Five reasons we chose a minivan to travel the country

Published November 30, 2016   Posted in Guest Posts How to Think

Good day, beautiful people! Today, I’m coming at you with a guest post, this time from Matt from TheResumeGap.com. These guys travel the country in a van and have totally mastered the definition of minimalism. Today, Matt recalls why they chose a minivan to call their traveling home.
The Resume Gap van in Yosemity

The Resume Gap van in Yosemity

Thanks for inviting us, Steve. We’re huge fans of Think Save Retire and your Airstream dream!

When Daniel and I quit our jobs at the beginning of 2016, we knew we wanted to spend at least a couple years traveling the world, including taking a long road trip around North America. We evaluated the whole spectrum of vehicle options – everything from throwing a tent in the back of a sedan to buying a big RV or trailer. Much to the amusement of our friends and family, we ultimately decided on a minivan.

Finally, the soccer-mom lifestyle we’ve always dreamed of!

We made a few light modifications – taking out the seats, throwing a mattress in the back, and building some extra storage – then we hit the road. We’ve now spent almost six months traveling the U.S. and Canada in our beloved Dodge Caravan, covering 28 states and 3 provinces so far. It’s been one of the most fun things we’ve ever done.

Here are a few reasons I’d encourage anyone thinking about road-tripping the country to consider a similar setup:

Low commitment

When we first decided to take off on this adventure, I had a looming fear: What if we don’t like long-term travel? I had been doing regular work travel for years, and we had both taken shorter road trips, but neither of us had ever spent more than a few weeks at a time away from home.

With no full-time travel experience under our belts, I was hesitant to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a big RV or trailer. What if we decided after just a month that we didn’t want to be on the road full-time? The minivan addressed that concern. For the bargain price of less than $2,000 (plus a couple hundred dollars of materials to build additional storage), we had our first rig. If at any time we decided that long-term road-tripping wasn’t for us, we could easily resell the van and be done with it.

That low upfront investment has also given us more flexibility with our travel plans. We parked the van for three months this summer, for example, to travel in Eastern Europe. Because we hadn’t spent a ton of money on a vehicle, we didn’t feel any nagging guilt about sunk costs – and we were able to keep more money invested in the market rather than in depreciating assets.

The Resume Gap van in Canyonlands

The Resume Gap van in Canyonlands

Simplicity

One of the major things that appealed to us about taking time away from work was the opportunity to simplify our lives – spending more time on the things that matter to us (like traveling and visiting friends and family) and less time on the things that don’t (like household chores and accumulating “stuff”).

Traveling in a smaller vehicle appealed to us because it forced us to be discerning with every item we brought with us. We’re a long way from being the poster children of minimalism, but it’s remarkable how few things you need on the road. When we returned home for the first time after three months away, we actually ended up offloading a number of items we thought we would want but didn’t end up using.

Comfort

Back in April, we met up with some friends at Joshua Tree National Park for a weekend of camping and hiking. While we slept comfortably in a real bed in the well-insulated confines of the van, their small backpacking tent got blown around all night in 40 MPH winds. In below-freezing temperatures, we might normally be shivering in our sleeping bags – but in the van, we can always crank on the heat for a few minutes.

Just like at home, it’s easy to get stuck comparing our possessions to what’s newer and nicer. At home, it might be the neighbor’s fancy house or luxury car. On the road, it’s a luxury RV with multiple pop-outs or a tricked-out $100k Sprinter van. But when we remind ourselves of the other alternatives (like wintertime camping in a tent), it’s easy to appreciate that van camping is downright luxurious.

Flexibility

We’re city-dwellers at heart, and we love exploring urban settings just as much as we love hiking through the backcountry. Our van works for both. We’ve driven it down dirt roads in rural Utah and Wyoming with no one around for miles, but we’ve also parallel-parked it everywhere from downtown Toronto to the Chicago Loop to San Francisco’s Mission District. Try doing that with a big trailer. (No offense, Airstreamers!)

If we were planning to live on the road full-time for years, I’d happily consider a larger setup. But for a few months of travel with frequent city stops, the van suits our needs just fine.

Being able to sleep in our vehicle also gives us more lodging options in places where a tent wouldn’t be appropriate, like undeveloped National Forest areas, highway rest stops (where car camping is permitted in many states), or the occasional Walmart parking lot (where we’ve spent a few nights when there weren’t other options).

