The pros and cons of RV travel quickly became apparent on this test drive.
My wife immediately noticed a big advantage RV travelers enjoy: the view.
The windshield is large, allowing scenic surroundings to be much more visible as you drive. You're also higher up from the road surface. This makes the trip far more enjoyable.
My wife began taking windshield snapshots and finished with a nice collection of about 100 pictures. While this is also possible in a car or SUV, the panoramic view from an RV is superior.
Another advantage is the ability to linger at an attraction that also offers overnight parking.
For example, Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers a Bat Flight Program that requires sticking around after sunset. The nearest large collection of hotels to Carlsbad Caverns is at least 20 miles away. Wouldn't it be nice to walk to a nearby campsite when the demonstration is done?
In Bryce Canyon National Park, there is an excellent ranger-led astronomy program that runs until 10 p.m. It's great to be able to walk back to the nearby campground rather than find your way back to a hotel many miles off the park property.
An RV is not particularly handy in crowded urban settings. Parking is difficult to find -- if, in fact, it exists at all. Unless you're towing a vehicle behind the RV, you'll be parking outside the downtown areas and taking expensive cabs.
If you can target parking near public transportation, you'll be quite happy. But finding that will take some planning.
Fellow travelers seem to be a bit more approachable at campgrounds than in the standard hotel settings.
For example, we had difficulty starting the RV generator. It was operator error: we had not flipped a switch that supplied liquid propane to the tank as its fuel. We met a fellow RV traveler who helped us. In the process, we talked about places his family had just visited, and we talked about places we had just seen two days earlier. Since we were heading in opposite directions, the information exchange was valuable.
That can take place in a hotel breakfast room, too. But in my experience, it's far less likely.
For our seven-day test drive of the Winnebago Via, we spent six nights in government-run parks and one night in an urban "RV resort."
The total cost of these stops for this particular trip was $204.59, and the average night was $29.33. The most expensive overnight was $43; the cheapest stay was in Bryce Canyon ($15). Your costs will vary and are likely to be higher.
The more expensive stops include an electrical hookup. Also adding to these nightly costs were online reservation fees paid prior to departure. These ranged from $8-$10 per reservation. Most of these fees were unnecessary. But no one has the luxury of hindsight prior to a trip, and the peace-of-mind these fees bought was probably worthwhile.
In some national parks, cash was placed in an envelope and deposited in a secure drop box.
Many RV enthusiasts have stories about places where they spent a wonderful night absolutely free of charge. While this does happen, many outsiders are under the mistaken impression that RV drivers can pull over and spend the night anywhere that is public right-of-way. Not true. Many places are marked with "no overnight parking" signs that might escape notice when not applicable.
There is also the matter of overnight parking in shopping center parking lots. Perhaps you've heard that Walmart allows such parking.
Yes and no.
The Walmart parking policy is to allow it if the manager has been notified. However, there is a list of individual Walmart stores that prohibit overnight parking.
No matter the franchise, it's always wise to check with store managers and even local police prior to settling in -- and, if applicable, please patronize the businesses that are making the savings possible.
Confession: the meal you see pictured here was a splurge in Las Vegas. It's not exactly health food, and it wasn't inexpensive. It was so showy that the people sitting next to us asked if they could take a picture of the onion ring tower!
It was one of only four restaurant meals bought during the week-long RV test drive. Two of those came at the beginning (prior to visiting the grocery store) and at the end (when the RV had been cleaned for its return). Those two other meals totaled about $90.
For roughly the same amount of money, we bought groceries during the first day of the trip that supplied three meals a day for most of the week. Nothing fancy: eggs, bread, sandwich meat, packaged salads, peanut butter, and lots of bottled water. There were also a few microwavable items that made for easy preparation and clean-up.
There were only two of us. Cost savings can really add up with additional passengers.
The selected route for this test drive through mountain passes, canyons, and secondary roads is not likely to produce optimum gas mileage. But many people take these kinds of trips in an RV.
It took about 112 gallons of diesel to complete the 1,350-mile trip. The average price for a gallon of diesel during this trip was $3.76 (regular unleaded at the time was less expensive). So fuel expense was about $421, and the Winnebago Via achieved roughly 12 MPG.
A car getting 28 MPG would have required about $175 in regular unleaded fuel to do the same trip. No one should be surprised at the significant difference in fuel expense.
The Winnebago Via is engineered for fuel efficiency. Yes, 12 MPG for a 25-foot RV is fuel efficient. Mileage for many RVs averages 5-10 MPG.
How do you like to relax?
The answer to that question can go a long way in determining if RV travel is a good choice.
If you like to set up a patio in a scenic area, grill your own food, have access to great fishing or hiking just steps from your campsite, RV life might suit you.
If you enjoy having someone else cook and clean, RV travel might not provide the relaxation you expect on a vacation.
RV travel provides a more comfortable experience than tent camping. You'll be sleeping in a bed indoors that is off the ground and (theoretically) similar to the comforts of home or a hotel room.
But you'll be doing a variety of chores, including washing dishes, keeping the campsite clean and making frequent trash runs. You'll be emptying sewage and gray-water tanks on a regular basis.
