Is it cheaper to drive across the US in an RV or a car and how do they compare in fun and comfort? We’ve done the trip both ways now, and some answers were surprising: the RV turned out to be cheaper when considering gas, food, and accommodations, but the bigger picture is more complicated.
For background: Three years ago we decided “go west, young man (and woman, and dog), grow up with the country”. Three weeks ago, having made our fortune, we headed eastward (with a toddler and additional dog in tow). The first trip was done in a small, fuel-efficient luxury car (2009 Honda Fit), staying in a mix of hotels, Airbnb’s, and campgrounds; we cooked when possible (we had a small 12 V fridge for perishables), but got the majority of our food on the road and at restaurants. The second trip was the inauguration of our new (to us) motorhome (1992 Winnebago Minnie Winnie), which was not anywhere near fuel efficient but did allow us to easily and comfortably make the entire trip staying at cheap and free campsites, inexpensive RV parks, and even a rest area or two; the motorhome also made it easy (and tasty) to cook almost all our meals from scratch.
Here’s how the costs for each mode of travel break down, normalizing to a 10 day, 10 night, 3,000 mile road trip and assuming an average gas price of $2.50 / gallon.
|Car Trip||RV Trip|
|Gas Consumed (gallons)||86||306|
|Total Gas Cost||$214||$765|
|Car Trip||RV Trip|
|Average Nightly Cost||$46.79||$21.64|
|Total Accommodation Cost||$468||$216|
|Car Trip||RV Trip|
|Average Daily Cost||$54.43||$8.07|
|Total Food Cost||$544||$81|
|Car Trip||RV Trip|
|Total Trip Cost||$1226||$1062|
|Average Daily Cost||$123||$106|
The RV trip cost much more in gas but that was offset by lower accommodation costs, and much lower food costs. Is it a fair comparison? My aim wasn’t to compare either the cheapest or most expensive trip one could make by car or RV, but two actual trips by the same people, albeit separated by three years in time. We are fairly
anal detail oriented about tracking spending so I am confident that all relevant purchases are captured.
The gas and accommodation numbers are not surprising, nor do I think too debatable. The high food costs of the car trip are surprising and debatable. I’ll highlight a couple numbers that if changed makes the two trips more comparable in costs, and some costs that I didn’t consider.
The car trip food costs works out to $27 / person / day, or $9 / meal. That number is not outrageous for people travelling or on vacation, but is a little higher than I thought we would have spent. It was a handful of particularly expensive restaurant meals and bar outings while stopped in cities that drove those costs up (the RV carried all bar necessities on board for comparison).
It’s possible that the food costs are influenced by the lapse in time between the two trips. Our so-called frugality muscles may have been more developed by the second trip for example, and the addition of a toddler to our travelling posse made eating out a less palatable proposition (Note: do not have a child only to try and save money, even if they don’t cost that much, it’s still a net negative in costs).
Related more to the mode of travel, we were less likely to stop in cities overnight in the RV (see discussion later), which made dining out less convenient in the RV.
If one believes the car trip food costs are artificially high, you could easily cut that number in half, at which point the two trips cost roughly the same.
Gas Cost and Mileage
Keeping all other factors fixed, if gas rises above $3.25 per gallon, the car trip becomes cheaper.
The car trip mileage comes from the mileage indicated on the dash display at the end of the road trip (and memory). On other road trips, we have gotten higher, up to 42 MPG, and normally average ~38 MPG overall for combined highway and minimal city driving. The mileage during the road trip was slightly lower due to the extra load (see picture earlier of loaded car), hills, and high speeds. The EPA estimates for a 2009 Honda Fit is 35 MPG in highway driving. Some people complain that the EPA estimates are too high, but I think one should be able to easily beat them if they don’t drive
like an idiot too aggressively.
The RV trip mileage was calculated by recording odometer readings and tracking how many gallons of fuel we purchased over the trip. RV trip mileage is also impacted by our load (heavier then we plan to travel in the future), and route selection. We selected a route through Yosemite for fun, and in that section our mileage was as low as 7.8 MPG, compared to averaging up to 10 or 11 MPG while travelling on the interstate. I am not happy with the RV mileage, and it is something I hope to work on improving.
Accommodation Cost Details
The RV trip consisted of 12 days and 11 nights on the road. Five nights were free (BLM dispersed camping three times, state utility reservoir once, and two rest stops when we realized we had driven too late into the night). The six paid stops consisted of four RV parks (ranging from $32 – $40, one was full service, three were electric and water only), an electric only stop at a state campground ($32), and a no service stop at a national parks campground ($12).
All nine nights during the car trip where paid: Two Airbnb nights ($50 – $75), five tent camping sites ($12 – $25) and two hotel nights(1 hotel night cost $125, and the other was paid for with credit card points which I valued at $50 / night for the sake of calculating an average cost).
