One of our readers and a good friend of mine, Dayton, requested a story on the different ways of doing a road trip in the US: staying in a tent, staying in an RV and staying in a hotel. We have done all three and, believe it or not, I keep detailed records of how much everything costs.
So, here is a breakdown of the costs we have paid for various road trips. We have also included a recent trip where we rented a camper van, which provides another option for travelers.
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Updated December 2019
First and foremost, let’s talk about our main trip finance tool: Trail Wallet. We have used Trail Wallet for years, tracking all of our major trips since our trip to Italy in 2013. Road trip or not, this app is a great way to track your expenses!
It allows you to set up categories, input transactions in multiple currencies. And, exchange rates update daily if you have a data connection. The only thing it doesn’t do, in terms of transactions, is let you take pictures of your receipts.
When you set up a trip, you can choose a total budget or a daily budget. If you choose a total budget, once you put in the dates, it will calculate how much you can spend on a daily basis based on how long your trip is.
This app is great when you are out on the road, but it does require a little discipline in terms of making sure you enter every transaction.
Once you are home, you can look at how much you spent on average per category. You can then use this to plan future trips of all kinds, not just road trips.
On to the road trips! We took all three of these trips in our 2012 F-150, so we are truly comparing apples to apples in terms of fuel efficiency. Obviously, fuel prices have fluctuated, so you do have to consider that.
Tent Camping Road Trip
Our last big tent camping trip was to out to Wyoming back in 2014. It was 30 days long and we covered 6,790 miles.
For that road trip, we spent $3,146.04, an average of $104.87 per day. Accommodations accounted for $13.53 of that daily average. BUT, we spent 10 out of those 30 days in hotel rooms that we paid for with Hilton Honors points instead of cash, two in a dorm room in Lincoln and one night we actually paid for (paying $80 for a Hilton Garden Inn was better than using points).
That means we only camped 16 of those nights, paying an average of $21.80 per night in campsite fees.
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to how many points I spent during that trip… Hilton Honors only goes back so far in terms of stay information. I would guess that we spent around 15,000 points per night, on average. Nerd Wallet values Hilton Honors Points as $0.005 per point. Thus, we averaged about $75 worth of points per night.
That would have driven our per day cost up to around $43.53 per night for accommodations, adding about $900 to the overall trip and increasing the per-day cost to $134.86 per day.
The F-150 typically gets around 18-20 mpg on the highway when it is not pulling the camper and each mile we drove cost us around $0.19 per mile for a grand total of $1,301.53. Obviously, gas prices play a significant part in the cost equation.
Road Trip with Hotel Stays
Last winter, we headed West again, visiting Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Colorado over Christmas Break. We spent 16 days on the road, driving 5,967 miles.
For that trip, we spent $2,274.56, an average of $142.16 per day. Accommodations accounted for $29.37 per night.
Since it was a winter road trip, we did not camp at all, staying in hotels every night. We spent 190,000 Hilton Honors Points and $469.87 for hotels for the trip. That averages to $93.97 for the five nights we paid for and 19,000 points for the nights we used points.
Assuming we paid the average for hotel rooms instead of points, we would have spent nearly a thousand dollars more, driving our per day expenses up to $200.89. Ouch!
Our fuel cost on this trip was a bit more than $0.11 per mile for a grand total of $667.63.
RV Road Trip
On our first major road trip with the camper, we spent $5,426.02 over 38 days, spending an average of $142.79 per day. We drove 6,690 miles, towing the trailer for a large portion of those miles.
We stayed in RV campgrounds every night, so no freebies for us! Our campgrounds cost $1,726.37, an average $45.43 per night. We are hoping, going forward, to keep our per night cost to an average of $40. Even if we were to add the RV payment and the increased cost of gas into the cost of spending the night in the camper, we are still looking at $60.80 per night. That’s a pretty big savings over hotel rooms AND you get to sleep in your own bed every night.
The truck gets about 10.5 mpg towing the camper. Amazingly, we spent $1,149.66 on gas, which amounts to $0.17 per mile. Obviously, gas prices played a huge role in the difference between this trip and the 2014 road trip, but gas prices this summer were fairly comparable to what we paid over Christmas Break.
A Week in a Camper Van
We spent a week in a rented camper van, visiting Rocky Mountain National Park and South Dakota’s Custer State Park for the Buffalo Roundup.
We spent a total of $3,021 over eight days, spending an average of $377.63 per day. When we subtract the airfare, it drops the price per day down to $304.13. We drove 1,029 miles through the course of the week.
We stayed in campgrounds every night, costing $184.31, an average $26.33 per night. That said, you have to factor the rental cost of the camper van in as well. The camper van rental cost us $1,298.66, an average of $185.52 per night.
If you subtract an average of $35 per day for a car rental from the Denver airport, that means we were paying an average of $176.85 per night to use the camper van versus staying in a hotel and renting a car. For this trip, though, the additional expense was worth it because we were able to stay inside Rocky Mountain National Park and find a place to stay in Custer, SD during one of its busiest times.
In terms of fuel, we spent $176.38, amounting to $.17 per mile, with an average mpg of 15.3. While the van certainly got better gas mileage than the truck towing the camper, I don’t know it was that much better to warrant getting a camper van versus a travel trailer. That said, if you don’t need a truck, then a camper van in addition to a car might be a more affordable option, especially if you build out your own van.
Renting a camper van, or any RV is not going to be more affordable except in terms of time. Since we only had a week for this trip, it made sense.
The Bottom Line
I know there is a lot of math and numbers in there, but here is the bottom line: In terms of the cost of a road trip, tent camping is a lot cheaper than RV camping, which is cheaper than staying in a hotel.
Yes, there are equipment costs and additional fuel costs with camping. Even then, camping in an RV is about 1/3 cheaper than getting a comfortable (Hampton Inn or Hilton Garden Inn) hotel room.
Add in the fact you can cook your own food in lieu of going out to eat, can store perishable food in the fridge and only have to unpack your clothes once, it becomes an even better deal.
As I was working on this article, I was going through old trip posts from the 2014 trip. We talked about how we might need to get a travel trailer sooner rather than later because our backs just can’t handle sleeping on the ground.
I’m very glad we took the plunge.