When my husband and I park somewhere with our new teardrop trailer, the first thing strangers tell us is “That thing looks so cool!”, followed quickly by “So how much did that thing cost?”
And I get it- when my husband, Justin, and I were considering purchasing a travel trailer, I didn’t really have a good ballpark of what to expect to be spending- not just on the trailer itself, but ALL of the out-of-pocket expenses I could expect to incur with such a significant purchase.
When we decided to take the leap to purchase an Alto R1723 by Safari Condo, I was careful to track pretty much every single penny we spent. So if you’d like to see a real-life example of how much purchasing a travel trailer costs (including all the hidden costs you may not have considered), keep on reading below!
This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission, for which we are extremely grateful, at no extra cost to you.
First, some context: I want to be exceedingly clear that you can truly find a travel trailer for all budgets. I’m in a number of RVing Facebook groups and I’ve seen some people purchase gutted shells of old trailers for less than $500 to upwards of $60,000 for new customized, tricked-out models.
While my husband and I opted to go for a higher-end trailer (more on that later!), at the end of the day, a trailer is really only supposed to act as a more comfortable place to sleep, with some room for storage.
So the intent of this article is not to scare any newbie RVers away, but instead, to sneak a glimpse into what Justin and I actually spent to help you prepare for your own travel trailer purchase. And since our trailer is 100% on the bougie-er side, I’ll include some more middle-of-the-road figures as well.
So without further adieu, here are the costs we racked up when purchasing our RV:
Travel Trailer Cost #1: Tow Vehicle
First big question to ask yourself- do you have a vehicle with enough power to safely tow a trailer? Oftentimes, your tow vehicle’s cost will greatly exceed those associated with your travel trailer, but this definitely isn’t the place to skimp.
Choosing the correct tow vehicle is REALLY important- if you try to tow a weight that exceeds your vehicle’s towing capacity, not only will it put too much strain on your transmission and cause damage to your vehicle, but it could also cause your automobile to fail while you’re driving it, leading to serious injury to yourself or others.
There are SO many factors to consider when making sure that your vehicle is set up to safely tow a travel trailer- you’ll need to understand your vehicle’s ratings for things like towing capacity, gross vehicle weight rating, and trailer tongue weight.
There’s a LOT of confusing jargon to know- far too much to delve into for this post, but this article is super helpful in understanding it all. With that in mind, here are a few other tidbits to consider:
- If you have a specific trailer in mind, you can usually look up the dry weight of the trailer- this is how much the trailer weighs without any of the manufacturer- or dealer-added options, liquid in the tanks, or cargo. Therefore, your trailer is likely to weigh significantly more with all of the options and your extra gear added in.
As a general rule, you can expect your trailer, filled with water and gear, to weigh about 250 pounds per foot of the box length of your trailer. Bottom line- you shouldn’t assume that your tow vehicle will work simply because your dream trailer’s dry weight is within its towing capacity.
- When in doubt, opt for a tow vehicle that has a larger towing capacity than you think you need. We fell in love with a trailer with a dry weight of around 1800 pounds (which, I want to flag, is much lighter than the average trailer, which typically rings in at around 5,300 lbs) and so I got my heart set on purchasing a Subaru Outback, with a towing capacity of 2500 pounds.
The more research I did, though, I felt more and more uncomfortable opting for something, when there’s a good chance that we’d, at times, exceed the vehicle’s towing capacity, unless we were constantly diligent about emptying our gray and black water tanks (which sounded super annoying, at best).
At the end of the day, Justin and I opted to trade in our beloved 2014 Toyota Prius-C, Gracie (who has seen us through a many road trips) for a 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited. We choose the Highlander, because we love Toyotas, felt more comfortable with its 3500 towing capacity, had 4WD, and didn’t get COMPLETELY atrocious gas mileage (27 city/ 25 highway mpg).
Total out-of-pocket cost: With our trade-in, the Highlander cost us $4,071.88, which is inclusive of taxes and licensing fees.
