Our second year as full-time Airstream dwellers/digital nomads/travelers has come and gone. We added a few new states to our travel map (North Dakota, Nebraska, and Idaho), crossed the northern border for the first time (it won’t be the last time), and traveled 7,607 miles (just 61 miles less than last year). Our longest drive day was 377 miles and our shortest was 6.5 miles. We averaged $46.63/night in lodging costs, thanks to spending 45 days in a condo/hotels at various times throughout the year while our converter was fixed, solar panels were installed, and modifications were done to the interior.
We continued to learn more about ourselves, our Airstream, our country, and the nomadic lifestyle. Here’s a look back at our second year on the road:
We visited 13 National Park Service sites, with 8 of them being new to us:
We also revisited Death Valley, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, and Mount Rushmore.
With our return visit to South Dakota, we were able to conquer the remaining 3 sites of South Dakota’s Great 8, the other 5 of which we saw last summer:
The other 5 are Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and the Missouri River.
We hiked, and hiked, and hiked…
and paddled, and paddled, and paddled…
and soaked, and soaked, and soaked.
We chased waterfalls…
but we also stuck to the rivers…
and the lakes that we’re (not) used to.
We drank beer…
We rode a gondola in Palm Springs…
and one in Banff.
(Have I mentioned I don’t like gondolas?)
We saw where Forrest Gump ended his run…
and where Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff.
We saw lots of wildlife…
and visited the geographic center of the country.
We added four new tires,
two new batteries,
four new solar panels,
and a couch and a desk.
We had visitors in Las Vegas; Hurricane, UT; Custer, SD; and Glacier National Park:
Our second year on the road was fantastically fun and memorable, even with the issues we encountered. (I’m looking at you flat tire and junk converter.) All of the inconveniences we deal with are by far worth the amazing places we get to experience. Thanks for following along and we hope you stick around for 2020, our third year on the road — although we’re not really sure what’s in store yet!
These days, it feels like life revolves around our phones. I would love to say that living a nomadic lifestyle allows us to be more disconnected than the average person, and in some ways it does; however, in certain ways we’re more dependent on technology than we’ve ever been. As people (and a dog) who live, travel, and work full time in an Airstream, there are a number of iPhone apps that we utilize regularly in order to make our lives easier and safer.
To start, we need to know where we’re going. We are very basic when it comes to navigational tools and most of the time depend solely on Google Maps. In more than 15,000 miles, Google Maps has done us wrong only once. It directed us down an 8-mile washboard gravel road with nowhere to turn around as we made our way to a one-night stop in Cranbrook, British Columbia. (There was a sign posted at the campground regarding this issue, so it seems it’s a common occurrence.) When we’ll be entering an area with little to no cell signal, we’ll often use the GPS in our truck in conjunction with Google Maps, just in case. Now that I think about it, it might be time to invest in a dependable paper road atlas as a fallback!
It’s incredibly important to keep an eye on the weather both while towing and while parked. Knowing whether rain, snow, freezing temps, or high temps are in the forecast helps us to be prepared. Do we need to get more propane to run the furnace? Do we need to start our drive a day early or delay it a day due to probable thunderstorms? Do we need to put the awnings in because it’s going to rain? These are all things we look at on a regular basis to keep us, our dog, and our Airstream safe.
The WindAlert app is very beneficial on days we plan on towing. It can get downright dangerous when you’re pulling a trailer down a highway and there are gusts of 50mph or more. This app allows us to look at what the projected hourly sustained wind speed and wind gusts will be, which helps us determine if we need to hit the road earlier or later than planned or if we need to pull off for a bit and wait out the wind.
Places to Stay
Campendium is our go-to resource for finding campgrounds and RV parks, along with reviews. Besides reviews, the amenities (no/partial/full hookups, showers, laundry, etc.) offered at each location are listed, as well as cell signal. In addition to searching for campgrounds and RV parks, you can also look for public land, free camping, overnight parking, and dump stations. This app/website is free to use and because it is essential to our travels, we make sure to financially support it when they have their annual fundraiser.
Another place we check when looking for places to stay is good old dependable Google. Sometimes we find RV parks or campgrounds on Google that we don’t find when using any of our other resources, so we check it when we aren’t finding a lot of options for a particular location. The reviews on Google are typically different than you’ll find on the other RVer preferred apps and websites; probably because long-term or full-time travelers are looking for a different experience than the occasional weekenders, who seems to do most of the reviewing on Google.
The Recreation.gov app and website help us find places to stay on federal lands at more than 3,500 facilities across the country. There are over 100,000 reservable sites throughout our national parks and national forests, and Recreation.gov is where we go to not only make reservations, but to also get information about each location including maps and amenities. Most recently, limited permit lotteries have been incorporated into the app. The app also conveniently stores all of your reservations in one place for easy access.
Harvest Hosts is a membership program that offers unique overnight (dry camping) experiences at 1300+ wineries, breweries, farms, museums, golf courses, and other attractions. You can stay at an unlimited number of host locations throughout the year. We utilize this program most when we have multiple drive days in a row and just need a place to park for a night. The two main rules are to call 24 hours in advance to let them know you’re coming and to patronize the establishment in some way, like buying a bottle of wine.
Staying at a KOA is not for everybody, but we’ve had more positive experiences than negative, and they really seem to be everywhere. For example, if you want to stay near Devils Tower for a night or two and need hookups, the KOA is your only option. Also, KOA has a rewards program that is quite beneficial if you stay at a couple each year, which we usually do. We also like that KOAs have cabins, which two of our friends took advantage of this past summer when they joined us at the West Glacier KOA near Glacier National Park.
Passport America is another membership program and we find it can be real hit and miss. We went all year this year without staying at a place that offers PA discounts until late October, when we then stayed at three places in a row. Properties that participate in the program offer 50% off, with certain restrictions (of course) which can include such things as two nights discount max or discounts on weeknights only. However, when it works out, it can really work out. We ended up saving about $300 in a 2.5-week span, so the $44 annual fee was definitely worth it.
The Dyrt and Allstays are similar to Campendium. I personally find the Campendium app to be easier to use, but some people prefer one of these two as their primary site locator — it all comes down to personal taste. With that being said, The Dyrt only has site listings available for within the United States. Also, I’ve found sites on Campendium that aren’t listed on The Dyrt. However, when a I find a site on Campendium without reviews, I’ll check both The Dyrt and Allstays to see if it’s been reviewed there.
In the Airstream
The VictronConnect app is what we use to monitor our battery levels and the amount of power our solar panels are generating. It’s a good idea to check in with your batteries from time to time to make sure they are staying charged properly, but the app is most useful when we don’t have an electric hookup and need to monitor our power usage. The app is a tool to teach us how to use the furnace, water heater, TVs, etc. in such a manner to live within our energy means. To find out more about our solar panel and lithium battery setup, check out this post.
The Mopeka TankCheck app allows us to monitor the amount of propane that is in each of our two 30lb propane tanks. A standard Mopeka sensor is attached to the bottom of each of the propane tanks. Using the app, we can see how much propane is left in each tank, as well as the battery level and signal strength of each sensor. An LED display does come with the standard Mopeka sensors, but using the app gives us a much more accurate reading of how much propane is left in each tank.
We use a Blink Home Monitor camera to keep an eye on Max when we are out of the Airstream. The app and camera give us peace of mind when away from home as we’re able to look at Max, hear what’s going on in the Airstream, and make sure the temperature is comfortable. The accompanying app is pretty customizable, allowing us to choose if we want alerts sent to our phones with certain levels of movement. It also alerts us when the temperature inside the Airstream has gone outside of the range that we’ve predetermined.
We installed a Ring doorbell on the Airstream more so for security than to have a functioning doorbell, because really, you don’t need a doorbell on an Airstream. As the doorbell has a wide-angle camera that records whenever it senses motion, it’s one additional layer of security that gives us peace of mind when we’re away from the Airstream. As with the Blink app, the Ring app is customizable to have alerts sent to your phone when various activities take place.
As residents of South Dakota who use Americas Mailbox as our mail forwarding service, the iRVMail app might be a bit specific. I’m sure other mail forwarding services use this app, but I couldn’t tell you which ones. Anyways, this app allows us to see what mail has arrived at our mailbox in Box Elder, South Dakota. Each piece of mail is scanned, assigned a reference number, and uploaded. To read more about how we receive mail on the road, visit this post.
The Arrive app is perfect for anyone that receives a lot of packages in the mail. Instead of having to go to each carrier’s website to track where your package is, this app keeps all of the tracking info on one screen. Regardless of carrier, enter the tracking number for your package and the app will track your package’s journey with a live map. Give each package a name (e.g. Sewer Hose) to make things easier and set up notifications to let you know the status of the package.
The AllTrails app helps you discover the best hiking, running, and biking trails around the world. It uses your location to provide a list of trails in the area, including such information as length and elevation change. A map of the trail, directions to the trail, photos, descriptions, and current weather are also some of the features. Available filters include dog friendly, wheelchair friendly, level of difficulty, and attractions along the trail including waterfalls and hot springs. We use this app whenever we’re in a new place where we want to get outside and explore nature.
I admit that we don’t use this app nearly as much as we should. The REI Co-op National Parks Guide app has all the info you could need about any national park in one place: Visitor center hours, hiking trails, family friendly activities, camping & lodging info, shuttle & tour info, restaurants, maps — you name it! Sometimes stopping into a visitor center as soon as you enter a park isn’t possible, so this is a good resource to have.
So there you have it — all the apps we find to be essential in our full-time Airstream travels!
Of note, we are in no way associated with these companies and therefore are only promoting these apps because they work well for us. All app icon images were screenshot from the Apple App Store.
We had Ultimate Airstreams do some much-needed modifications to our 2017 27′ International Signature Airstream. We lived in it for a year and a half and decided to make some changes in order to make it more full-time friendly. We contacted Ultimate Airstreams back in April to discuss the changes we’d like make and to schedule an appointment. We worked with Ian to design a new layout that would work better for us and we dropped the Airstream off on September 3rd for a five-week renovation.
The factory-installed Airstream ‘couches’ are notoriously uncomfortable. Airstreams are not designed for full-time living, and the seating is a good indicator of that. The most important aspect in our new layout was having a comfortable couch. Like, a real couch. And that’s what Ultimate Airstreams did. Our couch actually started as a couch from IKEA that was manipulated and altered to fit into the Airstream. The cushions were reupholstered with a durable vinyl material that looks very much like leather in the Vintage Pretzel color. To replace the storage that was lost under each bench seat, two large drawers were installed under the couch. While the couch no longer converts to a bed, it is large enough for one person to sleep on, if needed. There are cup holders in the arms of the couch and two pop-up outlets behind it — one inverter and one regular. We absolutely love our couch and are finally able to watch TV in comfort!
The long bench seat was never really utilized in our Airstream — hardly anybody ever sat on it and nobody every slept on it. We replaced it with a desk, which has really changed our daily life. After about 21 months of setting up and breaking down the 27″ iMac every day, or leaving it sitting on the dinette table where it always seemed to be in the way, we finally have a functioning ‘office’. We are full timers that still work full time. There’s no end in sight for living the full-time lifestyle, so we needed to make our space work better for us. Thanks to the modifications, we have a dedicated work space by day and a comfortable lounging space by night that allows us both to see the TV without having to put the computer away every evening. We chose a butcher block top for the desk, which looks great alongside the cabinets and couch. When designing the desk, a must for me was to have a pull-out garbage can. The Airstream came with one tiny, under-sink garbage — again, not really meant for full-time living. We had a full-size garbage that would sit in front of the pantry, but we had to move it any time we wanted to open the pantry. Super annoying. We now have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind garbage as well as a drawer for storage above it.
(And because I always get at least one message asking about how we store the iMac while traveling whenever I post about it, read this blog post about the case we use and where we store while under tow.)
We purchased the desk chair from the Laura Davidson website. It’s a knockoff of the ridiculously priced Herman Miller Eames Soft Pad chair. It comes with rolling casters on it, but the website also sells these stationary glides. In order to keep the chair secure while towing, Kenny at Ultimate Airstreams installed hooks to which we attach a bungee cord that is wrapped around the base of the chair.
They found a new home for the fire extinguisher that always seemed to be in the way (Max’s collar got caught on it a couple of times.) They also fixed a few things that had been on our to-do list — replaced missing rivets, replaced the broken bathroom doorknob, made our door easier to open and close (it previously took a lot of muscle), and fixed our awning LED lights that have never worked.
We are beyond thrilled with the finished product! Ian and Kenny were fantastic to work with and they actually finished the project almost a week ahead of schedule, so we were able to pick it up early. Ultimate Airstreams is located in Clackamas, Oregon and is owned by Airstream Adventures Northwest, the five Airstream dealerships located in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and NorCal. If you dream it up, they can make it happen! We’ve been living in our newly remodeled trailer for a week and a half now and have commented almost daily about how nice it is and how we wish we would have done it sooner. However, waiting so long let us figure out exactly what we wanted/needed.
While Ultimate Airstreams was working on our home, we rented a condo in Portland for five weeks. It was located in the South Waterfront neighborhood, which is a clean, quiet neighborhood along the Willamette River. There’s a really nice, dog-friendly green space along the river, a farmer’s market every Thursday night in the neighborhood park, a few shops, an Orange Theory Fitness (which we both joined for a month), and a handful of food options within a few blocks of where we stayed, which was the The John Ross building.
We didn’t venture out as much as we would have liked for a few reasons: We were busy with work; I (Missy) took a trip to Wisconsin to visit family; and the parking situation wasn’t ideal. The building has underground parking, but it’s not really built for a large truck. We technically fit without scraping the ceiling, but the assigned parking spots are very snug. If other cars were parked around us, it took both of us to get in and out of the spot — Travis driving and me directing him through a 27-point turn so we didn’t hit anybody. Not really ideal for exploring the city. However, we did make it to the following sites:
Washington Park: Home to the Hoyt Arboretum, International Rose Test Garden, Oregon Zoo, Portland Children’s Museum, World Forestry Center, and the Portland Japanese Garden, the latter of which we spent a decent amount of time at. The Japanese Garden is laid out so beautifully and is very serene. We grabbed a bite for lunch at their Umami Cafe. I would definitely put this on the list as a must-see when visiting Portland!
The Pearl District: It’s only about a 10-minute drive from South Waterfront to this neighborhood where you’ll find Powell’s Books, Deschutes Brewery, trendy boutiques, big-name stores, restaurants, bars, breweries, coffee shops, and galleries. There’s also a Whole Foods with an Amazon Locker where we had a package sent. If we were to recommend an area for someone to stay who is going to visit Portland, this is it.
