Money Saving Tips for Traveling by RV
Balancing experience and expense while on the road.

By: Kelly Laustsen & David Somach

Whether on the road for a year, summer, week, or weekend, we strive to balance experience and expense. We tailor how much we spend on a trip to what we are hoping to get out of it. Because we travel often, we generally try to keep our costs low and sometimes forego pricey activities in favor of a low-cost or free option. However, if we are spending a weekend somewhere we might never go back to, we might choose to spend a little more. 

10 Tips for Saving Money on the Road

Everyone has their own approach to how to spend money on the road, track expenses, and choose where to spend versus save. Here are ten strategies both big and small we use to save money while traveling without sacrificing too much on experience.

1. Plan your route strategically.

Especially with the current price of fuel, diesel can be a huge part of our expenses when traveling - even if just for a weekend. When we traveled full time a couple years ago, we spent about the same amount of money each month on food and drinks as on diesel. Realizing this helped us think more about our route and opportunities to limit unnecessary driving. 

If we are interested in making a detour, we will consider how much time and expense the stop will add. We spent last summer in Alaska and, while it took us a lot of fuel to get there and back, most of the places we visited in Alaska were close together, so we didn’t end up driving much while we were there. 

We chose to spend more time in fewer places and decided not to visit some of the more remote locations in Alaska. When at home in Portland and looking for a weekend getaway, we will often choose somewhere close to home, realizing this can significantly reduce the cost of the trip.

Read more tips for reducing fuel costs here.

2. Focus your activities.

On longer trips, we typically focus on a few types of activities and invest in these. For example, a few winters ago we decided to each purchase a collective ski pass, which seemed expensive upfront. However, when we thought through how many days we planned to ski, the purchase was a no-brainer.

We buy a national park pass most years, which covers way more than just national parks, but also national monuments, Bureau of Land Management sites, national wildlife refuges, and more. When in Canada, we were excited to find out that a national park pass also covers historic sites, which includes all kinds of cool museums and experiences. 

We invested in backpacking gear and bicycles, so we choose to do these activities when traveling instead of other activities we’d have to pay for.

3. Seek out free dump stations and water fills.

While many campgrounds or RV parks charge for water or dump stations, we are almost always able to find free stops by planning ahead. Even if we still have half a tank of water, if we are going to be driving very close to a free water fill we will stop to top off our water. 

We have found iOverlander and www.sanidumps.com to be great resources for finding free sites.

4. Camp on public land or find other low-cost opportunities.

When deciding which vehicle was best for us, we knew we wanted something we could easily boondock in and spend several nights off the grid. This lets us largely use free camp spots on public land or cheaper campgrounds without hookups. 

However, this approach doesn’t work for everyone. If you are in a camper where you need hookups, consider using an app to compare costs of campgrounds or getting a membership to a club that offers discounts at participating campgrounds if you plan to spend a lot of nights on the road.

5. Look for free and inexpensive local activities.

We search online when we are in a new city or area for articles or websites offering ideas on inexpensive activities. Most cities have a calendar of events, many of which are free. We’ve had some of our favorite experiences at free local events, including farmers markets, art shows, outdoor concerts, museums, and parks.

6. Track your expenses occasionally.

When traveling, we don’t keep a strict budget, but instead periodically check in on our spending. During our 15-month trip, we tracked expenses for a month to have a better idea of where our money was going. We were surprised to see the results of our budget summary, especially how much of our money was going towards fuel and how little towards accommodations and entertainment. 

Reviewing our expenses also helped us feel more comfortable occasionally splurging on a dinner out or a local event, realizing that the money we were saving camping for free more than made up for it.

7. Pack ahead.

While our van may look small, we are always amazed by how much it can hold. Before long trips, we stock up on essentials at home before getting on the road ,so we don’t need to buy as much while we’re traveling. We have a bin in our van reserved for basic supplies, like protein bars, canned food, grains, toiletries, backpacking food, and laundry detergent. 

When traveling for just a weekend, we will bring snacks, drinks, and treats so we are less tempted to buy something out that we aren’t planning on.

8. Grocery shop with purpose.

Especially when on the road for more than a weekend, we cook most of our meals in the van. We plan ahead before going to a grocery store, so we don’t make extra unplanned purchases. We check sale flyers and plan our purchases around what is on sale, choosing to stock up on essentials when we can get a good price.

We make simple meals with few ingredients so we don’t end up with wasted food, and keep the van stocked with spices and other basic items.

Learn more about how we meal prep for van life.

9. Save meals out for when they matter most.

While it is typically significantly less expensive to make your own meals than eating out, food can be a big part of traveling. Especially when in a new city, we want to experience the place we are visiting, support local businesses, and interact with others.

When traveling full-time, we had stretches where we’d eat out several nights in a row because we were in a city we might not return to and wanted to try lots of the local restaurants and breweries. However, we also had long gaps in eating out when in more remote areas or touristy spots near national parks. 

We think carefully about when and where we decide to eat out, and read reviews ahead of time to try to make sure we’ll have a good experience. We seek out inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and love to ask people we meet for recommendations. 

10. Use a gas station app.

We use the gas station apps GasBuddy and Upside to compare fuel costs. While we won’t drive out of our way to save a few cents on the gallon, when on a long trip we will plan fuel stops around cost, as fuel prices can vary widely between cities. We’ve been surprised to find that sometimes prices can vary significantly even within a city, with much cheaper gas stations just a little off the major roadways. 

In general, we have found traveling in our van to be significantly less expensive than most other vacations we take. We recently took a road trip with some family members and left the van at home and were shocked to learn how much hotels cost! This means we usually don’t have to worry about costs when in the van and can focus on enjoying the adventure.

What are your best tips for saving money while RVing?

Comments

User commented on September 18, 2022 11:39 AM
What brand is that tiny toaster oven??