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Our first 6+ months as full-time nomads were on the west coast of the United States, and we spent the past 6 months on the east coast. Which coast is better for RVers? Let the showdown begin!
Factors in deciding which coast to visit
First, I want to say that no matter which coast is better (from my perspective), I think you should visit both coasts. And everything in between. And the rest of the continent, and every other continent. Because I love travel, and even if I don’t like all places equally, I still want to visit them all.
Second, I will admit it now: I’m a Westie. California girl, born and raised. This is also the state I lived in most of my adult life. So I’m a little biased. But I will try to give impartial facts as well as opinions.
I’m looking at factors such as cost, availability of campgrounds, ease of travel, and beautiful scenery. So here we go!
Which coast is more expensive?
I chose 5 major cities from each coast. I looked at the cost of living indexes provided by Sperling’s Best Places website. If you’re not familiar with these, they use the number 100 as the national average for cost. Any number below 100 is cheaper than the national average, and any number above 100 is more expensive. I’m choosing well-known cities because they will probably be closer to more attractions that an RVer may target to visit.
There are too many variables to choose lesser-known cities. Just keep in mind that the further you are from a city center, the more the costs will probably go down. But you may also be far away from even basic things like grocery stores. Cellular service could be less reliable and public transportation not available.
Since we are talking about the coasts, I tried to choose cities as close to the coast as possible, while still being large enough to offer lots of variety.
I listed the housing index for the coasts, but I don’t know if they factor in the cost of RV parks in that area (I think not). And no matter what, the campground fees are usually different from other types of housing; you can’t really compare them. So I also did some checking into pricing at campgrounds in each area or the surrounding area, if there aren’t any in the city proper. I haven’t stayed in all the RV parks I listed pricing for, so I can’t speak to their quality. This is about cost only.
That being said, if you have any questions about any of the RV parks in the San Francisco Bay Area, please ask. I visited about 80% of them before we decided where to live.
Average costs for the west coast
Average cost of living index: 185
Average cost of groceries index: 109
Average cost of housing index: 346*
Average cost of transportation index: 112
Average RV Park fees for the west coast:
State Park rates: $10-75 per night
Average costs for the east coast
Average cost of living index: 134
Average cost of groceries index: 111
Average cost of housing index: 187
Average cost of transportation index: 103
Average RV Park fees for the east coast:
State Park rates: $14-92 per night
*San Francisco, with a housing index of 604, really skewed this number. You can see that the RV park fees between the 2 coasts are not very different.
Other considerations for which coast is more expensive
There are also many free or very inexpensive ways to RV that I will try to quantify. They include:
- Public lands: there are more in the western United States
- Wal-Mart and other businesses that allow you to use their parking lots for overnight parking: these are abundant across the United States and subject to the local law and management policy
- Casinos: We have yet to camp at a casino on the east coast. They are extremely hard to find and most are not big enough/do not allow RVs to park overnight. There are several on the west coast, and some even offer free amenities to RVers.
- Urban camping: We haven’t tried much of this on either coast. Our 35-foot motorhome is very conspicuous and difficult to find street parking for.
My opinion: which coast is more expensive?
If you look at transportation and grocery costs, they are very similar for both coasts per the Sperling indexes.
The daily and weekly RV fees are also very similar. The monthly fees are several hundred dollars more on the high end for the west coast. But, the west coast also has a lower low-end monthly rate. Of course, I can’t possibly look up every single RV park, and I only used rates published online. Also, some parks included sales tax in the total while others charge it later. These costs do not generally include electricity, which most parks charge for monthly (and sometimes weekly) tenants.
When I look at the past year of our expenses, they did not change much for things like food. And whether we travelled daily with boondocking or stayed at a park for a month, our lodging costs also did not change much.
In general, the northwest (Washington, Oregon and far-northern California) are cheaper to visit than the southern coast. However, on the east coast it gets cheaper the more you drive south. I have more details about the 5 cities in a PDF in the Resource Library, free to subscribers. You can sign up below if you haven’t already.
So my conclusion is that it costs about the same to visit either coast if you are staying in RV parks. And whether you want something budget-friendly or a luxury resort, there are options.
But if you are not staying in RV parks and like to boondock in nature, the west coast may be cheaper. It’s been really hard for us to find boondocking options that weren’t in Wal-Marts or truck stops on the east coast. Meanwhile, the west coast has BLM land (Bureau of Land Management), which has camping that is free for 14 days in Washington, Oregon and California. For just a few hundred dollars you can also usually get a permit that allows you to stay in an area for half the year. I researched and asked around, and didn’t find much info for anything similar on the east coast.
So let’s call this round a draw for now, and move on to another area.
Which coast has the best weather?
The national average snowfall is 26 inches, so anything more than that is more than average snowfall.
The comfort index is Sperling’s way of rating the comfort of a city’s year-round climate. The closer the number gets to 100, the more comfortable. The average national rating is 54.
Of course, these are averages based on earlier years. The weather is unpredictable enough that there’s no telling how well these numbers apply to the future. Also, it can certainly get hotter or colder than what is mentioned.
For example, when we were in Portland last summer, we saw several days in the 90s in July, even though 80 is supposedly July’s average high temperature. Then last winter, I know they had blizzards that practically shut down the city for several days. But the average low in January is 35, and they’re only supposed to get 3 inches of snow per year. San Francisco had snow this winter, but the average is 0 inches per year.
Meanwhile, here on the east coast this spring and summer it’s rained like crazy. Lots of tornadoes. Snow lasted in the northeast through April/May in many areas.
In other words, take this information as a guideline only. Always be ready for a range of temperatures and weather systems.
