Road Trip

Living on the road brings with it the possibility of exploring America. 

It isn’t uncommon for the average nine-to-five employee to have the fleeting thought of skipping town, traveling the country and living out of a van at one point or another. In fact, 52% of people considered van life during the pandemic, according to a move.org study.

Now, after a year indoors, temptations for a summer spent on the road may have grown even more. Here’s the financial breakdown of van life.

Find a van and make it home

Financially, living in a van is really what you make of it. 

The average cost of a van that has room for a bed and some small to-go appliances is anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, but fully renovated vans sometimes go for more than $50,000. For example, GovPlanet and Carsforsale.com allows people to place offers in auctions for retired government vans and get a reliable set of wheels for well under $5,000. If one has a bit more money to spend, websites like Vanlife Trader and Conversion Trader offer vans with fully renovated interiors, which can eliminate the remodeling stage, saving time and money.

Remodeling is a personal choice when it comes to preparing for life on the road.  Van life bloggers say that renovation costs average around $5000. Normal installations and added amenities include an internet source, a bed, tables, cabinets for $100, rotating seats for $400 each, flooring for $140, a mini fridge for $250, solar panels for $315 each, a to-go grill for $22 and a television for $200. That all may seem like a lot to add to such a small area, but it may be surprising to see how much some people travel with; it’s one’s personal choice to figure out what’s necessary for their lifestyle.

For those living out of an SUV, another great option for maximizing space and comfort is the TOPHORT Bed Car Mattress. These blow up beds fit to the size of your back seat and create a flat bed with blow up pillows, which can be fit back into a small box for convenient storage.

Get comfortable saving

Saving money is  important to remember when on the road — making sure one can keep their desired lifestyle isn’t an easy job. Without safe spending, this can be an extremely expensive change of pace, including expenses such as hygiene and gas.

Many bloggers who do this say that getting a Black Card Membership through Planet Fitness is one of the cheapest ways to have a stable and private way of showering and keeping up with your hygiene. For $22.99 a month, the Black Card Membership offers access to any Planet Fitness gym in the country and all of their amenities, including the showers, their full gym and even their massage and tanning beds. All said and done, this is a much more efficient option than either bathing in a lake or buying gallons of water from a store to rinse off. 

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Another way to save is by getting a rewards card with a gas station or two. Gas prices are a good focus to have depending on how much roaming one may do and because of the increased gas prices in the summertime.  For example, the Shell Gas Card offers 10 cents off every gallon bought if they’re shown a membership card.  It may not seem like a lot now, but it can definitely save some money in the long run that can be used for other fun things on the road.

One of the most fun parts of living in a van is finding places, and many places don’t charge. Using apps like IOverlander, The Dyrt, FreeRoam, Campendium and TheVanlifeApp can save you thousands of dollars every year. These apps show the different amenities each site comes with, like water, electricity and whether or not they allow campfires.  They also show when the best times are to go and include reviews people have left about the site in the past, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Lastly, some apps show hikes and other things to do around the site that might intrigue more people to stay there.

Furthermore, if one is interested in looking at national parks while on the road, the “America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass" is $90 for the full year, offering access to more than 2,000 parks. Otherwise, entry to the parks can be up to $35 per park when going to places like Yosemite, Zion, or the Grand Canyon. Also, camping is sometimes free in national forests which can save you from paying high prices to stay at campgrounds near them. For example, campsites around Yosemite can cost up to $50 per night if not careful.

Internet connection is another amenity that’s vital to van life because many people work remotely.  Finding places that offer free Wi-Fi are essential for staying connected with friends, finding directions, doing your work and finding your next destination.  Places that may be good to look for are libraries, coffee shops like Starbucks, businesses with free Wi-Fi and breweries if one doesn’t have a working hotspot.  Many say that buying hot spots increases connectivity but can be a very expensive investment if they require monthly payment like the Skyroam Solis X.

Month-to-month costs are going to range from $800 to $1200 depending on how much gas, food and campsites costs. A minimalist would be able to get away with somewhere between $800 and $1000 if they cook their own food, find free places to park and drive only when necessary.  Staying in one place may defeat the purpose of a van life experience, but if money is a big factor, it may be necessary to stay in some areas for a little longer.

Finally, keeping an emergency fund of at least $1000 adds just a little more security that could help in case of injury, breaking down somewhere or just need a night or two in a motel.  

After hearing everything that may deter someone from switching to this potentially life altering experience, it may be worth the change for many looking to save money and be different. Joe Roberts, a researcher at Move, did a unique study that concluded that, while a per square foot van appears more expensive than a house, overall, vanlife is 50% less expensive.

On top of that, learning unique skills, meeting others, having quality alone time and gaining the freedom to go wherever are all benefits to this lifestyle. 

Christian Boynton is a senior international business major. Contact him at boyntocj@dukes.jmu.edu