Is Our Motorhome a Money Saver or Sewer?

RV vacation budget

Those who follow my blog, besides my family who kind of have to ;), may be wondering what happened since I have not posted in about a month. Well, one of the good things about blogging is reflecting on whether you follow your own advice. I recently wrote about spending time and money wisely. My suggestion in that article was that we should spend some of our excess money while we are alive, and using it for experiences with family gives the best results.

We just got back from travelling for a few weeks in our motorhome.

I am pretty sure that I put my money where my mouth is in the sense that I definitely spend money while alive. Recreational Vehicle (RV) travel seems to come up frequently when people talk about retirement or travelling. Even amongst physician finance writers. Dr. Corey Fawcett travels in a motorhome. Physician on FIRE mentions thoughts of getting one. One doc even lived in an RV during medical school. I am way past med school and “retirement” in the imminent future is unlikely for me. However, I am of a like mind with Dr. Networth about living my retirement lifestyle now.

But… how expensive is it and how does that compare to other travel options?

Travel has been a complex topic for our family. So, it is important to understand the context in which we arrived at a motorhome. That said, I have been tracking expenses on an Excel sheet (shocking I know) and meaning to analyze those financial questions for some time now. The thought usually occurs around the time that the VISA bill arrives and the conflict between the pleasures of the recent experience and the pain of the bills intermingle. The net result has been procrastination, but three years later I am ready to take a stab at it.

Travelling with our family has become a key plank of our ideal lifestyle.

Vin Diesel’s Multistory Mobile Mansion.

As a physician who has his financial house in order, I have been relatively free to pursue my travel goals the last few years. On that quest, we ended up with an RV. Not just any RV – an RV can be anything from a pop-up trailer to a giant fifth wheel or a multi-million dollar mobile mansion.

You can live and travel cheaply in an RV if you get something towards the tent trailer end of the spectrum or find the right deal on a used one. Just ask Cousin Eddie from the Nation Lampoon’s vacation series. However, I am the Loonie Doctor, and well, that means I am a little looney and ended up with a “Rock Star Bus” as my friends and colleagues call it.

How did we end up with our bus?

Was it a well thought-out methodical process? Or simply jacking up the hedonistic treadmill to warp speed. You can be the judge. I think it was a bit of both. We started with our values and preferences, but those evolved as we experimented.

We strongly value spending time together as a family. That doesn’t mean sitting around staring at each other, but actually doing things. [Editorial addition: “Although, my wife is rather fetching to gaze at”]. Physical activity and enjoying nature are also key parts of our lifestyle. Further, our dogs are considered central members of our pack. The guinea pig is cute, but hopefully a transient.

Our local area and Loonie Bin Country Estate are very conducive to living in alignment with those priorities on a day to day basis. However, my wife also strongly values warmth. Winter here lacks that. Plus, unless I physically leave town, I often find it difficult to escape the siren call of medicine and my associated responsibilities.

Our Early Trials of Travel

The answer to that for us was to take some vacations away. In the preceding decade, we really hadn’t travelled much other than camping or renting a cottage for a week in the summer. We choose different uses for what little money we had at that time. There were debts to pay off and retirement savings to build. Ah, but for the past decade now we have had more discretionary money and most of our friends were already travelling regularly. All the cool kids were doing it.

Very lovely, but expensive, sand castles on a beach in Mexico.

We tried going to some tropical resorts in the winter on our own and with friends. While we quite enjoyed the aspect of vacationing with our friends, the resort scene itself really wasn’t a perfect match for us.

The resorts we went to were very nice.  However, they were also expensive by the time we had balanced price against the risk of diarrhea, bed bugs, and our various other realistic or far-fetched anxieties. Further, there is only so much time that we can spend eating, drinking, and sitting around a resort – no matter how good it is.

Going off-resort for excursions was insanely expensive.

Cheaper would be possible, but we like adventurous activities where an equipment failure would be catastrophic. I have looked after a number of patients who have been transferred back to Canada following such misadventures. So, while rare, I have a primal fear of it.

Climbing a Mayan pyramid at Coba was a highlight. The tiny people give a clue as to the height. So, does the fact that most people walked up, but came back down on their butts one step at a time. Us included.

We made several progressively more expensive attempts at tropical vacations, but it still didn’t work out.

One factor was that I would get crusty due to the amount of money continually parting our hands over such a short period of time.

The other was that no matter how awesome the place was, everyone wanted to go home by day four because they missed the dogs, their own beds, and those little things like cereal with actual fiber in it. That toxic brew would make us all cranky.

