Travelling budgets vary greatly. Some couples who live frugally and sensibly can live on $500 a week, whereas a big, hungry family who likes to take part in lots of organised adventures might spend $1500 or more a week.
Budgets are a very individual thing and will depend on your individual circumstances and income.
Part of the appeal of caravanning is the freedom of the open road, but we have to snap back to reality when we realise that there are plenty of ongoing expenses. Whether you're looking to stretch your savings as far as possible or you'd just like to set out on more weekends, it can pay to be thrifty.
SET A BUDGET
Set a weekly budget and have a contingency in place for unexpected emergencies and things that pop up along the way. A budget should include the costs you will incur while travelling, such as fuel, food, accommodation, entertainment and activities. Some people also include the ‘hidden’ costs such as insurance, phone and other telecommunications in their budget planning.
Your budget will depend on your personal circumstances and your income, how far you intend to travel and over what time period, where you intend to stay, whether you intend to eat out a bit or always cook for yourself and whether you intend to take part in tours and other organised activities at the places you visit.
Set your budget and have around 20 per cent in reserve, on top of your forecasted day-to-day expenses. It's easy to anticipate things like site costs and petrol but it’s the unforeseeable one-off costs such as ferry crossings or entry fees to national parks that can bite if you’re not prepared for them.
If money is no object, go for it. If you are a canny caravanner, remember that ‘penny pinching’ and being totally focused on expenses will, no doubt, detract from the overall travelling experience. Before you travel to any destination, do the research on the ‘must do/see’ things and budget for them accordingly.
Just remember to keep it balanced. Don't plan to get by on the skin of your teeth the whole time or you won't think about anything else. Travelling on too strict a budget will restrict the things you can do and see, and you may end up missing all the good stuff. Everyone needs to spoil themselves occasionally.
WHERE TO CAMP
You might not want to stay out at a remote bush camp every night, but you also won't want to pay big holiday park prices every night either. Splitting your overnight stays in half between paid sites and free sites can add up to a dramatic saving. And while not every free site will be the picturesque bush camp of your dreams, the gems that you do discover will offer up a range of seclusion, scenery and unexpected delights that may well become the highlight of your trip. Caravan parks do have all the amenities, but they may all start to look the same after a while.
Hands down, one of the best ways to slash the cost of camping is to be totally self-sufficient. Having the ability to bush camp means you can avoid the more expensive campsites and save a few bucks on fuel by having more campsite options closer to where you need to be. Let’s face it, the cost of a solar system and a camp shower will pay itself back in no time at all and totally revolutionise the way you camp in the process.
While you have free camping at one end of the spectrum and caravan parks with all the bells and whistles at the other end — there are lots of options in between.
In Caravan World Issue 632 we ran a feature on Country Pub Camping. About 1200 pubs across Australia take part and offer overnight parking spaces for self-contained campers behind, next to or across the road from their premises in exchange for patronage at the pub — a meal and a few drinks. Some will offer the use of toilets and/or showers for a small fee. This is not free camping. You are expected to patronise the pub. Pull up a chair at the bar, have a chat to the locals, learn a bit about the local community and support a local watering hole — that’s half the fun. Pulling up for a night behind a pub and then sitting in your van with your two-minute noodles is very poor form, so don’t do it.
Showgrounds are also terrific places to camp and you’ll find them in country towns all over Australia.
There are many Facebook groups devoted to showgrounds camping, so join a few to get the lowdown. A site can be as little as $10 per night and as much as $30 per night. Most will offer basic facilities — toilets at the very least — whereas others offer power, water and very modern, clean amenities with live-in caretakers keeping an eye on the place.
If you’re after a taste of country living, then farm stays are the way to go. Not only will you discover unique settings at budget rates, you’ll also be helping farmers and local industry. With farm stays becoming increasingly common, many now offer on-site activities such as horse riding and cattle mustering, as well as fresh produce straight from the source.
House/farm sitting is another great accommodation alternative. Websites such as Grey Nomad Caretakers will often have folks asking for travellers to come and sit their house or property for a few weeks, tend to the garden and feed some animals in exchange for a place to camp, sometimes with use of a bathroom thrown in. This is a great way to see some far-flung corners of the country.
FUELLING THE RIG
There’s no getting around this. Fuel is expensive and if you are travelling, you need it.
Running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere is one of the most embarrassing situations a traveller can experience. Why? Because it’s so easy to avoid. Find out how far you can travel on a tank with a full load and look for large gaps between service stations along your route. Apps such as FuelMapAustralia make this task easy. If it looks as though you won’t make it, load up a couple of jerry cans.
In fact, jerry cans will come in handy when you come across cheap (cheaper) fuel. It doesn’t hurt to carry a bit extra around.
Of course, how you drive can have a big impact on how much fuel you use. This might mean slowing down a bit or covering less distance each day, lightening your load and reducing the wind resistance of bulky items that you might have attached to your van or tow vehicle. And keep your receipts after a supermarket shop, a 4 cents per litre saving adds up when you’re filling a big tank.
FUELLING THE HUMANS
Staying well fed can be one of the costliest parts of your trip, but only if you let it. With a little bit of creativity, you can cut your food costs way down without having to sacrifice the things you love.
