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Traveling to Visit Family

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Even though we live on wheels, our limited budgets can make it hard to travel around the country to visit our families. For example, should I drive home to Florida to visit my mom or should I fly?

Even though we live on wheels, our limited budgets can make it hard to travel around the country to visit our families. For example, should I drive all the way across the country to Florida to visit my mom or should I fly?

One issue that stops some people from adapting the mobile lifestyle is the question of how will they stay close to their family? We all love the idea of moving away from cold country in the winter (especially with the terrible winter many of you are having now!) but it has the down-side that you also have to move away from family and friends. That’s bad enough but for many of you ladies the worst part is having to move away from the grand-babies—now that’s a tragedy! Many vandwellers have very strong maternal instinct toward their grandchildren and need to see them often.
In this post I want to try to reconcile our longing for freedom to travel and our equal need to stay connected to family. We’ll do that by exploring different options you have to connect and visit with your family. I know that sounds weird, I mean, we all live on wheels so why wouldn’t we just drive back to see them? While it’s true we all live on wheels but it’s equally true the majority of us are on fairly tight budgets and the cost of driving across the country is prohibitive to our already stretched checkbook. We need to find the most cost effective way to visit without breaking the bank.

Electronic Communications 

The modern world has so many wonderful means of communications we can stay in pretty close contact with our families electronically so that’s the first step.

  • Phone Calls: Long distance on our cell phones is so cheap it’s easy to stay in touch from anywhere. Voices carry so much more emotion than any letter on a screen it’s well worth taking the time to make a phone call.
  • Skype: Actually being seen and heard real-time during a video chat is a big step forward that it’s worth figuring out how to do it!
  • Email: Adult family members are probably content with an email, but children less so.  Their lives are changing so fast and they literally need to periodically see and touch the members of their family for them to be real to them. Otherwise they could see you as just another character in a book or TV show. We want to be more than that to them.
  • Letters, Cards and Post-Cards: Anything handwritten, even if it’s short, has a strong impact on other people far in disproportion to the amount of time and work they take. They really are a good habit to get into with your loved ones.

Doing all those things are invaluable and they do work to keep you in touch. But they probably aren’t enough for most of us. Every so often your loved ones need a hug and kiss from you to keep the fires of their love burning bright. None of us want our grandchildren to grow up not knowing who we are.

Go for a Visit

I’m writing this in my mom’s living room in Lady Lake, Florida, which is about two hours northeast of Orlando.  I know many people have strained relationships with their parents, but I’m not one of them; I love spending time with my mom and try to do so as often as I can! Of course she’s in Florida and I’m out West so we live pretty far apart. I don’t see her as often as I’d like because of the distance and cost, but I try to get over there at least every other year, and hopefully every year.
The question I want to address in this post is should we drive or should we fly? Even though I live in a van, I almost always fly. I drove back one time to see my mom and ever since then I’ve been flying because of it’s many hidden costs. We all think of the cost of gas but there are many other costs that aren’t obvious so we overlook them. Let me show you what I mean:

  • Cost of Gas–$1,012: It’s about 2200 miles one-way (or about 4400 miles round-trip) so it’s an expensive trip. I’m assuming your van gets about 15 MPG and with gas at $3.45 it will cost $1,012 in gas. But as we all know gas is exceptionally cheap right now, so if it were today and gas cost $2.29 a gallon it would only cost $671. I only get 12 mpg, so at $3.45 a gallon I’d have typically spent $1265. That’s a lot of money!
  • Oil Change–$50: I’ll need an oil change afterwards so that’s at least $50. If you change oil every 3,000 miles it will be 1 ½ oil changes or $75
  • Wear on tires–$60: Another cost that’s easy to miss is the wear on tires. If your tires last 44,000 miles then this trip of 4,400 miles is 10% of their life. Replacing the tires will be about $600 so that’s $60 toward new tires.
  • Mechanical Wear: But that’s not all, there is also wear and tear on every part of the van but especially the engine, transmission and brakes. It’s nearly impossible to quantify that into a number but let’s look at my van as somewhat typical. Money’s tight for me so I have a 2002 Chevy van with 165,000 miles on it. Based on past experience I’m assuming I’m likely to get to 200,000 miles before I start having to put major repairs into it. That’s only 35,000 miles away so these are very important miles—once they’re gone I’m planning to either decide to start putting lots of money into the van or getting rid of it for a newer van with less miles. This trip is almost 15% of the trouble-free miles I have left—do I really want to bring on those repairs that fast?
  • Time: I don’t like driving long days so driving the 2500 miles from Quartzsite, AZ to Lady Lake, FL takes about a week of tedious, boring  driving to drive each way. I usually spend three weeks there so it takes me 5 weeks including driving. That’s a big chunk of the winter and almost doubles my total trip time.
  • Driving is hard on your pets:  Long drives of multiple thousands of miles are hard on your pet who is bored and stuck in the van all day for almost a week. I didn’t want to put Cody through that so I left him at home with Judy who loves him and he loves her. He’ll miss me while I’m gone but he’ll adapt quickly–and I’ll be home before he knows it. If you have pets and don’t have anyone to leave them with then you would need to factor in the cost of boarding them while you’re gone. If I couldn’t leave Cody with someone who loved him, I would have driven rather than board him. It would break my heart to think of him feeling abandoned and hopeless while I was off having fun without him–I couldn’t do that to him! I’d rather spend the money and time driving and keep him happy.