A good alternative to the tropical resort scene is to rent a house or condo in the Southern US, like Dr. Networth suggested in his travel tips for families post. We tried that, but there was still the dog-love-deficiency problem and we always felt a bit out of place in someone else’s home environment.

This brought us full circle to the main vacation-type of our youth. Camping.

The Trouble With Camping

I grew up with camping that consisted of getting dropped off at the side of a logging road with my friends, food, matches, a knife, a tarp, and a sleeping bag. My wife and I both also had the more civilized experience of camping in pop-up tent trailers with our families. We decided to have a go at it and went tent camping with some friends and our collective broods of children.

That quickly hit home that camping was different now that we were older. The ground is harder, even through an air mattress. Kids and dogs in a tent are a whole different level of dirt and chaos. Especially if it rains. We were also reacquainted with some of the less glorious aspects of camping – like outhouses. No problem, we can spend some money to get those comforts.

We looked at some trailers and eventually decided that for the space and luxuries that we wanted, we either needed a bigger truck to tow it or a motorhome. The cost of either route would be similar. However, I got the idea of travelling long distances into my head. The visions of doing this with cabin space, a washroom, and fridge all at our finger-tips while on the road pushed me towards a motorhome. We decided to rent a motorhome to try it out.

Motorhome Rental

We rented a 32 foot gas motorhome for a week and went to a beautiful campground on the Bruce Peninsula. All-in, that set us back about $2500 for the week. Similar to a cottage rental in the area.

Credit: RV. Columbia Pictures 2006.

It was a mid-price range gas Class A (that means bus-like) motorhome. It was also scary to drive. Not because of the size (what I was initially nervous about). Rather it was because gas motorhomes tend to be overbuilt boxes on a shorter truck chassis. This made it bouncy enough to require active steering and a high anal sphincter tone to pilot. Gas motorhomes also need to be built light. So, even though the rental was only a couple years old, it was showing its age inside due to the cheaper construction materials.

Overall, we had a great time. However, we still missed our dogs (since they weren’t allowed in the rental). We also decided that if we were going to travel longer distances that we’d want a better handling and more solidly constructed diesel motorhome. After extensive searching, we really weren’t able to find any rentals that fit that bill. So, after some debate, we decided to set a budget and began looking to buy one. Buying means a solid commitment – both to spend time with it and to make sure you find the “right one” for that time to be enjoyable. Like a relationship.

We eventually brought home BB Bertha

Credit: How to Train Your Dragon. Cressida Cowell.

Yeah. That’s right. We named our motorhome. To outsiders that stands for Big Bus Bertha. Conversely, those inducted into the inner circle may recognize that as the name of the mother from the How To Train Your Dragon children’s books. These hilarious books are totally different from the movie spin-off and a favourite of both the kids and adults in our household.

BB Bertha is a 40 foot long bus-like motorhome with four slide-out rooms.  She’s got some powerful junk in the trunk, with a 400HP rear-end diesel motor, to move this 30 thousand pound juggernaut down the highway.

Bertha was about 10 years old, in pretty good condition for her age, but in need of a few updates and renovations. Buying used meant that someone else road the steepest part of the depreciation curve, but this was still a cash outlay similar to a new luxury car. It also meant that I had a new project to keep me busy outside of work.

Is BB Bertha an economical way to travel?

Well, that really depends on how much time we spend travelling and what our comparator is.

There are some relatively fixed costs like depreciation, insurance, maintenance, and the opportunity cost of having our money tied up. The more that we use our motorhome, the less it costs per use from that perspective. On the other hand, there are some incremental costs to vacationing like fuel, food, and site rental.

We live in our RV for about 7 weeks per year pretty consistently now. I have taken our fixed costs of ownership and divided them evenly amongst those weeks. We tend to spend three of those weeks on vacations that would most closely resemble cottaging and four that would be a luxury resort type setting.

The cost of RV vacationing can vary wildly depending on the Recreational Vehicle that you use. A pop-up trailer will be very economical compared to our motorhome, but much less luxurious. Similarly, the type of site that you stay at can range from free (like a Walmart parking lot) to a couple hundred dollars a night for a luxury resort with a full cabin as part of your site.

A Sample of BB Bertha Versus Cottage Vacation Costs

rv versus cabinCompared to regular cottaging, our motorhome is not particularly economical. Sure, most cottages don’t have granite countertops, leather couches, or an 84 inch Movie Theatre like our bus. However, a cottage has slightly more space inside.

A week at one of our favourite campgrounds is about $900 more in our RV than it would be if we rented a comparable cottage on their premises.

