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A six month plan to tour the USA

A blog reader from the United Kingdom wrote to me this week with a question that I often get asked:

My wife & I were wondering how much it would cost to tour the US for 6 months or so when we retire.

People from both the US and Europe often figure that although they can’t quit their jobs and wander forever, they can budget six months or a year for a grand tour of America and then return to their previous lives. Our friends Bobby & Danine are in the final months of doing exactly that.

It’s a good concept, because many people can break away from their careers for a while than can take their careers on the road with them. And as I can attest, it is quite a juggling act to manage a job while trying to get the full travel experience.

Having toured around for three years now (our anniversary is later this month), I’ve gotten a feel for how long it takes to really see something in the USA. Six months is a reasonable amount of time. You won’t see “everything” by any stretch, but you can enjoy quite a few of the highlights of this country.

With six months you can easily drive from coast to coast and back, and have some quality time at perhaps two dozen major stops. Three or four days is enough to enjoy a major national park, and if you really want to dig in for a couple of weeks the option is available just by trading off against some other place. You can also make lesser visits for a day or two to many more places.

The real problem is that many people get out for a six month tour and find they want more. That’s what happened to us. Four months into our six month trip we decided to extend for another full year. Then we did it again, and now here we are 36 months later still living in an Airstream.

In my opinion, a year is much more appealing than a shorter trip. Frankly, if you’re going to take a leave of absence just once in your career, you might as well make it a good one. Will it really make much difference to your career if it is 12 months versus six? With a full year you can experience the northern and southern portions of the country, even Canada, and stay in reasonably warm weather all the time.

Money is the real variable. Our correspondent recognized this, saying:

… we appreciate that there are literally dozens of options that would change one man’s experience from another.

That’s true, of course, but we can offer some generalities to help with the budgeting process. First off, the largest cost may not be fuel. If you buy an RV for the trip and then sell it at the end of the trip, your biggest expense may be depreciation (the difference between what you buy it for and what you sell it for). You can minimize this expense in a few ways.

  • Start with a used RV. It will already have the heaviest depreciation years behind it.
  • Take a longer trip. The longer you own the rig, the cheaper the depreciation cost becomes on a per-day basis, because the depreciation curve tends to flatten over time.
  • Keep the RV and continue to enjoy it on weekend after your trip is over. Then the depreciation cost is factored over your entire ownership period, which could be many years.

Renting is not a financially viable option for long trips. The RV rentals are structured to people going on limited vacations, not full-timing for months at a time.

Fuel is a major expense, but even today it is not a huge one if you don’t drive maniacally around the country. In our first year and in Bobby & Danine’s first year we both hit around 18,000 miles. It was more than we had both estimated, too. It turns out that this country has a lot of nooks and crannies, and so if you just figure 3,000 miles across each way plus a “fudge factor” you’ll greatly underestimate the trip.

18,000 miles over a year is not an enormous amount of driving. The typical American commuter manages 15,000 just going back-and-forth to work and running errands. Yes, at $4 per gallon (and figuring 10 MPG), you’ll spend $7,200 on fuel. But consider all the other expenses you won’t have, that offset it: you won’t spend a penny on commuting to work, you can close up your apartment or house and reduce your costs there, you can reduce to one vehicle (saving insurance and maintenance expense), and you’ll probably buy less “stuff” because you won’t have a place to put things you don’t absolutely need.

After that you’ve got campground expense (very budgetable because you know you’ll need one almost every night), and then you get into personal choices like eating out, going to theme parks, or indulging hobbies.   Maintenance and repairs play a role in the budget but needn’t be huge unless you have a disaster.   The rest is normal things you’d face if you were home: medical care, food, insurance, clothing, cell phone, etc.

Excluding depreciation expense, I would bet most people could take a six month tour of the country for less than $18,000 without any trouble at all.   Consider what a package tour anywhere will cost you, especially on a per-day basis, and suddenly you can see that even with higher fuel costs, a six-month tour of the country might be less of a dream than you thought.