Cost-saving tips for RV campers

This is, for now, a page with a short discussion of some money-saving tips for RVers. Some are obvious and well-known, others are ones that I’ve stumbled across either while traveling or on the web.

Penny-wise And Pound-foolish

One of the most important aspects to controlling costs and saving money for RVers is to look at where the biggest expenses are and focus on those, rather than spending a lot of time, effort, and hassle trying to save a few extra pennies. Since the big expenses are somewhat interrelated, I’ve listed them in no particular order:

  • The purchase cost of the RV itself.
  • Diesel or gasoline costs.
  • Repair and upkeep costs of the rig and coach.
  • RV park or campground costs.
  • Storage costs for the RV when it’s not in use

We’ll look at these one by one.

Purchase Cost Of The RV

When looking at the initial purchase price of an RV, the first question to consider is: What type of RV do I want? The following table lists all of the most popular types, plus a few that most people might not consider at first.

The difference in the initial price of various types of RVs is tremendous. A serviceable used economy car and a small tent trailer combined won’t cost much more than a single fill-up of diesel oil for a big Class A motorhome with 150 gallon fuel tanks. The Class A owner might argue that a tent trailer doesn’t really count as an RV, but it’s all a matter of perspective. Any RV, at a minimum, provides these features:

  • A comfy place out of the weather to sleep at night.
  • A place to safely store clothing, food, and other goods.
  • Some sort of bathroom, be it a porta-potty and a washbucket, or a commode and full-sized shower.
  • Some sort of kitchen, be it a propane stove and some camp utensils, or a chef’s dream complete with convection oven, dishwasher, and griddle.
  • The ability to transform from a vehicle to a temporary home and back again in just a few minutes.

To a certain extent, you get what you pay for. A nice Class A is safe, reliable, more spacious than a small apartment, and as luxurious as any hotel room. But the $35,000 you’d pay for a heavy-duty pickup that’s a few years old and a gently-used 5th wheel is still a lot less than the $50,000 for a comparable Class A. And maybe you could convince yourself to live with the smaller space of a $15,000 Class C and spend the difference on longer trips, nicer meals, and better seats at the shows you’ll go to when you reach your destinations.

Also, you might decide that it’s really more important that you can take your RV anywhere than it is that you can store a ton of stuff in it and wiggle around in it. A good Class B, conversion van, or a car with a teardrop trailer might fit your travel preferences better, and save you a bundle as well. Or perhaps you’re planning to live in your RV long-term, and only the space and durability of a top-end Class A will really do. It’s important to make sure that your wants and needs take precedence, and that your budgeting is used as a tool to serve them, not the other way around.

RV Type Cost Range (Fair Used - Good New) Description Pros Cons
Class A $15,000 - $250,000+ Big RV on a semi-truck or bus chassis. Usually diesel engine. Walk-in cab. Literal home away from home. Huge "basement" lets you take it all with you. Can tow a car. Slide-outs add significant living space. Jaw-dropping price, repair costs, fuel usage. Can't take it everywhere. Pretty much like driving a bus. RV storage can be costly.
Class B $7,000 - $125,000+ Compact but high-quality RV created from commercial van. Walk-in cab. Easy to drive. Decent fuel economy. Goes anywhere a van can go. Often limited headroom and storage room. No elbow room. Often uses special tires and other components. Low cargo weight limits. Limited or no commode, shower.
Class C $3,000 - $150,000+ Medium RV on a van, light truck, or medium truck chassis. Cab is separate but integrated. Moderate fuel economy, drivability, repair costs. Can tow a small car. See pros. Low cargo weight limits.
Pickup truck + 5th-wheel trailer $7,000 - $100,000+ Heavy-duty pickup truck pulling 5th-wheel trailer. Separate cab from coach. Separate truck adds travel flexibility. Trailer can have Class-A features at 1/10 price. Driving time spent in a truck. Backing up and parking can be tricky. Can't take it everywhere. Limited or no towing besides trailer.
Custom van $1,000 - $75,000+ Regular full-sized van with highly customized interior. Walk-in cab. Often DIY. See Class B. See Class B. Stigma of living in a van.
Car + travel trailer $2,000 - $75,000+ Regular car with tow package, medium-sized trailer. Separate cab. Lower cost than 5th-wheel trailer with many of the same benefits. Regular car, minivan, or SUV rather than pickup truck. Good fuel economy. Handling, reliability issues due to car chassis and large trailer. Limited trailer weight. No towing besides trailer.
Car + tent trailer $1,000 - $50,000+ Regular car with tow package, pop-up or fold-out tent trailer. Separate cab. Lower cost than travel trailer with many of the same benefits. Car can be compact. Very good fuel economy. Easy to drive. Longer set-up time. Some RV campgrounds limit or prohibit soft-sided RVs. Limited or no commode, shower. Limited storage room, no elbow room. It's a nice tent, but it's still a tent.
Car + teardrop trailer $5,000 - $50,000+ Regular car with tow package, small teardrop trailer. Separate cab. Similar drivability, storage to tent trailer, with hard sides and roof. Car can be compact. Very good fuel economy. Easy to drive. Limited or no commode, shower. Very limited storage room, no headroom or elbow room.
Motorcycle + micro trailer $5,000 - $50,000+ Motorcycle with tow package, tiny tent or cargo trailer. No cab. Fun and economy of motorcycling, with a place to sleep and store a few things. Long drives, bad weather, breakdowns can be challenging. Very limited storage space, no amenities.