Motorhome vacationing in Florida for March Break

We have been spending two to three weeks each March down in Florida to thaw out. Usually two of that is with our nuclear family and a week is with my parents (while the kids are in school). Two years ago, we spent ten days at the Disney campground. It was a huge, nicely maintained campground resort with great activities. Lizard chasing with their campground friends was probably the favourite pastime. We did make it to the Disney Parks for a few days, but honestly preferred the campground. Theme Park + March Break = Crazy.

The view from the private deck of a site at a resort we recently stayed at (Apple Valley Farm, Luray, NC). This place also had a lazy river pool, tennis courts, boating, fitness center etc.

These costs would be on the high end of our “resort-type” vacation. Yes, the luxury motorcoach resorts are really comparable to a regular resort in terms of manicured environment and amenities. One difference would be that we make our own food, except for one meal per day at a nice restaurant.

I am sure that there are people who have all sorts of “travel-hacks” and “coupons or deals” to do Disney cheaper than us. However, we are willing to invest limited time and energy to save money at the expense of convenience while on vacation. We like to be right in Disney with the convenient bus system, etc.

Disney camping costThere are nice cabins in the campground with kitchenettes as an equally convenient alternative to our motorhome. For comparison to a fully inclusive Disney Resort Hotel vacation, there was Wilderness Lodge affiliated with the campground. Looking to the table to the right, for this type of vacation, the motorhome is pretty economical compared to these alternatives.

If not at Disney, we would typically spend a similar amount of money on excursions at other resorts. For a tropical resort, that would usually be one or two excursions. However, travelling in the U.S. or Canada, we can easily get four or five adventurous outings in for about the same price.

Motorhome Vacationing Hasn’t Been “Cheap Vacationing” For Us

If you do the math, you will see that we are spending a significant amount of money per year on travel. We never would have spent this much earlier in our lives. We were busy working, paying down debt, investing, and positioning ourselves for the future. Our travel budget while students was $0/yr and when I started working as a resident that jumped to about $1K/yr. That early fiscal discipline has given us the financial ability to do this now. Sequence of spending is important.

Travelling in BB Bertha is not an entry level RV.

You can travel with a nice trailer towed by your daily driver vehicle. That would be way more economical than our motorhome. However, compared to more conventional modes of vacationing, like cottage rental or resorts, BB Bertha probably overall costs about the same for us. It is simply a different way of travelling.

By using a used mid-level diesel motorhome, we have been able to overcome barriers that kept us from travelling. Other families may not have the same hang-ups on pets, personal pillows, and home comforts that we do. They may prefer hotel rooms, cottages, or condo rentals. However, for us it has been some of the best “bad money” that we have spent – I will expand on that statement in a future post.

10 comments

  1. Hey LD!!

    That is HUGE!! (Yeah yeah, I know you are thinking the Michael Scott line of “that’s what she said!” )

    My bigger stroke out would be how the heck would I drive something that large?!! I have been known to almost run into people’s kneecaps while steering OR beds to the recovery area.

    I have looked into buying a motor home as well. Theses things new are crazy expensive. So I can see why you bought yours ten years old.

    We also rented a unit for one March break trip and it was lovely. Travelling on your own meandering schedule is wonderful. And to be able to bring the dogs is great!!

    I spent May/ June in Yosemite dirt bagging with my husband. It was a welcome relief from all those so-called luxury vacations. I so hear you about the resorts…

    Our kids are older now and do not need to come with us on certain trips. I think we are downaging.

    1. Hey Dr. MB!

      It is a beast, but surprisingly pleasant to drive. It is funny how people give you more space when driving something when the basic laws of physics dictate that you will come out on top of an altercation. The only time I have had similar respectful distance from other drivers was when I drove an old beater with dents all over it. People just figured I was a bad driver with nothing to lose. I am honestly a bit jealous of your dirt-baggin’ it. It is point on which my wife and I have different tastes – but with the glamping, my daughter is expressing a strong interest…
      -LD

  2. LD glad your back, missed your posts!

    Ooh I’m a bit envious of your drivers seat! We have a 27’ fully winterized class C. It’s amazing. We use it mostly in the winter to go skiing and be in the mountains and usually 1-2 week trip in summer. This type of travel also helps us with our 2 wolfhounds! You know hotels charge by the size of the dog. We bought used 7 years old. At the time I mapped out the costs and and concluded that after 3 years of use (replacing the costs of hotels and rentals) the savings would arrive. Now the costs are quite low the most being gas which has never been more than $1000 on a trip, other usual expenses are insurance $600, parking $400, and two $80 oil changes. We’re into the 5th year of ownership and still love it. Nothing like stepping out the door and onto a freshly groomed ski trail! But truth be said, it’s not cheap travel. We could sleep in the trunk of our car and eat Tostitos like the good ol days:)