Cannon Beach: It’s a little over an hour and half drive to Cannon Beach from Portland. It was a much needed and enjoyed trip by all three of us.
Studio One Theaters: A luxury movie theater with a more personal vibe. Our particular theater was set up and decorated like a New York penthouse.
We know there is so much more to explore in Portland and hope to get back some day to do so. After picking up the Airstream from Ultimate Airstreams, we stayed at Pheasant Ridge RV Park, about 20 minutes south of Portland. We spent a few days there while moving back into the Airstream and getting everything organized. We’d highly recommend Pheasant Ridge as a basecamp while the visiting the Portland area. Read our review here.
When we bought the Airstream in June of 2017, we had the dealership install two 100w flex solar panels. We never upgraded the batteries to anything beyond what was installed at the factory, and even after replacing those first batteries with a new set (of the same), they were never able to hold a charge like we would need to successfully function without shore power (that’s what RVers call an electric hookup). We talked about upgrading the batteries for a while, and in doing research, found that our flex panels don’t generally have a long life expectancy either. In April, after 15 months on the road, we decided we wanted to add two more solar panels and upgrade to lithium batteries. We knew we were missing out on one of the benefits of this lifestyle, which is to be able to stay places without having to hook up. There are so many options out there for boondocking, especially in the West. We wanted to have the convenience and flexibility to be able to subsist for a few nights and not have to depend on electricity. We scheduled an appointment for late August with AM Solar in Springfield, Oregon, who we found to have rave reviews.
We originally were going to have them install just two 100w rigid panels, but decided to have them replace the flex panels as well. We now have four 100w rigid panels. We swapped our crappy batteries for two Battle Born 12v 100Ah lithium batteries. Our original converter has been disconnected and replaced with two lithium-compatible chargers. To complete the upgrade, a Victron battery monitor system was installed so we can monitor our battery levels as well as our solar input on our phones in the Victron app.
There are two big decisions that need to be made when upgrading solar and batteries: Lithium vs AGM batteries and Fixed vs Portable solar panels. You should make these decisions based on how YOU are going to use YOUR rig – don’t worry about how other people are using theirs. We weren’t looking to be able to live off grid 100% of the time, though we are fully capable of doing that now, but to have the flexibility and convenience to make decisions about where we stay independent of whether or not there’s an electric hook up. Sometimes we want full hookups, other times we don’t. We have a great setup now for the times we don’t.
There are some solar purists out there that feel that anything other than portable solar panels are a waste of money. Again, this depends on how you’re going to use your rig. For the non-RVers out there, when you park a trailer in direct sun, it gets hot inside. Alternatively, when you park in the shade, it stays cooler. For the people that like to stay off grid regularly, being able to park in the shade but still receive sun on the solar panels is a necessity. In cases like this, one would need to have portable solar panels that are plugged into the RV by a long cord, but sit on the ground and are able to be moved around and adjusted as needed in reference to where the sun is in the sky. We don’t like heat. When it’s hot, we like to use our air conditioning. In order to use a/c, we need to have an electric hookup as our inverter does not support running a/c. It’s possible to install an inverter powerful enough that will allow you to run a/c strictly off of battery power as opposed to shore power, but it’s very pricy, and as I said, we aren’t looking to go off grid permanently so it’s unnecessary for us. If it’s hot, we like to be on shore power. Therefore, we don’t need to be able to park in the shade and still get sun to our solar panels. We’ll save our dependent-on-solar-panels days for cooler temps that allow us to sit in direct sun without feeling like we’re slowing baking inside our Airstream.
Wholesale Solar has a great blog post that explains lithium vs AGM batteries better than I ever could, so please click here to read it if this topic interests you. For us, the deciding factors were that lithium has a much greater depth of discharge, a faster charge rate, and a longer lifespan.
So, what exactly what can we do with our fancy new batteries and solar panels? We recently spent about 24 hours at a Harvest Hosts to try our new system out. We made dinner in the oven, watched hours of TV, had the furnace kick in a few times, ran the fridge on propane, charged cell phones, used the water pump as needed, turned on lights, and used the stove to heat water for the French press. The lowest our batteries got to was 78%, and seeing as they can safely get down to 20% and we were not holding back on using power, we were very impressed. Even though it was raining when we hitched up and rained for about half of our 4-hour drive, we were back up to 100% when we reached our next destination, thanks to our solar panels.
While this project was not cheap, to us, the convenience it provides and the money we can save boondocking is worth every penny. The staff at AM Solar are consummate professionals and did an amazing job. Everything is under warranty for an unheard of seven years, so we have peace of mind that if any issues should arise in years to come, AM Solar has our back!
The day before we dropped the Airstream off at AM Solar, we pulled into a campground in Cascade Locks, Oregon and noticed an odd rattling sound coming from the wheel area on the passenger side of the Airstream. Travis crawled underneath to see if he could see what was going on, but didn’t see anything obvious. Seeing as there was nothing we could do where we currently were, we hitched up the next day and continued to Springfield with bated breath. We knew there was an Airstream dealership/service center in Portland, so figured that was going to be our best option. After we dropped the Airstream off at AM Solar, we drove to our hotel in downtown Eugene. Along the way, we noticed a billboard for Sutton RV, the ‘Pacific Northwest’s Original Airstream Dealership’ which was located in Eugene.
Guys, this is the second time we’ve had an issue with the Airstream and both times we happened to be in a city with an Airstream dealership/service center. What are the odds?
We called them the next morning, which was a Monday. We explained our situation: weird noise; full timers; Airstream currently at AM Solar until Thursday; Airstream would be dropped off at Ultimate Airstreams the following Tuesday. It was a small window of time. They were busy. It was short notice. BUT, they told us to bring it in Thursday and they would look at it to at least diagnose the problem. We cancelled the first night of our RV park stay and extended our hotel stay one night. We picked the trailer up Thursday from AM Solar and drove 15 minutes to Sutton RV. Just 2.5 hours later we got a call saying one of our brakes was basically shredded and needed to be replaced. They had the part and the Airstream would be fixed and ready to go Friday afternoon. Yay! We were able to pick the Airstream up 24 hours after dropping it off and continue on our way to Portland. Kelly at Sutton RV did us a solid and was awesome to work with. While we hope we never have to see them again, we know we’d receive fantastic service from a hard-working and honest service department if a problem were to arise in their area again.
While AM Solar was working on the Airstream and Sutton RV fixed our brake issue, we stayed at the Home 2 Suites in Eugene. While the hotel was very nice – suite with kitchenette, indoor pool, free breakfast, free laundry, decent fitness center – I would not stay there again. There’s a very large transient population in downtown Eugene, which made us feel a little uncomfortable walking around. After living in San Diego for a while, homelessness is not unfamiliar to us, but we saw some really nasty things that were pretty off putting. Our recommendation for anyone getting work done at AM Solar that needs to stay in a hotel for a few days would be to stay in Springfield.
When planning our trip to Canada, the border crossing was the biggest question mark for us. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be nothing to worry about and took less than five minutes.
We crossed at the Sweetgrass, Montana crossing, which is listed as Montana’s busiest border crossing and the only one that’s open 24 hours for commercial vehicles. There are six lanes, with one reserved for people holding a NEXUS card and two reserved for commercial purposes. There were two cars ahead of us when we pulled up, but they moved through very quickly.