For this particular cost, we were very much on the low end of the spectrum- most new midsize SUVs ring in, on average, at around $41,000, with new pickup trucks costing an average of $51,000. Also, consider that if you upgrade your existing vehicle to a bigger and more expensive one, your auto insurance rates may fluctuate up. In our instance, since our SUV is so much older than our Prius-C, our auto insurance premium actually dropped about $150 per every 6 months.
While we’re on the topic of shopping for a tow vehicle, this may seem obvious, but I’d recommend looking for one with a tow package (i.e., all of the equipment you’ll need to hitch your trailer to your vehicle and tow it) already installed.
Most SUVs do not automatically come with tow hitches installed and while some pickup trucks come with a standard tow hitch, it’s not completely unheard of for trucks to not come with tow packages off the lot, especially when looking at the used market. Which brings me to my next point…
Travel Trailer Cost #2: Getting your vehicle ready to tow
Our Highlander (who we have affectionately named Ruth after my favorite Supreme Court Justice, due to the fact that she wears all black and is old but strong) came with a receiver hitch (i.e., a type of hitch that bolts onto the underside of the rear of a vehicle, and provides a tube for attaching a ball mount or other accessory), but did not come with the necessary electrical connections to feed the trailer’s brake lights, turn signal, and 12V auxiliary charging.
For more simple utility trailers, this kind of wiring is handled through a device called a 4-way flat connecter, whereas for more complex trailers, like an RV, it’s handled through a seven-way connector (which allows for additional functionality, like electric trailer brakes). In order to get Ruth ready to tow, we had to take her to a U-haul, buy the necessary parts, and have them installed.
Total out-of-pocket cost: We spent $63.22 on parts, $116.32 on labor, and $10 on a one-year warranty, costing us a grand total of $189.54.
Note that we were originally considering purchasing an SUV without a tow package and received a quote from our local Toyota dealer that parts and installation would be around $1100! So be prepared to pay a WAY higher price if you elect to get the tow package installed at a dealership or RV store, rather than a U-haul. As an aside, I didn’t know this before I started RVing, but U-haul is an awesome resource for the RV lifestyle, including the largest network of propane refilling stations in the United States and even dump stations in select locations.
Since we’re on the topic of towing, you will also need to install a ball mount and trailer ball to your trailer hitch, which will be the part which connects your tow vehicle with your trailer’s coupler. This is a super easy process, which won’t involve any complicated tools- even a non-mechanically inclined noob like me can do it (see an instructional video of how to do it here).
Beyond the ball size, you will also need to be sure to select a ball mount that has the correct rise or drop (i.e., a mount that will allow your trailer to connect to your vehicle at the appropriate level so there isn’t too little or too much weight on your tow hitch), as well as a mount that is appropriately rated to tow above the total weight of your trailer (gross trailer weight or “GTW”) and the weight your trailer will exert downward on the hitch itself (called the “tongue weight”, which is usually between 10-15% of the GTW). Here’s a helpful guide to selecting the correct ball mount for your rig set-up.
While the previous owners of our Alto included our ball mount in the cost of our trailer, ball-mounts can range from around $25 for simple mounts up to $300, for beefy ones that offer three different size balls (used by people who are towing multiple kinds of trailers with their vehicles).
Travel Trailer Cost #3: The Trailer Itself
There are a HUGE variety of trailers out there to suit almost anyone’s needs, from 40-footers with slide-outs to basic teeny tiny teardrops, with just a bed in the main cabin and a kitchen in the back. Justin and I had some fairly specific requirements when we were looking for our trailer- something we could theoretically store in our (very small) one car garage if needed; something reasonably light so that we didn’t have to get a monster truck; and something that had all the comforts of home, like a toilet, shower, and kitchen.
When searching for a trailer that suited our needs, we came across the Altos by Safari Condo and fell head-over-heels with the vintage-inspired, yet modern design, retractable roof (perfect for fitting in tiny spaces!), and the rave reviews from the Alto community.
