Van Life: You’re Doing It Wrong

As we were scrambling to complete our panic van build, Trisha stumbled across an article on Fodor’s Travel titled This Is How Much Your Vanlife Cross-Country Road Trip Will Actually Cost. This piqued our interest, since a cross-country road trip is exactly what we planned to do once we got everything else in our lives under control. We were dismayed to read author Geena Truman’s account of how expensive it was, how many miles they covered, and how little time they took to do it. There were different decisions they could’ve made that would’ve made their trip a lot less stressful, and a lot less expensive.

A Whirlwind Tour

Truman set out to visit every National Park in the US. It’s a worthy goal, and something many nature-loving travelers aspire to do. The problem was that she only allotted three months to cover 18,000 miles to do this. Sure, not everyone has the luxury of taking as much time as we plan for our gigantic lap of the US. Even three months is a long time to take off from a traditional job. Covering that many miles in that short a time is a tall order, though.

If you take 18,000 miles and divide it by 90 days (roughly three months), you get 200 miles a day that you need to cover. That’s not counting the time you actually spend in the parks. That’s also 200 miles each and every day, with no rest days. Did she even see the parks she visited? It seems to me there was no time in the budget to stop and smell the flowers.

If you do take a day off the road to explore a park, which you absolutely should do, you have to do more miles on the other days to make up for it. There are 63 National Parks. If you take one day to explore each of them, that leaves only 27 travel days, each of which you have to drive an average of 666 miles. You begin to appreciate the enormity of this task.

Over the past two months, we’ve driven approximately 3,000 miles, from Indiana to New Hampshire to Florida. That’s one-sixth as far as Truman drove in two-thirds as much time. Believe it or not, even this pace is faster than I’d prefer. We’ve slowed down lately, but we had several high mileage days in there, just getting from point A to point B during the madness of the van build and the rush of getting stuff done in the aftermath of the fire. No one is lighting a fire under Truman’s posterior except herself.

Finally, the more miles you cover, the more gas you use, and the more expensive it gets. Gas is certainly one of the top expenses in van life. But, that’s an expense that you generally have control over. If you want to spend less money on gas, don’t drive as much. Instead of covering 200 miles in a day, cover 100, or 50, or none at all. The breakneck pace that Truman set to hit all the parks in such a short time cost her dearly.

Out To Lunch

Truman reports spending a total of $895.28 on groceries during the trip, but a whopping $1,876.04 on eating out. Now she’s surprised the trip cost so much more than she expected. On the road, as at home, staying home and making your own meals is far less expensive than eating out. No doubt, with so many hours spent in the driver’s seat, she had no time or energy left to make meals and took the easy option of dining out. I don’t blame her. We like eating out as well and do so somewhat regularly. But we definitely try to limit our dining out, and prepare more of our meals in the van than we eat out.

If you drive shorter days, you have more time to prepare your own meals on the way. That day we pulled over at Jones State Park in North Carolina, we heated up frozen burritos for lunch. It was easy, it was paid for, and it was a far more scenic location than a Bojangles parking lot.

You don’t have to be a gourmet chef, but if you know what you’re doing, you certainly don’t have to stick to frozen burritos. Trisha is the cast iron queen. She’s made complete steak dinners on the propane grill and stove. She’s even made a steak dinner over a campfire. Both were amazing, and at least as good as the dinners we’ve had out. Sure, it takes a bit more time, but if you’re not spending all day driving, you have time, and can save money.

Knock Off the Sauce

As you can see, we sometimes like to imbibe after the drive. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor the fact that Truman shares this enjoyment as well. It’s worth noting, though, that she spent $746.37 on alcohol alone during this trip that cost her much more than expected. It’s pretty clear that booze was one big reason for her cost overrun.

Again, just like with food, there are expensive ways to do it, and there are more affordable ways. The most expensive way to drink is at a restaurant or bar, where a single beer can cost almost as much as a six-pack of exactly the same stuff at the store. When you get into mixed drinks, the cost only goes up from there. In fact, the most cost-effective way to drink out that I found is to order a bottle of house wine to go with dinner. It costs about the same as two beers, yet you get four glasses of wine out of it, which is as much as two people should be drinking before going anywhere anyway.

