Cross Country Travel by RV

How Much Can You Save When You Travel Cross Country by RV?

Ever since I came across the idea last year, Paul and I have debated the merits of RV living when we travel cross country on our poker adventure. I have been tentatively pro RV, while Paul has leaned hard toward “Are you insane?”. Then I decided to use the magic words that always pique Paul’s interest: “You know, travelling cross country by RV will be much cheaper than staying in hotels and rentals”. While I was pretty certain that living in an RV to travel cross country would save us money, I was not 100% sure. What I was certain of: Paul would immediately open an Excel spreadsheet and figure it out.

Presto, the spreadsheet was open and Paul began to enter numbers.

Scenarios and Assumptions of Cross Country Auto Travel vs. RV Living

We brainstormed the categories of expenses for our two primary scenarios:

  1. Driving in our Mazda3 and renting AirBnBs, hotels, and hopefully some house sitting; vs.
  2. RV living for the whole trip

If we take our Poker Pilgrimage via our Mazda3, we assume that we would keep our current vehicle: a 2017 model with 30,000 miles on it currently. We estimate that we’ll be at about 80,000 miles at the start of the trip and will have the car paid off.

If we travel cross country by RV, we will likely purchase a fairly large Class A Motorcoach. We would plan to buy a used one (as recommended in this fabulous book by Alyssa Padgett that I happened to stumble across while frantically searching long-term RV travel to bolster my pro-RV arguments (affiliate link)). We’ll assume that this is a one year and done cross country journey, and we’ll sell the RV after the year is up. We have left open the possibility that we end up loving long term travel, and continue to explore beyond that first year. But for the purposes of this analysis, we’ll assume we stick to 12 months. If we travel by RV, our plan is to tow the Mazda3 behind the motorhome for our local driving needs.

For the purposes of our RV vs. auto analysis, we are just looking at the costs that will vary between the two. Below, we are not including other costs of living that won’t be impacted by travel method. These include things such as health insurance, mail service, gift buying, wi-fi service, and cell phone plans. We will make estimates of each in turn over the next several months.

So, what did we learn? Here are the cost comparisons for cross country travel by Mazda vs. RV:

Gas Mileage

Mazda: We estimate that we’ll drive about 18,000 miles in our year on the road (average of 1,500 miles per month). This includes both point-to-point and local driving at each location. Our Mazda3 gets 34mpg. So we will use 44 gallons each month  (1,500/34).  Gas prices can obviously vary greatly year-to-year and region-to-region, but we’ll use $3 per gallon as a reasonable estimate. Monthly Cost: $132.

RV Travel: We’ll need to divide out the travel between point-to-point and local for our cross country travel by RV scenario. Let’s estimate an 80/20 split, so 1,200 miles in an RV and 300 local miles in the Mazda. For the local Mazda driving that means 9 gallons used (300/34) and a cost of $27.  In our research, 10 mpg for a Class A Motorhome (RV) is a reasonable estimate, so that would equal 120 gallons per month (1.200/10). At $3 gallon, that is around $360. Monthly Cost: $387.

Running Total: Mazda: $132. RV Travel: $387.

Cross Country Travel by RV


Mazda: Lodging on the road is obviously a bit hard to estimate. The range of potential housing costs is considerable.  However, we are a middle-aged couple who are well beyond the sharing-bathrooms-with-strangers part of our lives. Thus, we’re ruling out very cheap options such as hostels or single room rentals. We plan to stay in some places for multiple weeks and others for only a few days. We’ll lean on AirBnBs, VRBO and the like for longer stays, and likely mid-range hotels for shorter ones. Our current best estimate per night blending the above is $120. Assuming 30.4 days per month, that brings us to $3,650 a month. We’ll add $100 for miscellaneous costs (e.g., tipping), bringing our total to $3,750.  But we hope to be able to stay with friends here and there and more likely be able to get some house sitting gigs. Assuming we can stay free 20% of nights would save us $750 per month.  Monthly Cost: $3,000

