RV or Motel: Which One is Cheaper?

Motorhome parked beside entrance to Burrill Lake, New South Wales, Australia
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There was a time when cheap RV travel was something people pursued after retirement. Those days are long gone.

Families have discovered the economies of scale that come into play when you don't have to take six people into a restaurant three times a day. What about larger families that need two motel rooms each night? They have discovered RV travel and the beauty of visiting national parks.

Clearly, there are pros and cons to getting behind the wheel of an RV.

But many budget travel enthusiasts simply want an answer to the question "which way is cheaper, RVs or motels?"

For purposes of simplicity, I'll sometimes use the term "RV" to describe a variety of choices: motor coaches, trailers, pop-up campers, and fifth-wheels among them.

There are a number of variables in the equation that answers this question. Fuel prices, for example, are never constant. Gas prices can be a burden or a bargain within the same calendar year. 

Another key issue: should you buy or rent?

It's often wise to rent an RV for a long weekend trip that doesn't take you too far from home. In late summer and fall, I receive emails from dealers who offer time-limited deals. This allows you to try it without spending as much money. Keep in mind that a new RV can cost as much as a small house. You might need to spend $100,000 or more to acquire a new RV, so it only makes sense to try a rental for a few times before considering the added financial commitment of a lease or full ownership.

As you compare costs between RV travel and motel/restaurant arrangements, keep in mind that costs vary and circumstances can dictate one direction or the other fairly quickly. If you have a small family but enjoy the RV lifestyle, you might not worry that your savings over motel travel are little or nothing.

A large family that wants to get away from the chores and simply enjoy the freedom of the road might choose motel travel, even though it is the more expensive alternative for them.

Think about your possible itinerary, too. Large cities are not RV-friendly. Remote scenic wonders might not offer many decent hotel choices.

With each option, you are buying a list of advantages and disadvantages. Consider how those fit into your preferences as you look at your budget. Key questions: Will the benefits of renting or buying an RV become outweighed by the drawbacks, ruining your precious vacation time?

Click "next" and look at the potential savings and benefits.

Generally, the larger your family, the better your opportunity to save money with an RV. Savings also grow with the length of your trip.

Let's look at two of the major costs in any trip, meals and fuel. Consider the prospect of two weeks exploring the American West for a family of four.

  • Meals: $ 1,750 (@$125/day)
  • Gasoline: $ 350 (@3,500 miles, 30 MPG, gas $3/gal.)
  • Total: $ 2,100

Now let's look at the same distances with an RV.

  • Meals: $400 (@$200/week for groceries)
  • Gasoline $1,050 (@3,500 miles, 10 MPG, gas $3/gal.)
  • Total: $1,450

Notice that the savings on meals (which you'd prepare yourself) more than offsets the higher cost of fuel. Diesel fuel could cost even more. Some RVs, such as the Winnebago Via, offer a gas mileage of 15 MPG or more, so these figures obviously vary by model.

So, you will save some money on meals and fuel, especially when gas prices are low. But if RV travel is to be a bargain, the big savings have to come from skipping expensive hotel rooms. Studies are all over the board on this important figure. Quality studies factor in a variety of costs you might not think about right away, such as interest charges on the purchase or RV insurance.

Generally, the savings over hotels are significant. But some budget travelers expect the RV option to be far cheaper than reality, perhaps because they associate it with "roughing it."

If you typically rent more than one motel room for your family, your savings could be greater. But the family of four that can make due with one room might be at the lower end of the savings scale.

Contrary to uninformed and somewhat popular belief, parking an RV for the night is usually not free. People outside the RV world wrongly assume you can park anywhere you want for the night and pay nothing.

That might happen occasionally (usually by prior arrangement) but most nights, there are camping fees of $10-$40 to pay.

For some, the added money won't matter, because this type of travel is wrong for them. Next, consider if you fit into that category. The answer might be surprising.

The RV lifestyle offers wonderful moments that many people never experience. Nights around the campfire with fellow travelers, comparing notes about destinations past or to come. Awakening to the sounds of children playing on a sunny morning. There is no maid knocking on the door, intent on cleaning the room.

Now for the bad news: There is no maid knocking on the door, intent on cleaning the room. 

Any money saved has to be weighed against work to be done, and there's a lot of it. Groceries must be purchased. Meals must be cooked. Sewage holding tanks must be emptied. In some cases, you might work harder on the road than you do around the house.

Most of us are willing to make the sacrifices and put in the work that leads to some nice benefits. But if you're not interested in such work during your limited vacation days, please take careful note of this aspect of RV travel.

In short, if you're the type of traveler who likes all-inclusive resorts and planned activities for your children, think long and hard about this option before making a serious commitment.

There was a time when they couldn't make RVs fast enough to keep up with demand. Higher fuel costs cut into that demand, but there are benefits to giving RV life a try.