Is RVing really cheaper than paying for hotels on vacations? What are the actual RV expenses you can count on when embarking on an RV lifestyle?
The short answer? It depends.
It depends on a lot of factors. Just a few of those factors, and there are many others, include:
- The type of RV you have and what it cost you and how you paid for it (don’t forget interest if you financed)
- How often you use your RV
- How far you go in your RV
- Where you choose to stay in your RV
- Whether or not you have to pay to store the RV when not in use
- How many people travel together in your RV. The more people the expenses are split among, the more affordable RVing becomes.
Enthusiastic would-be RVers need to understand the true costs of ownership, which go far beyond the purchase price.
In every case, you will need to factor the actual hard expenses an RV presents against the intangible amount of how much freedom an RV offers is worth to you and your family. And that answer will be different for everyone.
To help you make an informed decision, I have tried to come up with the things a potential RVer needs to think about BEFORE they jump in head-first to the RV lifestyle. It’s not for everyone, and there are a lot of things and categories of things to consider. Not to mention a seemingly endless array of extra expenses.
No RVer is ever completely immune to this, no matter how good a rig they bought. For instance, when I visited the Airstream factory last year, I met a man there with a brand-new $200K Sprinter van that had a longer laundry list of items wrong with it than my current over-20-year-old trailer has ever had. You just never know.
If you aren’t a DIY type of person, you definitely need to be aware of the ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs. Not only on the RV but also on your vehicle.
Let’s take a look!
RV maintenance and expenses
- Scheduled annual and ongoing RV maintenance is a constant: winterizing and de-winterizing, roof sealing, window sealing, propane detectors, and more need ongoing maintenance.
- In addition, no matter how old your RV is, there will always be a certain amount of unexpected repairs.
- If your RV has to go in the shop, especially if it is a motorhome and attached to your vehicle, are you prepared for downtime on the road? With the current backlog of parts and repair people in short supply, this can sometimes take months depending on the problem. And if you have a large motorhome, even finding a mechanic who can handle such a rig on the road can be a challenge. This brings us to the next point…
- Downtime during maintenance, if on the road, can present significant expenses, especially if you have to stay in a hotel and/or leave your RV and fly home.
- On-the-road towing and emergency services such as AAA RV or Good Sam Club are great to have to cover you in emergencies, but they are not free.
- If you don’t have a place to put your RV when not in use, add storage as an additional expense.
Road expenses for RVers
- Add in annual insurance for your RV and your tow vehicle, if that is separate. If you tow a toad, don’t forget about that.
- Annual RV registration, depending on your rig, can be substantial.
- Ongoing vehicle maintenance like oil changes, tuneups, packing the wheel bearings, etc. Make sure you saved extra for potential breakdowns.
- Tires need to be replaced every four years or so, even if they look like they are in good shape.
- Fuel is one of the biggest ongoing expenses and one that keeps going up.
- Some good apps for GPS, campground reservations, and more can be worth adding depending on how much you travel.
- Tolls, especially in the Northeast, can be substantial. As they charge by length, this goes even more for larger RVs.
- Propane fuels your stove, oven, furnace, and when not plugged into shore power, usually your fridge, freezer, and water heater, too.
- Laundry. Unless your rig has a washer and dryer, you will have extra expenses to keep your clothes clean.
Necessary or highly desirable gizmos and gadgets
- Hitches, if you are towing anything, are another unavoidable expense. You’ll usually also have to pay to have them installed. And don’t forget hitch locks to keep it all secure.
- Awnings, if your RV did not come with one, can provide essential shade.
- Generator and/or solar system if you plan to spend any time off-grid.
- Mobile Wi-Fi will be essential for some folks, but not so much for others.
- Ditto a TV antenna and/or satellite dish if you want to tune in on the road.
- You might need special racks to carry bikes, kayaks, or other toys.
- Beyond that, there is virtually no end to the RV accessories you can buy at ALL ends of the price spectrum, from high-tech automatic levelers to low-tech storage bins and everything in between.
- Budget for the campgrounds you want to stay in. If you like to stay in commercial campgrounds, rent is going to be a big expense.
- You may also opt to purchase a membership in discount clubs like Good Sam, Harvest Hosts, Passport America, etc.
- Or you might opt to stay at membership campgrounds such as Thousand Trails.
The bottom line on RV expenses
These are just SOME of the extra expenses you will encounter as an RVer. I am sure there are many others I missed. If you think of more, be sure to drop them in the comments below.
I don’t mean for this article to be a big downer. I would not trade my RV time for anything. And the good news is there are always ways to save money if you are careful. But I do want new RVers to have a more realistic picture than what an RV dealer or the RVIA might have you believe.