RV Travel: We plan to combine some nights at paid sites with full hook-ups/services and others boondocking (parking for free overnight without hookups). Our interest in poker helps a bit here, as many casinos are friendly to those who want to park their RV in a distant lot. But there are many other options as well, including large retail stores like Walmart,  national parks, and free campgrounds with and without hook-ups. If we boondock about half the time and imagine an average nightly cost of $40, that would bring a monthly cost for 15 days to $600.  There will be various other miscellaneous costs as well, so we’ll build in another $200 for those. Of course, we hope we can boondock a higher percentage of the time, but we’ll see. Paul likes his long showers!    Monthly Cost: $800.

Running Total: Mazda: $3,132. RV Travel: $1,187.

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Vehicle Insurance

Mazda: In either scenario, we’ll need to insure the Mazda. Even if we did not do the trip we would need car insurance. So we’ll put this as having no additional cost.  Monthly Cost: $0 (no additional cost).

RV Travel: In our research, there is certainly a range in insurance costs for an RV. But we feel that $150/month is a fairly safe estimate.  Monthly Cost: $150.

Running Total: Mazda: $3,132. RV Travel: $1,337.

Food/Dining Out

Mazda: Even if we rent AirBnBs and VRBOs so we have kitchen facilities, we’ll be eating out more without a permanent traveling kitchen. Right now we feed ourselves for around $400/month without dining out.  Even if we lower that to $300/month, the cost of eating out is much more expensive. Dining out (even cheaply) for the equivalent of 10 days per month/3 meals per day is going to run us $500 easily. We’ll likely need to build in $800 total for food and dining. Monthly Cost: $800.

RV Travel:  With our moving kitchen, we can model eating much like we do at home.  Mostly we’ll eat in for our $400 per month grocery budget. However, we’ll be visiting new places and assuredly will want to eat at least one decent meal out each week.  We’ll put that at $200 month.  Monthly Cost: $600.

Running Total: Mazda: $3,932. RV Travel: $1,937.

At this point. this subtotal is worth noting because this is the “felt” cost each month.  Examined this way, experientially in time, cross country travel by RV is a clear winner by almost $2,000.  But in calculating overall cost, we must consider a couple of other factors in terms of lost value and sacrificed opportunity.

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Vehicle Depreciation

Mazda: Putting 18,000 miles on the Mazda will certainly decrease its value, likely by a couple thousand dollars overall. Rounding we’ll put that at $200/month. Monthly Cost: $200.

RV Travel: We estimate we’ll pay about $70K for an RV. Yes, we hope to recoup $60K of that at year’s end, but it will “cost” us in the end about $10,000 of lost value on the RV, or about $800 (rounding) per month. Add about $100 lost on the Mazda (cut the above in half with the lowered mileage accrued). Monthly Cost: $900.

Running Total: Mazda: $4,132. RV Travel: $2,837.

Monthly Interest Earned on RV Investment

Mazda:  If we imagine putting that $70,000 in a fund that might accrue 6% over the year, that would equal $4,200 ($350/month). Ultimately that comes off the cost of the trip by car, as we would be banking that interest. Monthly Cost: (-$350).

RV Living: If we buy an RV for $70K, no interest is earned on that money. Monthly Cost: $0.

Running Total: Mazda: $3,782. RV Living: $2,837.

Overall Assessment of Travel Cross Country by RV vs. Mazda

Originally we were most worried about the impact of cross country travel by RV on our gas budget. While a $255 delta is not minor, it was much less than we feared. Cross country travel by RV provides the biggest savings, unsurprisingly, in lodging: a whopping $2,200 per month! There are savings in food and dining costs as well. If we limit the analysis to the monthly out-of-pocket expenses, the cost of cross country RV travel is half of what car travel would be.  Even after figuring in depreciation for the RV and lost interest on money invested in the RV, the benefit of RV travel (vs. Mazda) is still nearly $1,000 per month or $12,000 across the course of the year.

Seems like a no brainer to me. After running the numbers, I think even Paul may be coming around…

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