So you can see that the total cost of driving is pretty high. At the minimum it’ll cost me $1200-$1500 hundred to drive and a lot of boring miles of driving.

They must have greatly relaxed Airport Security because I didn’t have to unload anything out of my bags and I was carrying a lot of electronics. The whole thing was quick and easy.

I choose to Fly Instead   

When I did the math and saw how much it costs to drive, I wanted to compare the costs to flying because I was sure it would be less expensive. I found out it was much cheaper and was going to be much less stressful than a very long drive through bad weather, so that’s what I did. Here are my costs:

  • Cost of Airline Ticket–$420: I flew out of Phoenix because it’s a  hub and therefore it’s cheaper.  I searched for the best fares on Orbitz and the cheapest to Orlando was about $360. But, they all  involved multiple stops along the way and flying overnight or at very early or late times. My mom is 80 so I don’t want to have her picking me up or dropping me off in the middle of the night so I went ahead and spent the money to get a non-stop flight that departed and arrived at very reasonable hours. It also makes the flight much less stressful and pleasant for me so I consider it money well spent. That ticket cost me $420.
  • Airport Parking–$105: Because we are about 150 miles from the Phoenix airport, I didn’t want to ask Judy to make that long round-trip twice; especially with how stressful it can be to get into and out of airports.  Instead I found a long term parking garage and left the van in it. I’ve done it before and they make it as painless as possible by having shuttles constantly running right from your car to the terminal. In the time I was getting my baggage out of the van and covering the windshield three shuttles drove by. I pre-paid the bill which cut the cost in half so it was $105 for 21 days in Long-Term Storage.
  • Gas to Drive to Phoenix–$75: I had to drive 300 miles round-trip to Phoenix to get to the airport so I’m counting that as a cost. However, on the return trip home from the airport I’ll stop and shop in Phoenix so I could probably count it as a shopping trip instead.
Normally flying is an ordeal, but this trip everything was so smooth and easy I actually enjoyed it. I attribute that to the non-stop flight. But the ease of parking in the long-term lot and  taking the shuttle to the terminal probably helped as well.

Normally flying is an ordeal, but this trip everything was so smooth and easy I actually enjoyed it. I attribute that to the non-stop flight. But the ease of parking in the long-term lot and taking the shuttle to the terminal probably helped as well.

The total cost of driving was at least $1200 and the cost of flying was half of that at $630. That left no doubt in mind I would fly.  An equally large part of the decision was that I wouldn’t enjoy that long of a trip. I enjoy driving  if there are things along the way to see and do, but there were none on this trip—it would just be covering miles. Plus, the Polar Vortex was clobbering the  south with ice and snow and I did NOT want to drive through that if I could avoid it.
The bottom line is you can be a nomad who stays connected to your family! Here’s a simple way to do it:

  • To fly home once a year, save $50 a month, $600 a year.
  • To fly home once every other year, save $25 a month, $300 a year.

Most of us can do that. Get started today and show your family how much you love them!


  1. Calvin R

    How this issue resolves for a given vandweller will depend on many things. The relationship or lack thereof with family, the specific vehicle mpg, whether the vandweller works, and the distance from the family will each have an effect on how the “family” question works. For example, one of the Facebook groups is having a discussion about closing the group because some members do not wish their families to know anything about them. That pretty much solves the visit problem for them.
    In my case, my family of origin is large but not close. What I will need is a plan for emergencies. Ordinarily that would mean flying, but if I am able to spend time east of the Mississippi, I will definitely drive. I have no trouble with long driving days, no pets, and expect to get over 20 mpg, sacrificing space to do so. For me, the real “family” is people in recovery, and they are everywhere.

