Much like any adventure, it all started with a Google search “Vintage Airstream for sale“. It was to be an adventure across North America to visit so many places we compared to the US as we traveled the world in 2013.
It was also an escape hatch that took me away from my overly stressful job in the corporate world and back to a life of adventure we previously experienced. I was very lucky to have a wife who was onboard for another adventure.
You can read our monthly adventure and expense reports, but in this post I’ll focus on the total costs to RV across North America.
Total Cost to RV North America
Total Cost: $43,479
Total cost per day: $119
States Visited: 43 + Canada
Total Miles: Around 45,000
It’s always hard to estimate total costs of trips like this, but I was estimating somewhere around $35k-$40k, so as with most budget estimates, I was a little off. We rented out our house in Dallas while traveling which offset almost 1/3rd of the total costs, then the rest was covered with savings, dividends and stock market growth. It felt great to have a strong market while traveling as our nest egg wasn’t impacted as heavily.
To truly understand the total costs and how that might compare to your potential trip, we’ll need to get into the detailed spending. As I’m a numbers guy, I happily recorded nearly every expense along the way to give us an accurate total.
RV Across North American Spending details
Our monthly spending varied wildly as we traversed the landscapes and cities of North America. In the Northeast, we spent more on campsites and restaurants, while out west a bigger percentage of our budget went to gas as we covered many, many miles. We probably cooked over 90% of our meals in the camper which saved a lot of total food costs, and where possible – especially on the West Coast and Alaska, we camped in free areas.
Fixed Costs Review
In the camping world, the only fixed costs are food for the humans and to a lesser extent, your RV or trailer purchase. If you really wanted, you could bum across the Southwest finding mostly free campsites and driving minimally. This gets more into “living cheaply” than exploring, so it’s not how we managed it.
While on the road, we spent a typical average of $800/month on food. We tried to buy enough food for 7-10 days, but this varied based on our planned adventures. Before we headed up to Alaska, we tried to stock up for an entire month to avoid the limited and expense grocery stores throughout Alaska and Canada.
In between our major stops, we’d usually have a few stops to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables. Our morning staple was oatmeal with fresh fruit, so we always tried to keep strawberries and blueberries on hand. Besides freshness, our biggest limitation was storage as our camper only had a 4 cubic foot capacity with a small freezer, but with careful planning, it was big enough for our 7-10 day storage goal.
Variable Costs Reviews
The variable costs are mostly driven by our own ambition and FOMO (fear of missing out). Similarly to how we traveled the world and moved cities every 2-3 days, we didn’t spend much time in one campsite or destination. Some of this was due to running from the cold weather during the Fall in the Northeast, while other sprints were to catch warm weather in Alaska.
Either way, we traveled a lot. There’s an old RV rule called the “2-2-2” which means stay at least two nights, don’t drive more than 200 miles and arrive at your destination before 2pm. We violated that rule a lot, especially as we made the 40+ hour drive to Alaska from Vancouver in 6 days… and even faster on the way back!
I do recommend this rule though. Driving a RV or pulling a trailer is much more exhausting than driving a car, and arriving late into campsites when you’re already hangry doesn’t make for a fun campsite set up experience.
The miles are reflected on our 4Runner which now has 240,000 miles as well as on our credit card, which averaged around $600 per month until we made the long drives through Alaska and Canada, when it peaked at $1,311 on gas alone in July!! Obviously, if you move slower and drive smaller distances, you can avoid this problem.
Campsites are another surprisingly variable expense. They’re most expensive on the East Coast as even the National Parks costs more and more populated areas mean more expensive sites. However, you get the rewards of staying in some surprising places.
The most surprising RV park for us was in Liberty Harbor with views of the Statue of Liberty from the camper and a five block walk to the subway that would take you right to Manhattan! Sure, it was $95 per night, but we loved it and went from our planned two night stay to four nights.
As we worked our way to the Southwest and then West Coast, RV campsites got much cheaper. The state of New Mexico has electric/water sites for $12/night, which is by far one of the best values out there. The only problem is the snowbirds flock there in the winter and it can be hard to find a spot.
We also found many free sites in National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. These open spaces in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Utah were some of our favorite places to camp as you can get out in the middle of nowhere among the most beautiful and scenic landscapes in America. All for free, as long as you have a “self-contained” unit, of course.
Total Costs of RTW Trip Compared to North America RV Trip
I never thought we’d be fortunate enough to be able to compare the costs of traveling the world versus the costs to travel North American in a camper. It was only through hard work, controlled spending and investing that we were able to do this… of which most people are capable.
Back in 2013 we traveled the world for 250 days at a total cost of $56,096 or $224 per day so at first glance it seems the camper trip was much cheaper. However, when I factor in the total cost to purchase our Airstream ($6k) plus our Airstream renovation costs ($12k), we’re over $61k, which now makes it more expensive… but we could always sell and recuperate the costs if we needed to (but we’ll never sell Penny Lane!).
What we learned…
When we traveled the world in 2013, we expected experiences that would forever change the way we live and think… but we didn’t think the same about this trip. We had already visited much of the United States and know we’ve pretty much lost all of our uniqueness across cities thanks to globalization. But we didn’t factor in some things we would see.
We realized we had been living in a socioeconomic bubble in Dallas, with very little exposure to people who didn’t have everything they need. While living in our camper, we camped next to people living out of their cars, did our laundry in laundromats and visited towns ravaged by loss of industry and the opioid epidemics. We drove through the third world settings of our Indigenous people’s reservations along with some of the richest areas in America… touring billionaire neighborhoods of the Fords, Vanderbilts and Hearsts.
We experienced the lives of the haves and the have-nots, not as pawns among the table, but instead as outsiders observing the scenes unfolding. We saw things that reminded us how much we love the US and things that reminded us why we still have many things to work on.
We also realized our own inner tenacity. Whether a car breakdown, a trailer tire blow out, worrying that we wouldn’t have enough water or wondering where we were going to sleep that night, we always figured it out. Sometimes through our own arranging and other times only by the help of strangers.
It was once again a major push outside of our comfort zones that made us experience life and test ourselves. We could’ve spent the previous year making more money, but all we’d have to show is more money.