“What’s your favorite place?” is the number one question I get asked on my travels. “But how much does it cost?” is usually the next one. Up until now, I’ve always been very vague because it is such a personal topic. I don’t just mean personal as in private, but personal as in individual and unique. Unlike a home mortgage or apartment rental, the costs of living in a house on wheels can vary drastically from month to month. And even when comparing my living costs with other fulltimers, it is easy to see how different expectations result in different monthly costs.
For me, my goal is to see America with all of the essential modern comforts of home. That means I spend a lot of money on campgrounds and gasoline. For others, limited travel may cut fuel costs. Solar panels, large fresh water tanks, and unlimited patience may lower campground fees. A large number of variables affect the monthly/yearly costs of living in an RV. And many of those variables are entirely up to you. Seriously, it’s possible to live on public land in a beat-up camper that barely moves for almost nothing per month. It’s also possible to travel to every state in a multimillion-dollar diesel-guzzling coach. Trust me, I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum; I’m somewhere in the middle.
Enough of the explanations. Let’s start seeing some real numbers! I bought a brand new 2008 23′ Airstream International CCD and a brand new 2009 Volkswagen Touareg V6. Each of them have an MSRP of just under $50,000. So I have a monthly loan payment for each. Other RV and tow vehicle combinations are available for a mere fraction of this cost, but I wanted a ready-to-move-into modern home with a reliable tow vehicle. And each are worth every penny! If I paid only the minimum payment each month, my Airstream payment would be under $500/month. I don’t really count my car payment as an extra cost because I would have one even if I lived in a traditional house. But my gasoline costs are much higher because I am pulling my house behind it.
I spend about $6,500/year (or $540/month) on gas. I average 13 mpg when pulling the 5,200-pound Airstream with extra-expensive premium grade unleaded gasoline in my tanks. Fun, fun!
This graph shows just how my gas costs vary from month to month. There is a general increase each summer simply because I drive more miles in those months. It spiked twice because of the higher than average fuel costs in Canada (around September 2010) and in Alaska (around July 2012). My fuel costs drop drastically in the winter when I tend to stay put for longer periods of time because of a thing called snow. With 110,000 miles traveled in four years, this works out to about 24 cents in gasoline costs for every mile driven.
Campground fees are another major part of living on the road. And, just like gas, they can vary from month to month. In the summer, I spend more time parked in the rent-free yards of friends and family. In the winter, I splurge a bit more on campgrounds with full hookups. On average, I spend about $7,500/year on campground fees. Over the course of a year, this averages out to about $20/day.
But, I seem to be spending a bit more on campgrounds each year. This is probably because campground fees are rising just like other costs. And it’s also because I find I am staying at slightly nicer places as my campground palette gets more refined. Calculating only paid nights, it jumps to about $30/night for an average campground stay.
The other big cost is the oh-so-nice regular maintenance with occasional upgrades. I have a tow vehicle with four tires, and an RV with four tires. Each one is on its third set of tires. At least once a year, the Airstream wheel bearings need to be repacked. It also has brake assemblies that were just replaced. You get the idea. And there are unexpected repairs when you back your home into a brick wall, or a tree, or a cement sidewall. There are also upgrades like solar panels, Wi-Fi/cellular antennas, inverters, generators, converters, and a desk. The Touareg has scheduled maintenance for oil changes, fluids, hoses, etc. And the brakes have been replaced a few times. This all adds up to just over $4,000/year in additional costs. With a combined 200,000 miles (110,000 miles on the Touareg with about 90,000 of those miles towing the Airstream) traveled in four years, this works out to about 8 cents in maintenance and upgrade costs for every mile driven. I realize some of the items listed aren’t directly related to the number of miles driven, but indirectly, they are a result of more time spent on the road in a confined space.
RV insurance is one more thing to remember. I have the Full Timers Package from Progressive Insurance. Much like home owners insurance, it covers items inside, offers full replacement of the Airstream in case of theft/accident, and even provides liability if someone trips and falls on my front step. At $100/month ($1,200/year), it is slightly higher than normal RV insurance.
