I am a committed lifelong cheapskate. But the realities of family travel make it tricky to car camp on BLM land with oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly for lunch and hotdogs for dinner. So this summer with a carefully guarded month to spend on a hiking- and climbing-focused family road trip, my wife and I looked to split the difference between abject dirtbagging and luxurious hotel life.
The obvious answer was an RV. But a thorough search showed than an RV would quickly break our bank. And an RV didn’t quite fit our vibe – a big part of our vacation goal was to unplug and help the offspring, 8 and 10, experience a good chunk of the western U.S. and Canada without it being filtered through live cams and edu-casts. An RV equipped with a flat screen TV and all the amenities of home worked against this purpose. In short, we worried that an RV would harsh our mellow. And we did not want our mellow to be harshed.
Living just outside Boulder, Colorado, we knew an alternative. It is the (hashtag) VanLife movement. In good old CO, trailheads, climbing areas and campgrounds bristle with tricked out DIY camper vans: half dirtbag, half steampunk, and all awesome. Encompassing everything from the family minivan to cannibalized hotel shuttles to gorgeous Sprinter vans, these are not your parents’ VW bus (or, for that matter, my parents’ VW bus, which once in 1982 left us stranded on the side of the road in very rural eastern Oregon while my dad hiked like Lawrence of Arabia toward the shimmer of a faraway farmhouse).
We don’t own a minivan or Sprinter. Our summer budget definitely did not allow us to purchase a minivan or Sprinter. But we found exactly one company that rents pre-transformed vans. Escape Campervans is a New Zealand outfit that recently opened in the U.S., offering rentals out of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and New York. We had seen one the previous year while climbing outside Las Vegas. They’re kind of hard to miss, as each one is painted by a different artist, making a mild-mannered family of four feel like characters in a Hunter S. Thompson novel. At first, channeling my aforementioned cheapskate, I balked at the price: with a pop-top sleeper roof rack, extra miles, taxes and fees, their larger “Maverick” model would cost exactly $3,391.58 for 31 nights.
At that point, would we be better off simply rolling in the good ol’ Subaru and staying in hotels? It’s a real question: For our family road trip or yours, how do the costs of rental van camping compare to the costs of driving the family car and staying in hotels? Let’s break it down:
The van rental is easy: $3,391.58 plus gas. Comparison with the car is a little more complex, hinging on how much it costs to drive your trip’s miles in the family vehicle. According to AAA, the average cost per mile of driving an average car is $0.58. But that includes things like the cost of insurance, registration, and financing – costs you pay whether you drive it 5,000 miles or park it in the driveway. Looking inside the overall AAA cost/mile for a medium sedan shows that depreciation ($0.32/mile) plus maintenance ($0.0546/mile) plus tires ($0.015/mile) makes an overall cost of actually driving a medium sedan of $0.039/mile. Our itinerary through Lake Louise and Squamish, Canada, down through Seattle and Portland and eventually to Las Vegas was going to burn some serious rubber to the tune of 4,181 miles for a total cost of driving the car at $1,630.59.
Now, our Subaru Outback gets 27.6 mpg and EscapeCamperVans.com shows their rigs getting 19 mpg. Over our predicted mileage and at GasBuddy.com’s projected average price of $2.23/gallon, this makes fuel costs of $337.81 for the car and $490.72 for the van. Overall, as expected, the car wins this round – it’s cheaper to drive your existing vehicle than it is to rent a new, larger, cooler one.
The Hotels.com Hotel Price Index (HPI) has the 2014 average price for a hotel in U.S. at $137 per night. The website Satista shows the average hotel price in the month of July 2015 at $124.32. But these prices are just averages. If I were traveling alone, I might pay $39/night for a room with a bare, swinging light bulb and suspect plumbing. Oppositely, if I had decided to pursue investment banking instead of writing pop-culture geek and math books, I might choose to pay $279/night. After honest introspection and a Booking.com tour through the places we would visit on our trip, I think it’s reasonable to expect that we would pay $149/night, allowing the offspring to swim, me to brew bottomless pots of halfway decent hotel-room coffee very early in the morning, and Kristi to sleep on sheets without mystery effluvium. For our 31-night trip, this would cost $4,619, a number that makes me want to camp in our basement and project national park scenery onto the walls.
The cost per night of staying at a campground is also subject to a range rather than a constant. An unimproved BLM site with broken glass and brass cartridge casings (which make excellent high-pitched dog whistles) is free. A peak-season RV site at a popular campground with electric and water hookups can run as much or more than a hotel room. Our route would include a mix of sites – some roadside state parks, a couple BLM sites, and a couple big-ticket nationally-parky type places – for an average of $15/night. For 31 nights, this makes a total of $465.
Every van worth its salt has a way to keep food cold and make it hot. With a van, why deviate from what the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion considers a reasonable monthly food budget of $1,064.60 for a family of four with kids 6-8 and 9-11, call it $1,100 for this same family on a 31-night road trip?
On the other hand, driving a car and staying in hotels requires eating out. Business Insider lists per-person prices at a range of chain restaurants including dinner options like Applebees ($12.42/person), Olive Garden ($16.50/person), and Outback ($20/person), and lunch options like Red Robin ($12.17), Subway ($6.04), Chipotle ($11.00/person) and Taco Bell ($5.13/person). Of course, estimating a road trip food budget based on these numbers fails to take into account the influence of small-town breweries serving designer pub fare alongside beer samplers. It also misses the possibility of free hotel breakfasts and/or car food replacing some of these more expensive meals. But trying to take the middle line between delicious breweries and Taco Bell, and including intermittent skipped meals and free breakfasts, it seems a reasonable estimate for a family of four traveling by car and staying in hotels would be $100/day, with, maybe, $55 for dinner, $35 for lunch and $10 for breakfast. Over 31 days, this makes $3,100 for food, a number that makes me want to grow kale from seed in my backyard.
4. Soft Costs
The comparison below includes the hard-ish numbers above but not the soft-ish numbers of things like the value of playing checkers across a campervan table instead of staring at individual screens in a sedan backseat. There are also additional real costs: even if you have a van, how often will you invest in a hotel with a hot shower? How many days will you stay with family or friends? Importantly, if you choose hotels rather than campgrounds, how good are you at resisting the temptations of coffee, ice cream, bookstores and other consumables that are unavoidable in civilization? These soft costs will b influenced by your plans and preferences. But because your plans and preferences are unique, it seems kind of impossible to say that you would spend more or less in a van or in hotels. Let’s admit that this section is very important, but for the purposes of this article’s comparison also call it a wash.
Want the bottom line? Check this out:
|Van Costs||Car Costs|
|Cost of Car Miles||N/A||$1,630.59|
It turns out that neither option is cheap. And it’s worth noting that if you drove far fewer miles, stayed part of the trip with family or friends, or knew yourself well enough to admit that despite the van you would be buying restaurant meals, the calculus would be closer. But for us and probably for the vast majority of families roaming he roads this summer, renting a campervan (but not an RV!) remains much, much cheaper than driving your car and staying in hotels.
Vegas is 11 hours from Boulder. Kristi flew to Sin City and drove us back a rig. Now I’m writing this from a coffee shop in Bend, OR. The van is rad: much more comfortable than tent camping and much cheaper than hotels. And I can’t help but wonder how long it would take Escape to notice that we haven’t returned with their van…by