Vanlife

Vanlife USA: How much does full-time travel cost in the American West?

When my partner and I moved into a van at the start of 2021, I had no idea how hard I’d fall in love with this method of travel. Vanlife is more than just a trip, it’s a lifestyle that allows you the complete freedom of waking up every day and choosing your own itinerary without regard for bus or train schedules, the ability to get off the “beaten path” and wake up in places others can’t, and of course the luxury of having an entire HOME with a fully-stocked kitchen, seemingly unlimited hiking gear, and all the warm/cold-weather outfit changes I could never fit into a backpack. 

For someone who’d long dreamed of full-time international travel, vanlife has made several years on the road cheaper and more appealing than ever.

We’ve now travelled to 11 states in the American West (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado & New Mexico) and enjoyed almost a year of vanlife for less than Dan’s monthly rent in a studio apartment in Bellingham, WA.

This post contains a super-detailed breakdown of our monthly spending in the van— use it as a guide to estimate your own vanlife budget and you may just find it’s more attainable than you ever imagined!

Cost of purchasing a converted van

Before I divulge the monthly costs of living and travelling full-time in our van around the American West, it’s important to consider the up-front costs associated with actually buying a van. It represents a sizeable investment, but one that’s far cheaper than purchasing a traditional home and with minimal depreciation compared to other vehicles.

There are 2 main costs associated with buying a van:

  • The van itself: Today, you’d pay $40-50,000 for a low-mileage 2019 Dodge Ram Promaster 159” like ours straight from the dealership (pre-conversion), a similar amount for a Ford Transit, and as much as 1.5-2x more for a Mercedes Sprinter. We’ve heard of other vanlifers getting an older van for as little as $5k— the risk is having much higher and more frequent repair costs, but if you’re mechanically inclined, this could be a good option to save some money.
  • The conversion: Expenses associated with building out the interior of a van can range wildly, from $5,000 for the most basic interior (often with no plumbing and limited electrical) to $15,000 for a fully-kitted-out DIY conversion (with solar, running water, house-quality cabinets) to upwards of $35,000 for a professional conversion. Based on records from the last owners, we know they spent $15,000 converting our van, which included a $4,800 600W solar & 300Ah lithium battery system, $1,000 composting toilet, both hot & cold running water, and a $700 fridge, among other things. 

In total, we paid $67,500 for our fully converted 2019 Dodge Ram Promaster from a private seller (who converted it themselves), which was an awesome deal compared to many other converted vans that we looked at online prior to finding the one.

For reference, the other van we were originally considering was also a 2019 Promaster, beautifully converted by a shop in SLC, but was listed at $89,000 with only half as much solar as our current van!

Based on our experience, here are some rough cost estimates and pros/cons for DIY converting your own van, buying a DIY van converted by the previous owners, or buying a professionally converted van:

Comparison of various van & conversion options for vanlife
Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado

Cost of vanlife in the American West: $1,902/month

There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all budget for vanlife— monthly costs of living on the road vary widely depending on how much you’re actually travelling, what kind of camping you’re doing, the condition of your van, what activities you’re into, where you are in the world… but this should give you a rough idea of what it costs to travel full-time in the American West.

Some context for our vanlife budget:

  • We aren’t on a tight budget, so it’s absolutely possible to spend less in the American West than we have on our trip. We love eating out & going to breweries and we rarely miss out on an activity due to the cost of entry or permits!
  • There are two of us splitting the costs of vanlife (and all the costs described here are for 2 people). However, many of these expenses are the same regardless of how many people you’re travelling with (like fuel and insurance), so a single vanlifer would likely spend about 1.5x what each person in a couple would spend (or about 75% as much as our total expenses below).
  • Certainly one of the perks of having a newer van (2019), we haven’t had to pay for any unexpected maintenance costs while on the road, but this isn’t the case for everyone. It’s always smart to set aside emergency funds in the event of a major repair!

Below is our spending PER MONTH for 2 people averaged over the last 9 months, which works out to a cool $951 per person per moth or $32USD per person per day.

