plaza on the interstate. 

RV Options

Camping enthusiasts were drawn to the RVing lifestyle long before the pandemic. Why? Because it’s all about options.

  • If you want a drivable vehicle that will easily fit in a regular sized parking place, there’s an RV for that. 
  • If you want to tow some type of trailer so that you have room for your bikes, kayaks, and stand up paddle boards in the back of your pickup truck, there’s an RV for that. 
  • If you want a luxury ride that can accommodate plenty of visitors (including those precious grandchildren), there’s an RV for that. 

There are 10 common types of RVs. I’ll bet you a dime to a dollar that one of them, drivable or towable, would fit the needs of anyone potentially interested in traveling by RV. 

Related: Choosing a Compact RV or Camper for Retirement Travel

Where To Go and What To Do

There are also multiple choices for places to park your RV for the night. 

Camp at a primitive National Park campground with no electrical or sewer hookups to enjoy stargazing under one of the darkest skies you’ve ever seen. Or camp at an upscale RV Resort to indulge in amenities like swimming pools for the kids, tennis courts and gyms for the sports addicts, and fun-filled games and activities for every member of the family. 

If you’re a NASCAR fan, join fellow camping and racing enthusiasts by RVing at Daytona International Speedway and other tracks around the circuit. Or camp at the State or County Fairground while your kids compete in horse shows or 4H and FFA competitions. 

Maybe you’d prefer to stay onsite at an RV park owned by a casino, so you’re close to the gambling action. Or tour the country while working remotely and homeschooling your children. 

So. Many. Options.

Related: Traveling in a Small RV

RV Lifestyle — The Costs

RVers take their rigs to exceptionally varied places for an extraordinary number of reasons. But is the cost of a ticket to buy into the RV lifestyle worth it? Let’s zip back in a time machine to 2006, and run some real numbers.

RV Costs

In May of 2006 our family purchased a brand new Jayco Jay Flight 27BH travel trailer. At 30’ long (including 3’ for the hitch in front) and 8’ wide, it gave us 216 square feet of living space that included a living area with a kitchen, dinette and sofa plus a full bathroom, a queen bed and a separate bunk for each of our two kids.

We paid $16,008.00 for the travel trailer and spent another $1,825.00 over the course of the summer outfitting it. Included in our summer purchases were, among many, many other things, wheel chocks so that we wouldn’t roll off into the sunset, a surge suppressor to protect our electrical system when we were plugged into a power outlet at a campground, a grill for those fabulous campsite meals and a cover to protect the travel trailer from the worst of the winter elements. Additionally, we spent $96.00 to register the trailer with our state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and $247.00 to insure it. 

The RV dealership we dealt with always ordered this particular model in bulk and passed the discount along to its customers. The general public probably paid an additional $4,000.00 for the same travel trailer at another dealership.

Vehicle Costs

If you’re not keeping track, don’t worry; I am. We’re at $22,176.00 and we haven’t even left the dealer’s lot yet. If you have to buy a tow vehicle with a trailering package, let’s add in a conservative $28,000.00. This is approximately what a new Chevy Silverado 1500 LS Extended Cab 4 Wheel Drive was going for in 2006.

Our family avoided that expense. We already had a tow vehicle with the appropriate trailering equipment before we bought the travel trailer. Otherwise, we would have topped out at  $50,176.00. 

Drivable RV Costs

If that sounds like a lot of money, keep in mind that a brand new drivable RV of almost any size will usually start at a price that’s $10K to $20K higher than what we tallied. Costs could easily sail upward into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Travel Costs in an RV

Okay, now we’re all set to travel! 

In 2007, our family of four set out on what was the first of three cross-country journeys to visit our iconic National Parks. Round trip from the northeast, we traveled to Mount Rushmore,  Devil’s Tower, Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain National Parks and Monuments. 

We spent 24 days on the road, logged 5,338 miles and spent a total of $4,373.00. That total included gas and tolls ($2,153.00), camping fees rather than hotel charges ($790.00), restaurant  meals and groceries ($916.00), entertainment ($155.00) and souvenirs ($359.00). 

At an average of just $35.00 per night (mainly at private RV Parks) our campground fees were much easier on our budget than hotel stays would have been. But, then, you don’t have to buy a hotel to sleep in it. Our average cost per day for 2 adults and 2 kids on that 24 day trip was just $182.00.

Let’s step back into the time machine and fast forward to 2017 and another of our cross-country National Parks camping trips. This time, round trip from the northeast, we traveled to the West Coast to visit Sequoia, King’s Canyon, Yosemite, Redwoods, Crater Lake, Olympic, North Cascades and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks. 

We spent 40 days on the road, logged 8,513 miles and spent a total of $7,311.00. That total includes gas and tolls ($3,743.00), camping fees plus one night at a hotel in Las Vegas ($1,261.00), restaurant meals and groceries ($1,642.00), entertainment  ($474.00) and souvenirs ($191.00). 

