One Solution for Cheaper Retirement Travel: A Small RV

Want To Reach FI Sooner? Join more than 18,000 others and get new tips and strategies from Can I Retire Yet? every week. Subscription is free. Unsubscribe anytime:

If there’s a common retirement dream across many personalities, budgets, and lifestyles, it’s probably traveling more. The majority of retirees seem to envision traveling more often or further afield. Your retirement trips may focus on visiting children and grandchildren, taking a tour of the national parks, or jetting to exotic overseas destinations.

RV used for retirement trips

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.

Creating Frugal Retirement Trips

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.

Related: Choosing a Compact RV or Camper for Retirement Travel

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.

Analyzing Trip Costs

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.

Smaller RVs Can Be Cost Efficient

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.

Related: Consider Renting a Campervan or Small RV Before Buying

Big RVs, Expensive Retirement Travel

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.

Frugal Travel Tips

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. 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. They generally offer cheaper camping rates, at the cost of reduced amenities.

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.

Small RV Livability

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. That 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?

* * *

This post was originally published April 4, 2012 and was most recently updated November 12, 2021.

* * *

Valuable Resources

  • The Best Retirement Calculators can help you perform detailed retirement simulations including modeling withdrawal strategies, federal and state income taxes, healthcare expenses, and more. Can I Retire Yet? partners with two of the best.
  • Free Travel or Cash Back with credit card rewards and sign up bonuses.
  • Monitor Your Investment Portfolio
    • Sign up for a free Empower account to gain access to track your asset allocation, investment performance, individual account balances, net worth, cash flow, and investment expenses.
  • Our Books

* * *

[The founder of, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]

* * *

Disclosure: Can I Retire Yet? has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Can I Retire Yet? and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Some or all of the card offers that appear on the website are from advertisers. Compensation may impact on how and where card products appear on the site. The site does not include all card companies or all available card offers. Other links on this site, like the Amazon, NewRetirement, Pralana, and Personal Capital links are also affiliate links. As an affiliate we earn from qualifying purchases. If you click on one of these links and buy from the affiliated company, then we receive some compensation. The income helps to keep this blog going. Affiliate links do not increase your cost, and we only use them for products or services that we're familiar with and that we feel may deliver value to you. By contrast, we have limited control over most of the display ads on this site. Though we do attempt to block objectionable content. Buyer beware.


  1. One of the best deals out there has to be the Interagency Senior Pass offered by the National Park Service (NPS). U. S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 and older are eligible to purchase an annual (currently $20) or lifetime (currently $80) Senior Pass. The pass allows free entry to recreation sites managed by six federal agencies (including National Parks) for the pass holder and up to three additional adults. You don’t have to be a camper to buy and use the Senior Pass, but those of us who do camp enjoy a 50% discount on camping fees in campgrounds operated by any of those six federal agencies in which camping fees are charged. For fans of our National Parks, it doesn’t take long to recoup the cost of the pass and move on to additional savings.

  2. My parents did this with a small RV they used for about 3-4 years. Their observation was after doing it was that it would have been the same cost/maybe cheaper to just travel in their normal vehicle and stay in hotels/AirBnB’s, and significantly less hassle.

    Funny thing is even after that realization they said they’d absolutely do it again because it wasn’t about being frugal, it was about the experience. They had a blast and met a bunch of great people on their adventures. They scratched that itch and now have moved on to new endeavors.

    1. Ol,

      Thanks for sharing this perspective. Pretty much any travel is not great for your budget or the environment. But travel provides so many benefits that most of us will choose to do it anyway in one way or another. So it is interesting to hear what others find is optimal for them and figure it out for ourselves.


  3. Thank you for your posts and the information you provide! I just read Chris’s 11/8/2021 posting on health insurance. We travel ~6 months per year in a motorhome exploring this beautiful country. Our research has been that there are NO PPO (nationwide) plans in the ACA options. How are you dealing with your insurance coverage as you travel in your RV? My wife was in the healthcare industry and refuses to risk going with any HC Sharing Ministries.

    1. Jim,

      My research has shown the same in that ACA plans typically don’t cover non-emergency coverage across state lines. Part of that can be accounted for by having all routine care done locally in the 6 months when not traveling. If that’s not possible, I’m not sure what you would do. It’s a definite challenge.

      As for Darrow, he does not use ACA insurance. His wife was a former school teacher and they are able to buy their insurance through her. It is costly compared to what is possible with ACA subsidies, but it offers a combination of the contractually binding agreement of ACA insurance with the simplicity of HCSM.

      Unfortunately, there is no single simple way to buy health insurance that works for everyone.


      1. Thanks for the response Chris. We chose a indemnity plan through United Healthcare which does have nationwide coverage. The plan provides a set amount per service (i.e. $100 per office visit is provided and we have to pay for any additional charges. So if the visit is $120, the plan pays $100 and we pay $20.). It is different than typical insurance with deductibles that have to be met before the coverage/payment kicks in. The coverages and out of pocket seem comparable to our spend when we had traditional insurance. Also if we have a major medical event, the catastrophic coverages appear to be reasonable.

Comments are closed.