West coast weather averages
Average annual snowfall: 1.6 inches
Days with precipitation per year: 57
January low: 41
July high: 77
Comfort Index: 82
East coast weather averages
Average annual snowfall: 16.8 inches
Days with precipitation per year: 78
January low: 34**
July high: 86
Comfort Index: 68
**Fort Lauderdale, Florida skewed this number up with a January low of 59. All other cities have average lows of high teens through low 30s.
My opinion: which coast has better weather?
Well, this conclusion will be partly objective, but mostly subjective. Here’s the subjective: I don’t like very hot or very cold weather. I don’t want to RV in the snow, and I don’t want to bike in the heat. My ideal temperatures are 50 degrees overnight and 60-75 during the day. I also don’t like hot and humid weather, and the east coast has a lot of that.
Objectively, RVs are never as well-insulated as a sticks-and-bricks home. Even if you don’t mind freezing temperatures, your RV will need you to take special precautions to keep water lines and tanks from freezing and bursting. Also, you may like the heat. But RVs take the hot sun and magnify the temperature inside, which is not only uncomfortable but may lead to dangerous conditions for the human body.
If you’re in an RV park that charges for electricity, unless you used to live in a humongous McMansion before, you may find yourself paying as much as or more in utilities to keep your RV heated or cooled.
Now let’s look at some objective numbers. The average snowfall for the east coast (in 5 cities) is 10 times more than the west coast. There are also 20 days (almost 3 weeks) more rainy days per year on the east coast. The west coast’s comfort index score is also 14 points higher.
If you’re looking for a temperate climate to keep you and your RV more comfortable, the west coast wins this round.
Which coast is easier to travel in an RV?
One factor to look at is weather. The less rain and snow to drive through, the safer you are.
Then there are the roads. Along the west coast, Highway 101 runs along practically the whole coast. It’s a large freeway, and the only toll I know of is if you are going south into San Francisco on the Golden Gate Bridge. If you don’t want to drive your RV through San Francisco (and I don’t), you can easily bypass this using other highways. And it may not even add any time to your route because you’ll miss out on San Francisco traffic. Most of the freeways and highways on the west coast are free to use, except for some bridges.
Most are also wide and open, with plenty of clearance for tall vehicles. Highway 101 does go down to 1 lane in some areas of the Pacific Northwest, but it’s mostly multiple lanes. If you go further inland, there are other large interstates that the truckers use, and have many stops along with way that are big enough for RVs.
On the east coast, Interstate 95 goes along most of the coast. It does have tolls. All toll roads will charge more if you have more than 2 axles on your vehicle or are towing a vehicle. Bypassing tolls is possible, but keep in mind the east coast infrastructure is older that the west coast’s. Many times on the east coast we came across a road that suddenly had a low bridge we would not fit under. Or a sign saying there was a weight limit on the road ahead, and we weighed too much to continue. In our motorhome, there is no such thing as a u-turn. There is what we call a “50-point turn.” Meanwhile if there is traffic, everyone honks and yells and tries to go around you at inopportune moments.
There are also these roads called turnpikes, which fooled us at first. They are small highways. They have low-hanging branches, are often single lanes, and not well-maintained.
Speaking of maintenance, roads are bad everywhere. But in areas where it snows, salting the roads and snow plows tear up the streets. They may or may not get fixed when the snow goes away.
If you have a car for local travel, any large city will have its drawbacks. There is lots of traffic, scarce parking and expensive parking to deal with. Older cities are also often built in crazy ways and not on any kind of grid that makes sense. If you accidentally bypass your destination, you may get stuck in a series of one-way streets before you can turn around and get back again.
If you use public transportation, there are a few choices. Most large cities have bus systems, ferries, etc. If it’s a touristy place then there could also be tour buses and shuttles. Then there are taxis, Uber, Lyft, etc. Speaking of Uber and Lyft, I know Albany, New York did not allow Uber or Lyft. I think they are about to.
Our preferred methods of local travel are walking or biking. Anything under 2 miles, we usually walk. However, a lot of the east coast does not have sidewalks in suburbs of large cities. We found ourselves walking on the shoulder of the road, or sloped grass from someone’s property next to the road, or in the road. We rode our bikes in San Francisco, Portland, and Las Vegas regularly. It was sometimes scary, but at least many streets had bike lanes, bike racks, bike paths, and traffic lights that respond to bicycles. Not so on the east coast. Between the rain and the road conditions, we haven’t ridden our bikes in months.
My opinion: which coast is easier to travel?
In a car, I think the coasts come out equal. But in an RV, I think travel is more complicated and expensive on the east coast. And I’m not a fan of the lack of bike-friendliness we found in many east coast areas, either. The west coast wins this round.
Which coast has better scenery?
If we are talking strictly about shorelines and beaches, the west coast wins, hands-down. That’s my opinion, anyway. The edge of the east coast just doesn’t compare.
But as for other scenery, I think it’s too different to choose which is more beautiful. In the southeast you have lush, sort of tropical greenery, with Spanish moss dripping from everything.
There’s nothing like the leaves changing in the fall in the northeast.
In the northwest, you get fog rolling over mountains full of majestic, evergreen trees.
On the southern west coast, there’s plenty of warm sand and bright sun. Go inland a bit and you find some desert and cacti.
Like I said in the beginning of this post, I want to see it all. This round is a tie.
Conclusion: which coast is better for RV travel?
If we do a tally, here are the results:
- Cost: tie if you mostly stay in campgrounds or RV parks
- Weather: west coast wins
- Travel west coast wins
- Scenery: tie
In my opinion, the west is better for RVers, and specifically for us. Driving a large rig needs open roads with lots of vertical clearance. We like moderate climates with bike-friendly areas. We like to boondock in nature.
But that doesn’t mean we will not visit the east coast again. We will just wait until we have a smaller RV.
What are your thoughts? Do you have a coast you like better for RV travel?