Comparing costs of traveling by RV between Europe and the United States

Ton and I recently completed a couple of short trips in the Pacific Northwest and as we were driving we found ourselves comparing the experience between camping in the US and in Europe. We also spent some of that time discussing our impressions of costs. So when we returned from our last trip I decided to take a look at the spreadsheets we keep when we travel to see the differences.

While we travel we keep an excel spreadsheet where we record all of our daily costs by category. We have been doing that since 2016 so it includes all of our trips to Europe, our Alaska trip, and our trips in the US. For this post I am comparing our two 2019 European trips, with two shorter trips we took this year in the US. The costs for Europe are averaged out over 110 days, while the costs for the US only include 24 days.

For this post I am only including the costs actually involved in traveling from the time we leave our home in Oregon until we return. The year we traveled to Europe we used airline miles for both sets of flights, so the airline costs are minimal. I am not going to include cost of ownership items such as maintenance, storage, insurance, and depreciation because I have not been very good about recording the costs associated with Scout our US RV.

In our spreadsheet we track the following costs associated with daily RV life:

  • Fuel
  • Eating Out
  • Camping
  • Entrance Fees (Parks, Museums)
  • Internet Access
  • Tolls (Includes costs of ferries)
  • Laundry
  • Public Transit
  • Groceries
  • Lodging

We are type A travelers so we move very frequently. An average week for us has about 4 different locations where we spend the night. Also, one of our favorite reasons to travel is to sample local foods, beers, and wines, so we eat out fairly frequently. Because of this our average daily costs may be a bit higher than many people. Also, the costs are expressed in US dollars, we keep our spreadsheet while we are in Europe in both dollars and Euros and update the exchange rate daily. It is not perfect but I think close enough.

Crossing from France into Spain.

Overall

The average daily cost for Europe was lower than the US. This surprised me a little as we have daily costs in Europe that we do not incur in the US. It was not a total shock because both Ton and I thought that overall it would be close, we just thought it would slightly favor the US.

Lower cost Europe by $7 per day.

Driving down a long lonely road in Eastern Oregon.

Fuel

The biggest difference between the US and Europe is not surprisingly fuel, but it does not favor the side you would think. Everyone knows fuel is much more expensive in Europe than the US. Last year while we were traveling fuel costs in Europe were approximately $6 per gallon. During our travels in the US this year fuel was around $2.50 per gallon. Scout’s 6.8l diesel with automatic transmission burns fuel at about 13.5 miles per gallon. François’ 2.2l with manual transmission gets much better mileage at about 20 miles per gallon. The biggest cause for the difference is we travel much farther per day in Scout than in François. Looking at our expense log due to the difference in miles driven we fuel Scout almost every day. In contrast because things are much closer together in Europe we end up fueling François only every 5 to 6 days. I thought maybe this was an anomaly caused by the trips we took in Scout this year, so I went back and looked at the expenses for 2016 and 2017 and they were very similar for fuel to what we see in 2020. So it is more about miles driven per day in the US. So even though fuel is much cheaper in the US we end up spending substantially more per day on it in the US.

Lower cost Europe by $33 per day.

Small neighborhood market in Sicily.

Groceries

Our impression was that groceries were slightly more expensive in Europe than in the US, and that is how it turned out. The difference this year was more substantial than in past years. I attribute that to the fact that this year we only had one long trip that we had to purchase groceries. The other two trips were only a week and we did not purchase food on those two trips but stocked the fridge from home. We did not have any costs on those two trips. When I looked back at our longer trips from 2016 and 2017 the average cost was lower than Europe but only by about $2 per day.

Lower cost US by $6 per day.

One of our favorite things to do while we are traveling.

Eating Out

Experiencing the local food is a big part of why we travel so we budget for eating out a few times per week. We were pleasantly surprised by eating out in Europe. The fixed price lunch is one of our favorite things there. We thought that eating out would be more expensive than at home but it has not turned out that way. The menu prices are higher than in the US, but they almost always include the service charge. When you factor in a typical tip of 18 to 20% the lower menu costs in the US evaporate. What we found is that our costs were very similar in both places and for the time we are looking at they were slightly lower in Europe.

