Living cheap on the road

Here’s another question I often am asked:  What does it cost to live on the road?

I think a lot of people ask this question because they assume that a life of travel has to be an expensive luxury.  This isn’t surprising, since (at least in the USA) most people’s view of free time is tied directly to the concept of “vacation” — and it isn’t a vacation unless you go somewhere and spend a lot of money.

It takes a little re-arranging of the brain space to grasp that full-time travel via an Airstream can be a really economical experience.  Some people try, and fail miserably, having spent many times more on fuel, admission tickets, and “supplies” (read: souvenirs), just like their vacations.  But I’m here to tell you that not only can it be cheaper than living in a stationary house, it can be a life-saver.

See, when I started Airstream Life magazine, I was severely under-capitalized: the curse of many small business entrepreneurs.  After a year of running the small and unprofitable business, it was clear that we needed to reduce our living expenses if our savings were to last long enough to reach profitability.  And our largest expense by far was the upkeep of our house.

The house was eating us alive, with mortgage, substantial taxes, maintenance, utilities, snowplowing, garbage collection … while we were traveling about 5 months per year on business. So after some consideration, we decided to sell it and live on the road for a while before building a smaller house.  A summer of living in our Argosy 24 turned into 36 months of life in our Airstream Safari 30.  Along the way we discovered that life in the Airstream was not only a lot of fun, but much more affordable than life in the house had been.

And that made all the difference.  I could not have succeeded with Airstream Life if we hadn’t lived on the road for three years.  Without the crushing burden of a house, we were able to stretch our savings to permit years of travel — combining a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a smart financial move.

Of course, we took care to ensure to cut our travel expenses whenever possible.  We saw people run through $50,000 in a year traveling by RV, and we saw people doing it on as little as $20,000 per year (and having the same amount of fun).  So we tried to emulate the folks who were having a frugal but wonderful time.

The “tricks of the trade” aren’t really tricks at all.  They’re just common-sense choices that you can make along the way, like limiting your driving.  There’s usually no need to zing back and forth across the country, but as I’ve said before, this is one of the top mistakes made by new full-timers.  One of our very best months was spent in the Four Corners region (CO, UT, AZ, NM) where we visited fourteen national park sites on a budget of $971.  You don’t have to spend a lot to experience a lot.

Why was it so cheap? First off, we rarely splurged on full-hookup campgrounds. Instead, we prefer to stay in the national park campgrounds whenever possible.  They’re more natural, better located, and cheaper, in exchange for the trade-off of generally lacking the amenities of commercial campgrounds.

Second, we limited our travel.  We stayed several days in most locations, and never towed more than 100 miles.  When we found a good place, we stayed a while.  Staying put is always cheaper than towing somewhere else. Although we rarely stayed as long as a month, you can really save a lot of bucks with campground monthly rates.

Third, we didn’t buy anything except necessities.  Our souvenirs are strictly limited (because of space limitations too!), so early on we decided what we’d collect.  Eleanor buys a national park pin in almost every park we visit.  Emma sometimes gets one too, or a book, in addition to the Junior Ranger badge she usually earns.  We don’t buy logo apparel because we really don’t need it and the trailer would quickly fill up with the stuff.  (After all, we’ve visited well over 150 national park sites.)  We avoid the cute gift shops in town, and when we do buy something local, it’s most often edible.  I know a lot of people like to shop as they go, and I’m not saying you can’t do that, but you can’t expect a habit like that to be cheap.

Related to this, we were also careful to limit eating out.  It gets expensive quickly, not to mention the rapid impact on your waistline.  This is tougher than it might seem, because everywhere you go, there’s someone who wants to celebrate your arrival (or your new friendship) with dinner out.

Fourth, we took full advantage of the great deal that our nation’s parks offer.  For $85 per year we have free admission to every US national park in the world, including the ones in Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands.  It’s a deal like no other.  If you are over age 62, the deal is even better: $10 for a lifetime pass.  Don’t miss it.

Fifth is the Big One: We sold our house.  You can’t leave cheaper on the road if you still have a house somewhere.  The house stills costs even if you don’t live in it, doesn’t it?  The only ways to make the economic formula work are to sell the house or rent it out while you are gone. We calculated the cost of owning our house at about $65 per day.  Once we had that burden lifted, it was easy to cost-justify the Airstream and the tow vehicle.  You’re even better off if you don’t have a loan on those vehicles.

“The cost of travel” is a red herring.  The cost of staying at home is the unspoken and dangerous story.  Unspoken, that is, until the recent mortgage crisis revealed how many people were living far beyond their means in the name of “home ownership.”  Dangerous, in the sense that if too many people realized how much better off they might be without the trappings of suburbia, the housing market could collapse further. Not everyone can break away from their current responsibilities and travel, but if you are lucky enough to be able to travel — even for a week or two — yes, you can live on the road and save money.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine