Motorhomes Vs. Motels

The Grand Prismatic Spring, at Yellowstone National Park, from above. To get a shot of this spring in all its colorific glory, conditions must be perfect. You must have a clear sky and warm temperatures. And you must capture it in the afternoon, when only a little steam is coming off it. Unfortunately, all the parking spots were taken at this time of day, so I had to rely upon Wikipedia for this polychromatic picture. Photo by Brocken Inaglory, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 3.0.

My brother, Rowan, is a motorhome fanatic. Over the course of his life he’s owned various kinds of camping vehicles, including travel trailers, pop-up trailers, and fifth-wheels. But his preference is the Class C motorhome.

He hates motels.

And I hate motorhomes.

Rowan, my grandnephew Wiley, and I hiked the Fairy Falls trail to reach this overlook of the Grand Prismatic Spring. This shot was taken by me at about 8:30 am, with the temperature in the 50’s. Unfortunately the sun is too low, the spring is too steamy, and the air is not warm enough, to bring out the prismatic colors.

One problem with a motorhome is that everywhere you drive it, there it is. It’s a big, giant behemoth that doesn’t fit well into parking spaces, and that requires awkward and time-consuming unhooking and then hooking back up, every time you leave a campsite and return.

That’s why our car came in so handy during our Yellowstone trip. My wife, Kay, and I stayed in a cabin, in an RV park, while my brother hooked his motorhome up to a campsite in the same park. Every day, he and his family climbed into the back of my Outback, and off we’d go sightseeing. We left his atrocity-on-wheels behind, connected to its life support.

Rowan has been trying to convince me for years, to buy one of these snail shells. But I hate the idea of owning a motorhome. When I go on a road trip, I like to relax. But I imagine if I was driving one of those awkward galoots, I’d be constantly worried about sideswiping some bastard in my blind spot, or cutting a corner and taking out a stop sign, or backing over a troop of girl scouts.

I was able to catch a hint of iridescence with this shot.

But he found a way to tempt me. He told me that motorhome travel saves a ton of money over expensive motels. Now that’s the way to my heart. Money.

And he has a point. Motels are getting to be damned costly these days. If you want to stay at a motel where you don’t have to hide a pistol under your pillow, or use anti-itch creme after you get out of bed, or call the front desk for a plunger at 2:00 am, you have to put up a small ransom.

Generally, a halfway decent motel room will set a traveler back about $150 per night.

The runoff from Grand Prismatic creates a wide, foliated field of mineral-rich mud.

Rowan has also pointed out that I can save a lot of money on meals when owning a motorhome, by getting my wife to fix dinner rather than restaurants. But for some reason, Kay is not as enthusiastic about this point, as me.

My brother is a good salesman. However I like to analyze. And I’ve known Rowan since I was a kid. Even though he’s now a tax pro, I’ve never felt confident with his math. So I decided to put his claims under a microscope.

I put a spreadsheet together to analyze the financial pluses and minuses of owning a motorhome, versus using motels. I factored in the extra cost of fuel, driving these gas guzzlers, along with the cost of renting campsites; against savings in motel rooms and dining expenses.

A ground’s eye view of the Grand Prismatic Spring.

I won’t get into the weeds with every boring detail. I’ll just summarize. So you can save your nap for later. My spreadsheet indicates that on a typical 300-mile road trip day, I’d save a whopping $153 by driving a motorhome, as opposed to staying at a motel.


So this is why I see so many tin cans on wheels out there on the highway. The Great American Tourist has figured out a nifty way to save money. I felt like a chump not having purchased a motorhome years ago.

The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world. It is 370 feet wide, and 160 feet deep.

But then it occurred to me that I hadn’t finished my analysis. Motorhomes don’t just cost money when being driven. They also cost money when they’re parked in a driveway. Which for most owners is about 345 days out of the year.

So I put my numeracy skills to work again, and crunched more numbers.

First, a brand new, standard-sized Class C motorhome, of about 20-30 feet long, costs an average of about $75,000. If that $75,000 is invested in blue-chip stocks instead, it will earn about 6% annually. This is called opportunity cost. By shelling out $75,000 for a motorhome, I lose the opportunity to invest the money, as well as the potential earnings from that investment.

The annual opportunity cost of owning a motorhome is $75,000 * 6%, or $4,500.

The first Europeans to lay eyes upon this amazing spring were fur trappers, in 1839. They described it as a “boiling lake.”

My research indicates that a motorhome depreciates about 60% over a ten-year period, or an average of 6% per year. Thus, the depreciation cost adds another $4,500 per year to the expense of ownership.

Insurance will probably cost about $1,000 per year, and keeping it registered with the DMV will cost maybe $500 annually.

I understand that motorhomes need constant care. Even when they’re sitting around not being driven. So I’m going to throw in storage costs of $500 annually, even if my money-whirlpool sits on my own property.

No, this is not lava. Bacterial mats color the spring with greens, reds, and this striking orange.

That brings me to fixed annual costs of a staggering $11,000, for the privilege of owning a motorhome. Whether it’s driven anywhere or not.

To justify these high fixed costs, the motorhome would have to be driven 71.9 days per year, on road trips. That’s $11,000, divided by daily road trips savings of $153.

We aren’t musicians, traveling salespeople, or involved in any other peripatetic profession. So there’s no way we’d be needing to drive a motorhome that much. At most, my wife and I would probably drive one about 20 days per year.

And at 20 days per year, it would cost us an extra $7,840 per year to own a motor home, versus renting halfway decent motel rooms.

About 560 gallons of water per minute discharge from the Grand Prismatic Spring, along with more water from nearby Excelsior Geyser. The hot water flows in every direction away from the spring’s crater. This green runnel is cascading toward the nearby Firehole River.

And so, maybe I’m not such a chump after all. Motels win this battle of the budget. I’m sticking with my Outback, which I’ll keep using to handily pass these metallic slugs of the highway, as Kay and I travel America along a trail of roadside inns.

Sorry Rowan. You’re my brother, and I respect you. But you’ve gotta learn how to use a spreadsheet.

A boiling hot waterfall showers the Firehole River with runoff from the Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser.

Categories: Travel

45 replies »

  1. Hi TG,

    Great post!

    Like you, I was momentarily, mentally “livin’ the dream” of owning a motorhome. Also like you, I did the math. I could stay many nights of the year in a motel on what it would cost me to drag around a motorhome or trailer instead. Not saying I will never own one, but my life would have to include many, many more days of roadtripping than it does now before it would make financial sense for me to own one. Plus there is the hassle of one more thing to own, clean, maintain, insure, worry about. It would end up owning me.

    (Certainly takes the romance and spontaneity out of just throwing a travel bag into the car’s back seat and hitting the road.)

    If I ever did purchase one of these things, it would have to be small enough to park in a regular spot. The hippy van dream lives on, in a small part of my brain!


    Liked by 4 people

    • In Europe, they have these cool little campers built on small vans. They aren’t really very large at all, but they don’t really market in the in the USA. I guess they think that our market demands the road yachts only.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My in-laws own what I call a “rockstar” RV – looks like something a very successful band would tour with. Has indoor/outdoor TV and kitchen, 2 bathrooms, washer/dryer, dishwasher, full size fridge with freezer, fireplace, leather/wood/ceramic – the works. Needs to be stored indoors in the winter. Costs more than a lot of homes. Need a special license to drive it. I have never ever envied them this thing. I just see it as a big headache and furnace that burns money.

        Liked by 1 person

      • We had a camper van that fit in a regular spot ~ it was 19 feet with a Chevy base and all the bells and whistles ~ tub, sink, stove, microwave, fridge, toilet, bed, bunk, etc.

        We bought it used for $10K and sold it 10 years later for $2K. It was great for beach trips, tailgating, and we even did a cross country trip in it ~ staying in campgrounds when we couldn’t find a “better bed” with friends and family.