    1. Hi Phil! That sounds great. A Class C is probably the most bang for your buck from what I have seen. Having a slightly smaller size also has the advantage of easily going pretty much anywhere. Once we decided over 30 feet, it took out a lot of the smaller more wilderness type parks as options. We have tried pet-friendly hotels also, but large dogs are still a bit tricky. Some have a weight limit – we tell ours to suck in their guts when going through the lobby, but there would be no hope with Irish wolfhounds!
      -LD

  3. Hi LD:

    Good to see your posts again. Sounds like you had a great time with family and that RV looks very comfortable!

    I think however you chose to enjoy your travel is worth it. After all, the greatest cost is not the trip itself, but the lost opportunity cost for missing work! (I am training myself to not think that way)

    1. Hey BC Doc! Thanks and that is a great point. Thinking about the opportunity cost of not working has actually been a tough hurdle for me to overcome. Having more financial buffer has helped that pressure a bit. However, buying a motorhome made a bigger difference because it meant that I had a sunk cost into vacationing that would be wasted if not used. It has been a behavioural modifier – I need those ;). I guess a time-share could have a similar effect, but we like the greater freedom of an RV more.
      -LD

  4. Hey LD!

    Welcome back! Hope you and your family enjoyed the summer holidays.

    “BB Bertha” definitely fits the bill! Looks awesome! I think you and your wife’s decision to purchase the RV was the only logical step given your past travel experiences and what’s best for your family and dogs.

    Spot-on about camping. Camping when you are older is not the same as when you are younger. Our kids still ask to go tent-camping every summer, and we will still go as long as they want to, but it gets tougher and tougher every year on our aging bodies! I need at least a day or two afterward to recuperate! 🙂

    Your kids are going to have (probably already have) fond memories of family trips with BB Bertha and their Loonie Dad chugging along in style down the highway!

    Just curious – when you pull BB Bertha into the campground, do you get a lot of attention from the other campers “oohing” and “ahhing” with envy? I’m guessing that not everyone has a BB Bertha-like RV at the campgrounds?

    1. Thanks DN! We had a great summer. It is interesting. When we go to “camping” type venues, we do get oohhs and ahhhs. Even though BB Bertha is older, she looks new and her body mass is impressive.

      However, when we go to luxury motorcoach resorts, our motorhome is pretty average. We even went to one place this past March where we looked like the peasants. It was all $300K-2M coaches parked beside their house-sized cabanas. The people there drove around the resort in their customized golf carts (like Barbie Van or an antique cars etc.) and their actual cars were insane. I saw a couple Ferraris, Lambos, a Rolls Royce, and the lower end vehicles were corvettes. It was like being on another planet. Not really our style, but it was an experience.
      -LD

  5. My family has owned a motor home since 1994. This winter, my wife and I will actually go snow birding to Arizona for 2-3 months. Our current motor home is 16 years old and we are beginning to think about a replacement. Their are many other advantages to motor home travel. We could go to a big water/theme park and park it in the parking lot. At mid day we could go back to the motor home for naps with the kids. Then come back refreshed and spend the later part of the day when the other parents finally gave up and took their cranky kids back to the hotel. You can stop for a potty break at any time or a lunch break for that matter. You don’t have to unpack your clothes, they are right their in the closet where you left them. Once when the kids were very little, we pulled into the driveway after three weeks on the road and my son said “No, I don’t want to go home. We need to keep camping.” We have loved our years of travel in a motor home. Hope you have many more in BB Bertha.

    Dr. Cory S. Fawcett
    Prescription for Financial Success

    1. Thanks for the great comment Dr. Fawcett! You are a motorhome veteran.

      That is a great point about the stamina a motorhome gives. Some people seem able to travel and sight-see without recharging in their comfort zone (or they punish themselves by pushing through to “get their money’s worth”). For the rest of us, a mobile home-base makes a huge difference. As homebodies, it revolutionized travel for us.

      We are actually on an escape in our motorhome right now. The more we do this, the easier it gets. Our packing this time consisted of filling the water tank and packing our clothes. Everything else is already in place.

      We decided on a last minute getaway to warmth. My wife and I are also sampling our potential migratory routes for snow-birding down the road. After 16 years, moving from the motorhome you know well to a new one is probably a mixed experience. Exciting like getting a new house, but a sense of loss with all of the nostalgia of the old one.

      Happy travels and enjoy the Arizona “winter”.
      -LD

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