The Resume Gap van in Yellowstone

The Resume Gap van in Yellowstone

Operating cost

Our travel budget isn’t exorbitant, so every dollar counts. Cruising the country in a van has been substantially cheaper than many of the alternatives. Gasoline is one of our biggest expenses, so we appreciate the van’s decent fuel economy (around 24 MPG, or 10 L/100km). Insurance cost is minimal, and because the vehicle isn’t worth much, we don’t pay for collision or comprehensive coverage. Depreciation has been minimal, too. In fact, our van’s blue book value has gone up since we bought it!

Keeping those costs low means we’re able to spend more money on things we value, and it means we can travel longer. That’s a trade-off we’ll happily make every time!

We track our net worth using Personal Capital



Comments

53 responses to “Five reasons we chose a minivan to travel the country”

  1. Sounds like a lot of fun Matt. I’d like to see a shot inside the minivan! I think I’d enjoy something like this, but I’m pretty sure my significant other wouldn’t. I liked your point about always running into somebody with more money such as the tricked out RV (although, I guess for all we know it could be financed). That’s true for all parts of life. I was once on vacation in the Caribbean and taking a speed boat tour around the island. We idled into a big wharf to check out the fancy yachts and saw some pretty nice ones. Then Bill Gates’s yacht appeared. It dwarfed everyone else and we thought, “well, there’s always someone with more money.” And then – I kid you not – Steve Jobs’s yacht happened to be coming into port. It was even bigger and more luxurious then Gates’s yacht. We got out of there before some Russian oil barron’s boat showed up. It’s never ending!

    • Oh my gosh, that story is straight out of a movie! That’s hilarious. I’ll have to share some interior shots of the van in an upcoming blog post. We put in some extra storage, but nothing that can’t come right out. Gotta preserve that $1,800 resale value! 😉

  2. Wow – what timing! Matt – if you look at your stats, we were the ones last night all over your site looking at the “travel” posts on this exact topic. We had always assumed we were going to get a camper next summer to begin our #emptynestadventures as the youngest goes off to college. We even looked at some R-Pods last week when we were in Florida. We have time to consider more options (and we’ll use our decision framework to make the final decision) – but we’ve now thrown #vanlife into the mix too. We already have a GREAT mini-van that still has a good 100K miles in it (we hope!) It was a dumb “new van” purchase before we got heavy into FIRE planning. We would probably use the van in combination with tents/hotels/AirBNB’s etc. Thanks for all your sharing and amazing pics too 😉

    • Thanks for browsing! We’ve been eyeing those R-Pods, too, for potential future adventures, but the van has been a great way to do a trial run of long-term domestic travel. Like you said, we’ve done it in combination with hotel nights and stays with friends and family around the country, so it’s far from 100% of our time in a small vehicle.

  3. I like your idea of testing out a traveling lifestyle before going all in. If it ends up not being for you, then you’re only out a few thousand dollars for the van. Looks like a fun and exciting adventure. Get to see the country on the cheap!

    • Thanks, Go F Yourself! It’s always easy to “upgrade” later, so we thought it was the right approach for us for now. And yes, it’s been absolutely awesome to spend months exploring the country. Still so much left to see!

  4. I too would like to see a van interior shot. I have an uncle that owns one of those giant trailers. His advice was similar to what your doing, try small before you buy. The trailers are apparently hard to resell. Couple that with a pain to park and drive. It seemed to me if he had to do it again it would be smaller. Given I have a 4 person family id probably need bigger then a minivan, but we’ve considered a small pop-up trailer for if when we get there. Again still only 2-3 k. We shall see.

    • I will definitely post some interior shots soon, by popular demand. Sounds like if we were to eventually go the trailer route, it would be worth looking at used ones. I’m not surprised that they’re hard to sell, and I bet you can get an especially good deal on them if the market goes south for a while. We definitely appreciate that the van is so easy to drive and park. We’ll blaze down random forest roads without knowing exactly where we’re headed, and we don’t worry about not being able to turn around.

  5. Inspiring post, and great example of why Radical Personal Finance once called the minivan the “perfect minimalist vehicle”. Personally, my wife and I prefer a bit more space, and are planning on a 5th wheel when we FIRE in 18 months. I guess I’ll have to Uber into downtown Toronto….(good point you raised, I hadn’t thought about that!).

    • It totally is! I sold my sports car earlier this year when we bought the van. 😭 If/when we settle down geographically again, I’ll probably end up just keeping it rather than getting something else. It’s low-cost and practical. Yikes, I guess I am getting old!

  6. Roadrunner says:

    It must be a great experience, something that you’ll remember for the rest of your lives. To be honest I don’t know for how long I could make it without a nice, big, comfortable bed. But I suppose it’s not a big crime to have a break in a hotel every now and then 🙂

    • We do have a nice comfortable bed, Roadrunner, right in the back of the van! (“Big” is up for debate; it’s a full size mattress.) We spend a night in a hotel pretty regularly to take a break. In fact, I’m writing this from one right now.