We aren’t the only ones who love the Alto, though- this tiny Canadian manufacturer has garnered quite the cult following and, at the time I’m writing this, there’s about a 22-month waiting list for new Altos being delivered to their owners. So while Justin and I originally put down a refundable deposit on an R1723 in December 2020 (to be delivered to us in April 2022!), we quickly jumped at the chance when we saw an older couple selling their lightly used 2020 model with all of the features we wanted (and more), including solar panels, caravan movers, and a memory foam mattress (if you’re interested in it, check out the tour of my Alto R1723 and my 100-night review of the Safari Condo Alto).
Total out-of-pocket cost: We paid $43,000 for our Alto (who we have since affectionately named “Riggie Smalls”), which is very much on the higher end for travel trailers- while there are certainly similar lightweight trailers in this price bracket (for example, Airstream has a popular model called the Bambi, a 16-foot lightweight single-axle trailer, that starts at $51,400), an average 23-foot travel trailer costs around $23,000 off the lot.
That being said, after being an enormous cheapskate the vast majority of my life, I’m starting to come around to the fact that it’s often worth investing a bit more in quality products- so do your due diligence regarding the quality and longevity of the trailer model you’re interested in buying.
We paid cash for our Alto, but many people buying from an RV dealer elect to finance their purchase. If you have a good credit score, you can snag an RV loan with a little over 4% interest rate, with rates creeping up to almost 12% for those with less than ideal credit. When thinking about your overall budget, make sure to take these costs into account- for example, if you get an $18,000 loan over the course of 7 years with a modest 5% interest, you’ll be paying an additional $3,370 in interest alone.
Travel Trailer Cost #4: Sales tax and licensing fees
Once you purchase your trailer, you’ll need to pay all the fun taxes and fees associated with getting it titled and licensed in your state, which vary significantly (it appears the average tax rate in the United States is around 6.5% of the RV’s purchase price). I live in Washington state, so while I enjoy a life with no income tax, I unfortunately pay through the nose on things like sales tax and licensing fees.
Total out-of-pocket cost: Between a 10% state and city sales tax, vehicle use tabs, and title fees, we paid $4,457.75 to get our trailer appropriately licensed.
Travel Trailer Cost #5: Insurance
RVs are kind of a unique animal, falling somewhere between a vehicle and a home, with a bunch of interesting risks that come along with a tiny home on wheels you tow around. While your auto insurance may cover some types of accidents (like those that occur while actually driving your trailer from place to place), most policies will offer limited coverage if your RV is damaged or if someone is injured while your RV is parked somewhere. To protect against these kinds of risks, I’d recommend purchasing RV insurance.
Total out-of-pocket cost: I got quotes from several companies, including esurance, All State, and Progressive and eventually settled on a pretty beefy annual insurance policy for $433.00 from Progressive. Like any insurance policy, this will vary widely (ranging from $125 to $25,000 a year) on several factors, like your driving history, the cost of your rig, and whether you have experience towing a trailer.
Travel Trailer Cost #6: Travel trailer accessories
Beyond just purchasing your tow vehicle and your trailer, there’s a whole world of items that will make your towing and RVing experience safer or more enjoyable. Some of these items you’ll need to tow your trailer home for the first time, while others you will only need once you’re actually out on the road camping.
For us, one of the advantages of buying from a private party is that the previous owners included a bunch of accessories that we needed to tow our trailer home 2,479 miles, but unless you happen to be purchasing from a private party, you’ll need to purchase your accessories either from your dealer or from a third party before you pick your trailer up.
Depending on your set-up, you may need different accessories, but here are some things that we used to tow our vehicle home:
- Tow mirrors: Since the mirrors on your car will be largely useless while you’re driving with a 16-foot plus box behind you, these extendable mirrors that clip on to your car’s existing mirrors will allow you to actually see the sides of your trailer while you’re driving. For some reason, no one ever mentioned these on any new RVer blog post I looked at while researching purchasing an RV, so I’m super glad that our trailer’s previous owners thought to provide us some.