Notes:

  • Cost range. The low end price listed is for an RV that’s in good mechanical condition (safe, functional drivetrain,  suspension, and brakes; no water leaks) but that’s otherwise in fair condition; expect to do some bargain hunting. The high end is for a brand-new RV (and truck / car for trailer RVs) that’s from a reputable builder and has all the typical amenities and features.
  • “Can’t take it everywhere”. Larger RVs are, well, large. They can exceed the weight or height limits for some roads, bridges,  and ferries. They may not be allowed into some parks, including popular national parks.
  • “Slideouts”. Many Class A and 5th-wheel RVs offer slide-out sections, which can add significant living space, at the cost of additional complexity and weight. Slideouts also take away some storage space.
  • “Separate cab”. Some types of RVs (notably Class A and Class B) are built with the cab of the vehicle directly connected to the living area; you can literally walk from one into the other. For all trailer RVs, the vehicle cab and living area are separate; you must stop the vehicle and get out in order to reach the living area.
  • Cargo weight limits. No RV can carry an infinite amount of your stuff. But a good Class A, sitting on a commercial truck or bus chassis, will usually be able to safely and efficiently carry far more cargo than a Class C sitting on a medium or light-duty truck chassis. The same is generally true for 5th-wheel versus travel trailers as well. In fact, many RVs (including some Class A’s and 5th-wheels) are close to their legal (and/or safe) load-carrying limits when they’re completely empty. Even filling the fresh water tank can be enough to push some RVs over their weight limits. Be sure you know the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, Gross Axle Weight Ratings, Curb Weight, and Net Carrying Capacity of the RV you’re looking at before you buy it. An overloaded axle can fail spectacularly and lead to a horrific crash. Don’t put the lives of yourself, your loved ones, and other motorists at risk just so you can save a little money on a “bargain” but dangerously-made RV.
  • “RV storage costs”. If you don’t have room (and spousal approval) at home to park your RV, you’ll need to pay to store it when you’re not using it. Class A’s can be particularly costly to store (see below).

Fuel Costs

One of the big issues that RV dealers try their best to avoid, and RV owners tend to stretch the truth a bit about is fuel economy. Simply put, bigger RVs are large rolling boxes. They have the  aerodynamics of a box, and weigh somewhere between several and tens of thousands of pounds. Physics dictates that a large, box-shaped RV weighing many tons, and with a heavy-duty engine and transmission to handle the weight and wind drag will get fuel economy a lot closer to 8 miles per gallon than 20 MPG, no matter what the sales people promise or the RV owner has convinced him or herself of.

