A Frugal Lifestyle A Frugal Traveler

Cost/Benefit Analysis: Hotels vs Vanlife vs Camping

After taking an 8 night trip to visit some National Park Sites in and around Southern Arizona during February 2021 I thought I would write some quick notes about costs for the trip staying in Hotels, versus a hypothetical expense of a van trip (sleeping in van), as well as camping.


We averaged $100 a night for mid-tier hotel chains and some independent smaller hotels. Every hotel we chose had free breakfast, usually some hot food components, but at a minimum serving some type of continental breakfast for a light morning meal typically consisting of pastries and baked goods, fruits, toast, and coffee. Usually served as buffet style with some having a take out bag option.

Advantages of Hotels

  • Can be “free” with credit card rewards
  • Highest comfort
  • Typically the best sleep/rest
  • Typically free hotel breakfast
  • Modern conveniences/bathroom facilities
  • WiFi for uploading photos and planning next steps of adventure
  • If not particular and if flexible, may be able to get by without advance booking/planning

Disadvantages of Hotels

  • Higher cost
  • Research time to determine quality of the hotel before booking
  • Research time for best rates for stay and comparison of amenities
  • Less nature activities for family to do while in the hotel
  • May also require advance planning for stays in popular areas


Advantages of traveling in a Van

  • Fast setup for sleep, minimal setup to get bedding for sleep (if setup well)
  • If van is stealthy, can sleep almost anywhere, easy to take naps along a route
  • Most flexible travel planning arrangement if flexible to stay in alternative/less desirable sleeping locations

Disadvantages of traveling in a Van

  • More exposure to the weather
  • Gas costs can be more expensive driving a van/RV


Advantages of camping

  • Low cost, particularly for large(r) families
  • Most closely part of nature
  • Can often stay closer or even at a particular nature destination if booking ahead

Disadvantages of camping

  • Takes time to setup camp and take down camp
  • Requires advanced planning and booking to stay in desirable spots
  • Can sometimes be difficult to find a comfortable spot to camp
  • Lack of full bathroom facilities sometimes
  • Most direct exposure to inclement weather
  • Potentially less comfortable/restful night sleep
  • More gear is necessary for restful/glamping experience (e.g., bedding, pillows, warm blankets/sleeping bags)

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