Lower cost Europe by $2 per day.

Lodging

We budget one day a month for hotels this allows us a little break from François and some cities are easier to see from a hotel. Also, we stay in a hotel the day we arrive in Europe and the day before we depart. Currently because of my pre-retirement life as a consultant we have a ton of hotel points available to cover these nights so the cost is pretty minimal. In Europe we will sometime stay at US military short term quarters as it gives us access to the American washers and dryers there.

Lower cost US by $2 per day.

An “Aire de camping” in France, basic and cheap.

Camping

Before we left the first time for Europe I would have guessed that our camping costs would have been higher there than here. But as we traveled the first time, the well developed RV infrastructure and the variety of options to park were striking in Europe. This was the biggest surprise for me.

The opportunities to free camp there are many and we met a lot of people who took great pride in almost never paying to park. We tend to avoid urban free camping as we are just not that comfortable with it. The opportunities in Europe are probably greater than in the US, but like here because of abuses by a small number of people, becoming more difficult. We probably free camp (usually in a parking lot ala Walmart parking) about 10% of our nights.

Europe has something that I have not seen in the US and it really helps with camping costs. Each country calls it something different, but it is a parking area usually sponsored by the town or city that is designated for short term stays by RV’s. The services offered vary from a designated corner of the municipal parking lot with no amenities, to very nice facilities with water, dump stations, and even toilets. These are not posh facilities, usually just asphalt with no expectation to enjoy the outdoors. The great thing is the cost. They range from free to $10, with the norm being around $5. We probably spent around 50% of our nights in these facilities while traveling in France and Germany.

We also find that our Campground costs are lower than in the US. These are the equivalent of RV parks here. We are traveling in the shoulder season there and in Europe there is a camping organization called ACSI that is something like Passport America. The ACSI campgrounds generally go for $15 to $20 per night for a full service (electric, water, shower block) campground during shoulder season. As RV sales have taken off and demand has increased we are finding that RV parks even in the shoulder season are running $25 to $45 per night in the US.

So even though we most often camp in National Parks and other US government campsites and get our senior discount, the additional cost of US RV parks pushed the average daily cost in favor of Europe

Lower cost Europe by $8 per day.

Sometimes we just join with all of the other tourists!

Entrance Fees

We are very much in tourist mode while visiting Europe so our costs for sights is more. In the very popular sites in Europe we often find ourselves paying for guided tours which even raises the costs more. In the US we are now eligible for the lifetime senior discount card. This gives us free entrance to National Parks, and other US facilities. This has taken away our biggest entrance cost while touring in the US.

Lower cost US by $5 per day.

Internet Access

In a previous post I talked about our way of maintaining internet access. In the US we do not need this as our cell phone service provides it. Our cost for internet access in Europe gives us about 100 gb of data per month, and represents a discount for long term usage and taking advantage of periodic discount offerings from the provider we use.

Lower cost US by $5 per day.

Tolls

In the western US toll roads are pretty much limited to the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas and a few stray bridges. In Europe outside of Germany and Belgium most freeways are tolled. We try to avoid them, but there are times when they are unavoidable. Also, during 2020 we traveled in Italy and made the decision to use the freeways whenever possible and pay the tolls due to the quality of the secondary roads.

Lower cost US by $7 per day.

Laundry

One of the biggest chores for us is finding good places to do laundry. Laundry is more expensive in Europe. It typically costs $6 to $8 to wash and dry a load.

Lower cost US by $2 per day.

We have come to depend on the excellent public transit in Europe.

Public Transit

We almost never use public transit in the US. In Europe we frequently use it to get from the campsite to downtown, particularly in mid sized and large cities. In 2020 we also used a ferry to get from southern France to Sicily which was a bargain though it drove our cost per day up.

Lower Cost US by $10 per day

For us now that we have invested in a RV in Europe there is no significant difference between traveling in the US and in Europe on a daily basis. If you enjoy RV’ing in the US you will enjoy it in Europe, it is affordable, fun, and gives you another view of living on the road.

You can see our thoughts on shipping your American RV to Europe vs purchasing one there in this post Purchasing our RV in France.

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