I assure you that we did not drink all three of the bottles of wine and port in the above photo in the same night. (One of them, sure.) But we very much enjoy sampling local brews as we travel. It’s one of the main reasons we joined Harvest Hosts. But the thing is, alcohol is 100% optional. If you’re running short on cash, don’t drink and save some money. I’m not saying that Truman spent money she shouldn’t have. I don’t know her financial situation, and it’s none of my business anyway, so I won’t judge. My point is that if the cost of her trip was getting out of hand, she could’ve cut down on the drinking. I would’ve.

Lessons Learned

To give credit where it’s due, Truman learned from the mistakes she made. This is clear in her 10 Tips To Save You Money at the conclusion of the article, which are absolutely spot on.

Choose a Smaller Route

This, by far, was her biggest mistake. Covering fewer miles in the same time will save gas, and therefore cost less money.

Choose a Vehicle With Decent Gas Mileage

Truman’s Dodge conversion van looks very much like the Black Pearl, the van I had for a year before Smokey Da Van. It had the smaller of the two V8 engines, a 5.2 liter. The best gas mileage I ever saw out of it was 13 miles per gallon. Truman reports getting 10 regularly. My Ford E250, with a larger 5.4 liter V8, regularly gets 16 miles per gallon on the highway. How that’s possible with a bigger van, a bigger engine, and the aerodynamic mess of a carrying a motorcycle on the back, I have no idea, but it’s true. You can do better than that by getting a minivan, which can easily top 20 miles per gallon. If you wish to be a long-distance voyager, a Plymouth Voyager really is the way to go.

What also helps is that while we’re parked, we use the motorcycle to run errands around town whenever we can. My Kawasaki KLR650 easily gets 50 miles per gallon.

Plan To Cook 90% of Your Own Meals and Keep It Simple

Yes! This! Though don’t interpret “keep it simple” as limiting you on your choice of foods. You don’t have to eat peanut butter sandwiches for the rest of your life. Steak dinners are well within the realm of “simple,” in our book.

Use Gas Buddy for Cheap Gas

Gas Buddy is an app that tells you the prices at your local gas stations. That way, you can pick and choose where you fill up so you can do it as affordably as possible. With our 30-gallon gas tank, the difference of a few cents per gallon can add up quickly. We haven’t been doing this, but it’s a good tip nonetheless.

Buy the “America the Beautiful” National Park Pass

If national parks are your thing, this is the way to go. If you visit at least three parks per year, you’ll break even on the cost of the pass. With access to 63 national parks plus more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, it’s worth many times more than its $80 purchase price.

Avoid Fast Food and Coffee Shops

Though sometimes necessary, it’s far more cost effective to prepare your own food and coffee. Instead of an overpriced coffee at Dunk’s or Starbuck’s, there are effective ways to make coffee in your van. (This will be the subject of a future How-To.) As for fast food, this just goes back to the same advice of limiting how much you eat out. With a little bit of planning, you can eat better food during a quick lunch in the van, then have more to splurge for a fancy dinner out that evening.

Use Spot Angels for Free City Parking, and Utilize Grocery Store Parking Lots

I’m not familiar with the Spot Angels app, but there are many that will help you find parking. Grocery stores are a good bet during the day. Overnight, check out Walmart, Cabella’s, Bass Pro Shops, and Cracker Barrel restaurants. Although Cracker Barrel is eating out, it’s reasonably priced, especially if dinner or breakfast is the price you pay for safe overnight parking.

iOverlander Will Find You Scenic Parking

That’s true, and it’s not the only app that will. RV Parky and Boondockers Welcome are also good and free. Hipcamp and Harvest Hosts are also worth checking out if you’re willing to spend a little money. Also check out the website

Have a Shower Plan

Unless you have an RV, it’s unlikely that you have a shower handy in your van. You can pick up a solar shower bag, fill it, leave it on your dashboard as you drive or your roof as you’re parked, and get some decent hot water for a short outdoor shower. Another option is the membership to a national gym chain that many van lifers use. Truck stops are another decent option, and require no membership at all.

Drink Less Alcohol

Enough said. That’s my advice, and Truman has taken it. Note that neither of us are suggesting eliminating alcohol entirely. Life’s no fun if you don’t enjoy it, so don’t deprive yourself of life’s little pleasures. Just be smart about how you enjoy them.

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