Today, I have a great guest post to share from Alyssa Padgett, author of RVing Across America. Four days after her wedding in 2014, Alyssa and her husband Heath set off on an unconventional honeymoon to all fifty states. They’ve been traveling ever since, now traveling the world with their two young children. You can find them on their website at HeathandAlyssa.com.
When my husband and I started planning our honeymoon, we knew we wanted to start our marriage with an adventure.
That’s when I came up with the plan to visit all 50 states in a year.
Which I realize makes me sound like I inherited a trust fund that allowed me to easily take a year off to full-time travel.
I was just a broke college graduate about to marry another broke college graduate and we would both be quitting our jobs to make this crazy honeymoon happen. This was in a pre-COVID world too, when remote work existed, but wasn’t yet common.
Heath, my husband, suggested sleeping in the back seat of our car to make the trip as cost-effective as possible. I pointed out that was a great way to ensure a divorce before we actually made it across the country.
Further research determined that the best, cheapest way to travel to all 50 states was to buy an RV and take a year-long road trip.
We didn’t know how much it would cost, how to make money while traveling, or anything about RVs. But we were determined to kick off our life together by accomplishing something amazing and visiting all 50 states sounded just wild enough.
RVing across America surprised us with beauty and adventure, but also with a surprisingly low price tag. The cost to visit all 50 states in a year—and full-time RVing in general—was cheaper than we expected and even cheaper than life in our apartment.
Let’s look at your basic travel costs first, and then get into ways to make and save money while traveling.
Basic Full-Time Traveling Costs to Consider
There are a few basic traveling costs that you must account for when budgeting for a major road trip.
Many of these expenses you likely already pay for every month, giving you a good estimate of what your budget on the road might look like, but I’ll share a few specific numbers from our travels too.
For most RV travelers, gas is their biggest expense—especially if taking a large RV across the country. RV gas mileage varies widely, but even in fuel-efficient RVs, traveling to all fifty states takes a lot of gas.
We spent about $7,000 driving 20,000 miles across the lower 48 over the better half of a year.
We averaged about $1,000/month, but during our first month of travel, we spent $1,700 driving up the coast of California where gas prices are always a bit higher than in the rest of the country (the price we paid in CA was $4 per gallon, which is a closer testament to current gas prices!).
I recommend budgeting a minimum of $800/month if you’re really trying to make it to all fifty states in a single year. (If you’re traveling slower than that, you can easily pay significantly less, but more on that in a second.)
If gas isn’t the biggest line item on your expense sheet, lodging fees likely are. Especially if you stay in RV parks and campgrounds often.
RV park fees average about $50/night and campgrounds—think campsites at state and national parks—average about $25/night. However, most RVers don’t pay for campsites every night. They find ways to creatively lower their lodging costs by camping for free as often as possible.
Groceries and Eating Out
One way that RVing is cheaper than other forms of travel is that you always have your kitchen with you. We averaged $500-$600/month on groceries and eating out combined. We saved money by cooking in our RV or grilling out at our campsite often.
Another way to lower your food costs is through grocery store loyalty programs that will give you discounts. You often don’t actually have to sign up for these programs to reap these benefits.
More than once we’ve told the clerk that we aren’t part of their program because we are just traveling through and they’ve scanned a store card to allow us to get the discounts, making this an easy way to lower food costs.
Health insurance, RV insurance, car insurance, travel insurance—there are plenty of insurances to consider keeping while traveling.
You likely already know what you pay for health insurance and car insurance, but RV insurance can be a big additional expense.
With our used RV, insurance cost around $600/year, but a new RV may cost $2,000 or more annually. (We used Good Sam for our RV insurance, but most major car insurance companies will also offer policies for RVs, so you may be able to bundle and save.)
Double-check that your insurance (or travel credit cards if you carry any) offers roadside assistance too. We had roadside assistance with our RV insurance and it paid for itself when we found ourselves stranded with a flat tire in the California desert. When you’re traveling to every state, you’re bound to break down at least once, making roadside assistance a necessary expense!
Vehicle Payments (if applicable)
If you have payments for your RV or your car, be sure to add them to your budget.
Depending on your type of RV, this payment can be anywhere from $400 to $1000/month. While we traveled to all 50 states, we lived in a 20-year-old motorhome that we bought with cash off Craigslist.
It wasn’t the prettiest RV, but it did mean we didn’t have any monthly payments or have to pay interest while traveling.
Phone and Internet
We travel with two Verizon phones plus an AT&T unlimited data hot spot. Altogether, we pay about $300/month ($200 for the phones, $100 for internet).
Depending on the number of phones in your household, your number may look very different than mine. But I would budget around $100 for mobile internet, plus an initial fee for equipment.