One great way is to get a dehydrator and stock up on bulk dry food before you go. With the water all sucked out, it won’t add anywhere near as much weight as frozen food, plus it doesn’t need to be stored in the freezer.
A vacuum sealing machine is also a great investment. Vacuum sealed food — especially meat — lasts longer in the fridge, so you’ll be throwing out and wasting less.
Many travellers these days have a thermal cooker on board. Akin to a slow cooker but without the need for power, these oversized Thermoses allow you to prepare dinner in the morning — soup, casseroles, curries, pot roasts etc — seal it up in the thermal cooker and let it cook away in its own heat while you’re travelling to your next destination. By the time you arrive and set up camp, dinner will be ready and still piping hot.
Cook your first few nights' meals before you leave home or cook double if you’re on the road long term. Then freeze the appropriate number of portions and pop them in the caravan fridge the day of departure. They'll stay mostly frozen in there and you can grab them out an hour or two before dinner time to defrost properly. Stews, casseroles, satays and stir-fries work well, as these can be reheated in one pot. This allows you to use the contents of your home pantry which saves you buying basics such as herbs, spices, flour and rice on the road, and reduces food wastage as it’s portion controlled. It'll also save you time, water and stress.
Highway service centres are a killer on the back pocket. While they may be convenient, truck stops are designed to keep you spending. The short walk from the bowser to the counter can be costly, so strap on your blinkers and don't get side-tracked by racks of hats and two-for-one chocolate bars.
Pack your own lunch and snacks for the car — a reusable water bottle, a Thermos of coffee and some handy snacks. A container of trail mix will keep the hunger at bay between meals — an assortment of nuts and dried fruits and, if you have kids, throw in some chocolate bullets or similar to keep it interesting.
While you’re travelling, keep an eye out for farmers’ markets and farm gates and any ways you can stock up on the cheap. Catching your own fish and, if you’re prepared to learn the ins and outs of local tucker, the odd spot of foraging is not only cost-effective but a rewarding way to explore your surrounds.
When you’re in larger towns, buy groceries — including water and alcohol — in bulk to keep you going for a few weeks.
Many travellers will not leave home without their coffee machine or preferred device so they can enjoy a good brew on the road. Let’s face it, highway-side bakeries aren’t exactly known for locally roasted single origin beans and world-class baristas. Unless you’re happy spending $4.50 on scalding hot coffee-flavoured milk, then you’d be wise to have a good system in your van. Some go so far as to install espresso machines, but most will have their particular stovetop or hand-press of choice. Each morning, fill up a Thermos and you’re set.
It's also good to consider what types of tours and activities you'll want to do when you're on the road.
Yes, a helicopter flight over Uluru is a once in a lifetime, bucket list experience that you may never do again, but it will come at a cost. Less expensive will be hiring a Segway to circumnavigate the base of the rock, or if you’re prepared for 10km of hoofing it, the walk is free and absolutely awe-inspiring.
There are plenty of free activities such as guided walks in national parks, as well as discounted days or seasons, so plan ahead and do the research before you leave home.
Volunteering is a great way to get free or discounted tickets to events, such as the Big Red Bash and Mundi Mundi Bash music concerts. Volunteers get a free ticket to these three-day desert extravaganzas in exchange for a few hours of ‘work’ each day that could including marshalling, cleaning toilets or selling merchandise. Volunteers are the lifeblood of these events and spots go quickly. This is just one example but there will be hundreds of others of similar opportunities around the country.
Consider what you’re taking and don’t take more than you’ll need. If there’s no need to take eight teacups, take four. If you’re going to the Top End, you won’t need layers of heavy bedding, puffer jackets or merino layers. While it’s nice to be prepared for any eventuality, it’s also important to remain practical because every extra bit of weight you’re hauling will cost you in the long run.
Days and weeks on the road can take their toll in unexpected ways. While your van and vehicle might be up to the task, your wine glasses may not survive all those balmy evenings under the awning. If you find yourself needing to replace odds and ends, or you forgot to pack a crucial piece that'll make or break your favourite meal, head to the nearest op-shop. You can get a kitchen's worth of decent pots and pans with spare change at most regional thrift stores, and chances are you'll get by just fine without the latest and greatest NASA-grade non-stick technology.
TOPPING UP THE COFFERS
There are plenty of opportunities to work while you are travelling to earn a few extra pennies and keep the coffers topped up.
Many travellers will take on short-term or seasonal work at one location before moving on to the next. The harvest trail — fruit and vegetable picking — is popular among travellers and the shortage of workers became dire during and after the COVID-19 pandemic because overseas workers were not allowed into Australia.
Grey Nomads Jobs is a terrific conduit between employers and travellers. Register on this website and you’ll find employment, jobs, house sitting and community opportunities with thousands of ‘nomad-friendly’ employers all over Australia.
For employers, it taps into the huge mobile workforce that is travelling right now and looking for opportunities — a highly skilled and experienced workforce. People who not only want to work but also want to stop and stay a little longer.
If you have some skills, you may be able to use them in other ways. Offer haircuts at your camp, sell the craft items that you make on the road or offer to do some odd jobs at the caravan park.
THE NEXT STEP
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Tips for Budget-Friendly Camping