When we pulled up to the window, the agent asked for our passports immediately and then asked the following questions:
Where are you headed?
How long will you be in Canada?
What’s the purpose of your visit?
Do you have any alcohol? How much?
Do you have any tobacco products?
Do you have any cannabis products?
Do you have any weapons?
Do you have a taser or pepper spray?
Do you have more than $10,000 cash with you?
Will you be selling any goods while you’re in Canada?
Americans crossing into Canada are each allowed to have 1.5 liters of wine -or- 1.14 liters (40 ounces) of liquor -or- 24 cans of beer, as well as 1 carton (200) of cigarettes, up to 50 cigars, and 200g of loose tobacco. For more information about the items you can and can’t cross with and the possible duties imposed, visit www.ezbordercrossing.com. There were also signs posted that stated “All cannabis items must be declared,” but we have no idea what the rules are for that.
He then asked to see Max’s rabies vaccination record. After that, he handed everything back to us, and we were on our way!
The city on the Canadian side of the border is Coutts, which is where we spent the night before driving up to Cochrane, just west of Calgary, the next day. There is a duty free shop in both Sweetgrass and Coutts, so you can buy all the alcohol and tobacco your heart desires without having to pay a duty fee. If we were to cross the border via this route again, we would keep driving past Coutts to Lethbridge, about 100km (60mi) north. Coutts is a tiny, dusty, agricultural city without many amenities while Lethbridge is the third largest city in Alberta, offering food and recreation options.
We crossed back into the U.S. at the Roosville, BC border crossing. It was much busier than when we crossed in Sweetgrass — maybe because it was a Friday instead of a Thursday, and there were only two lanes as opposed to three. The border agent gave us a hard-to-explain uneasy feeling, but again we had no issues crossing once answering his questions:
How long were you in Canada?
Do you have any fresh produce or plants?
Did you buy any items to declare?
From there, it was less than a 2-hour drive to our destination of West Glacier. Be prepared and be honest when crossing the border, and you should have no issues. We recently read of a fellow Airstreamer forgetting to declare a couple pieces of produce at the same border crossing and were fined $300 and had their passports held until they paid it.
Where to begin? I guess I’ll begin with how we ended up in Albuquerque when it wasn’t part of the plan.
We were in Hurricane, Utah and were supposed to be moving on to spending the weekend in Zion National Park at Watchman Campground. We drove through the campground a week before when we visited Zion and we weren’t super impressed. Due to the crazy winter the area had been having, there were parts of the campground that were under water. The original loop that we had reserved our site in was all torn up and closed. There was also a lot of work being done in the area surrounding the campground and nearby visitor center. I don’t know if this was due to weather-related issues or planned. Regardless, we weren’t super pumped about the current conditions of the campground, but we would deal with it. As the weekend approached, the weather outlook was not so great, adding to our apprehension. We made the decision to cancel our two nights, which would’ve been Friday to Sunday, and start driving towards our next destination, Santa Fe. We didn’t want to stay in Zion just for the sake of staying in Zion — we wanted to enjoy it, including the site and the weather. Besides, we’d be back in Hurricane in a month, staying at a place a little closer to Zion than Sand Hollow State Park is, and we’d make sure to explore the Park more then.
We found Valles RV Park in Mexican Hat, Utah on Campendium. Mexican Hat is home to Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods. I had seem so many pictures of the area and wanted to see it for myself. We decided to spend two nights here, Friday and Saturday, before we moved on to Santa Fe. After spending one night, we decided to leave Mexican Hat early Saturday morning. You can read more about why here.
I know, I know. We’re starting to sound super picky about the places we stay. We really aren’t, but when something doesn’t feel right for whatever reason, we listen to our instincts. It’s done well for us so far, and as you’ll soon read, our instincts didn’t fail us here.
While we were still in Mexican Hat Friday night, we had already decided we were leaving in the morning; therefore, we needed to figure out where we were going. We had a reservation for one night in Kirtland, New Mexico on Sunday, as our original plan had been Zion –> Kirtland –> Santa Fe. We decided our new route would take us from Mexican Hat –> Albuquerque –> Santa Fe, with two nights (Saturday and Sunday) at the Albuquerque KOA. Yay, we had a plan!
When we arrived in Albuquerque Saturday afternoon after six rough hours of driving on Northern New Mexico’s lovely highways, we pulled into what is the nicest KOA Journey that we’ve stayed at. As we were getting set up, I noticed an issue with the converter fan. The converter is what converts the 120 volts of AC shore power to 12 volts of DC to supply power to all of the 12 volt appliances and accessories in the trailer. The converter basically prevents the batteries from draining when you’re plugged in. The converter fan helps to cool the converter unit down when needed. There was no need for the fan to be kicking in, yet it was — very, very often. We also noticed that any time the fan kicked in, the battery voltage would drop from the usual 13.6 to as low as 12.3, which is pretty low but not quite in the danger zone yet. By danger zone, I mean so low that the batteries won’t recover and recharge and are basically dead.
We had no idea what was going on so we got on the Google and various Airstream forums. From everything we read, it seemed as though our batteries were on their way out. This made sense, as the batteries were still the factory installed batteries which are not known to have the best longevity. We looked online to find a place nearby that we could get new batteries and low and behold — Airstream of New Mexico was only a half mile away! We drove over to Airstream and explained what was happening and they agreed with us; it sounded like the batteries. We bought two new ones and made our way back to the KOA where we figured out how to swap them out.
Here’s the thing, neither one of us is very mechanically inclined. Anything electrical is foreign to us and the idea of having to fix something electrical is a bit terrifying. This is a good time to mention that I have no idea if I’m using the proper terms for everything. Please do not take anything I’ve typed here as sacred, legit information. Before pulling the old batteries, we took pictures and notes. We successfully removed the old and installed the new! We were so proud of ourselves that we fixed our issue. That is, until we plugged back in and realized that, in fact, the issue had not been fixed. The converter fan still kept running for seemingly no reason and the battery voltage still kept decreasing when the fan kicked in. We started to notice exactly WHEN the fan would kick on, and it seemed to be whenever there was a certain level of movement in the trailer. Whenever the door was slammed or a cabinet or drawer was closed, it would kick on. So this changed our course of thinking. By this time, Airstream of New Mexico was closed for the day, so we weren’t able to get their input. We eventually figured out that if the fan kicked on, we could get it to kick off by pressing on the metal panel that is in front of it. This made us think that something was loose, so Travis removed the metal panel and removed the circuit board. He sprayed the area with air and made sure all of the connections were tight. He put everything back together and it seemed to work for a while. The fan didn’t kick in and the batteries stayed at their normal level — until they didn’t.
Just a reminder, this was on Saturday. Not only was Airstream of New Mexico closed for the day, but they were closed until Tuesday — they aren’t open Sundays and Mondays. We were supposed to be driving to Santa Fe on Monday where we would be spending two weeks. And to make things more complex, Travis was supposed to fly out of Santa Fe on Friday for a week-long business trip to Minnesota. We decided that we would definitely need to book a third night, Monday, at the KOA so that we could call Airstream Tuesday morning and try to get the trailer in to get looked at. We made it through the weekend by being careful about making the fan kick in, pulling the panel off for a second time to make sure everything was connected tight, and unplugging the trailer whenever we left just to be on the safe side.