For example, Starlink only costs a little more than $100/month, but has a hefty one-time equipment fee. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars upfront for your internet setup and about $100/month for service.
You can’t visit all fifty states without spending a bit of money on adventures. (Or, if nothing else, firewood and marshmallows!)
Our fun budget included a National Parks pass ($80), seeing a matinee in the Mall of America ($12), riding the Maid of the Mist boat at Niagara Falls ($34), and an eight-hour whitewater rafting trip in Denali National Park ($296).
How much you should budget will fluctuate based on who is traveling with you and your interests, but it’s good to earmark at least a hundred dollars a month for experiences like this.
Easy Ways to Save Money
Travel expenses can add up quickly.
We averaged about $2,500/month in expenses while we made our way across the country. But there are a few easy ways to save money on your big expenses while traveling.
1. Travel slowly.
The biggest factor in your costs is going to be the speed at which you travel. In order to make it to all 50 states in a year, you’re going to spend a week or less in each state. We averaged three or fewer days in each state, which meant we were always driving to the next spot. This is why our monthly gas spend was so high!
After completing our 50-state goal, we adopted a slower pace of travel and our gas expenses were reduced to averaging closer to $300/month, which makes full-time travel much more feasible than spending $1,700/month like we did that first month of traveling.
Traveling slowly can also save you money on camping fees since many RV parks charge a discounted rate for a week-long stay.
2. Camp for Free.
One of the biggest ways to save money is to cut down on your camping expenses by finding ways to camp for free.
We often “moochdocked” and parked our RV in friends’ driveways as we drove. Even more popular is boondocking—where you camp for free on public lands. We use Campendium to find free boondocking spots where we can be surrounded by nature.
You can also camp for free at certain chain stores like Walmarts, Cracker Barrel, and Lowes. The All Stays app can tell you which stores in an area allow for free overnight parking as county laws dictate whether overnight RV parking is legal.
Whereas you can’t easily cut down on a food budget, insurance, or vehicle payments, you can save money and keep your lodging fees extremelhy low by opting to camp for free most nights.
Related: How To Find Free Camping In The USA & Canada
3. Save with Memberships.
We never could’ve afforded our trip across the country if we hadn’t picked up a few camping memberships to save money.
Our favorite is Passport America, which offers 50% camping at participating RV parks. The membership costs $44 upfront but quickly pays for itself if you’re camping every night. If you want to save money on camping, but boondocking or staying overnight at a Walmart doesn’t appeal to you, memberships like Passport America are a great way to still save.
The Good Sam membership offers 10% off their campgrounds, plus a few cents off each gallon of gas when you fill up at Pilot and Flying J gas stations. Since their membership is only $29/year and you can save on camping fees and gas, this is one of the best RV memberships to pick up to save a little extra money as you make your way across the US.
Unexpected Expenses to Budget For
That covers all of your basic expenses while traveling, but there are always unexpected expenses that can take travel from affordable to draining your bank account.
Here are a few expenses we didn’t expect to incur while we traveled.
This is the biggest unexpected expense to budget for. You never know when a fuel pump could need replacing, an engine could overheat, a roof could leak, or a refrigerator could die. (Yes, all these happened to us before we even made it to state 20!)
I recommend budgeting at least $100 a month for maintenance—whether your RV is new or used—and adding whatever you have leftover on your monthly budget to your savings so it’s ready whenever you get stuck with a massive repair bill.
Most of our repairs cost $200 or more, so putting away a little extra each month can really help lessen the sting of a giant mechanic bill.
Most travelers will tow a car behind their motorhome or tow a trailer with a truck, giving them a vehicle option for going to the grocery store or exploring an area.
We, however, drove a small enough RV that we didn’t tow a car.
Without a car of our own, we ended up paying for more than one rental car during our travels. This was always a cheaper option than taxis and gave us more flexibility too. In addition to renting a car in Hawaii, we rented cars to explore major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago without taking our motorhome into city traffic.
Hotels or Airbnbs
We inaccurately assumed that we would sleep in our RV every single night of our cross-country road trip, but we found ourselves booking a hotel on day 10 of our travels!
Our RV needed to be in the shop overnight and we needed a safe place to stay, so we booked a nearby hotel we could walk to. Luckily, our RV insurance actually reimbursed us for this stay (another perk to see if you can get included as part of your RV insurance!).
You likely won’t need hotels or Airbnbs often, but it’s good to be financially prepared for a random hotel stay.
Plus, if you’re traveling in a smaller vehicle like a van or a camper, you may enjoy taking short breaks from your home on wheels and enjoying a long, hot shower every once in a while. And while you can rent a van to try RV life in Hawaii, you’ll probably book a hotel for the islands too.