    • Bob

      You’re right Calvin, there are so many variables there is no one answer for everyone–in fact there is no one set answer for me–my decision might change every trip. My goal was just to give some food for thought what might go into the decision and tell about this particular I’m on.

      • Calvin R

        Exactly. My idea was to give another example. For example, it’s not especially likely that I’ll be in the East when a family emergency arises. All the same, it’s a consideration. The entire concept of vandwelling highlights how individual freedom can allow us to become.

  2. Cae

    Excellent analysis. FL really is pretty darn far from AZ!

    • Bob

      Thanks cae!

  3. jonthebru

    And its not a real fun drive along the way, its just to get there and back. That is exactly what flying does.

    • Bob

      jonthebru, there really is not anything special along the way, it’s just country I get through as fast as I can. Especially in the winter when the leaves are off the trees and it’s cold.
      I’d rather fly and get back home to my beloved AZ desert!

  4. Joy

    Good article Bob!

    • Bob

      Thanks Joy!

  5. Steve

    Bob, how do you like the weather here compared to where you are living out west? And I was wondering, would you think that you could live here vandwelling as well as out west? What are some of your reasons for choosing where you are doing it now? I know, that it’s probably because of the BLM and Forests for one reason.

    • Bob

      Steve, East verses West is a big topic and also very subjective. Whichever one you grew up in is probably what you prefer. I’m lucky in that I grew up in Alaska and don’t have a preference for either one. To me there is simply no doubt that the West is objectively better for a vandweller for these reasons:
      * There is much more free public land to camp on. It’s a matter of math, there is just a tremendous amount more free, dispersed camping out west.
      * It’s easier to find pleasant weather year around. Just by traveling 250 miles you can be cool in the summer and warm in the winter and camp for free in both places.
      * It’s much more beautiful. Again, just look at the number of National Parks East verses West. Compare the number of international visitors. If you go to the big Parks out west in the summer and you will hear more Japanese, German and Italian being spoken than English. They are so amazing people fly in from around the world to see them. In fact the average places are better out west than the great places back East.
      Those are just facts and they alone leave no doubt in my mind that I will never be a vandweller back East. I’ll visit, but I’ll never live there.

  6. margo

    well here we go again! i passed you and judy when i was going south and you guys were going north (we were in the bitteroot at the same time) so i’m now leaving fl, had planned to go to the meeting here (even had reservations, all tho i forgot to put the organization in) any way needless to say this conversation and all the math was a great help and i may yet connect in az, on my way north. it really helps me to see the math in print. thanks

    • Bob

      Margo, I’m sorry we keep missing each other, maybe this year will be our year to get together! My summer plans are very up in the air but I’ll keep them posted on the blog as they start to solidify.
      Sorry to miss you again in Florida!

  7. Naomu

    Couldn’t agree more. I love to drive but only when I can stop and smell the roses.
    Another option for some folks who might not want to fly relatively shorter distances would be to check out renting a car. When it looked like I might not be able to drive my vehicle from Colorado to Alabama last fall, the cost of the car rental was comparable to the one-way airfare. Of course, lodging and fuel would add to the cost but if there are other issues involved, such as fear of flying, it might be worth the extra money.

    • Bob

      Right Naomi, there are lots of variables that make every situation totally different.

  8. CAE

    The one thing you didn’t address is whether or not you would need a car at your destination. Renting a car would start to make driving more of a wash.

    • Bob

      CAE, you’re totally right, at my moms I seldom need a car and the few times I do I borrow my moms. If you need a rent a car that would drastically change things.

  9. WTXCal

    You and I have the exact same feelings in regards to our pet buddies. Many of my friends don’t understand I will not leave my loyal friend, Blanca, with just anyone or any kennel.
    Most of the time I take her with me, fortunately I have found a great kennel in Fort Davis who both love her and treat her like royalty. She has a great time there, although still happy when I return. It’s just nice to read your thoughts on that.
    Thanks, WTXCal

    • Bob

      WTXCal, your right, it’s impossible to generalize so it’s possible I can find someone to board him with. I’m lucky I have friends who will take him and I also very seldom have to leave him. We just do what we have to do.