- Wireless brake controller: Brake controllers help set the intensity of your trailer’s brakes, when you apply pressure to the brakes in your tow vehicle, and are required in many states whenever you’re towing.
You used to have to hard-wire brake controllers into your vehicle, but now you can easily use a wireless controller that can be installed within minutes. Since this type of brake controller is installed on the trailer itself, it comes with the benefit of being able to tow with multiple vehicles. If you opt to get a hard-wired brake controller instead, you can expect to pay up to $300 for parts and $300 for the installation.
- Wheel chocks: These are wedges made of sturdy material that are wedged against your trailer’s wheels to prevent it from accidentally moving. We wind up using these as an additional safety measure to secure the trailer when we’re unhitching it to park it or when we’re stopped at a campsite. Given the amount of damage that a runaway trailer can do, these should be considered a non-negotiable.
- Weight distribution bars: These help stabilize your trailer while you’re towing, decrease sway from wind or rough road conditions, and help brake and turn more smoothly. These are not required (and should not be used to exceed your vehicle’s towing capacity), but as new towers, they’ve made towing way less anxiety-inducing than I suspect it would otherwise be.
- Spare tire and the tools you need to change it: Most trailers do not automatically come with a spare- I’m all for saving money, but you should definitely elect to purchase from your dealership (unless your trailer magically has the same size tire as your tow vehicle, in which case, you could arguably get comfortable with only having one spare) and having the tools and know-how to actually change a tire if you happen to get a flat somewhere that doesn’t have cell signal.
Our trailer came with a spare and thankfully, we had most of the necessary tools we needed, but we bought a torque wrench (we bought a super cheap one that I would not recommend, but Craftsman makes awesomely reliable tools) and some sockets that cost us a total of $32.46.
As for the first time you actually go camping, you will need other accessories, which will vary depending on whether you’re staying at a campground with hook-ups or dry-camping, whether your RV is winterized, etc. If you’re camping at a site with hook-ups, these accessories include:
- Surge protector: You need to use a surge protector or an electric monitoring system to protect the electrical system in your trailer from electrical “event” (like a brown-out, power surge, or improperly wired pedestal). These events happen more than you think in campsites, especially during the summertime when the systems are strained due to everyone using their air conditioning at the same time, and they can lead to damaging all of the electronics in your trailer.
I was a bit shocked by how expensive surge protectors are (they can cost from $100-$300), but it’s certainly cheaper than a multi-thousand dollar repair of your electrical system. Make sure to buy one that’s the correct amperage for your electrical system- we bought this one for our Alto with a 30-amp electrical system and here’s a 50-amp option.
- Water pressure regulator: Unpredictable water pressure can seriously damage your trailer’s appliances- while RV plumbing is usually rated for 40 to 60 PSIs, some campsites may have water with up to 100 PSI. A water pressure regulator helps you control the pressure of the incoming water so you don’t have to worry about your pipes breaking or flooding your trailer.
- Shore power cord: Your RV may or may not come with a shore power cord. If your trailer doesn’t come with one, you’ll need to buy one that’s appropriate for your trailer’s amperage rating (here’s one for 30A and here’s one for 50A).
- Hoses: Your RV likely comes with both a fresh water and sewer hose, but they are often too short to actually be functional for the hook-ups provided in most campgrounds. A 25 foot fresh water hose and a 20 foot sewer hose should do the trick for most campsites. Note that there are certain states (and campgrounds) that will require your sewer hose to be elevated off the ground, so if you’re camping in one of those areas, you’ll also need to bring along a hose support.
- Rubber gloves: Assuming you’re doing anything with your black tank, you’re going to want some gloves to protect your hands from the poop hose. Hopefully self-explanatory!
And you’ll need these regardless of whether you’re staying at a site with hook-ups or dry-camping.
- Bullseye level: Levels help you make sure your trailer is, well, level. Traditional leveler solutions have required you to have two levels- one for each the x- and y-axis. With a bullseye level, you can put one level on the tongue of your trailer and with a single glance at the level’s bubble, you’ll get a reading for both planes simultaneously.