Our lodging expense averaged just $31.50 per night, including a very brief hotel stay. (I scored a great deal.) We camped mainly in State and National Park campgrounds, and only stayed in private (more expensive) RV parks occasionally. 

Our average cost per day for my husband and I plus our 18 year old daughter was just $183.00 – only $1.00 per day more than the 2007 trip with the two kids at ages 8 and 13.

Costs of RV vs. “Conventional” Travel

We’ve been traveling mainly by RV since we purchased our first travel trailer in 2006. But, for comparison’s sake, let’s talk numbers on our 2019 anniversary getaway to Virginia Beach. In the fall of 2019, we left the pickup truck and RV at home and cruised like newlyweds down the east coast in my husband’s Camaro Super Sport.

We spent 8 days on the road, logged just over 1,000 miles and spent a total of $1,827.00. That total included gas and tolls ($178.00), an ocean view hotel room ($1,002.00), restaurant meals and groceries ($560.00), entertainment ($44.00) and souvenirs ($43.00). Our lodging expense averaged $143.00 per night – 4 times higher than our camping costs when traveling by RV. Our average cost per day for just the two of us was $228.00 – a full 25% higher even without the kids. 

If you’re thinking that the RV lifestyle is an inexpensive approach to traveling, think again. We haven’t even talked about repairs and maintenance, storage fees (if you’re unable to keep your RV on your  property), interest on a loan, or annual membership in an RV-related roadside service program comparable to AAA.

Related: Maintaining a Small RV for Retirement Travel

RV Lifestyle — The Benefits

Your enthusiasm for RVing may be dimming. You may find yourself wondering why someone would ever throw that kind of money at a home on wheels. Let me assure you that there is good reason why RVs rolled off the production line in record numbers in 2017.

The benefits of an RV lifestyle are intrinsic and go beyond any of its costs. Incidentally, the 2017 production numbers were eclipsed by those of  2020 – despite most manufacturers having endured a two month shutdown and critical shortages of parts due to the pandemic.

Exploring With Comfort and Flexibility

What are the benefits of the RV lifestyle? RVing allows our family of outdoor enthusiasts to spend time doing what we love – biking, hiking, kayaking and exploring – without needing to travel to the outdoors to start the adventure. 

We’ve woken up at the edge of the Grand Canyon, paddled on a lake with only a family of loons for company, and watched freighters ply our country’s rivers from our waterfront sites. RVing allows us those spur-of-the-moment decisions. We can pull into the parking lot of a State Park, grab snacks and drinks, change into bathing suits and cool off in the lake – not because it was on our itinerary but because it was hot and everyone needed a break.

RVing  provides the opportunity to gather around an evening campfire with friends and family and share the adventures of our day while enjoying a hot cup of coffee or an ice cold beer. We can grab the marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars from the pantry and make the messiest, tastiest s’mores on the planet. Or we can greet the rising sun from the comfort of a camp chair while soaking up the solitude.

My husband and I traded up from tent camping when our aging bodies began to protest a bit too much about sleeping outdoors on the cold, hard ground. I must admit that we’ve  been spoiled by the RV lifestyle and have come to embrace it fully.

No matter what journey we’re on, we’re towing our home behind us, packed with our own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Our preferred games are in one drawer, books and DVDs in the end table, and our favorite foods in the fridge. We have all the comforts of home. 

Related: Living Efficiently in a Small RV

Counting Dollars vs. Measuring Experiences

You can run all the numbers you’d like regarding the cost of RVing as compared to alternative modes of travel. My guess is that some will be less expensive, some more so.

But there is no comparison for the unimaginable pleasure derived from RVing, the camaraderie that exists among RVers, the  amazing nights spent in the most magnificent places or the unforgettable experiences and memories that the lifestyle engenders. The value of RVing lies not in its numbers, but in the spectacular opportunities it provides.

Hit The Road — Practical First Steps

GoRving.com is a great place to start for anyone interested  in exploring the RV lifestyle. If you decide to give RVing a try, do consider renting an RV for your first trip. Alternatively, opt for a less expensive test drive by booking a reservation at an RV Park that rents on-site travel trailers.

My $.02

Thank you Mary for sharing your extensive experience and transparency with the financial aspects of RV life. As someone who is gradually getting more serious about pursuing this lifestyle, this provided a lot to think about.

My family is following Mary’s advice to test drive this lifestyle. We rented a camper van for a trip later this year to dip our toes in the water. I’ll be sharing more about that experience when the time is right.

If you want to dive deeper into this topic, leave your questions and comments below. And be sure to check out more of Mary’s writing at Reflections Around the Campfire.

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at chris@caniretireyet.com.]

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