        Liked by 2 people

        • That would be the way I’d go, if I ever did something like that. Something small, inexpensive, and easy to maneuver and park. Sounds like you had great fun in your camper van.


          • We did, especially when we lived in NC ~ the Blue Ridge Parkway was only 2 hours away, so we’d pick a different campground every weekend “in season” so we could hike to waterfalls, enjoy campfires, and visit country stores.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. That is the answer that I come out to every time I consider getting a camper or boat.

    Except in the wilderness somewhere, there is a hotel, VRBO or someplace to rent. Or, my cheap 5 year old Coleman tent. I stayed in a place that had cabins and accommodated RVs in Idaho when I went to Yellowstone. When I was done, I turned over the keys to the place and that was the last concern I had about the cabin.

    You may be forgetting an additional cost, though. The brother-in-law cost. “Hey, Jason, I noticed that you have an RV. Would you mind if Stella and me took the boys camping in it next week?” I don’t actually have a sister, but if I did, I think Stella would be a good name for her.

    With a boat, I found out that I can pay some guy about $250, use his boat, and tire the kids out on the lake in 6 or so hours. I can then return his boat to him and go home not worrying about a boat. I can do this 5 or 6 times a year for about 30 years and not pay the cost of buying and owning a boat. Nor do I have to deal with my brother-in-law (that I don’t actually have).

    So, seems like you are at least wise in this regard.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree with you about boats. I’ve heard it said that a boat is a hole in the ocean that you throw your money into. I’d say that unless you’re using a boat or motor home a whole lot, it’s much cheaper to rent, than to own.


      • I can see having a little flat bottom aluminum fishing boat if you go fishing a lot. That is pretty cheap. I was talking about the big pontoon party boats and the compensater speed boats costing about a Corvette each.

        I have never really picked up the fishing hobby. It seems great up until the point that I have captured a fish and now must butcher it. So many little bones.

        Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll sit in a boat drinking beer all day.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Heh-heh, I like your take on that old Chinese proverb. I suppose if I lived by a lake I might invest in a little boat. But probably one of those flat bottoms you suggest, as I wouldn’t want to spend too much on it. I can buy fish at the market.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like smart thinking to me, good work! Plus as you said, I would never want to drive one of those things!! My van has enough dents in it! LOL! small dents, and hey things jump out at me. I can’t imagine how they would jump out at such a large target like an RV!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for doing all the research for me. Once I retire I’d like to sell everything and travel. Maybe something smaller, like an Airstream. I’ve always had a wanderer’s heart. Until then, give me clean sheets and shitty hotel room coffee.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. My son, the financial planner, and I had the same discussion. He was pro camper shell; I was against. He won only because he can use the pickup truck for backup transportation if his Grand Marquis dies, and he plans to live in it if/when his girlfriend kicks him out of her house (he’s not coming back to live in mine).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that’s smart parenting. Get your kid to buy a camper shell, so he’ll never have an excuse to find shelter at your own home.

      If that doesn’t work, then maybe you can sell your house and buy a motorhome for yourself. Then if your kid ever finds you, you can easily move to a new location.

      Liked by 1 person

      • His idea, not mine. But it’s definitely working in my favor. Now his girlfriend on the other hand… The wife and I are never doing the motorhome. We believe in spreadsheets and indoor plumbing.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never been tempted – even a little bit – to have a motorhome. I’ve never been accused of travelling light, but dragging my stuff with me in a home-on-wheels has zero appeal.

    Love the photos of the Grand Prismatic Spring. The world is full of wonders!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It seems to me like it would be cumbersome and awkward. And isn’t the idea of vacationing to get away from it all, rather than take everything with you?

      Thanks. The Grand Prismatic is one of the more beautiful sights of Yellowstone, in my view.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Well I read your other post first and it seems that I stand corrected. My ass wants to be in a hotel room, not a campsite. Now I know it’s even cheaper to be in a hotel room, that sweetens the deal more. BTW do you want to do my taxes next year?!

    Beautiful photos and scenery!

    Liked by 1 person

Go ahead, blurt it out:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.