You will have to fly at least once to make it to all 50 states (unless you take the cruise route to Hawaii, that is!).
You can save on your airfare costs easily by choosing to fly to Hawaii from the west coast. We flew from California to Maui for about $400/per person and since we flew out from the Bay Area, it was an easy, direct flight too.
Unless you choose to spend a few weeks driving to Alaska over the summer months, you’ll also want to budget for flying to and from Alaska. This, again, is significantly cheaper if you book from Seattle or anywhere on the west coast.
I highly recommend making the drive to Alaska if you have time. It’s one of the most scenic drives on the continent!
However, gas alone will be significantly more expensive than simply flying and it will take you at least two weeks return since it is over a 2,000 mile drive from Seattle to Denali National Park.
When you set off to visit all 50 states, you’ll probably get the question: Are you going to buy a shot glass in every state? Or coffee mugs, t-shirts, stickers—all of your classic vacation souvenirs.
We opted for a specific experience in each state we visited so we could save money and not add more weight to our RV. But if you’re looking for something to remember your adventures by, be sure to budget for 50 souvenirs as you travel!
Other Financial Considerations
There are quite a few extra expenses while traveling full-time that may have you a little stressed thinking about the total cost of actually making it to all 50 states in a year, but there are few more financial considerations to take into account.
Are you working remotely?
When we set off on our honeymoon adventure to all fifty states, we didn’t have any prospects for working remotely. (This was also a few years ago before working remotely was as commonplace as it is today!) Without any income, we had to penny pinch like crazy to actually make it.
If you have a job that you can work remotely, this can significantly lessen the financial stress of travel. Most travelers we know work remote jobs or run their own business to pay for their travel lifestyle. In many cases, this means staying at campgrounds for a week at a time and traveling on the weekends outside of work hours. This can dampen some of the freedom that comes with full-time travel, but it is one of the best ways to make it a financial reality.
Remote work is a great way to be able to afford to visit all 50 states in a year, but it isn’t the only way to fund your travels.
Related content: How To Find A Remote Job (Best Sites, Tips, & More)
Is your money making money while you travel?
Do you have investments set up? Investing is a great way to passively make income while traveling.
Real estate, stocks, bonds, retirement—there are many options for what investing might look like for you. You can travel with flexibility and peace of mind if your money is making money while you’re hiking through Grand Teton National Park.
If you haven’t started investing yet, you can easily get start investing with apps like Acorns, which rounds up your spare change from credit card expenses and invests it for you.
Related Content: How to Start Investing for Beginners
Do you have savings that you want to use?
You may or may not want to use savings for your travels.
If you do plan on using some or even all of your savings, it’s important to consider how much you may need to keep on hand to cover your adventures.
Most travelers we meet do not plan to rely 100% on their savings, but instead use a combination of remote work, investments, and savings to fund their travels.
Let’s dig into some specific numbers.
How Much to Save Before You Start RVing
Whether you’re traveling or staying at home, it’s always smart to have three- to six-months expenses set aside as your emergency fund. Assuming an average of $2,500/month for expenses, that’s $7,500 to $15,000.
We had closer to $15,000 in savings before we started traveling. I mentioned earlier that we didn’t have remote jobs at the time, but as we traveled, we started a business and began bringing in some money. Not enough to cover all of our expenses, but combined with our savings, enough to pay our bills every month. When I ran the numbers after we visited all fifty states, we ended up using about $4,000 of our savings to fuel the trip.
If we hadn’t been able to find ways to make money while traveling, we would’ve blazed through the entirety of our savings before we made it to our 50th state.
Without income, you’ll need to save enough money to cover 12 months of traveling, which for us was upwards up $30,000. (Not to mention a lump sum payment for an RV, if you don’t already own one.) That number is pretty intimidating, which is why I alway encourage travelers to find at least one way to make money while traveling before hitting the road.
Related Content: 25 Best Travel Jobs To Make Money Traveling The World
Do you want to visit all 50 states?
While most people don’t try to tackle every state on their honeymoon, many Americans want to visit every state and typically take decades to complete the task.
With remote work options and full-time travel possible, it’s easier and more financially possible to visit all fifty states on one epic road trip.
Author bio: Alyssa Padgett’s latest book, RVing Across America, shares the story of her honeymoon road trip. In this humorous travel book, Alyssa and her husband Heath hit the open road together—despite their lack of income, the falling apart RV they found on Craigslist, and the tiny detail that neither of them has RVed. Ever. Follow along as they breakdown, meet new friends, run into a giant elk, and explore the country on a mission to visit all 50 states in one year.
Have you ever thought about RVing across America? How many states have you visited?