As a web developer who works on the road, I absolutely need a solid mobile internet connection. Even though I can hop on Wi-Fi at campgrounds or at the local coffee shop, most of the time my own Verizon 3G/4G mobile broadband device is faster and more reliable. As a backup, I can tether my AT&T-based iPhone. Even though mobile broadband speeds have increased significantly in the last couple of years, the costs are still incredibly expensive when compared to typical broadband connections in a home. As such, my average $200/month ($2,400/year) for internet access is probably more than the average fulltimer who only occasionally gets online. I am thankful my current employer reimburses me for internet access!
I use a web-based service called Mint to track all of my finances. I meticulously track every single purchase, and feel pretty confident about the accuracy of my estimates. But remember that these numbers are very specific to how I choose to live full time in my Airstream. I could stay in much nicer campgrounds and easily double my average nightly rate. I could travel less and easily cut my gasoline costs in half. Remember what I said earlier? Many costs are entirely up to you. For me, it takes at least $25,000/year set aside for home and transportation costs to do what I do.
Some may think that is quite a bit of money to live in a 160-square-foot home without permanent electricity or plumbing. But some may totally understand how it is a great way to snorkel in the Florida Keys, land a floatplane on Lake Champlain, sail a boat on the Atlantic, get charged by a grizzly in Alaska, get stuck in snowstorms in the Rockies or on the beaches of the Outer Banks, view Niagara Falls or Mount Rushmore or the Golden Gate Bridge, go off-roading in the Sonoran desert, fly a glider in upstate New York, view the fall colors of New England, take a ferry to Newfoundland or Vancouver or Catalina, experience French Québec or Charleston etiquette, kayak in Lake Tahoe, hike in Yosemite or Acadia or Arches, golf in every state (but Hawaii), eat BBQ in Texas, drink wine in Napa Valley, go to a céilidh in Nova Scotia, watch a space shuttle lift off in Florida, descend through the Carlsbad Caverns, fly high above Denali, drive every mile of the Pacific Coast Highway or the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Overseas Highway; the list goes on and on and on.
Best. Decision. Ever.
“Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” With the camera and oxygen mask in my lap, that’s what I heard as I sat in the co-pilot seat of a twin-engine Piper Navajo ready to depart from Talkeetna airport for a flightseeing trip to view Denali from high above.
But the story really begins a few days earlier.
Midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park, off the main highway and on its own spur, sits the historical village of Talkeetna. It is full of log buildings, a railroad depot, a general store, various food trucks, cafes, and restaurants. It looks like a mining and gold prospector town right out of the 1800s, with a modern artsy twist. And the best part–the best part of all–is the buzz of all the flightseeing airplanes and helicopters overhead.
Unfortunately the popular (and what I thought was the only) campground was full by the time I rolled through town, so I turned back towards the main highway in search of a place to sleep–at 11 o’clock at night. Knowing I really should snap some photos of what little I had seen of Talkeetna and thinking I may never get back, something made me turn around in the middle of the road after I had completely left town. On my way back to town, I saw people parked–cameras and binoculars in hand–next to a “Scenic View” sign. With nothing but a big sun beginning to set behind the clouds, some gentle rain falling, and trees for miles and miles, I didn’t see anything that remotely resembled a scenic view, but I parked anyway. An older couple pointed out at the horizon, and asked me, “Do you see it?”. They sensed my confusion and said, “Denali. It’s right in front of us, 60 miles away, once the clouds disappear.” Excited to see the famed mountain in person for the first time, I asked the old man how long he had waited here to see it. He responded, “40 years, son, 40 years.”
It’s true. Denali is so big that it creates its own weather. Even if the surrounding area has clear skies, there is generally a cloud layer obscuring the actual mountain. In fact, the guide books say that only 25-30% of visitors actually get to see Denali appear. So, yes, I was pretty excited when–about 30 minutes later–the sun went behind the Alaska Range, the clouds parted, and there stood the 20,320-foot Denali flanked by the 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker and the 14,573-foot Mt. Hunter. The other peaks–many over 10,000 feet–look like tiny hills compared to Denali and the other two “big” peaks.
After talking with some of the others who had stopped to get a glimpse of Denali, I still had to find a place to sleep. At this point, it was well past midnight, so I took a chance and drove into town one more time, hoping to find a spot on the street to park and sleep. By chance, I found a not-so-published campground back in the woods, put my money in the honor box, and stumbled into bed. Little did I know I would spend the next two days in Talkeetna.
