$2889. That is how much it cost for our family of 7 to travel 3000+ miles over 5.5 weeks. I had budgeted $4000 for the trip and hoped to come in closer to $3000. So I was thrilled with the end result. The trip was amazing. And the budget wasn’t too bad either!
Summary of expenses:
Activities: $128 plus $70 museum pass
Eating out: $140
AC unit: $265
(We did end back in the Flathead Valley, but google maps limits the number of stops you can add to a map. So some didn’t make the cut, including our home!)
Camping costs varied greatly. Visting Mr. Mt’s parents in Nebraska proved to be the most expensive stop. It came to $366 for 7 nights/ $52 a night. We opted for campgrounds with playgrounds, pools, and WiFi. When we stayed at a full-service campground they were generally $10 more than the average. Plus, sometimes we were charged extra for our dog or the crazy amount of kids we have.
The most affordable option was state parks. At $16 a night, they are tough to beat! We stayed a week in Yellowstone and a few nights in Bighorn National Forest. Now granted, there is no running water to your campsite, no electricity, no cell service, no WiFi, no flushing toilets, no showers. This is real camping people. But it was so beautiful. Our time in Bighorn National Forest was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.
For 2 nights in the Grand Tetons, we park outside of a friend’s house, and we were able to park at my parent’s house for 9 nights. I think if we would have been traveling longer we would have spent more time in the national parks, and a bit less in the expensive campgrounds.
The gas cost was very reasonable. It was a huge help that the price averaged $2.25 during our trip. Obviously, if we traveled during a year where we saw $4.50 a gallon prices, this would have been twice as high. If we had a longer time frame (and fewer miles to cover), I think we would have slowed our pace. In most places, I wish we could have stayed twice as long, which would have lowered our fuel cost per week. The van pulling the pop up camper also saw great gas mileage!
There were are a few reasons we went with a pop-up camper.
- Initial cost was lower than a travel trailer or RV ($4,000)
- It could be pulled with the van we already own. Which fits our family, and is easy to drive in town when we unhitch the camper.
- Gas mileage! Pulled by our van, we averaged 15-20 miles a gallon! A lot of trucks use that without pulling anything.
I was amazed at how little we spent on this because it felt like every day was packed full of fun stuff! Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons really are their own entertainment. There is no reason to spend a lot on “entertainment” here. We went to every single geothermal spot within a mile of the road. We saw hundreds of bison, a mama grizzly and her two cubs, coyote, wolf, mule deer, and tons of birds.
At our campgrounds, the kids ran amuck on playgrounds, swam in pools, used bouncy mats, had water balloon wars, and met Yogi bear =). One of the best values was the science museum pass we bought before we left. I might write a whole post about it because it was such a great value. We visited lots of great science museums along our trip, all for the $70 cost of our local museum pass. If we would have paid for each of those, it would have been at least an extra $200. In the end, we did miss out on at least another $200 of great museums (that would have been free), just because we were so busy enjoying everything else!
Some of the things we did pay for was mining for garnets in Virginia City, MT ($20), parking at Mount Rushmore ($12), the Great Bear Adventure (oh my goodness, I love it SO SO much!) ($40 with military discount), the prison tour and car museum in Deer Lodge, MT ($24 with military discount), and water balloon wars at one of the campsites ($6).
We did stay with my parents for a week in Wisconsin. And they spoiled our kids rotten that week with fun activities. They took the kids to a baseball game, a tiger show, build a bear, the pool, and Chucky Cheese.
Groceries, Snacks, and Eating Out
I think I take for granted how we can shop so affordably between stocking up when items go on sale or buying in bulk. We couldn’t do either on this trip. But on the flip side, we didn’t eat as healthy or clean as we generally do. The kids lovingly refer to it as “camping food.” The snacks consisted of lots of $1 sodas from gas stations, corn dogs, and other cheap food that can’t really be called groceries or eating out. =) $140 doesn’t really make for a lot of eating out for a family of 7. But we never take all our kids out to eat anyways. That is fun for no one! They are like little banshees in a restaurant. But we did splurge on blizzards from DQ one night as dinner. That was a HUGE hit with them.
If you love the Corn Husker state, perhaps you should avert your eyes for the next few sentences. In the middle of Nebraska, I stepped out of the van and it felt like a hot blow dryer was going to knock me down. My in-laws live in this glorious place, and I have visited many times, but only in the middle of summer or middle of winter. Oh dear Jesus. People think the weather is harsh in Montana. No. No it is not. It was -40 the first time I went to lovely Nebraska, and humid. I kid you not. How they manage humidity when it’s that cold is beyond me. It felt like my bone marrow was going to freeze. For 2 weeks people. It was not a great introduction to the state. This summer it was 106, and humid like I just got out of a shower. I searched for hotels to no avail. And we were staying a full week. So we bought a window AC unit and rigged that to our pop up camper. So that is included in our trip cost. Not my favorite expense by a long shot. But it made the weather that week bearable. That and the campsite pool.
Misc and Medication
Dramamine in bulk, eczema cream for the honey badger, bug bite cream, bug spray, dog food. Sometimes you can’t pack everything. We did manage to make it our whole trip on 2 tanks of propane!
If you are camping for more than a week or two, this will need to be added to your budget. We had to do laundry twice on the road, then both sets of parents let us use their washer and dryer the other two times.
Of course, some expenses happened while we were gone. Cell phone bills ($66), gym membership ($60), internet ($55), giving ($226). Altogether, our auto-pay expenses for June were under $1000.
I have always dreamed of taking a big trip with the kids. And I have to say, it went amazing! So much so that we weren’t really sure we wanted to come home just yet. We did have our difficult moments. Oh boy, did we have our moments. More than I care to admit, I used my “mom voice” to announce to our kids, “I am not the back seat police! Be nice and figure it out!” I remember when we just had one child. I really never understood why parents discouraged their kids from pointing out what rules the other kids were breaking. Tattling seemed to be a prudent thing to me. HA! Not anymore. Unless someone is bleeding, I probably don’t care. Your sister is looking at you? She touched your arm? She dropped her book?!! I. Don’t. Care. Yup, there was a fair bit of that happening on our drive days. But I am so glad we went.
I hope this real-life budget helps you all out. And if you are worried that camping with little kids is insane and a horrible idea, well… it is a bit insane. But it also might turn out to be one of the most cherished trips of your life.