A trip from the American heartland to Florida or California will be somewhere around 2,000 miles each way, or 4,000 miles round trip. At $4.00 per gallon for fuel, that means that a big RV getting 8 MPG will require $2,000 in fuel costs alone to make the trip. That’s two thousand dollars, just for fuel. A smaller RV at 20 MPG will only need $800 in fuel to make the trip. A compact car pulling a small tent trailer might not need much more than half that.

Of course, a sleekly-designed Class A with a modern diesel engine can still get better fuel economy than a badly-maintained heavy-duty pickup pulling a boxy 5th-wheel trailer.

There are other factors that can have a major impact on fuel costs besides the fundamental type of RV:

  • Speed. Driving at 70 MPH can add 10 – 25% fuel usage over driving at 55 MPH. It puts more strain on the engine, transmission, and drivetrain, not to mention the driver. Ultimately, for an RVer, the journey is supposed to be part of the fun. Why rush through it? What’s the hurry?
  • Tires. Under-inflated tires can add significantly to the drag on an RV, and can rob 5 – 10% from fuel economy. They’re also  potentially very unsafe, when you consider that you have many tons of weight balanced on 4 or 6 chunks of bouncing, juddering rubber. It’s worth the few minutes to check the air pressure in the tires. Here’s an interesting thing to figure out while you’re driving: how many hours would you need to spend at your job to pay for the money lost due to under-inflated tires over a long trip? Hmmm.
  • Cruise control. A modern cruise control does a good job at keeping an RV’s engine humming along at a consistent, efficient speed, and thereby maximizing fuel economy. It also is immune to boredom, and the temptation to go a smidge faster, and a smidge faster than that, and a smidge faster still. (I’ve also been told that cruise control is extremely good for creeping along at exactly 23 MPH when the highway passes through a small town with a 25 MPH speed limit and a bored cop who’s looking for an excuse to pull over another scofflaw. Not that I recommend using cruise control while driving in town or have ever done it myself, of course.)
  • Fuel shopping. One of the advantages to a larger RV is that it will have a larger fuel tank, and likely can go a very long ways between fill-ups. This gives you the ability to plan further ahead, and use on-line tools to shop around for the best place to buy your fuel, so you can avoid buying fuel in a city or state with high prices, and instead head for the truck stop with the best prices and the discount card.

Repair and Maintenance Costs

This is an area where trailer RVs can cost significantly less than motorhomes. Even a smaller Class B or Class C motorhome is still a large, heavy vehicle, when compared to a typical car or pickup truck. All but the smallest and lightest Class B’s and Class C’s will need to be taken to a specialized RV or commercial mechanic for repairs or maintenance. Most “regular” mechanics won’t touch a big RV, oftentimes because their insurance prohibits them from working on larger vehicles. You can bet that those RV and commercial mechanics will see you coming, and their prices are considerably higher than the discount quickie-lube places, or even dealerships. Plus, some RVs are just harder to work on; their engines and suspension components are harder to access and require special tools to work on. So maintenance and repair jobs take longer. On the other hand, most 5th-wheel and travel trailers are mechanically simple. They usually have one or two solid axles and low-tech suspensions. Maintenance is straightforward and relatively cheap. If something goes wrong with the truck or car being used to pull the trailer, a regular service station can usually handle the job.

Then there are the tow costs after a breakdown. Many larger RVs will require a commercial-duty tow truck, which likely will be dispatched from farther away, and will charge considerably more per hour and/or per mile than a standard tow.

RV Park or Campground Costs

Aside from the costs of the RV itself and fuel, the biggest expense of an RV trip is often the cost of staying somewhere. Most RV parks charge from $15 – $30 a night, often more for a larger spot or for full hookups.

