The upfront costs of vacations are predictable. It’s the little things—airport snacks, cocktails before dinner, tipping a tour guide—that can throw even the most well-planned vacation budget off track. In this new series, we’ll look at the spending patterns of real travelers in popular destinations, so you can estimate what you’ll actually spend. (Thanks for the inspiration, Refinery29!)
In this installment, a family of four travel to Las Vegas for a road trip in an RV exploring the Southwest's iconic national parks, following the “Grand Circle Tour” developed by the Union Pacific Railroad in the early 1920s. The loop travels through a scenic area of Southwestern Utah and Northern Arizona that includes Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Grand Canyon National Park.
Flights to Las Vegas: For our national park road trip, we chose to rent an RV in Las Vegas, where a number of RV rental agencies have set up shop in the city. Airfare to Las Vegas will depend on where you live. Our cross-country roundtrip airline tickets on Southwest cost $458 each to fly from Rochester, NY, to Las Vegas, NV. Cost for four people: $1,832
RV rental: We rented our RV through Apollo RV, a newer competitor in the U.S. market yet a decades-old company that’s the largest in Australia and New Zealand.
Our 31-foot Winnebago “Minnie Winnie” included 1,000 miles, insurance, generator, bedding, camp chairs, and a table. It was nearly brand-new (only two weeks old), super-comfortable, and equipped with A/C, a full kitchen and bathroom, bedroom, and in spotless condition. Cost: $2,700
Day 1: Fly to Las Vegas
Our traveling expenses included parking at the Rochester airport ($63) and taxi fare from the Vegas airport to the Apollo RV office ($54). Traveling costs: $117
After we picked up the RV, our first stop was to Target to pick up a week's worth of food and supplies. Cost: $300
Then it was time to finally hit the interstate. Two hours later we were in Utah, where we parked overnight in the St. George/Hurricane KOA in southwestern Utah. Cost: $56
Day 2: Zion National Park
At Zion National Park we purchased an Annual National Park Pass for $80 (good for the entire family). Individual admission to each park would have cost $110, so an annual pass is definitely the way to go. Cost: $80
We stopped along the way to fill the tank of the RV. Gas cost: $75
Zion National Park was a spectacular cathedral with brilliant red cliff walls, and we hiked beside (and into) the cool water of the Virgin River. However, as Zion is also Utah’s most popular national park, it was extremely crowded, not to mention sizzling hot in the summer. We had anticipated the crowds and managed our expectations accordingly. After a day of hiking, we retreated to our RV, drove 90 minutes north to Cedar Breaks National Monument, and arrived in time for a summer stargazing party under one of the darkest skies in the U.S. Campsite cost: $13
Day 3: Cedar Breaks National Monument
Just because we had wheels didn’t mean we spent every day on the road. We stayed put our third day at Cedar Breaks National Monument, and soaked in the surroundings away from Zion’s crowds and heat.
Cedar Breaks is a hidden gem along the “Grand Circle Tour” at 10,000 feet in elevation. We were fortunate to arrive in the midst of its annual wildflower festival, with alpine meadows in full bloom with Colorado columbine, scarlet paintbrushes, little sunflowers, elkweed, and bluebells. In the afternoon, we hiked the rim of the Cedar Breaks red-rock amphitheater to Spectra Point, and found the oldest tree in the park: a Bristlecone pine estimated to be over 1,500 years old. The evening was full of outdoor family-fun around the campfire cooking hot dogs, baked beans, and s’mores. Campsite cost: $13
Day 4: Cedar Breaks National Monument
In addition to carrying food and saving money on meals, another RV advantage was deciding when and where to go. Next stop on the “Grand Circle Tour” was Bryce Canyon National Park, but Cedar Breaks had an interesting Ranger program scheduled called “Pikas in Peril.” Our daughter asked if we could stay to learn about pikas (cute, furry, rabbit-like creatures the size of a hamster). Absolutely, we could stay; we could leave whenever we wanted.
Once finished with Cedar Breaks, we took the scenic mountain drive east through the Dixie National Forest. Gas cost: $61
Ninety minutes later we arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park’s Sunset Campground. Campground cost: $20
Day 5: Bryce Canyon National Park
One of the highlights of our trip was a day of hiking in the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. The strange, reddish-orange rock spires could have been monuments from an ancient alien race, and it was fascinating to inspect the hoodoos up close on the Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop trails.
Hamburgers cooked over the fire never tasted so good after a full day of hiking. Campsite cost: $20
Day 6: Grand Canyon
Yet another plus of an RV vacation is letting the family sleep while driving. The longest segment of the “Grand Circle Tour” was the 3.5-hour drive from Bryce Canyon to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Our teenagers happily snoozed in their beds as my wife and I enjoyed the stunning scenery through the RV’s windshield. Gas cost: $74
Between drives, hikes, altitude, and time changes, our family was starting to wear down. So we took it easy at the Grand Canyon and didn’t stray far from the Grand Canyon Lodge. We sat in Adirondack chairs on the porch, enjoyed a Ranger geology talk, watched shadows migrate along canyon walls, and tucked into bed at the DeMotte Campground in Kaibab National Forest. Campsite cost: $18
Day 7: Ponderosa Ranch Resort
After the Grand Canyon, it was time to loop back along the “Grand Circle Tour.” One of our best decisions was reserving an RV campsite just outside of Zion National Park at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. We needed some pampering and a hot shower after a week in the national parks. A soak in the two-tiered swimming pool overlooking the Zion plateau felt so good on our muscles, and we could still save money finishing up the food in our RV. (Alternatively, we could have splurged for a meal in the restaurant if we no longer felt like cooking.) Campsite cost: $55
Day 8: Drive to Las Vegas
The last leg of the “Grand Circle Tour” still delivers plenty of vistas along the Zion-Mount Carmel Scenic Highway. The views were magnificent, especially through the windows of the historic Zion Tunnel and the switchback road that wound down to the valley floor. Toll: $15
Three hours later we were back where we began in Las Vegas, where we returned the RV and headed to the airport for our flights home. Taxi fare to airport: $54
RV rental: $2,700
Food and supplies: $300
Gas and tolls: $225
Campsite fees: $195
Miscellaneous travel costs: $171
National park pass: $80