Fast forward to Tuesday morning. We called Airstream and….
….they told us they had no service appointments available until May, a good five or six weeks away. Well, crap.
Due to Travis’s impending business trip, we needed to make some decisions. We felt that no matter what, we would be staying in Albuquerque and not going to Santa Fe. This meant we needed to change his flight. We wouldn’t be able to stay in the trailer in its current state, so we booked a room at the Homewood Suites for the next week and a half. This still didn’t take care of what to do with the trailer, so we decided to go in to Airstream to plead our case. We explained our situation. We explained that we’re full timers so unfortunately, this wasn’t as easy as just not using the trailer until it could get fixed. Even though they weren’t able to look at it, they did have a solution. They recommended another RV service center (Tom’s) down the street from them that they do work with often. Airstream called Tom’s and they said if we could bring it in right now, they could fix it. Yay! We hurried back to the KOA and quickly got the Airstream hitched up to take over to Tom’s.
For those of you that aren’t RVers, let me explain what ‘quickly’ means. We had to disconnect the sewer hose, water hose, cable cord, and electric cord. We had to raise the stabilizers. We had to put the hitch on the truck and back it up to hitch up the trailer. We had to remove the chocks and roll off the levelers. As we weren’t getting on the highway, we didn’t hook up our sway control bars, which saved us a step. Inside, we had to get everything off the kitchen and bathroom counters and secure them for towing. Thankfully, the night before we had proactively taken everything out of the fridge and freezer and shut it off, thinking we would be dropping the trailer off at Airstream in the morning. I then ran into the KOA office and extended our stay again, as we were supposed to check out and leave by noon. We extended our stay for a week and a half, thinking we could just cancel the hotel. After all that, we got it over to Tom’s and they started working on it immediately. After checking things out, they agreed that the converter needed to be replaced. Only one problem — they didn’t have one to replace it. The parts supplier in town that they usually get their parts from didn’t have one. Airstream didn’t have one. It was determined that they would order one, receive it the next day, and then install it, meaning we were taking the Airstream back to the KOA for the night and would bring it back again the next day.
Fast forward a few hours and we receive a call from Airstream. I don’t know what was discussed between Tom’s and Airstream, but all of a sudden Airstream was like, bring it in so our certified Airstream technician can take a look at it and we can see if it’s covered by warranty. So, we did. We hadn’t hooked anything back up again when we returned from Tom’s, so we were able to get it over to Airstream pretty quickly.
Also, please keep in mind that we have a small, 14-year-old, grumpy dog that usually gets a bit anxious on travel days. He had no clue what was going on and his anxiety added to our stress as well.
We got the trailer to Airstream, the technician inspected it, confirmed there was an issue with the converter, and they submitted it to Airstream (corporate) to make sure it would be covered under warranty (we’re still under our two-year warranty). Thankfully, it was. But again, the issue arose that they didn’t have the part to replace and would have to order it.
At this point, Travis and I decided that we just wanted to leave the trailer with them and stay in the hotel. He would be leaving on his trip in three days and felt more comfortable with us being in a hotel rather than the trailer. The other issue is that I don’t tow the trailer, so it wouldn’t have been possible for us to go back to the KOA and for me to bring the trailer to Airstream when the part came in. They were 100% fine with that, so then the process of packing everything we needed to take with us began. Sounds easy, right? Well….
Again, we had already assumed we weren’t going to be in the trailer for a few days, so we had packed some stuff. It was Tuesday. Travis was leaving on Friday and would return the following Friday. We wouldn’t be able to pick the Airstream up until Saturday after he got back, so this meant we’d (me & the dog) would be in the hotel for 11 nights. Travis needed to pack everything he needed for his business trip. We needed everything necessary in order for us to work. We needed clothes and dog stuff and bathroom stuff and we packed up all the dry food too, not knowing what we would need. After getting everything we needed loaded into the truck (though I did make another run to the Airstream after realizing we forgot some things) we handed the keys off, stopped at the KOA to cancel our remaining stay, and made our way to the hotel.
The next ten days were pretty uneventful. Airstream called to say they’d be receiving the part on Tuesday. Travis went on his business trip. When Airstream received the part, they called to say that they put us on the schedule for Thursday morning. Travis was able to shorten his trip by a day and fly back Thursday night. This allowed us to pick the Airstream up Friday and stay one more night at the KOA to make sure everything was working properly before we left town on Saturday. We were able to get everything moved back into the trailer, do laundry, clean, and get the fridge turned back on to get it ready for food.
For some reason I did something that I never do the day before we tow — I turned the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) on to make sure the tire pressure was good. It wasn’t. One of our tires was reading at 33psi when it should be about 65psi. We inspected the tire and didn’t see anything wrong with it. We measured the pressure with both a tire pressure gauge and the air compressor to make sure the tire pressure monitoring system wasn’t acting up. Everything showed around 33psi. There were only really two explanations. One, someone let air out. Two, the tire was punctured. The first option didn’t make sense so we had to assume that it was the second. While you can pick up a nail or some other sharp object anywhere, the only thing we can figure is that something happened to the tire when the trailer was at Airstream. Seeing as anywhere that could help us was closed for the day, we filled the tire and waited until the next morning to make phone calls. Even though we didn’t think they did, we called Airstream to see if they sold tires. They do not, but said they use Discount Tire for all their tire needs, which was going to be our next call anyway. We called Discount Tire and they said all of their appointments were booked, but they weren’t busy yet, so if we could get there soon, they could take care of us. We had already prepped the Airstream for towing that morning as we waited for Airstream and Discount Tire to open, so we were able to hitch up and get there pretty quickly. They had us checked in even before we pulled in the driveway and they changed out all four tires in about 45 minutes. We decided to buy four new tires because the tires that come on an Airstream aren’t the best quality. We upgraded to Goodyear Endurance, which can carry more weight, have a higher speed rating, and just seem to more durable all around. We didn’t even have them look at the flat tire to see what was wrong with it, because it didn’t matter to us at this point.
So, after new batteries, a new converter, and new tires — we were finally on our way! If you’re ever in the Albuquerque area and are need in of assistance, I cannot praise these businesses enough: Airstream of New Mexico, Albuquerque KOA Journey, Homewood Suites Albuquerque Uptown, and Discount Tire located at 1119 Juan Tablo Blvd. Everyone was so nice and helpful and understanding and they all provided excellent service on a moment’s notice.
As you can see, a few of the gut decisions we made brought us to Albuquerque which brought us to Airstream of New Mexico. If we hadn’t cancelled our weekend in Zion and instead booked in Mexican Hat, where we then left a night early and skipped Kirtland, heading straight for Albuquerque instead, we probably would have been in Santa Fe when our issue with the converter started. Santa Fe is only an hour drive from Albuquerque, but we wouldn’t have been able to just stop into Airstream and plead our case face to face. For some reason, we ended up in the right place at the right time!
As I stated above, this is a very nice KOA Journey. Like most Journeys, the sites are close together, but our site (128) was was plenty long. The people that work here are so nice and were super flexible when we added a third day, and then added a week and a half, and then cancelled a week and a half. The location is pretty decent to everything Albuquerque has to offer and we would definitely stay here again if we were to return to the area.