There are many ways to reduce or completely avoid the costs of staying in an RV park or campground. These include:

  • Hit the internet. Sadly, many websites that list free places to camp or park an RV overnight are so popular that they now charge access or membership fees. Free listings that are still free:
  • Boondocking, or camping somewhere that has either a very low fee or no fee at all. The Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers have many areas that don’t require a fee, or that have seasonal fees that work out to a dollar or two a day. These areas usually don’t have any improvements, facilities, or hookups (though some do). So you need to plan ahead: empty your gray and black water tanks, and fill your propane and fresh water tanks shortly before reaching your boondocking site. Most of the BLM and Corps “free” sites are in the western half of the lower 48 states or are in Alaska (think sprawling deserts or tundra). East of the Mississippi, the pickings are pretty slim. Some of these areas are listed on Recreation.gov, but many are not.
  • To really save money, you may choose to boondock in a single spot for several days or weeks. It’s a good idea to make sure that all of your travel companions are ready and willing to camp out in that one place for an extended period of time. A few days of camping in a tent trailer, or cramped Class B or C can get old in a hurry, particularly if there isn’t much to do or see around the campsite.
  • “Blacktop boondocking”, “dry camping”, or parking in a lot that allows overnight stays. Many truckstops and “big box” stores allow overnight parking. The amenities may not extend much beyond “clean” bathrooms, but some truck stops and megastores do cater to RVers, and provide hookups and dump stations. “Camping” overnight in the well-lit and patrolled lot of a 24-hour superstore can be a very safe and stress-free way to save money. There’s nothing quite like shuffling into the store at 3 AM and picking out your breakfast items, then wandering around the pet food and clothing aisles. Just be sure to ask permission first, and don’t really set up camp–keep the leveling jacks up and the slide-outs in. Make sure that the blinds on your RV’s windows really block light before staying in a store’s parking lot, and check that none of your traveling companions mind the sound and smell of endlessly idling diesel engines before overnighting at a truck stop.
  • Many visitor and information centers also allow free overnight parking, as do many city parks and recreation centers. Be sure to ask permission first, and consider making a small donation as a token of your gratitude. Being frugal doesn’t mean acting like a cheapskate.
  • “Casino camping.” Most casinos outside of Vegas love RVers (because anyone who can afford an RV can afford a few rounds of blackjack, right?), and encourage overnight stays with free parking and hookups that are either cheap or comp’ed if you spend some time at the tables or slots.
  • America The Beautiful annual pass, or federal Interagency Pass, which allows you, up to 3 adult passengers, and your vehicle to enter thousands of national parks and other recreation areas for free. Camping fees are separate. The ATB pass just gets you into the park, though the senior and disabled-access versions of the pass also give camping discounts.
  • Elks, Moose, and VFW facilities often allow free overnight camping for members.
  • RV park memberships. These sound great at first, but can end up being a lot like gym memberships and vacation time-shares: The great deals expire after a short time and then the monthly dues and fees increase dramatically; you have to use the participating campgrounds often for the discounts to make up for the membership fees; there are often early termination fees if you want to quit; the discounts are seasonal, and usually don’t apply during popular times of year; etc. Proceed with caution, and don’t sign anything without reading the terms and conditions carefully.
  • There is the option of simply pulling over to the side of the road, or taking an extended break in a rest area. Look for the big semi-trucks parked on offramps and onramps, and do as they do. This is not the safest option, and may not be strictly legal, though in some states, like Alaska, it is allowed on most highways. I’ve done it a few times, but I don’t recommend it. I never felt completely safe doing it, and invariably had the highway patrol check in on me just as I was falling asleep.

RV Storage Costs

This is an area where cars, vans, and Class B RVs can help cut costs, as you can store them in a regular parking spot for no more than it would cost to park any other car there. On the other hand, many places (condo and apartment buildings, planned and gated neighborhoods with HOAs and CCRs, etc.) have very strict parking rules that are zealously enforced, and most of those places restrict or outright prohibit parking motor homes or trailers, even overnight. Before assuming that it’ll be “fine” to park that Class C fixer-upper in the back yard, check  with all the other stakeholders in this plan: spouses / significant others, homeowners association, and neighbors. They may not all have a say in the decision, but any of them can make your life miserable if they’re unhappy about you storing your RV in your yard. You may not be able to store your RV at home for free, or possibly not at all.

