*Unless noted otherwise, all prices in this post are in USD.
If you have ever considered a road trip in the US (without the luxury of having your own vehicle), you’ll know that it’s practically impossible to rent a car in the US for less than $40/day and it’s really hard to find a deal for an RV for under $100/night. Add in the cost of gas, accommodation, food, etc and the expenses will quickly add up, making what seemed like a great vacation idea seem like a rather expensive getaway.
As budget travelers, we are on a mission to travel the world for less, aiming to spend roughly $50/night/person no matter where we go. Planning for this trip, we knew that sticking with our $100/day budget between the 2 of us was going to be tough, so we increased our budget to $125/day.
Think we stuck to it? Let’s have a look! Here is a detailed breakdown of our spendings on this 3,000 mile/4,500kms road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles.
RV Rental – $610 (or around $38/day)
The cost of driving from Chicago to Los Angeles was by far the biggest percentage of the overall cost of our trip. We knew that we had to find a cheap way to get around or this road trip idea would quickly be thrown out the window. Luckily, we were able to use some of the tips and tricks we learned while traveling around Australia and apply them to our trip in the US. In Australia, we used a great website called Imoova to score campervan relocation deals as cheap as just AUD $1/day.
Imoova exists in the US, but their April offers were very limited. So we tried our luck with other supplies and were able to find a good Factory Relocation Deal with Cruise America for just $39/night. While it wasn’t as good as $1/day, the deal offered us a longer rental, giving us more time on the road, and a brand new (hence the factory relocation) massive RV. It was big enough for 7 people, so having all the space for just 2 of us felt like absolute luxury.
The total for 16 days/15 nights added up to $610. It was a price we could work with.
Fuel – $682 (or around $42/day)
Gas ended up costing a bit more than we would’ve liked, adding up to almost 30% of our total trip budget. With 3,000 miles (around 4,500 kms) ahead of us, we knew that we’d need around 6 tanks of gas to get us from Chicago to Los Angeles, but we underestimated the cost of gas across the country and our RV’s efficiency on the road.
Propane = $60 (or around $4/day)
When budgeting for our trip, we completely forgot to account for the cost of propane. It didn’t add up to a lot, which was surprising considering that the stove, fridge, furnace, and water heater in our RV were all powered by propane. All things considered, it was a small drop in a big bucket.
Accommodation = $179 (or around $12/day)
Despite the fact that our RV was completely self-sustainable (it was equipped with a shower, toilet, and a fully size kitchen), we weren’t able to spend more than 2-3 days away from an RV park. Our fresh water tank needed to be refilled, our grey and black water tanks needed to be dumped, and even though laptops and phones were largely powered by our DC to AC power converter, we still needed to spend every now and then hooked up to power so we could charge up all of our camera batteries.
To our greatest surprise RV parks in the US weren’t as cheap as we expected. We planned on spending $10-15/night for a powered site, but in reality we never found anything for less than $30/night.
On nights when we didn’t need to be plugged in, we followed seasoned RV’ers advice and parked in Walmart parking lots or enjoyed being away from it all by finding an isolated spot in the middle of a forest road.
Food & Drinks = $339 (or around $21/day)
To keep costs down, we choose not to eat out on this trip and cooked most of our meals in the RV. But we didn’t deprive ourselves. We stocked up on fresh fruits and veggies, good quality meats, and nutrient rich ingredients. Since our budget didn’t allow for daily meals out, we made sure to cook up a storm and make a big deal out of our meals. We drank wine, enjoyed some beers, and even splurged on deserts! Needless to say we weren’t starving throughout the trip and our food and drinks expenses reflected that.
Supplies & Other Shopping
RV Supplies – $292 (or around $18/day)
It cost us a few hundred dollars to stock up on various supplies for the RV. We had an option to rent some items (like bedding and kitchen supplies) through Cruise America, but figured that we could find much better quality stuff if we were to buy it ourselves. And we did!
At the end of the trip we took all the supplies up to my parents house in Canada. One day, we’ll dig them up from our storage in the basement and use them for another road trip!
Mobile Phone – $60 (or around $4/day)
To stay connected on the road we purchased a 30-day 10GB mobile data plan from T-Mobile for $60. It was a pricey investment and one that we completely forgot to account for at the beginning of the trip, but being able to stay connected and keep up with our work while on the road warranted the expense
Activities – $160 (or $10/day)
We didn’t spend a ton of money on activities throughout the trip. We splurged on a Cog Railway ticket to the top of Pikes Peak, because hiking up the mountain wasn’t an option in my condition, and our 30 foot RV wouldn’t have made it up the winding roads either. Luckily, it was a great journey and money well spent.
Another expense that we incurred on the trip was the cost of a yearly National Parks Pass ($80). We got lucky with our timing as the first week of our trip coincided with the Annual National Parks Week, which gave us access to all National Parks across the country for free. But by the time we got down to Arizona and California, the deal was off and the steep price at the Grand Canyon and at the Joshua Tree National Park made the $80 we paid for the pass completely worth it.
Total – $2,382
Our trip total added up to $2,382, or an average of $149/day between both of us for a 16 day road trip across the US. It’s more than the $125/day we were hoping to spend, but we’re not kicking ourselves for it.
Looking back on our spending patterns, we realized that the biggest cost drivers were RV rental and gas. And while it might be possible to reduce the daily gas costs by staying on the road for longer and spreading the cost of gas over more days, the increase in daily RV rental would probably offset that.
Looking ahead, we are not giving up on our mission to find a more cost effective way to travel across the US. Next time, we plan to cover shorter distances (and save on gas in the process), look for an even better relocation deals, and use some of our existing supplies to help us save on trip expenses. We are confident that we can make it happen!
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Do you have any budget tips for us and for other travelers looking to embark on a road trip across the US?