The next day, I ended up finding a spot at the main campground that was full the night before. And my campsite happened to back up directly against the Alaska Railroad Depot for the Hurricane Turn train. It is one of the last true flag stop trains in America. Instead of scheduled station stops, passengers between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch simply flag down the train as it approaches. And passengers already on the train let the conductor know they want to detrain because their cabin, or lean-to, or fishing hole, or campsite is near. There are no other ways to reach these incredibly remote places. There are no roads, and the Alaskan Bush is too thick for airplanes in this part.
Since I was literally staying only a few yards from the depot, I bought a ticket impromptu, and stepped back in time for a six-hour roundtrip journey by rail. It was an experience! Honestly, the scenery itself started to look the same after a while, but the people I saw and stories I heard were priceless. Of course the train was full of tourists just like me, but it was also full of locals on their way to their property. In some cases, they were heading back to their childhood home. Some brought supplies: like two-by-fours and tools, beer and water, rifles and fishing rods. Some got off right away, did some fishing, and then got back on when we returned a few hours later on the inbound leg. There were two passenger cars with comfy seats and big windows, but there was a third car–a cargo car with doors wide open and a safety net strung across the bottom. In Alaska fashion, we would stick our heads out the open door as the train raced along the tracks–at speeds up to 60 mph! We even passed Alaska’s smallest town, population two. And at one point, the train stopped at a rail crossing so we could all get out to see a grizzly bear that had just been shot a few hours earlier. It was a crazy, crazy ride!
The conductor kept track of everything and everyone, yet still found time to share stories and answer questions:
“So why have I been saying Denali and what happened to Mt. McKinley?”, he asked. “Well, they are the same thing. Denali, an Athabaskan word meaning ‘The High One,’ is the official Alaskan name for the mountain. But nationally, Mt. McKinley is named in honor of President McKinley, a man who never even visited Alaska.” As he politely explained, “If you call it Mt. McKinley, we know you’re a tourist. If you call it Denali, we know you are a true Alaskan.”
So, from now on, I’m calling it Denali. Oh, and by the way, most of the locals pronounce it with a hard “a” sound: as in, rhymes with “alley”, and not “Molly.”
And that brings be back to ”Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” As everyone was packing up to depart by the ubiquitous 11AM campground checkout time, my next door neighbors mentioned they were on their way to take a flightseeing trip to see Denali from above. One thing led to another, and I found myself in the co-pilot seat of a Piper Navajo, about to depart on a 90-minute adventure of a lifetime.
Since Denali is just over 20,000 feet in elevation, we would have to climb to just under 21,000 feet to see it from above. And since oxygen starts disappearing at around 12,500 feet, we would need supplemental oxygen and masks. I am pretty certain that it was my first flight in a twin-engine general aviation airplane, and it was certainly my first flight in a non-pressurized cabin in Class A airspace. The other passengers just heard white noise, but I could hear all communication with air traffic control in my headset. It was reassuring to hear “visibility greater than 10 miles, ceiling greater than 10,000 feet” when the pilot got the weather report from ATIS and verified with the Flight Service Station he had listened to the most recent report tagged “H”–as in “Hotel.”
Within 15 minutes after takeoff, the Alaska Range appeared below the horizon. And because it was such a great weather day, other airplanes and helicopters started to appear, too. There were close to a dozen aircraft in our airspace, and I got to help the pilot spot them as their positions squawked over the radio. We flew over some glaciers that had carved a river of snow, dirt, and ice out of the landscape. We flew over what looked like little tiny peaks of a massive meringue pie. And in just a few more minutes, with a cotton candy-like covering of clouds, we were staring at the South Summit of Denali, almost four miles above the surface of the Earth. We were five miles out, but it looked like we were just a few feet away. After circling the summits a few times, we started our descent to get a better look at some of the other buttresses and glaciers, like the Ruth and the Kahiltna. We flew through jagged black and white canyons, over bright blue water surrounded by white ice, over brown sandy glacial deposits, and along lush green vegetation. I took some 200 photos of that flight; it was like something out of a children’s storybook.