The cost of storing your RV at a commercial lot can vary considerably, from  $100 or so per year up to over $1000 per year. Most storage yards charge by the length of the vehicle to store, and will typically charge somewhere between $30 – $100 per month for a Class A, Class C, or trailer RV, depending on several factors, including: if their location is in conveniently in town or not; how much security they provide and if the site manager lives on-site; if the RV storage area is dirt, gravel, paved, or indoor; and how snug or roomy their spots are.

Check with neighbors or friends who live on large properties, particularly those who have limited or fixed incomes. They might be willing to let you store your RV on their land for much less than a storage lot would charge. Make sure that they see this as a transaction that they benefit from, rather than them doing you a favor, and don’t overstay your welcome.

If there’s a vacant house for sale near you, it might be worth calling the real estate agent and asking if you can store your RV there, with the understanding that you’ll keep the rig presentable and out of the way, you won’t live in the RV, you’ll get the RV off the property immediately as soon as the house sells, and that you will make regular inspections of the outside of the house for break-ins or damage. Essentially, offer the agent that you’ll trade free parking for regular inspections of the house, plus the curb appeal that comes from making the house look a little less abandoned. Needless to say, this is a short-term solution, but with the housing market the way it is, short-term might mean several months or over a year. The agent or property owner might say no to your trade, but it doesn’t hurt to ask, and the agent might know of other opportunities.

Other Ways To Save

Entertainment

Amazon.com is the frugal RVer’s friend:

  • You can buy a used, previous generation Amazon Kindle with lifetime unlimited 3G cellular data service for well under $100 on eBay. These Kindles have several compelling features:
    • Amazon’s lending library. If you have a real Kindle (not the app for smartphones or computers, but an actual physical Kindle), and have Amazon Prime, you can check out one book per month from Amazon for free. Many of the titles available in Amazon’s lending library are bestsellers. You can pay for the price of the Kindle in under a year from the savings on book purchases.
    • The list of Kindle eBooks that are under $1 (or even free) continues to grow. It’s a great way to discover new authors, many of whom are just as good as the “name brand” pros. Plus, many of those well-known pros are discovering that they can make more money by selling their books directly on the Kindle market than they would by working with a traditional publisher.
    • Older Kindles have a built-in “experimental” web browser, which is annoyingly slow, frustratingly limited, but completely free to use anywhere you can get a 3G cell signal in the U.S. It’s intended to be used to shop for Kindle eBooks, but it works on most websites.
      • Because some Kindle users have taken advantage of this wonderful service, Amazon has been forced to blacklist some 3G Kindles, so they are no longer allowed to connect to the 3G service. Be sure to ask the seller if a used Kindle has been blacklisted before buying it, and test it yourself if possible.
    • Most larger public library systems now offer eBooks in Kindle format, and audiobooks in electronic format that Kindles can play. Since many librarians are still learning how to navigate in this new online world and aren’t yet experts on it, it may take some time and effort to get your library account (and computer) set up so that you can check out eBooks. Some of the online checkout systems detect where your internet connection is physically coming from, and won’t let you check out books unless you appear to be in the physical region served by the library system. You might want to stock up on library eBooks before you start your trip.
  • Amazon Prime also includes unlimited free viewing of some of their online movies, which you can watch on a laptop computer or Kindle Fire tablet. You’ll need a solid WiFi or 4G cellular connection for this. The selection is surprisingly good for a “free” service (Prime isn’t free, but you might already have it just to save on shipping costs).

Netflix.com and Redbox.com are great ways to rent newer movies without spending a lot:

  • You can rent unlimited online movies from Netflix for under $10 a month, and watch them on a laptop computer, iPad, or other tablet or smartphone. You’ll need a solid WiFi or 4G cellular connection for this.
  • With Redbox, renting a DVD is cheap and RVer-friendly. You can search their website for kiosks along your travel path or at your day’s destination, then reserve a DVD for under $2 that will be waiting for you at the kiosk when you get there. After you watch the DVD on your laptop computer or equivalent DVD player, you can either return it at the kiosk you rented it from or drop it off at any other Redbox kiosk–just check their website for a more convenient one, and drop your DVD off there.
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One Response to Cost-saving tips for RV campers

  1. Kathy says:

    Like the blog

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