Average monthly expenses for vanlife in the USA

For a more detailed breakdown of our spending in the American West within each of our monthly expense categories, keep reading!

vanlife

1 | Accommodation: $46/month 

  • Camping: $0
  • Hotels: $44
  • Parking: $2

Camping

In our 9 months on the road in the American West, we didn’t stay at a single paid campsite— the free boondocking opportunities in this part of the country are seemingly endless, and we were nearly always able to find a comfortable, safe place to stay on public land, whether it was Forest Service roads or dispersed BLM camping. 

To find campsites when we’re on the road, we use iOverlander, an awesome crowd-sourced camping app that collates reviews from travellers across the world to provide up-to-date info on millions of campsites and their access, amenities, price (where relevant) & heaps of other useful info.

  • The iOverlander app for iPhone or Android even works (with minor limitations) without service! This is always the first place we look for campsite info when we’re researching a new place, and is an invaluable resource for every road trip.

GUIDE TO FINDING FREE CAMPSITES: COMING SOON

Parking

When we couldn’t find a good free campsite, we parked quietly on residential streets, with permission outside of local breweries (always after buying something inside), or even in $15 overnight parking on the Las Vegas Strip!

Hotels

Occasionally, we indulged in a hotel using reward points—for example, on day 14 of not having showered indoors!

We’ve gotten many of these hotel rooms entirely free through points earned by staying at the hotel previously (e.g. buy 2 nights, get 1 free) and others discounted as low as $16 through Choice Hotels’ awesome reward program (which includes Quality Inn, Comfort Suites, Rodeway Inn, etc). 

Often, Choice will run specials to purchase their reward points at a discounted rate and it can be a great way to snatch a hotel room for less than half of the list price. We always watch for specials and deals, and make sure to coordinate our infrequent stays with the best reward value— this is how we’ve stayed at 18 hotels over the course of our 9 months in America for just $349, or an average of less than $10 per night per person (which is cheaper than some public showers)!

Maroon Bells Colorado Rocky Mountains winter

2 | Activities: $286/month

  • Brewery flights & wine tasting: $164
  • Gear hire (e.g. kayak, boots for The Narrows): $20
  • Park fees & permits (e.g. National or State Park, permit lottery): $56
  • Tours & other entry fees (e.g. guide, museum entry): $47

This category includes all of the fun stuff we do while travelling in the van, whether it’s hiring canyoneering gear for The Subway in Zion, paying to enter The Wave permit lottery 7 times, or visiting the Sonoran Desert Museum outside of Saguaro National Park.

If we were truly just “living” in our van rather than travelling, spending in this category would be substantially less, but we prioritise special experiences over savings whenever our budget allows. 

Check out just a few of my USA travel guides & itineraries to help plan your own activities in the American West!

3 | Eating Out: $355/month

We love arriving into a new town and trying their best local restaurant, so we definitely spend a fair bit of money on take-away— about $40 each per week. 

This is one of the expenses that we could easily trim down to save money, but trying new food is a big part of why we love travelling in the first place, so we choose to splash out a little when a specialty cafe or high-rated restaurant catches our eye!

Vanlife essentials packing list

4 | Groceries: $575/month

  • Alcohol: $203
  • Food & ingredients: $317
  • Hygiene items (e.g. toothpaste, sunscreen): $15
  • Van consumables (e.g. paper towel, propane for heater): $40

Even with our love for taco trucks and pizza joints, I do heaps of cooking in our van and we spend a lot of money at the supermarket every month stocking up on ingredients, snacks, drinks, and consumables. 

Check out this post for all of our recommended cookwear & kitchen gadgets to make amazing home-cooked meals in your van: VANLIFE PACKING LIST: KITCHEN ESSENTIALS, STORAGE SOLUTIONS & THE BEST CAMP SET-UP

Costs could definitely be cheaper if we cut down our spending on alcohol, but by drinking craft beer and fancy cocktails in the van rather than going out to a bar, we do save money and still get to indulge in a cold treat at the end of a hot day or after a long hike— an essential part of vanlife, if you ask us!

Alice Lake Toxaway Loop best hikes in Sawtooth Mountains Idaho

5 | Personal Expenses: $107/month

  • Healthcare (e.g. vitamins, KT Tape): $12
  • Laundry: $5
  • Phone & hotspot data: $54
  • Showers (e.g. campsite, public shower): $2
  • Subscriptions (Garmin In-Reach, Lightroom, Apple Music, AllTrails): $33

This category includes our basic personal living expenses, much of which we’d still be paying even if we were living in an apartment (such as healthcare, mobile phone plan & various subscriptions). 

