5 Tips To Managing Gas Costs On the Road
One of the most common questions we get asked when folks first see “the beast” is “what’s the gas mileage on that behemoth?“.
The most common response, once people hear the answer (our RV gets around 8 miles/gallon BTW) is “you must spend a TON of money on gas!“.
It seems to be one of the Top 5 financial worries of people getting on the road, and everytime gas prices change (which they do all the time) it triggers multi-page discussions on the RV forums.
“If gas prices rise will it force you off the road?”
“If gas prices fall will you travel more?”
And so on and so forth.
Given the bro-ha-ha this topic tends to whip up, I figured I would touch on it in a little more detail. The truth is that gas costs are not something we think too much about, but we do try and find bargains where we can. Here are our thoughts…
1/ Your Gas Costs Are Part Of Your LIVING Costs
Perhaps one of the most important things to understand about fulltime RV travel is that your gas costs are a fundamentally different part of your budget than when you lived in a stix & brix. Instead of just being a budget item for your car, they become part of your living costs, the costs you pay to live in your RV and live this lifestyle. This puts a whole different perspective on the matter.
To give a specific example, when we lived in our stix & brix house we paid for base “house costs” (= mortgage, property taxes, electricity, water, garbage) plus we commuted back/forth to work. As you would expect the former was big $$, but the latter was fairly hefty too. During our most active commuting years we commuted (jointly in a single car, to save money) 90 miles each and every workday. That’s 450 miles per week or 22,500 miles per year…NOT including week-end travel & vacations! Living in the expensive Bay Area (CA) our total house+gas costs were significant. Even without the mortgage, these costs ended up just over $1,100/mo, a big chunk of cash.
When we moved into our RV we exchanged our “house costs” for “RV costs” (RV, RV registration & RV park fees) and we exchanged our commute for travel. The switch was significant. Our RV park fee rates have averaged ~$10/night for the past few years (thanks to a mix of parks, volunteering & boondocking) and our travel has averaged just over 5,000 miles per year in the RV, with an additional ~7,000-9,000 miles/year in the car. Including yearly registration costs the total of these three items comes to around $650/mo, ~40% less than what we spent before.
Nowadays we couldn’t even rent a room in the Bay Area for that price!
For this very reason gas costs are not really something we think too much about. Even if gas costs increased 50%, we would still be able to travel without too much worry. Most other fulltime RVers would say the exact same thing. When you understand that RV and gas costs are now part of your living costs and replace the house plus commuting costs of your “old” life it changes the equation quite dramatically.
Note/ Interesting little side-note. Back in our stix & brix commuting days we used over 100 gallons/month of fuel. These days we actually use less (~85 gallons/month), despite “the beast” and our fulltime travel.
2/ Plan Your Fill-Ups
Although we don’t obsess about gas prices, I always like a good bargain when I can get one so we do make an effort to track down good gas prices when we can.
State Pricing – Gas prices change quite a bit across state lines, especially if you travel cross-country. In general prices are more expensive on the coasts (especially the West and Northeast) than in the middle. So, whenever you’re planning to cross state lines it makes sense to try and plan ahead by either filling up right before you cross the line, or right after, especially if you have a big ‘ol 100 gallon tank like we do. Since we mostly travel out west we know that AZ prices are always more attractive than, say CA prices so if we’re about to cross from one into the other we’ll always fill up appropriately. THIS site provides a very nice US-overview of prices.
Local Pricing – Local prices can actually vary quite significantly from station to station especially if you’re traveling more than 100 miles or so (which is not unusual in an RV). Our favorite little App for this is GasBuddy and we pretty much always use it to scout out our next spot. Since we’re “beast-size” we tend to favor bigger “trucker-type” gas stations, but we’ll not exclude smaller stations if we can get a clear view of their entrance from Google Street View. We can usually snag at least $0.10/gallon savings by using this App.
3/ Plan Your Travel Miles
What if you’re on a limited income where these numbers DO matter a lot? The most obvious answer is to cut back on the number of miles you travel, and honestly there is nothing wrong with this.
Many people who get into fulltime RVing somehow think they need to see everything and travel everywhere, and if they don’t do this they feel they’ve somehow failed. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to drive a lot of miles (we know fulltime folks who regularly travel 15-25 K miles/year), but there’s also no requirement that you have to.
As an example we’ve found we’re partial to the western states and we’ve also found that we actually prefer a slower pace of travel. We’ve seen an incredible number of places averaging only ~5,000 miles per year. Do we feel deprived? No! Do we feel limited? No! Will we always travel only in the west? I don’t know! We could decide to travel to, say, Minnesota or Maine but it’s a choice that we can or cannot make based on our wishes, travel pace preference & budget.
I know people who RV only within a certain number of states, or sometimes even only within one single state all year long (note/ this style of travel affects residency, but that’s a whole different topic). Believe me, there is plenty to see and do even if you only stay in smaller areas. If you’re on limited or variable income there is nothing wrong with adapting travel mileage to suit, and you can still have an incredible RV experience.
4/ Have A Gas-Conscious Toad
If you’re snazzy enough to RV in a van or other small vehicle you’ll never have to think about this, but if you’re “beast-size” like us it makes total sense to have a gas-conscious toad. This way you only travel the major drives in your big “gas-guzzling” RV and instead do the majority of your sightseeing and running around town in your smaller, higher gas-mileage vehicle. This saves a lot in both hassle & gas $$.
We have a Honda CRV as our toad and although it’s not the highest mileage toad you can get, it gets a very respectable ~25 miles/gallon, a major improvement on the 8 miles/gallon of “the beast”. We have friends who tow mini’s (>30 miles/gallon) and other people we know in smaller vehicles (e.g. Class C’s) who haul scooters.
5/ Get Something Back
I always like to get a little something back on my purchases when I can.
Credit Cards – Many, many credit cards offer cash-back awards these days and if you don’t have one I really recommend getting one. The one “gotcha” you’ve got to look into is that many cards have spending limits on the amount of cash-back they offer. So, they might offer a really nice cash-back %, but it gets cut off really quickly. THIS site has a really nice overview of some of the best gas cards out there, including their limits (or not). Alot of RVers, especially on the forums rave about the Pen Fed card. We like the Amazon Rewards Card (2% back on gas stations, no limits) since we do a lot of shopping at Amazon year-round. We also carry a few of the airline travel cards, for travel mileage points.
Loyalty Cards – For “beast-size” folks like us who like to use the trucker stops (e.g. Loves, Pilot etc.), getting a loyalty card can get you additional savings. We have an older RV card from Pilot (no longer offered it seems) that gets us auto-start at the diesel pump and $0.05/gallon off the cash price of diesel. Current offerings from Pilot are this RV Plus Card (joint venture with Good Sam’s) and myRewards card, both of which offer between $0.02-$0.06/gallon discount price. Loves doesn’t have quite as interesting a deal, but they do have a MyLove Card that offers auto-start at the pump and some points that you can redeem over time. We use our loyalty card + our credit card cash-back to get double savings whenever we pump at the trucker stops.
Note/ I’ve found trucker stop prices are **not** always the cheapest (in fact they’re often the most expensive) even with the savings ontop, but they do have the convenience of high-flow nozzles at the diesel stations (= super-fast fills for “the beast”). Use GasBuddy to decide if it’s worth your while.
PHEW! 1600 words later and I’m finally done. Had no idea I had so much to say. DO comment and share your own thoughts below.