- Leveling blocks: If your campsite is unlevel, you will need to use leveling blocks under the wheels of your trailer to compensate for the uneven ground.
- Holding tank treatment:This powder helps break down waste in your holding tank, as well as keeping your RV smelling so fresh and so clean clean. While this likely falls more within the “nice to have” category, a black tank clog isn’t something you want to be dealing with during your time in the campground… or ever.
- Locks: Finally, if you’re leaving your unhitched trailer anywhere, whether it’s in your driveway or at a campsite, you should lock it to deter any would-be thieves from hauling your trailer away.
There’s three types of locks you should consider: a coupler lock, which will prevent someone else from using your coupler to attach your trailer to a tow hitch; a receiver lock, which is mainly to prevent prankster kids from removing the cotter hitch pin (which would make your tow hitch decouple from the hitch receiver as you pull your car forward, possibly causing damage to your car, your trailer or others around you); and a latch lock, which prevents someone from opening and closing the latch on the coupler.
It turns out that buying not crap locks is absurdly expensive, so we wound up purchasing the best coupler lock we could find (in fact, I love this Proven Industries lock so much I wrote a whole post about why its the best trailer lock on the market) and fairly inexpensive receiver and latch locks. In total, we spent $320 on three different locks for our trailer.
Total out-of-pocket cost: While we got the vast majority of trailer odds and ends from our Alto’s previous owners, we still spent $447.46 on travel trailer accessories.
Travel Trailer Cost #7: Other costs you should consider
There are some other expenses you may incur when you purchase your trailer, depending on a variety of factors. For example:
- Travel costs: I know this represents a tiny minority of trailer owners, but, for the small but mighty Safari Condo community, most of us wind up having to travel several hours (or even making the international trip to Canada) to pick up our trailers, given the limited amount of dealers who sell Altos. Justin and I drove a total of 76 hours round trip from Seattle, across 3 and a half days and seven states, to pick up our trailer from the previous owners in Louisiana. Between gas, hotels, food, and a permit to drive our new baby home, it cost us an additional $812 (turns out that towing a trailer for 38 hours is a great way to find out just how much of a gas sucker towing is!). So if you’re electing to purchase a specialty trailer where you’ll need to travel to pick it up, don’t forget to include those costs as well!
- Storage costs: If your trailer doesn’t fit in your garage or your yard, you’ll almost certainly need to store it in a facility. Costs will vary widely depending on your location and how large of a storage space you’ll need but you can expect to pay around $130 per month.
- Additional batteries: Some folks recommend purchasing an additional battery for your trailer, which may be a great option if you’re planning on boondocking extensively. Lead acid batteries can cost between $100-$300, whereas lithium batteries (which would be your best bet for boondocking) will run you $800+. I personally don’t think this is something you’ll need straight out the gate, but if you plan on living in your trailer full-time, it might be something worth looking into!
Total Cost of Purchasing a Travel Trailer
All told, from driving to Louisiana and towing Riggie Smalls home to buying insurance and potty deodorizer, we spent a grand total of $53,411.63. As I mentioned, this is 100% on the higher end of the travel trailer spectrum (at least, considering how little we paid for our SUV) and there are most definitely a number of areas where you can mindfully cut costs (or, if you want a totally baller trailer, definitely areas where you could splurge more!).
While I cringe a bit looking at that number, I know that Justin and I will be regularly using the camper for years to come and I’m confident that the memories that will be made with Riggie Smalls will be priceless (… or, at a minimum, worth at least $53,411.64!).
As soon as you dip your toes into the world of RVing, there are seemingly endless things for you to buy and spend money on, such as campground membership programs, storage solutions, and propane fire pits. I’d recommend starting off slow and just buying the essentials (like required maintenance!), to give yourself time to get to know your trailer and your camping style.
Well, there you have it- my shamelessly transparent and honest breakdown of exactly how much we spent on our Safari Condo Alto R1723. Are you thinking about getting into RVing? What questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below and we can figure this whole RVing thing out together!