I get a lot of emails asking me about what it costs to live like this. Some pose the question “So, how cheap is it to live in a VW Bus and travel all the time?” while others lean more toward “So, isn’t it expensive traveling around so much?”
I’ll try and break it down a little for everyone, some of the high bills, some of the lows, and some of the unexpecteds.
High Roller Living in a VW Bus
By far the largest expense you’ll incur while living this lifestyle is improvements & repairs to your Bus. The good news is, that some of these can significantly save you money in other aspects of your daily living, though whether the savings will actually equate to having spent less money than you would have had you not required the repair/improvement, well that’s probably up to how long you last in the belly of a tin can house. Here were some of our big ones:
- A New Engine. Our engine rebuild cost us about $3000 altogether, including having the short block rebuilt and having a knowledgeable VW Bus mechanic put it in. Best $3000 we ever spent though, even though that number approaches what we paid for the Bus in the first place, she runs like such a solid champ now and with a little maintenance, I believe she’ll continue to do so for years to come.
- Tires. VW Buses need specially reinforced 8-ply sidewalls for tires. These come in at over $500 for the set, and that was in a small town in West Texas.
- Interior Renovation. While a little paint and some reupholstering wasn’t that expensive, one of the next big jobs in our foreseeable future is redoing the internal wiring, getting a new fridge, and hooking everything up so it can run off of a secondary battery and solar panels. A job like this is going to cost several thousand, but will both save cash (in that we won’t need to stay at campgrounds just for the small amount of electricity we’ll need) and give us more flexibility when we’re out and about. I estimate this job, with me doing much of the work myself, at around $3000.
Living Dirt Cheap in a Volkswagen Bus
Once you have the girl up and running, there are plenty of things you can do to modify your daily life to get by on dollars a day. Here are a few ideas:
- Live, don’t travel. I’m not saying you should park her up in some field and start your own trailer park, but one of the best things about traveling long term is that you don’t always need to actually be traveling. When you find a place you like, find a good spot and make a home out of the place for a month or two. You’ll save a knapsacks worth of cash on gas, and it’ll give you a chance to really get to know the place: make friends, find out where the absolute best spot to have a cold beer is, learn a little about the local history/culture/whatever. Aside from saving money, this is, in my opinion, the only way to travel. Often times, campgrounds and RV parks will have discounted monthly rates as low as $100 / month if you stay longer, too.
- Walmart. Big Box stores are about the exact opposite of a VW Bus. They’re large, junky, and have about as much charisma as grumpy slug. I am not advocating saving money by shopping at Walmart. Anything you buy there, while it may be pennies on the dollar, will break quickly and you’ll end up replacing it 10x faster than a solid piece of anything you can get anywhere else. Also, they kill puppies in the backroom for fun. Is that a fact? It should be. Anyway, where Walmart comes in is, even with them being the most evil chain store to come along since Hitler’s Neverending Hole, er um, Ballpit, they are almost always down for freeloaders in their parking lots. That’s right, they allow RVers (and Busfolk, too!) to park in their lots overnight (though a rare few don’t, so look for signs or ask someone if you’re unclear, but if there are other RVs parked there, you’re pretty much set). Don’t set up lawn furniture. Don’t stay for more than a night, maybe two. But if you’re in a shitty part of the country and you’re just passing through anyway, dock up in a Walmart, maybe through in a Redbox flick, and enjoy your rent free parking spot for the night. I’ve heard casinos are also typically cool about this, though we’ve never personally stayed in one.
- Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is actually intended as a way to give you a couch to sleep on when you’re traveling. The idea is, you go to couchsurfing.org, find someone who’s offering a couch in the location you’re going to, the two of you typically have coffee and feel one another out, and before you know it you’re snoozing away on a stranger’s sofa. You can also use it though to find an empty driveway. If you find someone who’s down with this, the benefits are vast: you can probably plugin for a couple of nights, maybe get a shower or two, and make a friend (or at least acquaintance with a comfy flat spot to park). This can also often get you in closer to cities where campgrounds or RV parks are miles out, or where overnight parking is frowned upon by police and/or rednecks with sticks.
The Unexpected Expenses of Life on the Road
There are a few aspects of roadliving that will hit your pocketbook where you never imagined your pocketbook was vulnerable. They’re like kidney punches and you don’t know that you’ve been beaten until you’re looking up from the ground in a hazy cloud of receipts.
- Hotels. We would often spring for hotels, and got comfortable doing it, so probably ended up doing it too often. They’re like commercial-free television, once you get into it, it’s hard to get back out. Hotels are ridiculously expensive. Particularly chain hotels. Stay away from anything that looks like a chain and is in a city center or just off the freeway (in fact, stay off the freeway in general). If you want a hotel room, look for something that looks old, is in a small town with no immediate access to any Interstate, and preferably in a non-touristy place (or best of all, tourist towns that aren’t in the tourist season – these are the gems where you’ll find amazingly interesting local people and not get treated like a potential sale). Call ahead. Bring cash. Haggle. Most hotel owners in these types of places are everything: the front desk, the maid, the whole shebang. If the hotel is empty, they’ll take $30 even when they tried quoting you $45 + task. Just show them the $30 and say it’s all you have. Never just walk in without calling ahead though. I’ve had $35 room quotes over the phone, and when I get there, before I mention the price, they throw out $70 as their asking price.
- Eating Out. This is where a solar panel & backup battery system would come in very handy. You will likely eat out alot. Whether you just want to get out of the Bus for awhile and go experience the new town you just stopped in, or you simply don’t feel like firing up the propane cooker and slow roasting another vegetable stew, eating out will get you every time. I don’t have a solution for this other than “don’t eat out as much”, but this is one of the most expensive aspects of living on the road. I suppose if you don’t eat out that much in your stick home life, you’ll be better off here, but who wants to visit New Orleans and not try out a bar in the French Quarter? Who goes to Philly and doesn’t splurge on a cheesesteak?
- Firewood. Ok so assuming you’ll be enjoying a hot fire (we cook over one every night we’re not eating out), you’ll need wood. If you boondock up in some National Forest, you’ll be all set. Or if you want to carry an axe back into the woods everyday and split a log or two, more power to you. But if not, realize that two bundles of firewood are going to cost you about $10. That’s $300 / month if you cook every night. We probably spend $150 / month, which includes all the days we don’t have a fire and go out for dinner instead, but also the handy tip that almost always, you can get 3 / $10 instead of 1 / $5. That means you’ll be transporting wood (not good considering the massive problem with invasive species this country is having, and it’s actually illegal in most places), which can be rough if you don’t have the space allotted for it, but it’ll save you 1/3rd the cost of wood every month.