My husband and I had dreamed of traveling in a van across North and South America for the longest time, but we didn’t know if we could make this dream happen. After a few years of saving, planning and testing out different cars, we finally decided to give van life a GO.
We ended up traveling in our campervan from the US all the way down to southern Chile over a course of 15 months.
But there are certain costs that come with traveling in a van – some expected and some that we had no idea about.
For one, you will need to choose the right vehicle for your lifestyle and turn it into a livable space. AND, if you plan to leave your job to travel full time, you might be wondering how much you should be putting aside for monthly van life expenses.
In this post, we cover exactly how much it cost us to live and travel in our campervan full time:
- Choosing The Right Car For You
- Cost Of Our Campervan
- Cost Of Our Van Build
- Monthly Van Life Cost
- Breakdown Of Our Van Life Expenses
- Van Life Income
Choosing The Right Car For You
The first step before you can set out on your dream journey is figuring out which car is the right one for you. This is often the most time, research and cost consuming part of van life.
Before we dove into full-time van life, we had first thought about traveling down the Pan-American Highway in our Honda Element SUV. We had heard of other people doing it, so we thought “why not us“.
We spent a few weeks converting our SUV into a camper and set out on a test drive across the US and Canada. While it certainly worked, we couldn’t see ourselves traveling in an SUV for longer than a couple of months. Our SUV was just too small and crammed to enjoy it for a long term trip.
That same summer we also rented a campervan in Iceland for a few weeks. Through these small “trial” runs we realized that:
- Traveling in an SUV full time just wasn’t going to work for us
- We really enjoyed traveling in a campervan
We had decided to get a similar campervan to the one we rented in Iceland but we had no idea what type of van to get at first. Do we go for an older and cheaper model? Or do we get a van that’s newer but one that costs a lot more?
If you plan to live in a van but not travel as much, you probably don’t need to get the latest model and can instead put that money towards the conversion itself. But if you plan to travel a lot, you might want to avoid getting a super old van that might have a lot of issues down the road and will end up costing more in repairs.
Cost Of Our Campervan
The first van that we bought was an older Sprinter model. Sprinter vans were super popular at the time and getting a Sprinter seemed like the first obvious choice. Unfortunately, our Sprinter van only made it a few thousand miles before it stopped working. We threw thousands of dollars into repairs but it never worked again.
After that, we decided to go with a newer Ram Promaster model for around $20,000 that only had 10,000 miles on it.
We wanted a reliable car that can make it across North and South America without any issues. Our worst fear was having our van break down in the middle of nowhere and (thankfully) because we ended up going with a newer model, no major issues ever happened to our van on the road.
But again, that was our preference. We have met people traveling in all types of campervans from vans that are much cheaper than ours to some top of the line vehicles that cost $100,000+.
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Cost Of Our Van Build
After buying our empty Promaster van the next step was converting it.
In total, we ended up spending around $3000 in our campervan conversion which is on the cheaper end of van builds.
We spent around 3 months working on our campervan conversion daily. We tried our best to find cheap materials, refurbish and buy things on sale as much as we could.
Our van’s conversion is pretty simple which is why it cost so little, but after living in our van for 15 months I wouldn’t really change anything.
One of the most important aspects of our build was to have a fully functioning kitchen with a stove, fridge, sink, and running water. This definitely made cooking a lot easier and saved us money in the long run.
We also built a stationary bed, storage cabinets, an area for our cat and a few secret pockets for our camera gear. During our build, we added a few nice “extras” like a swivel seat, a wooden deck and upgraded our tires.
Monthly Van Life Cost
We lived and traveled in our campervan full time for 15 months. During this time we rarely stayed stationary in one spot for more than a few days constantly moving from destination to destination.
Because of this certain costs for us like gas and activities were a lot higher than for people who live in a van, but don’t travel as much.
We did take a few short breaks during our 15-month long trip but instead of spending money on gas and activities we spent more on Airbnb rentals and eating at restaurants making up that difference. So, our month-to-month costs pretty much stayed the same.
On average, it cost us around $2200 per month to live and travel in our van – between two people.
When we lived in LA, that’s how much we spent on rent per month alone. So to pay that same amount to travel the world as a couple was a lot cheaper than we expected.
But everyone’s travel styles are so different and this is just what it cost for us to travel in a campervan.
