Britt Ruggiero and Justin Giuffrida bought a 2002 Bluebird school bus in February 2021, with plans to convert it into a 30-foot home on wheels. At the time, diesel fuel prices in their home state of Colorado were averaging around $3 per gallon, the same as the national average.
The engaged couple, new to the nomadic living trend of #vanlife, gutted their bus, which they’ve dubbed the G Wagon, created a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, and installed plumbing and solar power. They also mapped out an ambitious yearlong, cross-country trip: First they’d travel to Florida, then north to Long Island, then see California top to bottom, before heading back to the Southeast for the winter holidays. They got on the road this March, only to realize quickly that gas prices were not what they’d expected.
“We drove to Florida basically all in one weekend, and that was kind of a slap in the face,” said Mr. Giuffrida, 29, of filling up the bus. “We were estimating it to cost about $200 and lately it’s been about $300.” With a 60-gallon tank, and fuel mileage of about 8 to 10 miles per gallon, the G Wagon needed gas every four hours. The couple’s first trip cost them nearly $2,000 on gas alone.
In mid-March, the national average for a gallon of diesel was up to $5.25, and has since continued an unwelcome rise: the price this week reached an average of $5.72 a gallon, while the national average price of unleaded gas reached $5 a gallon. These are highest average prices ever recorded, according to AAA, the automobile group, just as the busy driving season of summer commences.
Ms. Ruggiero, 30, and Mr. Giuffrida are still on the road, currently in Santa Cruz, Calif., after a recent stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. But in reaction to the gas prices, they’ve altered their trip, spending more time in each destination and cutting some stops at national parks from their itinerary.
“That year of work on the build, we’re definitely not going to let that go to waste,” Ms. Ruggiero said.
Like countless other vanlife travelers, they are adapting to cut costs. Remaining in destinations longer, using gas apps and signing up for fuel cards allows vanlifers to stay on the road without giving up the freedom afforded by their lifestyle.
Jupiter Estrada, a 28-year-old R.V.-owner from Texas who uses they/them pronouns, has been on the road since 2020 and has no plans to settle down. “Gas is very expensive; that is not up for debate,” they said. “However I’m in a really good position where gas is, essentially, my rent. My backyard is anywhere I want.”
#Vanlife trend accelerates during pandemic
While the specific number of vanlifers in the United States is not clear, the trend took off in 2020, thanks to low gas prices and a pandemic that prompted travelers to rethink airplanes and other public transit options while allowing for remote work. But even before the coronavirus made its way to the United States, the #vanlife hashtag on Instagram was crowded with stunning travel photos from influencers choosing to live and work remotely in converted vans, buses and RVs. (Although Instagram makes the life look glamorous, these travelers deal with their fair share of challenges: finding free or cheap places to park at night, sharing cramped living quarters with partners and pets, and for many, searching for the next shower or toilet.)
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Chris Kochan, 31, and his girlfriend, Sarah Shaeffer, 26, started the skoolielivin.com website after purchasing a school bus in 2018 to explore their home state of Wisconsin.
Even with higher gas prices and more people heading back to the office, they say skoolielivin.com, where travelers can buy and sell used buses as well as share tips on bus renovation and travel, continues to grow in popularity, seeing a 200-percent increase in site traffic in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021. There’s been one notable change.
“We have seen an increase in people asking about fuel mileage of different buses and the costs of living the bus lifestyle,” Mr. Kochan said. “However, it doesn’t seem to have slowed down interest in living a nomadic lifestyle in a school bus conversion.”
In addition to school buses, camper vans and RVs are popular options for living on the road. While the type of fuel can differ based on vehicle make and model, the majority of school buses run on diesel fuel, which is often more expensive than unleaded gasoline. Camper vans, which range in cost from $100,000 to $200,000 before customization, have the best gas mileage, getting between 20 and 30 miles per gallon, while school buses and RVs usually get 8 to 15 miles per gallon.
