Budgeting for an RV Trip

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We love to travel and one of the reasons we bought a small RV was to stretch our travel budget. We figured that campground fees are far less expensive than hotels and our built-in kitchen would save some money on eating out. Still, we have to limit our travel to our budget - we can only go as far as the money holds out!

Although an RV is a good way to travel, they include a few expenses of their own beyond the initial purchase price. For instance, an RV is a heavy vehicle so you can expect lower fuel mileage than a car. Repairs can be expensive, so regular maintenance becomes a monthly budget item. And, if you like to frequent high-end RV resorts, campsite accommodations can match a hotel stay. Yet a small RV is still an enjoyable and cost effective way to make longer trips, and the longer the trip, the more economical it is. The key is planning a realistic travel budget. 

Before you choose a destination, decide how much you want to spend for this trip - that expense includes both money and time. Is this a two-week vacation or a two-month tour? Once you have a monetary figure in mind, divide that by the number of days you'll be traveling. This gives you a start to your planning and may help you evaluate which destinations will make the most of your travel dollars. Since your budget will determine almost every aspect of the trip, it's better to start with what you are comfortable spending on a trip and make adjustments as you plan. We've found that most trips can be streamlined to fit our travel budget if we're willing to manage our expectations.  

Building a Travel Budget

To build a travel budget you'll have to consider the major expense categories: fuel, food, campgrounds, and entertainment. There are savings to be had in each category and your personal preferences will guide just how much you'll trim from each. We like to start our planning by dividing our budget into estimated "per day" costs. 

RV Fuel Costs

For instance, we know that we like to keep our driving to a maximum of four hours per day. That equates to roughly 250 miles per day so we calculate our daily fuel cost based on that figure. Then we adjust it according to how many days we will be in camp and not doing much driving. This rough estimate becomes our starting point for the fuel budget, multiplying it by an average fuel price. 

Food Costs When Traveling

Since food is always a big expense, we look to our typical grocery budget. We use that figure divided by the number of days we will be on the road to determine a meal "per diem". Then we adjust it to include specialty items or eating out. Keeping the food budget under control is a lot easier when you cook in your RV and shopping local farmer's markets can almost count as entertainment!  

RV Campground Costs

Campgrounds run the gamut as far as price is concerned. With everything from high-end RV resorts to "boondocking" in parking lots, there is a campground for almost any budget. High-end resorts can be a lot of fun with some terrific amenities. Perhaps you include a few nights at an RV resort while spend the remaining nights at state and national parks or the ubiquitous membership campgrounds like Passport America, Good Sam, or Escapees. There are also free options like Harvest Host farms and vineyards or Bureau of Land Management forests. We are not proponents of parking lot camping, but in a pinch they can offer a place to catch a nap or hunker down in bad weather. With a few exceptions, you'll visit an area for what you can do and see there - not because you want to spend lots of time at the campsite so consider trying different options to stretch your budget. 

Time of Year and Trip Routes

The time of year you travel can also impact your budget. Think in terms of shoulder seasons or off-season to get the best values. If you're planning a "high season" trip,  look for campgrounds at state and national parks where fees tend to be more economical. They fill up fast, so make your reservations in advance.

You travel for fun and stops along the way can increase the entertainment value of the trip. Plan routes that offer more than just a road to the "next place". Identify scenic areas and tourist stops on your route to start your "memory-making" adventures before you even reach your destination. Most scenic stops are low or no cost and give you a better sense of a new area. Tourist areas can be a good value - like an orchard market or a national monument. There are also tourist stops that can be budget busters so choose wisely!


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Sightseeing, Activities, and Souvenirs

As far as activities are concerned, try to include low-cost outdoor activities like biking, kayaking and hiking. Tours of national monuments, parks, museums and historical sites are often far less expensive than amusement areas or guided tours. That doesn't mean you can't include more expensive options but work within your budget to include both low cost and premium activities. Many tourist bureaus offer self-guided tour maps and can recommend docent guided tours that are well worth the investment.

Of course travel almost always includes souvenirs. We like to remember our trips with a little something from each area. However, living in a small space (and traveling in a small RV) means there isn't room for a collection of large souvenirs. We've taken to collecting recipes from local restaurants as our souvenirs. Every time we prepare that dish, we recall our trip and where we tasted it for the first time. Seeking out regional specialties also makes us more selective about our dining options. We choose restaurants that are known for preparing "the best" of whatever dish is popular in that area - and we always ask for a copy of the recipe!  

I have a few travel friends who collect fishing lures, scarves, earrings or wine from every destination. They enjoy using their souvenirs and that means the souvenirs are not just hung on the wall or buried in a drawer. Consider souvenirs that have meaning for you - to remember your travels, fit your space, and preserve your budget! If you like to purchase larger items as souvenirs ask if it can be shipped back to your home so they don't take up space in the RV.

So, there it is. Your budget will influence how far you travel, where you will stay overnight, what activities you will do, and what purchases you will make. Planning a  travel budget may not be the most fun part of travel planning but it is one of the most crucial. With a solid budget plan, you can manage expectations on spending, keep unnecessary expense to a minimum, and still enjoy most everything you planned to see and do.

Budget Checklist:

  • Fuel costs: How many miles per gallon is your RV’s average? What is the size of your fuel tank and what is your cost per tank of fuel?

  • Food: How much do you spend per day on food? At this point think in terms of groceries rather than restaurants (We’ll estimate those later under “entertainment costs”).

  • Campground Fees: This may depend on the area of the country and time of year. Some people prefer budget-friendly state and national park campgrounds, others like the amenities of RV Resorts and private campgrounds. There are also free and very low- cost options like the Bureau of Land Management public lands (BLM), Harvest Host farms, and county parks.

  • Tolls and Ferry Costs: These vary by area, but once you plan your destination and route, these costs will need to be added to your budget.

  • Emergency Cash-On-Hand: Even with a credit card, it is a good idea to have some emergency cash on hand. You can, of course, depend on withdrawals at ATMs.

  • Entertainment and Fun Stuff: This is how much “fun money” you have to spend after the first five categories are taken care of. Museum fees, bike rentals, guided tours, wine tastings, and restaurant meals are all a part of this budget line as are souvenirs and serendipitous side trips.