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RV economics

Our great Four Corners circle tour is coming to an end.   Over the past month we’ve wandered from Great Sand Dunes NP to Silverton CO, Mesa Verde NP, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Kanab, Grand Canyon, Page AZ, Navajo Nat’l Mon., Canyon de Chelly, and finally here to Grants, New Mexico.   That’s in addition to minor excursions to Pipe Springs Nat’l Mon., Glen Canyon NRA, Grand-Staircase Escalante, Vermillion Cliffs, Navajo Bridge, and (on Monday), Hubble Trading Post Nat’l Mon.

All told, we’ve driven about 1,300 miles since the last oil change in Cortez, CO on September 2.   Since then we’ve visited 15 national park sites, camped for a month in some spectacular locations, and had a really terrific time.   Since we never drove more than 100 miles on any towing day, and because we were careful about where we camped, our costs were ridiculously low.   We spent a total of $500 on gas, and $471 on camping — for a month!

That means our daily cost for camping and fuel to explore the Four Corners was about $32 per day.   All of our other expenses were the same ones we’d incur at home (groceries, etc).   That’s a serious bargain.

Now, it has not escaped anyone’s attention that the economy is struggling.   The RV industry is being hit particularly hard, by the dual whammies of higher fuel prices and tight credit.   The manufacturers of behemoth fifth-wheels and expensive Class A motorhomes are getting hit the hardest.   The word on the street is that “the price of gas has made RV’ing too expensive.”

Nonsense.   We just demonstrated how incredibly affordable it can be.   If we’d been like the non-RV tourists who packed into buses or rented cars at Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, and who stayed in the expensive lodges, we’d have spent our entire budget in a week.

The trick is to stop driving around so much.   A lot of people who have bought RVs in the past have a tendency to log miles instead of days.   If you’re going to drive 1,000 miles a week, you’re going to expend a lot of your budget on fuel.   Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but fortunately there’s a lot of stuff to do and see in this country without going too far. You don’t have to go to Alaska to have a great adventure.   We’ve visited most of the 50 states in our travels and there isn’t one state in this great country that doesn’t have fun and interesting things to do.

In other words, instead of point-to-point roadtrips of the classic style (drive 1,500 miles to the destination, spend four days there, then drive 1,500 miles back), the secret is in picking a specific region and exploring it.   By focusing on the Four Corners region and hopping slowly from park to park, we were able to keep our mileage to an average of 43 miles per day.

A few weeks ago when I was being interviewed by a L.A. Times reporter for an article about RV’ing, he argued that my claim of economy was invalid because it didn’t include the cost of ownership.   He figured that a travel trailer sitting in the garage at (for example), $477 per month made the true cost of an Airstream trip much higher.   (I’ve figured a $50,000 loan on a travel trailer for 15 years at 8.0%. That would get you a heck of a nice Airstream.)   The reporter was correct if you leave your rig in the garage most of the time and only take it out for two weeks a year.

But how much of a premium are you really paying even in that “worst-case” example?   A year of payments would be $5,724.   Add in insurance, a little maintenance, and even some storage fees, and maybe you’re up to $7,000.   Now, go take a two week trip and spend $500 on fuel and $350 on camping (full hookups every night!)   Your trip just cost you a total of $7,850, and for that you paid for the trailer for a year.   No question, that’s expensive.

Now go price a two-week trip for a family of three to any popular destination in North America.   Add in airfares for everyone, hotels for 14 nights, rental cars, tips, 42 restaurant meals for three people, rental car fuel, excess baggage fees, etc. That’s about $5,000.   That’s expensive too, and we’re close to paying for the Airstream already.

Take just one more week-long trip with your family, and you’ve paid for that travel trailer for the year. Not only that, but you didn’t have to go through security checkpoints, sleep in unfamiliar beds, tip bellhops, live out of a suitcase, comply with a rigid schedule of hotel reservations or tour schedules, etc.   It’s still a no-brainer from my perspective.

The real economy of this form of travel is for people who have lots of time and want to explore North America.   If you take just one week of vacation a year, or you prefer your vacations to be spent in Paris, an RV is probably not for you.   But if you like to take lots of road trips, it’s still a great way to go — even with gas prices. We’re certainly happy with our $971 month-long trip through the Four Corners.

7 Responses to “RV economics”

  1. Randy Says:

    great entry….puts it all into perspective….just tried to book a spot at fort wilderness in disney world….nothing available for the entire month of november and december and that is at 80 to 100 dollars a night…..

  2. Roger Says:

    Another plus of having a trailer (I am a bit biased) is the emergency aspect. If something is happening with your house, you can stay in your trailer. If something larger (natural disaster) is coming your way, get out of there with your trailer.

    I always try to keep the water full in case something even local may happen with power, water, etc.

  3. Michelle P Says:

    What the reporter may not know is many of us do not have a mortgage on our Airstreams. Traveling with our paid for 93 Excella is the most cost effective method for us to vacation. Ok, I guess tenting would be cheaper but like the comfort and safety of traveling with our rig.

  4. Bev Says:

    They also need to add in the cost to board your animals. In your RV they get to come along.

  5. Jim Says:

    Rich, Great points! Be where you want and don’t zigzag back and forth. Drive less, visit more, plan routes to see and do the things you want. With the holidays coming up soon we’re staying near our families and friends until the New Year.