Healthcare

For reference, I do not have health insurance in America (only Medicare in Australia). That’s not a decision I would ever recommend to another person, but I’ve had reasonable success finding low-cost clinics/telehealth while travelling in the southwest and ultimately I knew we’d be crossing into Mexico in our van at the end of the year anyway, so that’s why our costs in this category are so low (because it really just includes vitamins and basic first aid supplies).

Those looking to make a smarter decision about their healthcare should investigate available plans carefully, since many only offer “emergency coverage” outside of your home state and other travel insurance policies are not valid within the US unless you are a non-US citizen.

vanlife shower promaster

Laundry & showers

We only need to do washing 1-2x each month and often are able to do it for free at a hotel or at a friend’s house; likewise, we capitalise on free or inexpensive showers whenever we can to save money (or shower in a hotel every 2 weeks).

Want to know more about how we shower on the road? Check out our FAQ post for answers to this & heaps of other questions about vanlife in the US: COMING SOON

Phone & hotspot data

For most of our time in the USA, I paid $60/month for unlimited data (including hot spot) with a pre-paid Verizon plan (the monthly costs I reported here are a little less only because my phone cycle is in the middle of the month).

Since we never stay at established campgrounds with WIFI and rarely spend time in the city, this has been our primary means of accessing the internet throughout our entire trip through the US and worth every cent to make sure we’re able to research every destination, navigate, stay in touch with family, and work on this blog!

Subscriptions

We currently have active subscriptions to Garmin In-Reach, Lightroom, Apple Music, AllTrails, Amazon Prime, and Netflix (although the latter two are through my parents’ accounts and therefore free to us).

In particular, I’d recommend these subscriptions to other vanlifers:

  • AllTrails: For everything from short day hikes through the national park to long overnight backpacking trips (and millions of routes in between), I use the AllTrails app to navigate on all of my outdoor adventures! At just $30/year, this is the cheapest GPS you’ll ever own, but also the easiest to use (it runs off your smart phone, so there’s no learning curve with fiddly buttons or uploading tracks from the computer) AND the most up-to-date (other hikers can leave comments and even their own GPS tracks for you to download). This is by far the best app I’ve ever invested in, and far better than any GPS device I’ve used!
  • Garmin In-Reach: While living on the road & frequently travelling through remote areas, I’d definitely recommend carrying a PLB like the Garmin In-Reach Mini. The unit itself is a few hundred dollars, on top of which you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription fee (we pay $10/month for the cheapest plan & you can toggle this on and off at your leisure). With an active subscription on your Garmin In-Reach, you can send a message to family if you’re delayed OR if your van breaks down in the middle of no where, receive accurate weather updates during a storm, and call for help in case of a true emergency— no matter where you are in the world, Garmin will patch you through to the relevant local authority for support (sheriff, police, SAR, Coast Guard, etc), so this is one of my top vanlife essentials!
  • Lightroom CC: This popular Adobe program is what I use to edit all of my photos AND back-up full-quality originals to the cloud in case my laptop is ever stolen or damaged (our insurance would cover the laptop, but no amount of money in the world will bring my photos back!).
  • Amazon Prime: We regularly use Amazon to re-stock on items for the van, like Dr Bronner’s soap, new cabin air filters, and coconut coir for our composting toilet. It’s super easy to send our order to pick-up locations and Amazon Lockers throughout the country, and being a Prime member means you don’t need to hit any minimum for free shipping. Bonus: If someone in your family already has a Prime membership, you can share their benefits for no additional cost— the only caveat is that you will share credit card information across both accounts (so make sure it’s someone you trust to have your card details), but it’s never been a problem using my mum’s account and ordering with our own credit card to any random address. And it doesn’t cost her OR us anything!
Vanlife

6 | Transportation: $397/month

  • Fuel: $392
  • Other transport (e.g. ferry, bus): $5

We’ve travelled nearly 18,000mi across 11 states in the last 9 months, so fuel represents one of our most significant costs. If we were trying to save money, one of the easiest ways would simply be travelling a bit slower and staying in each spot longer. But we’ve got places to be!