We met plenty of people that traveled for much less always finding ways to cut down expenses by splitting gas with hitchhikers, never paying for campgrounds or skipping out on certain activities that are too expensive.
We did our best to cut down costs as much as possible but we also wanted to enjoy this trip so occasionally we would splurge on a dinner or go on a tour that was out of our “normal” budget. We didn’t want to go on this awesome once-in-a-lifetime journey and later look back saying “I wish we had done more”.
Breakdown Of Our Van Life Expenses
During our 15-month long trip across North & South America, I kept track of our monthly van life expenses. Although these costs would vary month to month, overall we spent about $2200 a month over the course of our trip.
Here is the detailed breakdown of our monthly van life costs by different categories:
- $430 in gas and car expenses
One of our biggest monthly expenses was gas. On average we spent about $430 in gas and small car expenses because we moved around at a pretty fast pace. We rarely stayed in one place longer than one night and campervans are not exactly cheap on gas.
This also includes a small cost for random car repairs. Although we didn’t experience any major car issues during our time on the road, we did spend a bit here and there in random repairs like when our side mirror got stolen in Mexico or when we had to replace a part underneath the van that we crushed during a river crossing in Colombia.
- $450 in groceries
During our trip, we spent a lot of time cooking in our van. Cooking our own meals was a way for us to stay healthy on the road, save money and relax at the end of the day. We tried to avoid eating fast food as much as possible and having a kitchen in the van helped us do that.
Most of the time we tried to shop at local markets where we could get fresh produce for super cheap but bargain shopping did take up a good amount of our day. We also tried to keep our fridge stocked for a few days at a time in case we went “off the grid” into the mountains.
We ended up spending around $450 in groceries per month which might seem like a lot but ends up only being $225 per person per month.
- $360 in restaurants & cafes
While we tried to avoid fast food, we did indulge in eating out at restaurants once in a while. This includes anything from cafes to local mom and pop eateries, dessert shops, grabbing drinks with friends, etc.
Part of this amount includes stopping at coffee shops a couple of times a week to use WiFi for work. Finding fast internet while traveling in a campervan can be a challenge and coffee shops usually have the most reliable internet.
When we went to work at coffee shops we would normally stay there for 3-4 hours so usually, we would also order some food and leave a good tip as a “Thank You” for letting us stay that long. On average, all of these little charges added up to a total of $360 per month.
- $210 in activities
During our van life journey across North and South America, we wanted to see and do as much as possible.
While some countries, like Mexico, were super cheap with most activities costing around $2, other countries like Costa Rica and Chile were not.
We tried to find as many free or cheap activities but most hikes and natural attractions starting with Mexico were individually or State-owned and locals usually charged at least a few dollars in entrance fees. On average it cost us around $210 per month in tours, guides, entrance fees, attractions, and hikes.
The most expensive attractions during our trip were Machu Picchu Ruins that cost $250 per person to visit and El Calafate Glacier Hike at $110 per person.
- $160 in visas, permits, ferries
During our Pan-American road trip, we would occasionally need to pay fees for border crossings, car permits, toll roads and ferries to ship our van. These fees were never constant and would change month to month but they averaged to about $160/month.
Some of the highest ferry costs included shipping our van across Baja California into Mainland Mexico, then onto the Ometepe Island in Nicaragua and along the Carretera Austral Highway in Chile.
- $110 in campgrounds
The best thing about traveling in a van is that you can sleep just about anywhere. Between rest stops, Walmarts, gas stations and random turnouts we could usually find a free spot to spend the night. But occasionally we did end up paying for campsites which added up to about $110 per month.
Most of the time we stopped at campsites for a few reasons – if we needed to shower, we didn’t feel safe in the area, we wanted to hang out and relax with our friends or we were in a major city.
It is so difficult to find a good spot to sleep in big cities especially south of the US. We tried to avoid staying in major cities as much as possible since usually, this is where most of the crime happens. But occasionally we would stop in certain cities and when we did, we would pay a fee to park our van at a hostel or inside an enclosed garage.
Many campsites also offer showers which can be a challenge while traveling in a van. Most of the time we used our solar shower but occasionally we paid a small fee to park at a campsite to take a longer shower with hot water.