It is possible to stay at a free dispersed camping site with a car, but as seen, in practice we pay for access to things like running water and a rest room. Similarly, while I’ve been known to happily sleep in a Honda Fit at a rest stop, not everyone in our party agrees that is a comfortable or even sane thing to do. Again, the purpose wasn’t to compare the cheapest possible RV trip to the cheapest possible car trip, but rather trips as they are actually made in practice.
Capital and Maintenance Costs
These costs are harder to estimate and isolate to only one trip, but it doesn’t take much arguing to convince yourself that the car easily wins in this category.
In terms of capital outlay, purchasing a motorhome made in the previous century costs roughly the same as purchasing a luxury car made in the previous decade: In 2016, we purchased a 1992 Winnie Minnie for $6000, and sold a 2009 Honda Fit for only slightly more in a nice piece of symmetry. A newer motorhome would presumably alter the balance of costs.
After 3,000 miles, the RV is due for an oil change which which will probably cost at least $100. The car used a computerized maintenance minder as opposed to a mileage schedule and seemed happy to go a long time without oil changes ,which when due, could be done with money found in couch cushions.
Seven years and seventy thousand miles of Honda Fit ownership and the only required maintenance was wear and tear and consumable parts (brakes, batteries, etc.). Examples of motorhomes needing entirely new engines mid-trip can be found at many a blog entry. We haven’t had any problems yet, but I anticipate large RV maintenance costs which should be amortized across the cost of every trip.
Including these costs would almost certainly make the car trip cheaper.
It would be nice if the environmental costs were included in the financial costs, then we could just compare costs like above, let the free market do it’s magic with externalities removed, and the cheaper option would also be the less destructive one. That’s not the world we live in. I could make up some bullshit argument that the RV is environmentally friendly because you are avoiding energy and water use in hotels or something (you can find arguments like this online, I don’t buy them). Really, the RV almost certainly has higher environmental costs.
Comparing Comfort, Convenience, and Fun
On the more qualitative side:
Driver fun: Car wins. Nobody has ever compared a Honda Fit to a Porsche, but it’s still fun to drive and take through the curves. The RV drives a bit better than a moving truck, but that’s about it.
Passenger comfort: RV wins. This isn’t going to win us safety accolades, but there is many a time I looked in my rear-view mirror to see someone behind me up and stretching, getting a snack, or going to the bed to take nap. It happens, it makes long stretches of driving more tolerable.
Stopping Flexibility: RV wins. If we tackled more than we can chew in the car, we’d still be stuck driving until we reached our planned destination. With the RV, if we stopped at a rest stop and decided that’s far enough, we could easily and comfortably stay there. Setting up a tent in the rain is not fun, in the RV if it was raining, we stayed inside.
City Access: Car wins. We tackled downtown Salt Lake City and Chicago during our RV trip, it wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t a picnic either. With the car, city access is not a problem.
Nature Access: Depends. A Honda Fit is not an all terrain vehicle, but a large motor-home is worse. A car and a tent can get you a lot of places. We tackled a few dirt roads in the RV that I wouldn’t have done if it had been raining recently for fear of getting stuck. On the other hand, if we are car camping, we usually stay near restrooms because we are soft; with the RV, we had some awesome dispersed camping sites that left hiking trails and babbling brooks right at our doorstep.
Pet Friendliness: Depends. One of our dogs is pretty freaked out by travelling in the RV, she doesn’t seem to be able to get used to the fact that her home is starting to move all of a sudden. On the other hand, if we find a trail that isn’t dog friendly, it’s feasible to leave the dogs in the RV without them freaking out or overheating, we can’t do that as easily with the car.
Child Friendliness: Depends. Motorhomes, children, carseats, safety and all that don’t mix. However, it is a lot easier to keep the kid entertained, fed, and non-fussy in a motorhome. Car wins for keeping the little darlings safe, motorhome wins for keeping the little shits quiet and maintaining your sanity.
I am a bit surprised how much lower the daily food and accommodation costs with the RV turned out to be compared to the car trip, and that the difference swamped the large gas costs. There is something to be said for cheap gas… This confirms that we did the cross country RV trip wrong: with the low daily accommodation and food costs, we could have easily stretched the trip out into a month of sightseeing, hiking, and having fun, consuming the same amount of gas, and not spending much more. If you are going to burn several hundred gallons of gas, you might as well get as much fun out of it as you can. Since we are not working, we could easily have stretched the trip out longer, but didn’t plan well and found ourselves racing to our first destination before the weather turned. Lessons learned for next time.
Many of the advantages and low costs of both the RV and car trip could be combined in a smaller motorhome, perhaps van-based. This is what we had originally been looking at but couldn’t find one on the secondary market that met our needs. Since the next part of our plans will involve slower travel and longer stays, it is possible the larger motorhome will come in handy as it is incredibly comfy and roomy when parked. I’m willing to investigate the tradeoffs by finding a smaller motorhome in the future and repeating the fun, in the name of science 🙂