  10. Naomi

    It’s getting pretty bad when I spell my own name incorrectly (Naomu). Sounds like an orca at SeaWorld. Sorry about that.

  11. Al Christensen

    Some vandwellers don’t have credit cards, so they’ll need to work with a travel agent. Also, if you’re a vandweller trying to live underground, off the radar, then you’re kind of stuck since you need to provide valid photo ID to get on a commercial flight. You might find a private pilot, though. If you’re in no hurry, the train or bus might be an option. Renting a car at your destination requires a driver’s license and credit card, of course.
    As for me, my siblings all live clustered near each other in the West, so I visited them this past summer, fulfilling my familial obligations for five years or so, or until I have to go to one of their funerals.

    • Bob

      Al, you can get a pre-paid Visa card at Walmart and use it online just like any CC. How could you be a vandweller without a drivers license?
      It won’t work for everybody but I think most of us can fly on a plane. Some of us are lucky and it’s just not an issue.

      • Al Christensen

        There are a lot of people driving without licenses.

        • Bob

          I guess so.

  12. Douglas

    I’m glad most of my family is nearby, the extended family is in texas, new mexico and california. Not as much driving, especially when mine and her parents are in phoenix.

    • Bob

      Douglas that is a good thing! Mine couldn’t be much worse–a son in Alaska and mom in Florida.

  13. Douglas

    Ham radio could be helpful if both parties are licensed hams.

    • Bob

      Good point Douglas.

  14. Linda Sand

    We seldom varied our route much to visit relatives but when we did it was sure good to have the RV to retreat to for quiet times. I sure wish more of them were along Amtrak routes as we much prefer trains to planes.

    • Bob

      Linda, having lived in Alaska all my life, Amtrak just isn’t part of my thinking but it should be! I think it would be a very good way to travel.

  15. Darlin

    I loved this post, not that I don’t enjoy most of your posts, but seeing your figures was most helpful. I’m going from Ohio to Colorado in a gas guzzler so am pleased to see I estimated about the same as you. But I didn’t consider the other costs! So you see how helpful you’ve been to me. You really have such helpful tips! And how you ended your post was just so sweet. I hope you’re having a good visit with your mother! Thank you so much.

    • Bob

      Darlin, I’m really glad to have given you a different perspective!
      I’m having a great time with my mom–just like I always do!

  16. Douglas

    I don’t care for flying, just seems to be too much of a hassle these days. All the security checks, two hours before and about two after. I haven’t flown commercial since 2006. I’m not scared of it, just don’t go anywhere far away enough to justify it. Plus, I am kind of an otr kind of person.

    • Bob

      Douglas, I’ve always felt the exact same way, but this trip was drastically better than they have been, it might change my mind about hating flying.

  17. Douglas

    I’m a roamer, but not a cross country roamer. I might consider flying via charted private jet with about 15 people on it. Most commercial flights are too crowded for me. I don’t like crowds, call me weird, but I just don’t.

  18. Patrick

    Relatively speaking, Bob you are lucky. When I go to see my family, I have to fly 14 thousand miles across ocean.

    • Bob

      No doubt about that Patrick, it could be much worse!

  19. Irv Oslin

    In most cases like that, it makes a lot more sense to fly. When my folks lived in Florida, I’d book flights months in advance and fly for $200 or less. Too bad the US doesn’t have rail service like they have in Europe and elsewhere. Cheap, fast and you get to take in a lot of scenery.
    As for driving, I don’t find it boring. But, then, I’m easily amused. Still, why put the wear and tear on your vehicle and spend all that money on gas?

    • Bob

      Irv, I have to totally agree with everything you said!

  20. Cade

    What an intelligent breakdown of not only the finances, but also the emotional costs. I would have never thought about how hard it would be on a pet. That was a great section on the considerations about Cody.
    Outstanding. I will always remember that.

    • Bob

      Thanks Cade. When I first hit the road with Homer we would drive all day and here was this big 80 pound dog cooped up in a cab of a pickup all day. I felt so bad about it that I promised him we would walk every two hours of the trip. I kept that promise and after the trip was over I maintained the habit of walking him an hour every morning and night, so it turned out to be a very good thing for both of us.

      • Cade

        Thank you for bringing even more clarity to traveling with a pet. I bet there are less than 5% of travelers with that kind of insight and heartfelt unselfishness.
        You are a class guy.
        Take it easy,

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