On top of fuel costs, amenities that non-vanlife people take for granted — plumbing, heating — can add thousands of dollars in conversion costs. Mr. Kochan and Ms. Shaeffer spent over $4,500 adding a wood stove, propane furnace, water tanks and a toilet to their vehicle.
Start-up costs are not minimal. Take Ms. Ruggiero and Mr. Giuffrida: the classic RVs and pull-behinds they considered cost $100,000 for the vehicle and necessary live-in work. Instead they paid $4,500 for the bus and $25,000 for the conversion.
Gas prices, Ms. Ruggiero said, were considered, but they didn’t think it would be an issue. In Colorado, they were paying an estimated $2,000 a month in living expenses.
“Even if we’re traveling around every weekend, the price of gas isn’t going to ever exceed that,” she said. “Then, obviously, things changed.”
Slowing down for summer
While some travelers are content to avoid states with the most expensive fuel, such as California, Nevada and Illinois, others have made the choice to save money by parking in one spot for months at a time, working freelance gigs and waiting for fuel prices to drop.
Berkeley Martinez and Monica Ourada have been parked in Bellingham, Wash., on Bureau of Land Management property, and living in their 1991 Dodge B250 camper van since December.
“We weren’t planning on staying for very long, and then all of a sudden gas prices skyrocketed to about $5 a gallon,’‘ said Mr. Martinez, 29. “We just realized that it’d be better if we stuck around for a bit. Now, it’s been half a year.”
The pair plans to remain parked through the summer, avoiding the most popular and expensive travel season of the year, and hoping September 2022 brings cheaper gas prices across the country
“Our goal is to leave after Labor Day,” said Ms. Ourada, 26. The couple will assess the gas prices, she said: If they “are $4, or hopefully under $4, then we will probably travel quite a bit faster, staying four to five days in one place at a time before leaving. If prices stay where they’re at, then we probably will find one place to explore for a month or two.”
Navod Ahmir, 28, is driving slower. The 28-year-old finance associate has been chronicling his travels in his 2018 Ford Transit online as navodthenomad since 2020. Last year, he landed a job that allowed him to work completely remotely while driving from his home state of North Carolina to California. Now, the challenge he faces is budgeting for another trip cross country.
“I just got back from California, and the gas prices on the East Coast are just what California typically felt like,” he said. “But once I go back across, I’m thinking about going slower to save money. Typically I drive across a state in two or three days, then spend a day there before moving on. Now I’m considering staying in each state for two or three weeks.”
Jupiter Estrada, 28, the content creator from Texas, has bounced around New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California and Baja, Mexico, since 2020.
“It used to take $150 to get a full tank in my new RV, and now it’s closer to $250,” they said. “I was in Utah a couple weeks ago and the gas was around $4.80. I shed a single tear when I crossed the Colorado border and saw gas for $3.89.” They’ve also started to use apps like GasBuddy to plan their route.
Carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles running on diesel or regular gasoline drive climate change and the tiny particulate matter from tailpipes has negative effects on human health. But those looking for cleaner fuel alternatives may be out of luck. An electric van from Volkswagen the ID. Buzz, offers a 300-mile range, but is currently only available in Europe. Ford’s E-Transit Pro has a range up to 126 miles, and is meant for commercial customers.
Rob Novotny is the founder and owner of Glampervan, which builds customized vans in Oakland, Calif. He said travelers could benefit from better electric van options but that current battery range is too limited.
“If you have an electric van with short range, that means your independence is now cut short,” Mr. Novotny said. “Especially if you’re out in the middle of Death Valley, and they have only three Tesla charging stations.”
Mr. Ahmir, for one, remains hooked on the freedom and opportunities that the nomadic lifestyle provides, regardless of the pricey fuel.
“Before the pandemic I hadn’t traveled far outside my surrounding states,” he said. “This has opened up so many doors to do a lot of different things and do it whenever I want to.”