1 or 2-Bedroom Suites with Kitchenette and Living Room
Social Hour with Snacks Monday – Thursday Evening
Accepts Mail Delivery
The Homewood Suites in Uptown was a great place to stay for a week and a half. The room was nice, the breakfast was decent, and the social hours with food during the week were a nice perk. Not only does the hotel allow dogs, but they also have a grassy area outside complete with dog waste bag station. The location is absolutely fantastic — the Uptown area of Albuquerque offers great restaurants, shopping, grocery stores, fitness centers and every possible service needed, all within walking distance. Travis was in Minnesota for work during most of our stay, but Max and I enjoyed sleeping in a king size bed, lounging on the couch, and generally just taking advantage of having more space. Personally, I enjoyed the long, hot showers and having dry towels of my very own every day. One of our favorite places to eat nearby is Fork & Fig, but there are so many options. And by the way, Uptown is only a 10-minute drive from the KOA and Airstream dealership, so it was also convenient to drive back and forth.
With all of the ‘excitement’ we had in Albuquerque, we didn’t get out to explore too much. We did a very brief, self-led Breaking Bad tour one evening and visited one of the sites of Petroglyph National Monument one afternoon.
We’ve had to deal with something this winter that was not an issue for us last winter, even though we’re staying at the exact same place — moisture under the mattresses. It’s not unheard of to have moisture on the windows when it’s chilly outside and cozy, warm inside. I mean, that’s just science. However, I think our particular Airstream layout (27fb Twin) contributes to the moisture issue. There are two storage areas under each twin bed — one is interior where we store clothes and one is exterior where we store various outside things. I think that because half of what’s under each bed is an external compartment with no heat, it causes moisture when a warm body lies on the bed all night.
At first, we tried to remedy the moisture issue by lining the exterior storage compartments with Reflectix insulation and putting Reflectix under each mattress. That may have helped, but one morning while making the bed, I noticed a considerable amount of moisture on the interior walls of the Airstream. I checked under the mattress for moisture and found that not only was the underside of the mattress damp, but a small amount of mold started to grow.
Operation Decontamination began. We stripped all bedding from the mattresses and everything was laundered. For the mattresses, we mixed equal parts isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and warm water in a bucket, dampened a cloth, and scrubbed the areas where mold had started to grow. Next, we (sparingly) sprayed Lysol across the bottom of the mattresses to kill any bacteria that may be present. Luckily for us, it was a sunny day, so we moved the mattresses outside to dry and allow the sun to inhibit mold growth (sunlight is harmful to the growth of mold).
In the picture below, the discolored part of the plywood in the center is where the dampness occurred — clearly a result of body heat on top of the mattress and cold temps right under the plywood.
Then we Googled. We searched what options were available to prevent something like this from happening again and we landed on the Froli Sleep System. Originally manufactured for use on boats — you know, where there’s lots of moisture — they now market it to be used on boats, in RVs and at home. It’s a modular system that’s components snap together to fit any size and shape bed. It functions like a box spring mattress in that it creates a more comfortable and orthopedically correct sleeping surface, but it also elevates the mattress about an inch off of (in our case) the plywood, which allows for proper airflow under the mattress, meaning no more mold.
If you visit the Froli website, you’ll find a number of different options. We purchased the Froli Travel System in Queen. The Queen has exactly double the number of components of the Basic size and is exactly double the price, so we could have purchase two Basics and they would have worked equally as well. It took six days for it to be shipped from Lexington, KY to our location in Pahrump, NV.
Our package contained two boxes that looked like this:
The first step was to lay out the gray base elements and determine which of the three holes we wanted to use to snap them together. According to the installation instructions, the wider the setting, the softer the feel.
We ended up using a combination of medium and wide hole spacing in order to get the coverage we were looking for.
Next, we trimmed off the excess bits at the rounded corner. Froli does offer expansion packs that consist of smaller elements to use along edges or curves so you don’t have to make cuts, but seeing as we didn’t know how many, or even if we would need them, we didn’t order them.
Next, we added the dark and light blue spring elements to the base elements. The light blue are softer springs that are recommended for use in the shoulder area, which are the third and fourth rows.
These too had to be cut, and were a little more difficult to get through than the base elements, but it was manageable.
After attempting to put the mattress on and realizing that the Froli System would move around anytime we made the bed, we decided it needed to be secured a bit. Froli doesn’t offer anything to secure it, probably because the main use is in boats where it’s installed in a sleeping berth that has a lip on it and the Froli System won’t move around. I picked up these wood staples from Home Depot that are fairly easily installed with a few taps of a hammer.
I didn’t place many, but just enough to keep things from moving around. It should be noted to be aware of placement. The first one I hammered in is over the interior storage compartment where I keep my clothes and the staples are long enough that they went all the way through the plywood and are poking through the other side. I’ll have to be careful when digging around in that compartment so that I don’t poke myself. After installing the first one, I made sure that the rest were installed in safer locations.
After everything was secure, we put the mattress back in place. It’s difficult to get a great shot of how the mattress sits, but it definitely raises it up quite a bit, at least an inch.
Conclusion: The Froli System is a life safer! While expensive ($378 for the Queen), it would be even more expensive to have to replace our mattresses and the plywood if the mold had gotten out of hand. We’ve only had it installed for two days and it does seem to add some comfort, but the biggest payoff is the peace of mind that there will be no more moisture.
Today marks one year since we started living, working and traveling full time in our Airstream. One year ago feels both so incredibly distant, but also like it flew by! We have learned a lot in the last twelve months — about ourselves, about our airstream, and about what we hope to get out of this lifestyle. Here’s a look back at our first year as nomads:
We travelled 7,997 miles across 16 states:
(We spent two isolated, quiet nights in Cedar Point, IA and have nothing to show for it. Sorry, Iowa)
We visited 24 National Park Service sites:
Joshua Tree National Park
Death Valley National Park
Saguaro National Park
Petrified Forest National Park
Badlands National Park
Wind Cave National Park
Glacier National Park
Redwood National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Yosemite National Park
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Devils Tower National Monument
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument
Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Manzanar National Historic Site
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area
…and one ghost town (Bodie, CA)…
…the world’s only corn palace (Mitchell, SD)…
…and a cheese factory (Tillamook, OR).
We drank some beer…
…and some liquor…
…and some wine!
We boondocked for the first time in Wisconsin on a family friend’s farm…
…and stayed at a Harvest Hosts for the first time in Nevada.
Travis ran a half marathon in Death Valley…
…and we learned how to play pickle ball.
We did a lot of hiking…
…and a bit of relaxing.
But most importantly, we were able to spend a lot of time with family and friends!
As you can see, it was a great year! We have a lot of amazing adventures planned for 2019, and we look forward to sharing them with you!
This post will discuss all of the financial aspects related to RVing full time, including initial costs, static bills, cost of gas, lodging costs, and the amount we’ve been able to save over the past year. This is an account of our personal financial experiences with regards to full-time travel — other people’s experiences may vary. There is A LOT to cover, but first…
A Little Background Info
Different people choose the full-time RV lifestyle for different reasons. There was not an ‘aha moment’ for us that made us decide to trade our life of living in a rented condo in La Jolla, California for life on the road in an Airstream. We had recently sold our home in San Marcos, which is in San Diego’s North County. We had no need to or set plan; it was just a really good time to sell as we were able to make a healthy profit from when we purchased three and a half years earlier. We moved to La Jolla, enjoyed ocean sunsets from our balcony, and took advantage of living in the walkable Village of La Jolla.