  7. Very cool. I was hoping you were going to include a photo of the inside of the van’s set up. We had a Honda odyssey for years. We never did any sleeping in it, but man was it great for transporting kids or hauling stuff. Very comfortable too.

    • Yep, on long driving days, sitting at the front of the van is like being in a La-Z-Boy! Everyone wants to see the inside of the van, so I’ll be posting some pictures over on the The Resume Gap shortly. Should I vacuum first, or do you want to see the floor covered in leaves and pine needles? 😉

  8. Sweet! A tricked out minivan does seem like the best of both worlds for urban and remote driving.

    I’ve “camped” in the back of a big SUV before, and it was way better than slumming it in a tent (which I’ve also done plenty of times)

    • Haha, yes, now we can thumb our noses at the tent campers! We had both done a lot of tent camping before, so it definitely feels like an upgrade. And it is really nice to pull into a campsite after dark and not have to deal with clearing out a site and setting up a tent.

  9. I used to laugh at the “soccer mom-ness” of vans but after riding in my dad’s van witg captain chairs, I am all about them! I think it would be a challenge to live out of a van, but it’s certainly not impossible. I don’t think I would live in a van myself, but it’s great for traveling!

    • Yes, yes, embrace the minivan lifestyle! We think of ourselves as *traveling* in a minivan rather than *living* in one. We’re all for minimalism, but we still like to take frequent breaks — whether it’s staying with friends or family, getting a hotel room for a night, or parking the van and leaving the country for a while, like we did this summer.

  10. I absolutely love this! We’re definitely no where near as small as a van since we live full-time in an RV, but I definitely love this lifestyle!

    We did just turn our Jeep into an overland vehicle and it’s the best thing ever!

    • For full-time living, we would definitely take a look at an RV like yours! I’m totally envious of the Jeep. If there’s one thing I wish we could change about the van, it’s the low clearance and front-wheel drive. We have many National Park backroads left to explore. Oh well, we have plenty more decades for future adventures!

  11. Ty says:

    I’ve done my time in a minivan – they’re incredibly versatile, easy to drive, and cheap to own. That said, I’d never considered taking out the 2nd and 3rd rows for camping – great idea.

    I’ve enjoyed living vicariously through you two this year – thanks for sharing your experiences with all of us!

    • I had the idea at some point before we stopped working and was able to find a few other folks online blogging about it, though not many. That said, we still took the van out for a few trial-run weekends just to make sure we hadn’t totally lost our minds!

  12. Tucker says:

    This is amazing to me because we have a Dodge Caravan and I have often thought of how great it would be to throw a mattress in the back and do this very thing. Of course, we have kids so we’d probably need a light trailer but I think you have the right idea in terms of options. I am not much for camping-camping and sleeping on the ground so I figured this would be a great alternative. It’s so awesome to read about someone who has done it!

    • You could definitely make that work with a small trailer in tow. One of the fun parts about spending a few months on the road is we’ve gotten to see all kinds of setups — everything from giant RVs and fifth-wheels to converted Sprinter vans and old military vehicles. Some of the little van campers from France and Germany we’ve seen traveling the States (still with their EU license plates!) have been the coolest; I wish they were easier to find here! Glad you enjoyed the post. 😀

  13. We had a Honda minivan that we drove to just over 200,000 miles – and we loved it. We also did a TON of traveling it was nice knowing that we could take whatever we wanted with us, without the concern of having enough space for it. Minivans are great. 🙂

  14. Jason Vitug says:

    Enjoyed this story! Keep at it and hope to run during my excursion around the US.

  15. Joe says:

    Pretty awesome! My parents lived in their van for a few months. Wasn’t a lifestyle choice, though…
    I think traveling in a minivan is great when you’re young, but might be harder when you’re a bit older. It’d be fine for me. The missus wouldn’t sign up for this for the long term. Maybe a few months in New Zealand or something like that would work…
    Good point about the cities. You can’t park a bigger vehicle in the cities. There are ordnance against parking an RV in the city to prevent sleeping in the vehicle. A van is very stealthy.

    • Thanks, Joe! Youth makes a lot of things easier, which is a big part of the reason we wanted to embark on this adventure now rather than wait. When we built our little van setup, though, we actually similarly outfitted the minivan that my parents own. They’ve joined us for a couple destinations and survived van-camping just fine, even in their sixties!

