The grey nomads' guide to money


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For people who travel to get away from it all, some grey nomads certainly take along a lot of stuff.

On my road trips, I come across plenty of LandCruisers and Pajeros towing mighty caravans laden with gear: solar panels, twin electric bikes, kayaks or a runabout.

Sometimes they are towing a small car behind the caravan. On the one hand, I'm impressed by their adventurous spirit. On the other, I worry about driving with so much stuff over winding mountain roads and rough outback tracks. The cost of fuel must be eye-watering.

how to finance a trip around australia in a caravan

Of course, you don't have to spend $250,000-plus on a powerful new 4WD and big caravan to be a grey nomad. You can travel for months on all sorts of budgets in a range of vehicles. After all, one of the lures of simple van life is the low cost of caravan sites compared with motels, hotels and Airbnb.

"The greatest thing about being on the road is leaving the crazy world behind and connecting with nature," says grey nomad Sonia Fernandes. "There's no stress. It's exciting exploring new sites, you meet lots of amazing people, you learn so much and you appreciate life as it comes."

Fernandes appreciates spending time with her partner, Frank.

"I find this special as you can both share the attention or just focus on yourself. There are no chores, sometimes no planning. [It's] go with the flow and just be free. Life is good."

There are around 800,000 registered recreational vehicles (RVs) in Australia, including caravans, campervans and motorhomes, according to the Caravan Industry Association. There are almost 2000 caravan parks.

RVs took 15.5 million trips over the 12 months to the end of March this year, notching up 62.3 million days, with travellers spending around $11.2 billion, often in regional areas and country towns.
Just how many RVs are being driven by grey nomads - the over-50s who tour for a minimum of three months in self-contained accommodation - isn't easy to pinpoint.

But everyone agrees that numbers are climbing. If grey nomads aren't doing the "big lap" around Australia, they could be part of the mass exodus each year from the cold southern states to the sunny north.

Paying their way

How do they afford to live away from home for long stretches?

Spending their superannuation is what retirement is all about. For people who own their home and travel for more than a year, renting out the family home is an option. If they are mortgage free, it provides an income to pay the bills for fuel, campsites and food. If they are not, renting can help pay down a mortgage.

Some downsizers sell up and live on investment returns.

Finding work on the road is an option as older workers are in demand in country towns and on pastoral stations. Blogs such as show they are doing everything from manual labour and driving buses to working in restaurant kitchens and cafes and on farms.

Technology means people can run their own businesses and do freelance work. Caravan parks offer free wi-fi, which can be supported by a portable dongle, router and an external aerial.

affordable motorhomes

1. Rent before you buy

Being a nomad isn't for everyone. Before you make the big financial commitment, rent a recreational vehicle to see if you like life on the road, driving long distances, being exposed to the weather and the continuous setting up and packing down.

Check out a range of caravans, campervans, motorhomes, camper trailers, tents and tow vehicles on the for-hire site They are covered for damage, and you can pick them up throughout Australia. If you want to buy an RV, do some rigorous research to find one that suits you and your budget.

More than 1300 people complained to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) about their caravans over the five years to 2022.

As a result, the ACCC surveyed 2270 consumers who commented on their unsatisfactory experience with their caravan. Eighty per cent said they had experienced a fault with their new caravan, with 50% describing it as major.

Almost 40% said they had to wait longer than six months for their caravan, while 29% were given inaccurate information during the sales process, with half misled about warranties and 14% misled about tow weight.

2. You don't have to spend a lot

Sonia and Frank Fernandes were keen on a caravan for their trips across the Nullarbor and around Western Australia.

Frank's work colleague, who had owned a caravan and a motorhome, suggested a roof-top, pop-up tent on their ute. He told them caravans and motorhomes ate up fuel and were cumbersome on the road. Even though he was 60, he could negotiate the ladder to the top of his truck to his pop-up tent.

Sonia and Frank followed his advice and Frank, a car mechanic, researched the market before purchasing a Kings Kwiky hard-shell rooftop tent that cost them just under $1000.

"It takes a couple of minutes to unlatch the four clamps, two at the front and two at the back, push the lid up and let the gas struts do the rest," explains Sonia. "You hook the telescopic ladder to the tent, pull it down, and it's done.

"Packing up can take a bit longer - pushing the canvas walls inside the lid to catch all the edges from sticking out. It can be a bit fiddly. When it's done, we pull the tent down ready for the next trip."

Because of the rapid depreciation of a new car, motorhome or caravan, it is more cost-efficient to buy a two- or three-year-old vehicle with several years of warranty still left, in case anything goes wrong.

You could add some two-wheeler transport, such as electric bikes or bicycles, to make it easier to get from your out-of-the-way caravan park into town. Good insurance cover is essential. Make sure your policy covers both your vehicle and caravan.

If you break down in a remote area, you want insurance that covers both. Check that your caravan is covered when you live in it.

rooftop camping

3. Day-to-day logistics

Being a grey nomad does require some planning. You want to ensure you have plenty of water, petrol, gas and food. With so many nomads on the road in peak season, it's a good idea to book in advance to secure good spots in camping grounds.

Living in a small, limited space requires a different approach to living in a house. You want fewer possessions and good organisational skills to store items in cupboards and boxes.

Plan your healthcare needs, such as your medications and management of any chronic diseases. Grey nomads are putting pressure on already stretched regional and outback health services. Consider telehealth with your existing doctor back home, if need be.

4. Deliveries on the road

Australia Post allows you to choose a post office as the delivery address for parcels with its parcel collect service. It can be located anywhere you like.

5. Keep your costs down

• Plan ahead to get good deals on accommodation, fuel and food.
• Set yourself up so you can stay at unpowered sites. You'll need a small stove with a gas bottle, an auxiliary battery and a portable fridge that you can charge from the car, camp chairs and a folding table.
• Do a weekly meal plan and don't buy more than you need.
• Stock up at bigger supermarkets for non-perishable goods.
• Visit the local markets for fresh fruit and vegetables.
• Stay away from caravan parks in peak season.
• Consider farm stays where you can stay for free.

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Susan has been a finance journalist for more than 30 years, beginning at the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Sydney Morning Herald. She edited a superannuation magazine, Superfunds, for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, and writes regularly on superannuation and managed funds. She's also author of the best-selling book Women and Money.
Barbara McLachlan
August 13, 2023 7.39pm

In your article you mentioned towing a car behind a caravan. That is illegal in Australia, you can tow a car behind a motorhome

Daniel Rice
August 13, 2023 8.58pm

My wife and I recently travelled through Oz with our two daughters (8 & 10). We had a small 55ltr fridge and a gas cooker in our ute. We slept in a two room dome tent. I agree a $250k set up is not required if you don't wish to spend up big.

Rarely on the coast we travelled from late April to early July and had 7 days rain in total.

Of course there are some benifits to having a caravan or RV, no doubt.

But the ease of not towing when going through towns, on dirt roads and halving your fuel bill makes a simple set up very appealing.

If you don't have the cash for a big set up or just don't want to spend it, grab a tent and get out there.