We had talked about full-time RVing at different times during the previous years, but there was always a reason not to. We owned a house. We had a dog with a lot of health issues that needed regular access to his vet. We had finally established a good friend group after years of living in the San Diego area with only knowing a handful of people. Travis has to travel fairly often for work and we didn’t know how easy it would be to fit that in. But all of a sudden, those reasons fell away. We sold the house. Our sweet golden doodle had passed away. We’d be able to visit our friends whenever we wanted and they could meet us somewhere on the road as well. And planning business trips would just have to be part of the route planning process, making sure we were near airports at certain times.
When the option of full timing started to creep into our conversations again, we decided to look at what RV options are available and what they cost. We visited a place in San Diego that sells Airstreams as well as every other type of RV — fifth wheels, travel trailers, motorhomes, etc. Travis had always been stuck on an Airstream, but I wanted to make sure we explored all options. Of course, we ended up deciding on an Airstream. This particular dealership didn’t have the exact layout we were interested in, so we scoured the interwebs for both used and new in the length and layout we wanted. After looking at a used Flying Cloud, we decided we definitely wanted to buy new and we definitely wanted an International. We found what we were looking for at Airstream Orange County. To read more about the buying process, check out our post Buying an Airstream.
How We Make Money on the Road
Before I get into specifics about what we paid and what our monthly expenses are, I should explain what we do for work. We own an ERP consulting business. I won’t get too detailed about what that is exactly, but the basic gist is that we install, upgrade, and customize a particular software that manufacturing companies utilize. We owned the business for six years before hitting the road full time. We typically work remote from home, but depending on what projects we’re currently working on, Travis might travel to visit a customer on site once or twice a month. As far as work was concerned, we were already living a lifestyle that made transitioning to full-time travel easy. If you’re interested in more information about our business, check out our website here: Bird Rock Solutions
There are two major expenses when choosing to travel full time — the Airstream and the truck to pull it. As stated above, we purchased our Airstream brand new from the dealership. This is definitely NOT necessary. Used, almost new Airstreams can be found if you have enough patience. Some people sell their trailers after only using them a handful of times. Now that we know what to look for, we would feel confident buying used. While Airstreams do hold their value pretty well, it’s definitely cheaper to buy used. Many people buy vintage Airstreams and renovate them, which is definitely a cost saver, but you need the right skills, a lot of time, and a good work space — three things we did not have. We ended up purchasing a 2017 27fb International Signature. We had the dealership install solar panels, Maxxair vent covers, and a Blue Ox weight distributing and sway control hitch. The total cost for the trailer with the add-ons and tax was $87,612.11.
Next, we had to buy a truck that could tow the trailer. We knew NOTHING about towing or trucks, so we did a lot of research. We ended up purchasing a 2017 Ford F-150 XLT 4×4 Supercrew with a 3.5L V6 EcoBoost engine with complete tow package. It was a demo vehicle with 249 miles, so it was considered ‘used’ which helped with the price. There was a rebate if we financed, so of course we did that, but we paid off the loan when the first payment came due. The total price for the truck with tax, which we absolutely love and has every feature we need, was $47,138.56. To read more about the truck buying process as well as it’s features, read our post Choosing a Truck.
All in, we paid $134,750.67. That’s a big number. Huge. Thanks to the proceeds from the sale of our house, both vehicles are paid off, so we own our ‘home’ outright. Again, this aspect of the full-time lifestyle can be done for much cheaper. We bought both vehicles brand new — many people buy used. We bought an Airstream — many people by SOB (some other brand) because they’re less expensive. We had decided that because we planned to full time for quite a while, we wanted to start out with two vehicles that we would know the entire history of. We would know the maintenance. We would know about any damage or malfunctions. Everything would be clean and we would be the first to use it, sit in it, sleep in it, shower in it, and use the bathroom in it.
Static Monthly Expenses
Just like anyone in a bricks and sticks house, we have monthly bills. Our static monthly bills consist of the following:
RV Insurance ————$112.20
Truck Insurance ———-$92.40
Life Insurance ———–$219.58
Disability Insurance —–$76.92
Health Insurance ——-$480.46
Storage Unit —————-$59.00
You’ll notice that phone and internet are not included in our monthly bills. Those items are paid for by the business, so I don’t include them in personal expenses.
Cost of Gas
This is going to greatly depend on how much you travel, your vehicles gas mileage, how much weight you’re pulling, and what speed you drive. When they first start out, many full timers spend a lot of time moving from one place to the next. We did. It’s exciting to be out there, exploring, being able to go anywhere you’d like. But it’s also expensive. And time consuming. And exhausting. We hit the road January 15, 2018 and as of November 24, 2018, have spent about $3,040.00 on gas while towing. That’s just while towing — gas used while exploring or living our everyday life is not included. We also put on over 7500 miles. Again, those are just towing miles. While towing, we generally drive 60mph and we get about 14mpg.
For lack of a better term, lodging costs include the cost of the actual site where we park the Airstream, but also reservation fees, taxes, pet fees, electricity, and park entrance fees. We’ve paid anywhere from $0/night to $75/night. There are so many options when choosing where to stay. We’ve stayed at private RV parks, KOAs, city parks, county parks, state parks, national parks, casinos, Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) campgrounds, and on a family friend’s farm.
Private RV parks usually offer nightly, weekly, and monthly rates. Staying somewhere for a month is a good way to save on monthly costs; however, where the park is located is very important. We’ve paid $340 for a month in Pahrump, NV, but have also paid as much as $1900 for a month in Escondido, CA (San Diego County). While city, county, state and national parks don’t offer different rates correlating with your length of stay, they also don’t raise prices for weekends and holidays like private parks and KOAs do. For example, we’re paying $85/night for the Thanksgiving weekend at a casino RV resort, when it would usually cost $50 for the Thursday night and $60 for the Friday and Saturday nights. In contrast to that is our four-night stay in Death Valley National Park over the New Year’s holiday. The campground in Death Valley is always $36/night, regardless of day of the week or if it’s a holiday.
In addition to the nightly, weekly, or monthly rate, you may find yourself also paying for:
Reservation Fees – Expect to pay a reservation fee at state or ACOE parks. The reservation fee is the same price whether you stay one night or ten, so this is something that can add up if you move around too much.
Electricity – Electricity is generally always included unless you are staying a month or longer somewhere. When you stay a month, expect electricity to be an additional charge.
Pet Fees – Some places charge them; some places don’t. Since January 15 until today, we’ve paid $32.00 in dog fees, so it’s not a very common thing.
Taxes – This is another one that can sneak up on you. Some states don’t have taxes. Some places include the tax in the rate. But some places tack on the tax at the end and you end up paying quite a bit more than you thought you were going to.
Park Entrance Fees – Another thing to consider when making a reservation is if your site is within an area that requires a daily entrance fee. National parks, national recreation areas, and state parks are definitely places that have daily entrance fees. Sometimes it makes sense to just pay the daily fee; sometimes it makes sense to pay for an annual pass.
From January 15, 2018 through November 24, 2108, we paid a total of $13,236.46 for all lodging costs. That’s an average of $42.29/day or $1268.67/month. That’s definitely higher than we would like and we’re going to work on lowering that number next year. We have about 5 and a half months worth of reservations booked next year already and we’ve been able to lower the number to $33.63/day or $1008.90/month.