Serious consequences await those without RV insurance
One of the intangibles for us is dogs. We have 2 large dogs (65 & 75 lbs). Staying motel/hotel means not being able to do anything without them. Can’t leave them in the car most days, so that alone is a big downside to car travel. Then there are many motel/hotel that limit dogs to 40lb or less (or even 20) or don’t allow them at all. We don’t board them; we take them with us almost everywhere we go. And, we do dog sports. Without the dogs, no reason to go at all. Even if the cost per night is similar, we need to have the dogs with us, so it’s worth it to have the RV.
It’s like owning a boat. “Bust Out Another Thousand”. That’s what I looking going back to RVing and my decision to forego a MH to a 5er. There is still maintenance and being a DIYer I can handle 95% but with a MH getting stuck at a repair shop and the cost and the nightmares was enough to choose more wisely. But either way it’s a great adventure and we have saved money traveling like this.
You may need to consider your health care insurance, we just recently enrolled my wife in Medicare and had to consider which plans met our needs, some have restrictive networks that may be fine at home, but what about when you’re on the road?
When you’re young you don’t consider the physicality of set up and take down, or hitching the toad, etc., as you get older for some of us these things become more difficult to do.
The benefits to us are worth the costs as we visit family, friends and explore our beautiful country. Uncle Swags said it well, we are not done yet.
Good point, thanks for sharing.
In short, the cheapest thing in buying an RV is the initial purchase period. From that day on it will be pretty much a money pit. You will be forever upgrading, maintaining, replacing, and learning new swear words. So if you are not ready to take on this, you need to seriously reconsider buying, and find another form of vacationing outlet. Either way, enjoy the experience, and good luck.
I am not sure these are hidden costs but rather costs to be discovered. The more you know about anything, the more you realize how little you knew about it when you made that intelligent, well-reasoned decision in the first place. When people ask me how much my RV costs I have 2 answers: (1) I’ll let you know when I’m done spending money or (2) 32 years – the time spent working and saving to have the joy of spending even more money.
Great perspectives. 👍
I suppose you could also add in the cost of satellite radio. I hated to try and find a decent station after losing a radio station’s signal for every 100 miles I drove. For me Sirius is a must.
Well, there is almost nothing I can add to that. All true! My wife & I started RVing in the 90’s by purchasing a used Coleman pop-up. We really liked the experience but soon realized that this mostly canvas trailer was nearly useless in Florida’s really hot summers, so we started our trend in up-sizing to a larger fully enclosed trailer. Now after 5 Trailers we are done growing and are thinking about shrinking back to a smaller unit. Maybe or maybe Not!. Have we spent a lot of money? Yup! But we wouldn’t trade our wonderful experiences for a million bucks.
We store our motorhome on our property (woods & uneven terrain), free right? We had to have trees cut down, then some more. Hubby built a few retaining walls and fill brought in, 50 Amp installed, drive widened at the road with new Culvert pipe and fill. We knew all this and planned for it, but what it started out as and where we ended up were not the same. Costs were more than expected, and we still don’t have a roof over it (its complicated). We have it stored at home and that’s peace of mind.
Folks who want to boondock… there’s another rabbit hole $$.
Agree with cancelproof. We use state, BLM, COE, NATL parks. We have learned to add hotels costs budget few nights for the extreme. Why you ask? For when your camping area is flooded and either can’t get RV from campground or the entire campground is evacuated. It is hard enough to get sites but with weather events wow! Also when RV needs repair on the road that might take a few days! Like hail storm in Wyoming and every vent cover, AC unit, etc are damaged. It is extreme but real!
Additional cost of financing and RV way above and beyond the cost of the RV. Worse, an upside-down loan where you’ll need to pay a lump sum of money to get out from under the loan if you decide to sell your RV.
I believe that the title of this article does not line up with the meat or the point you make, which i do agree with you on 100%. In general, a lot of people are ignorant to how the world they live in functions and for 1st time RV buyers, the points you make could in fact be helpful.
Truth is, there are no hidden costs in RV ownership, only ignorance to the costs associated with RV ownership. It is not the job of the dealership’s salesman to kill a deal by bringing up “hidden” costs. No salesman would ever close the deal by telling a young couple about costs of storage, bearing repacking, tires, WiFi, etc. He/she has HOT buyer making an emotional decision, period. If someone doesn’t already know that fuel mileage will go down pulling a trailer and the TV Coax wont reach to Idaho, nothing left to do but to get the signature on the contract. Not one item in your piece is a “hidden” cost. People have either done the homework or not. But I do agree with you.
And thus, the importance of publication’s and resources like RVT. A place for seasoned RVers, new RVers and for the RV ambitious.