Almost 90 minutes later, we landed, the pilot closed his flight plan, and I shook my head at what I had just seen. And then I waited for my ears to pop.Read More
Just north of Anchorage is the town of Wasilla. Maybe you’ve heard of it? The former mayor, Sarah Palin, and her family still live in town. Thanks to Google, I noticed their house was just down the road from my campground. I had to go check it out! I drove up to the driveway expecting to find a gate, a security outpost, something. All I found were a few “No Trespassing” signs on a nondescript wooden fence just off the main nondescript highway full of chain restaurants and retail stores. The best word to describe everything would be–you guessed it–nondescript.
The next morning I waved goodbye to the Palins as I drove by again, starting my trek down to the Kenai Peninsula. The Seward Highway, rated one of the best drives in all of America, follows the ocean inlet and turns inland over a series of gentle mountain passes. Well, at least I think it does, because all I saw were clouds, fog, and sideways rain. For the next three days, I had some of the worst Alaskan summer weather yet.
I eventually rolled into Homer with plans to stay on the Homer Spit. Sticking out into the ocean on a skinny piece of land only a few hundred yards wide and a few miles in length, I finally reached the famed spit–only to find Alaska’s dirtiest tourist trap. Needless to say, after a long drive in horrible weather, I wasn’t too happy when I saw the overcrowded, overpriced, and entirely overrated campgrounds on the spit. I took a deep breath, did some quick internet research, and found a decent campground with a great view back on the mainland part of Homer. And when the weather did turn better for a few hours, I did have some incredible views of the surrounding seaside mountains. The town of Homer definitely grew on me as I stayed longer, but I still think the actual Homer Spit isn’t worth the high prices–at all.
With continued bad weather in all the forecasts, I made a quick decision to retreat and head back up north to a town I had read about in my travel research. This town would end up as one of my absolute favorite towns in all of Alaska.Read More
After politely answering all the customs officer’s questions, I entered Alaska again near the town of Tok. And, by “near,” I mean “almost 100 miles.” Other than the border crossing, there isn’t much at all going on in this part of the Alaska Highway. In fact, parts of it are actually a bit boring. At Tok, I turned off of the Alaska Highway with plans to head towards Anchorage. But, as usual, my plans changed.
While spending the night in Glennallen, I happened to notice the sign to Valdez. There is only one road into Valdez and it stops just on the other side of town; it would be a quick round trip. For the first hour or so–with nothing too interesting–I wondered if I had made a mistake. And then I turned the corner to head up Thompson Pass. With a bright blue sky and puffy white clouds, mountain peaks in every direction, waterfalls, glaciers, melting snow and ice, it was an arctic heaven reachable by automobile. Even other travelers I met (who had also driven several thousand miles to reach this place) were in awe of the scenery that day.
Just on the other side of Thompson Pass, and right on the Prince William Sound, Valdez is sometimes called the Switzerland of Alaska. I now know why. The mountains surrounding town rise from sea level to 7,000 feet, making them some of the tallest coastal mountains in the world. They offer a backdrop for the downtown harbor, full of fishing boats heading back and forth from the sea. I found a campsite with views of the mountains out every window and within walking distance of the busy harbor. It was a pretty good day!Read More
To get from Southeast Alaska to Southcentral Alaska, there is a little country called Canada that gets in the way. The Haines Highway (out of Haines, Alaska) and Klondike Highway (out of Skagway, Alaska) both pass through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. And to confuse things even more, there is a time zone change: the Yukon (on Pacific Time) is one hour ahead of the Alaska Time Zone.
To give you an idea of what it’s like to drive in the Yukon Territory, I took some photos as I was driving about 100 kilometers per hour up the Haines Highway. The scenery is incredible, but it is as desolate as the photos depict. Yes, I made sure to stop for gas in both “towns” I drove through. I had a little fog, a little rain, and a little sunshine. There were two 15-kilometer sections that were gravel. It is part of regular road maintenance to repair damage caused by the frost heaves. There were actually sections of the paved road that were in far worse shape than the gravel. You may have heard me yell a few times when the Touareg and Airstream caught some unintentional air.
Overall, it was a great travel day. I even saw some grizzlies on the side of the road. Busy eating grass, the bears were not at all bothered by me–this time.Read More