  • The cheapest fuel we found was around $2.80/gal in Arizona and the most expensive was $4.89/gal in southern California— our fuel costs vary widely from month to month based on what area we’re in and how much we’re driving.
  • Our Costco membership has been invaluable for saving money on fuel, since they routinely offer the best gas prices (and have so many locations around the US).
  • Before setting out on the road, we applied for an awesome American Express credit card that offers 3% back at gas stations (and 6% back at grocery stores) to offset some of our fuel costs.
vanlife

7 | Van Maintenance: $122/month

  • Auto insurance: $71
  • Content insurance: $10
  • Routine maintenance (e.g. oil change, air filter): $38
  • Repairs (e.g. broken windscreen, new tire): $0
  • Washing (e.g. car wash, vacuum): $3
  • Water/dump fees: $0

Auto & content insurance

We have our auto AND content insurance through State Farm, who was the only US insurance company we could find to insure our converted van at stated value rather than just the KBB appraisal value of the vehicle (which is about 50% of what our van is worth).

They have been absolutely awesome and we’d definitely recommend their comprehensive policy, which covers our van and all of its build components up to $70k for only $70/month.

We also pay just over $10/month for renter’s insurance through State Farm, which covers the contents of our van anywhere in the world, no matter how long we’re away from the physical address that we listed on our policy (which is my mum’s address in Seattle, where we receive mail and have stayed in the past while working on the van).

I was super honest with the insurance agent about living in our van full-time and travelling for several years, as well as the listed address belonging to my mum, and none of that affected coverage— whether my laptop is stolen in Guatemala or all of our climbing gear is stolen in California, we’ll be reimbursed up to $45,000 with only a $500 deductible!

Routine maintenance & repairs

To an extent, maintenance expenses are pretty fixed (based on how much we’re driving), but Dan’s superpower is finding coupons for everythingwe recently got an oil change at a Dodge dealership for just $33!

There are definitely ways to save money on routine service, but we never skimp on quality maintenance for our van, since we know a breakdown in the middle of the desert would be far more costly.

If we did have an older van, we’d expect these costs to be much higher, particularly if some component of the vehicle fails and we have to pay several thousand dollars to replace it. This is why we decided to spend more money up-front on a newer van that’s ultimately less likely to surprise us with hidden repair costs down the road!

Water/dump fees

We’ve never had to pay for water travelling in America— there’s always been an available spigot at some nearby visitor centre, petrol station, established campsite, or RV dump station with potable water. We expect this will be pretty different in other countries as we travel farther south through Mexico & Central America, but at least water is very easy to come by in the American West!

In addition to listing campsites around the world, the iOverlander app lists heaps of places to fill up your van’s or RV’s water tank, often for free.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park Colorado

8 | Reward Points: -$395 total

It’s also worth noting that, during the 9 months we travelled around the US, we earned nearly $400 in reward points back with our credit card!

There’s no question in my mind that the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which I’ve had since 2014, is the best credit card for international travel, but for vanlife in the US, you absolutely can’t beat the rewards with American Express Blue Cash Rewards. We earned 6% back on groceries, 3% on fuel, and 1% on all other purchases this year, plus $300 for signing up AND paid no annual fee!

Maroon Bells Colorado Rocky Mountains Mt Sopris

Is vanlife expensive in the US?

Vanlife presents a completely unique opportunity to travel for no more than the lowest, most basic cost of living in the US. What you spend on activities and trail permits as a traveller, you more than make up for by having no rent or utility bills, and we’ve consistently found that we spend less now than we ever did living in an apartment and going to work.

Ultimately, vanlife makes the possibility of full-time travel not only feasible for the average person but also sustainable long term!

Although the US is more expensive than many other countries I’ve travelled to, the opportunity to camp for free, cook much of our food, and provide our own transport actually makes vanlife in America cheaper than backpacking through Europe or even South America.

For $32 per day (and probably a lot less, too!), you can explore some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world and experience the abundant public land that makes America such an awesome vanlife destination.

vanlife

Read more about vanlife in the American West

VANLIFE PACKING LIST: KITCHEN ESSENTIALS, STORAGE SOLUTIONS & THE BEST CAMP SET-UP

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