There are a number of memberships that will help lower your lodging costs; these are the ones we use:
AAA – Many RV parks give a 10% discount. Member rates vary.
Good Sam – Many RV parks give a 10% discount. $27/year. I can’t even calculate the amount of money we’ve saved with our Good Sam membership; hundreds, probably.
KOA Value Kard Rewards – 10% off at all KOAs. Earn points that can be used as discounts on stays. $30/year. We’ve saved almost $100 this year with our membership. Additionally, we’ve earned enough points to get $25 off our next stay.
Harvest Hosts – A network of wineries, breweries, farms, museums and similar locations that allow RVs to park one night overnight on their property for free. Currently $49/year; increasing to $79/year 1/1/19.
Passport America – Save 50% at over 1800 campgrounds/RV parks across the country. $44/year. We’ve saved $410 this year with Passport America alone.
America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass (aka Interagency Annual Pass) – Free entrance into federally operated national recreation sites (such as national parks). Free entrance for up to four individuals at National Park Service sites where per person entrance fees are charged. If you are camping in a national park, you will need to purchase either a weekly pass or annual pass specific to that park. Prices vary from park to park. The other option is to purchase an Interagency Annual Pass for $80. Because entrance was free our Interagency Pass, we’ve visited a number of national monuments we wouldn’t have otherwise visited.
Our Current Financial Situation
Our average monthly cost to date for lodging and gas is $1560.04. This amount includes water and electricity. Pre-Airstream life, we were paying $3400/month for rent for our 2-bedroom condo in La Jolla, not including utilities. Obviously, our basic living expenses have decreased dramatically. Thanks to our lower monthly expenses and the fact that we’ve had our busiest year to date business-wise, we’ve been able to concentrate on building our savings, investments, and retirement accounts. Our business is set up as an S-Corp, allowing us to have a SEP IRA to which we can contribute up to 25% of our gross salary, which we were able to do this year. We’ve also been able to save about 16.5% and invest about 15% of our gross income. We don’t have any loans and we don’t carry a credit card balance. We are truly in the best financial state we have ever been in and the only reason we’re able to save and invest so much is because we live in our Airstream full time. While some people live the full time life in order to lower their expenses so they can work less, we plan to work the same amount for the foreseeable future in order to continue to contribute to our financial future and set ourselves up for true financial independence.
Besides the financial benefit, full-time Airstream life has allowed us to see places in our country that we would have otherwise not seen. There have been amazing places, there have been some not-so-amazing places. Every person we’ve met, every city we’ve traveled through — everything has helped us understand and have more compassion for our neighbors. Except maybe our current neighbors who allow their dogs to poop in our site and don’t clean it up.
The most difficult part of route planning for us is when Travis has to fly somewhere for work. The business trips aren’t usually last-minute trips, so that helps, but sometimes we find ourselves in places that we wouldn’t otherwise be in. However, Billings is not one of those places (a place we wouldn’t otherwise be in, that is). When we started planning our route back west from our extended stay in Wisconsin in May, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Montana. We also knew that Travis would need to fly to Minneapolis during this time and that the trip would be during the week of the Fourth of July holiday. Before settling on Billings, we first made a list of all the commercial airports in the approximate area we’d be in — Wyoming and Montana. We then searched to see which ones have direct flights to Minneapolis, because who wants a layover when you’re not flying very far? Then, we had to find a safe place to stay with availability for the holiday week, not too far from the airport. I say a safe place because Travis never wants to leave me (and Max) in a questionable location, obviously. Taking all of that into consideration, we landed on the Billings KOA.
This has been our method of operation since we hit the road full time back in January. Travis has had to make a business trip once a month, so these trips have somewhat determined our route. With each booked business trip, we’ll have a specific date and location we need to be. We also throw some personal date/location combos in there too to make it even more interesting — Crater Lake Rim Run in August, our friends’ October wedding in San Diego, and the Joshua Tree half marathon in November. It forces us to plan ahead, which suits our personalities just fine. We just aren’t go-with-the-flow type of people when it comes to trip planning. Twice we’ve had gaps of a night or two in our route where we were just going to wing it and see where we end up and both times we caved and booked something last minute.
I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, we don’t like long travel days and not knowing your destination may make your day longer. Two hours is great, three hours is fine, but when we get into four to five hours, we get crabby. We can’t comprehend how some people travel eight to ten hours a day — that just sounds miserable to us and like a waste of a day. If you don’t NEED to be somewhere fast, what’s the hurry? Secondly, this has been a hot, hot summer. After boondocking Memorial Day weekend, we learned that we want and need an electric hookup. We have a 13.5-year-old dog that we want to keep comfortable and we’ve had to work some very long days, so having electricity is essential. Yes, we have a generator, but many places have limitations on generator use and when it’s really hot, we burn through gas like crazy. Also, we would never leave our generator running unattended, so we’d become prisoners to the Airstream — and that’s not fun!
Before we hit the road, we had these romantic ideas, like so many tend to, that we’d boondock nonstop and wake up next to the ocean one day, and in the mountains the next, and so on, without another human in sight. And while there are plenty of Airstreamers and RVers that do just that, we’ve determined we’re not those people. We like electricity and showering every day and doing laundry once a week (or at least every two weeks) and strong cell signals and eating great food at restaurants and exploring cities along with our country’s natural wonders. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that we’ve learned what type of full timers we are over these last six months. On the full-timer spectrum with off-the-grid boondockers on one end and snowbirds that only move twice a year on the other, I think we fall right in the middle.
Back to Billings.
We settled on Billings and I’m glad we did. We stayed from a Saturday to a Saturday (I’m actually writing this the day before we leave). KOAs are notoriously expensive and this one is no different. I don’t know if they jacked their prices because of the holiday, but our water and electric site (no sewer hookup) was $75 a night, $67.50 with our KOA membership. Thus far, the most expensive place we’ve stayed. That being said, this is such a nice KOA. It’s the first in the country and the current owners have owned it since the 70s. There’s a huge staff that meticulously maintains it and the amenities are great. There’s a decent-sized, albeit cold, swimming pool. There’s a nice little mini golf course that Travis destroyed me on. The bathrooms and showers are so, so nice — probably the nicest we’ve ever seen. We’ve used the showers a few times because we don’t have a sewer hookup and don’t want to be so concerned with the grey tank level. The onsite store is well equipped. Breakfast and dinner are offered every morning and evening (for a price). Our site is super long, allowing us to park our truck at either end of the trailer. We have a nice patio with a picnic table, porch swing, and fire pit. Now, amenities like this are definitely NOT a requirement for us, but if we’re going to pay this much, they’re nice to have.
There’s more to this KOA than just the amenities, however. The location is fantastic! It’s not far off I-90 making it extremely accessible for those that are just passing through. Downtown Billings is literally 5 minutes away. We have had some great meals here; we’d recommend Walkers and The Fieldhouse specifically. And one of the best parts — the airport is 13 minutes away! We usually have to drive 45 minutes to get to an airport, so the short drive is really a nice change.
All in all, our stay in Billings has been great. It was a little loud the night of the Fourth (I hate you, fireworks), but other than that, no issues. With the next business trip tentatively scheduled for October, we’re looking forward to moving on to Bozeman, Missoula and Coram to explore more of Montana.