      We don’t attempt to stealth camp illegally in cities, though there are plenty of people who do! Usually we end up in a hotel or staying with friends. But for those parts of the trip, it’s really nice to be able to use street parking.

  16. TJ says:

    I think it’s so awesome what you guys have been doing. Can’t wait to see the interior shots as well as the next costs of van life post..

    • We’ve been dining out with reckless abandon lately (how could we not when in Asheville, Nashville, New Orleans, and Austin?) and putting a ton of miles on the van getting home, so it could end up being more expensive than last time around. We’ll see!

  17. I love the idea of van-living while traveling. Cheap and flexible. The ultimate freedom.

  18. Matt Spillar says:

    Really awesome to hear about another way of traveling and living life. The van life seems inexpensive and convenient! Thanks for sharing about your experiences on the road. Would love to spend a summer road-tripping across the country, maybe someday 🙂

  19. Mrs. BITA says:

    I’m going to join the chorus of “Inside pictures! Inside pictures!”

    Enjoyed this post, you folks are having such a great time. What do you do for internet access while you’re on the road? Do without? Use your phone as a hot spot? Is that good enough?

    • You got it! 😀

      We have one Verizon phone that we use as a hotspot for occasional internet access, though we save our heavy data usage for when we get regular Wi-Fi. Verizon’s coverage is surprisingly good, even in remote areas. Our second phone, which is on Google Project FI for international travel, is more spotty but still works reasonably well. Between park visitor centers, coffee shops, hotels, and other stops, we’ve rarely lacked consistent internet access.

  20. Tawcan says:

    Inspiring post. My family and I used to travel in a mini van when I was younger. We have driven from Vancouver to Alaska, and also Vancouver to New Orleans. Mini vans is a great luxury for family travel.

    • Those are some big trips! Alaska is still on our high-priority travel list, though I’m not sure we want to do that drive with the van given its age and our complete lack of repair skills/knowledge (I can check the oil level and the fuel gauge, and that’s about it!) Perhaps when we upgrade to an Airstream someday 😉

  21. Jenny says:

    I’ve also thought travelling in a van would be better than having to deal with a camper, at least short term. I can see keeping warm in cold places but how is it when it is really hot out? Does opening windows work or do you end up sleeping outside?

    • We spent a whole week in Death Valley during which the nighttime temperatures didn’t get below 85 F or so. With the back hatch and slider doors open, we were able to get a decent cross-breeze — and we carry some netting for the doors to keep bugs out. Not as comfortable as A/C, but probably better ventilation than a tent!

  22. Mr. SSC says:

    I hadn’t ever really considered a mini van for road tripping RV style. It sounds like it has some great advantages though over bigger rigs, especially if your lifestyle fits in a smaller one. When I went long distance hiking, I too returned a lot of stuff after I got to the first and second post offices I came across. Funny how that happens. 🙂

  23. Mr. Groovy says:

    Color me green with envy! Love what you guys are doing. Just let me know when you’re rolling into to North Carolina. We got to meet up.

  24. ANOTHER favorite blogger mash-up? Man, you’re killing it over there, Steve! Matt, question: Minivan life with 3 kids… possible? 🙂

  25. Thanks for having me on, Steve! Fun to reach a new audience with our weirdo life choices 😉 Can’t wait for your impending retirement to become a reality!

  26. Marcia says:

    This was good, and funny. We camp at Joshua Tree regularly.

    One year, we were not able to get a site in JT the first night. So we ended up in a private campground with 40 mph winds or so. We were camping with our neighbors, who have a tricked-out campervan.

    We were completely unable to adjust the position of our car and their van to avoid our tent from blowing all over. So in the end, we took down the tent. I (5’2″) slept in the back of the Matrix with the back seats down, snuggled up with the cooler. My husband and 5 year old slept in the “downstairs” of the campervan, while our friends and their *3* children (ages 5, 3, 6 months) slept up top. Sleeps 7!!

    The next time we went to JT was February. Weather report *said* 40F, but I neglected to realize that that temp was at the park ENTRANCE. The campsites, higher elevation, were 28F. Tent camping. Did I mention that I was 6 mos pregnant? Oy. Silver lining: unbeknownst to us, our then 6-yo had head lice, but as they don’t hatch in cold weather – we didn’t get it.

  27. Love this post Matt, and the lifestyle! We’re big minivan road-trippers, doing 1 or 2 major trips each year in our 2005 Toyota Sienna. We have 3 kids in tow, so unfortunately we haven’t laid out the mattress in the back yet, perhaps in a few years! 🙂

Leave a Reply