Living and traveling in our own campervan is a dream come true. But this lifestyle isn’t cheap and expenses do add up. On the contrary, this “simpler way of life” also involves lots of different costs & finances. In this article we discuss our real tips for reducing van life expenses so that you can stay out and travel longer.
There are a million ways to reduce your van life expenses. But according to our experience, the only way to substantially lower travel costs is by directly addressing our largest expenditure categories: Gas, Eating Out, Sleeping, & Van Maintenance
Table of Contents
1 - Reduce Expenditures On Gas
Depending on how much you drive, money spent on gas/diesel can easily be the number one expense. We depend on the below pointers to help keep our gas expense as low as possible.
If you can get to where you need to go without driving, it’s usually worth the effort. Taking public transportation or walking to your destination saves you on gas, wear & tear on your camper van, and potential parking costs. Urban driving is also where the lowest miles/gallon efficiency is incurred.
At least in the USA, gas prices in the same area can vary wildly.
When we search for gas stations on Google Maps, the price per gallon is often (but not always) displayed next to each search result so we know how much gas will be before we arrive. We can also use this information to select the cheapest gas station in the area.
In this Google Maps screen shot, there is one Chevron gas station that is about $0.60 per gallon cheaper than its neighbors.
Even if our tank is still 75% full, we will still stop for gas if we know we will be heading into an area with more expensive fuel (e.g. urban or rural areas).
In fact, even if we stop for food and the gas prices are relatively lower than elsewhere, I’ll still fill up on gas even if it’s not necessary.
Many, but not all, fuel stations usually offer a $0.10 per gallon discount if you pay cash. In today’s prices, that’s roughly a 3% discount and better than the cashback percentage that credit cards typically return on gas purchases.
2 - Cook Your Own Food
Let’s face it, eating out is easy, impulsive, and fun! Especially when exploring other countries and cultures.
But constantly eating out takes a serious chunk out of our wallets. So we try to cook at home as much as realistically possible.
While there are times when splurging on a nice meal is warranted, we believe money spend to eat out simply because we were too lazy to cook is wasted money.
Cooking feels like work most days and making new meals day-after-day is a chore.
We started to increase the volume of our cooked meals to intentionally make leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day. If we know we have leftovers, the chance of us eating out reduces substantially.
It’s easy to go out for a quick and “cheap” meal when you’re feeling lazy. But having several go-to meals that are quick and easy to make can help reduce the pressure to eat out.
Our go-to easy meal is a Japanese omelette with a side of white rice. Though it’s a common breakfast in Japan, we’ll eat this for dinner when we don’t really feel like cooking a real meal.
If the size of your battery bank will allow it, get an Instant Pot. It is incredibly easy to churn out delicious, low effort meals. The money you save in the long run is well worth the initial purchase price.
We use our Instant Pot at least twice a week and the meals it makes is enough for leftovers the next day.
Just like with the Instant Pot above, we believe that investing in a proper fridge will save you money in the long run. Not a cooler that needs ice every 24-48 hours, but a real electric fridge. You will be able to keep perishable food longer in a fridge, thus incurring less instances of eating out due to having no food in the van.
The prices of 12v fridges have come way down in recent years and should be a regular item in any camper van.
3 - Learn To Identify Places To Sleep For Free
Paying to park in a beautiful National Park is one thing. But if you’re just passing through, paying to sleep isn’t often necessary. We look to park overnight for free when we’re just driving through.
The iOverlander app is an amazingly helpful tool to quickly identify safe, legal, and free places to park your campervan overnight. You can find National Forest boondocking sites, BLM land, Walmarts that allow overnight parking, or quiet neighborhood streets. The iOverlander app should be a staple in every van lifer’s phone.
Virtually every Pilot and Flying J gas station will allow overnight parking. These parking lots are safe, well lit, and traveler friendly. Bonus is that many of these stations come with shower services for $12. We usually squeeze the two us into a shower room under a single entry.
4 - Keep Up With Basic Van Maintenance
Preventative maintenance on our campervans is easy to forget and neglect. But keeping on top of regular checks and upkeep can be costly down the road.
Having under-inflated tires has a negative effect on your fuel economy. In fact, the U.S Department of Energy calculates that for every 1-psi drop in pressure, you can expect your gas mileage to lower by 0.2%.
None of us enjoys paying $60-$110 per oil change, but keeping on top of your oil change schedule is crucial to keeping your engine running well. A broken engine does wonders for emptying wallets.
Vehicle starting batteries tend to lose their charge over time if your van is parked for long periods of time. Start the engine from time to time, or even take it for a short drive, to keep your battery charge topped up and healthy.
During the rainy season in Mexico we were parked for months while waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic. We protected our roof from the rain, falling branches, and bird poop by pulling a tarp over our roof. We hate leaks!
Rust is a huge enemy to any vehicle. If you’ve visited the beach or are driving on snowy roads, regularly wash down your van’s chassis to prevent the spread of rust.