- $80 in cell phone
During our van life trip, our cell phone was our only fixed cost. We spent around $80 a month on the Project Fi phone service between both of us. For $80 we were able to use “unlimited” data up to 15 GB – at which point it would just get slower.
Having unlimited data was super important to us since we spent a lot of time working online. When we couldn’t find WiFi, we would use our phone plan to hotspot our laptops to get work done. But it’s so easy to burn through 15 GB of data if you’re not careful so finding WiFi was always our #1 priority.
Mostly I really like Project Fi phone service (especially for van life) because Project Fi will connect to the local cell phone provider as soon as you cross the border. It made our life so much easier because we never had to deal with getting chip cards and we could use our phone at all times through all 15 countries that we visited in our van.
- $400 in miscellaneous costs
This is our one “catch it all” category. Our miscellaneous van life costs would include anything from repairing random things inside the van to doing laundry, paying for gym passes, buying toiletries, getting gas for our cooking stove, replacing broken camera gear, buying clothes, etc.
Our miscellaneous costs varied month to month but on average we spent about $400 on random every day van life costs.
This also includes paying a small fee for car insurance in those countries that required it like Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. But in general, during the 15 months that we traveled down the Pan-American Highway, we did not have car insurance.
Since we were traveling mostly internationally, we also didn’t have health insurance. If we had to go to the doctor (which we thankfully didn’t), we would have paid out of pocket anyway.
We also chose not to get travelers’ insurance because we just didn’t have any “nice” stuff in our van. Our cameras only cost $500 and we had secret places to hide our drone and laptops. If anything ever was stolen or broken, it would cost less to replace it than to pay for insurance.
If you DO want to get insurance and are wondering which ones are best for van lifers, we recommend to check out the Pan American Travelers Association Facebook group. This Facebook group is made up of other van life travelers so you can always find some really helpful information in this group.
Van Life Income
One of the most asked questions we always get is “Did we make money on the road?” And the answer is YES.
Since we covered all of our van life costs, we wanted to be completely transparent and go over how we made money on the road as well.
Before we left for our Pan-American road trip I really didn’t know what to expect. Both of us had saved money for years in preparation for full-time travel so no matter what, we had enough savings to fall back on after returning from our trip.
During our 15-month long van life journey, we wanted to start working online mostly for two reasons – to stay busy and to make money. Full-time travel is awesome but after a while, we started to crave a challenge.
I had started the FunLifeCrisis blog a few years before our Pan-American journey but during our road trip, I started dedicating more time to this blog and improving my photography skills.
I had also started researching ways to make money from blogging and photography – an important aspect that I had put off before since up until then I had treated blogging as just a “hobby”.
Slowly I started making a little bit of money from blogging, affiliate marketing, photo sales, working with hotels, and different social media gigs. Toward the end of the trip what I was making enough to cover most of our expenses, although not every month. Income from online work is never super steady but neither were our expenses.
Mostly it just felt satisfying to work on something and it gave us a purpose on the trip.
On the other hand, sometimes it would take away from our experiences because traveling became “work” and occasionally I had to remind myself to put the camera away, turn off my phone and just enjoy the moment.
Now blogging is what I do full time but without going on this 15-month long journey and living in a van, I would have never even thought that it would be possible.
We hope this post has given you a little bit of insight into our van life expenses, income and what to expect.
Over the 15 months that we traveled in our campervan, we ended up spending a total of $56,000 in van life costs:
- $20,000 on the van itself
- $3000 on the van build
- $33,000 in monthly costs over 15 months of traveling full time
Eventually, we plan to sell our van and make some of that money back. The way we see it, investing in your van is like investing in a house (which it was for us for almost two years).
Again, everyone’s van life experience is so different and this is just what it cost us to travel in our van full time for 15 months. You can certainly do it for a lot less especially if you plan to use your van for weekend trips or travel locally.
Have any questions about our van life experience? Don’t hesitate to ask us in the questions below!
Looking for more van life inspiration? Don’t forget to check out our other van life posts below:
- DIY Promaster Camper Conversion Guide – Part I
- DIY Promaster Camper Conversion Guide – Part II
- 15 Things We Learned From Traveling In A Campervan
- Driving The Pan-American Highway? Here’s All You Need To Know
- 50 Van Life Tips For Living On The Road
Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for nature shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Wasabi Power battery charger and extra battery pack
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
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