In short, you must be willing to bend your definition of relaxation to accommodate these tasks on a daily basis. Personally, I did not find it difficult to do. Others might disagree.
This test drive through some of the finest national parks in the U.S. was easily done with the Winnebago Via.
National parks and other government parks typically have ample space for trailers and RVs. In seven days, there was never a time when a lack of RV parking prevented enjoyment of an overlook.
Urban sightseeing in an RV also proves far more difficult. Driving through a city such as Las Vegas, one finds relatively few places to park a 25-foot vehicle. If your favored vacation spots are urban, you'll need to use public transportation or a car rental to get around town. Some people tow a compact car behind their RVs, but this will cut gas mileage and create additional logistical issues. Some campgrounds will also charge extra for the additional vehicle.
RV Rental vs. RV Purchase
If you decide that RV travel fits your lifestyle, and you've had a number of successful experiences, should you buy?
The obvious answer might be yes, but there are a number of factors to consider.
Your finances are paramount. If you won't be paying cash, is it wise to take on more debt for an asset that will depreciate? Once financed, you'll be paying for upkeep and maintenance.
Another question: how often will you be able to get away?
If you plan quite a few trips (even just a long weekend once every few months), having your own vehicle that's ready at any time will be a big advantage, especially if you travel on traditional holidays, when high demand might make it difficult to arrange a rental.
But those who take only a few trips each year will be making loan payments, covering the costs for maintenance and storage when they could rent and avoid these obligations.
Storage costs add up. In many municipalities, zoning ordinances do not allow anything more than very temporary parking in a driveway or behind the house. So you could wind up paying a monthly fee for storage in those cases -- a fee you'll resent if you're only using the RV a few times each year.
In short, buying requires a major commitment to the RV travel lifestyle. It's a commitment many budget travelers might not be willing to make.
If an RV rental becomes the better choice, it pays to shop carefully. Smaller, older units could be $150/day; expect to pay up to $400/day for a newer, well-equipped model.
If you're thinking about purchasing in the long term, be sure to rent a variety of sizes, models, and brands so that a pattern of preferred amenities can be drawn.
A few random tips for RV travelers, with the novice in mind:
- You'll receive an orientation "walk around" with someone at the dealership or rental agency. Ask if you can record the presentation with audio or (better yet) video. In the excitement of taking off, you'll nod your way through the comments and pointers but not fully comprehend all that is being said. Later, you'll wonder how the representative directed you to empty the gray-water tank. With a recording, you'll be able to recall the details in a short time without paging through thick owner's manuals.
- As with air travel, it is important to pack lightly. No, you won't need to pass through security or lug suitcases. But yes, space will be at a premium. Even in the best-designed RVs, storage is limited. Expect to do some laundry during the trip. Campgrounds sometimes have a coin-operated laundry that's convenient to your site.
- Stop for the night long before sundown. You'll want to size up the surroundings in the campground or RV park, and you'll usually need to hook up electrical or water lines. Backing into a narrow campsite can be an adventure in daylight, let alone after dark. Save yourself the stress and arrive early.
- Plan on frequent trips to the gas station or store. It's more practical to buy smaller amounts of food because refrigerators and storage spaces tend to be limited. This also gives you a chance to shop for local food and drink specialties in each area you visit.
- Related: eat a meal or two in a restaurant. Give yourself an occasional break from meal preparation, especially in places where you might find interesting eateries. Remember that eating like a local is one of the ways you experience a destination.
If you've made it this far, you're quite interested in the RV travel option. In my one-week experience, it offered many potential benefits.
I did not find the driving to be as difficult as expected, and MPG was also a relatively pleasant surprise. Overnight stays varied in quality, with campsites offering electrical hookups far superior to the others. If given the option, paying a bit extra for electricity is money well spent.
It's impossible to make a blanket recommendation for every budget traveler. Each person and each trip presents scores of variables that must be considered. But here are a few general conclusions that might serve as a starting point:
RV Travel becomes more economical as the size of your travel party increases.
Consider these numbers: if an RV rental is about $300/day, the total daily cost rises to about $400 when you add fuel, propane, and groceries. For just two people, traveling by car might be less expensive than that.
But if you have a party of six, you might need two hotel rooms and you'd be buying up to 18 restaurant meals per day. Doing that on $400/day could prove challenging.
Let us suppose you have purchased an RV. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) makes this statement on the issue of affordability: "Even factoring in RV ownership costs, and considering resulting tax benefits, a family of four can spend up to 59 percent less when traveling by RV."
RV travel is increasing in popularity because many people like the freedom it affords.
Be careful of choosing the RV option simply because you believe it will save money. It must also be the right choice for your itinerary and lifestyle.
The RVIA shows data on RV shipments, which rose 34 percent between 2013-17, with seven consecutive years of increases following the 2008 recession.
In my experience, you do have more freedom to explore, especially in areas without extensive tourist facilities. If you enjoy home cooking and do not enjoy sleeping in a bed where a stranger spent the previous night, take a look at the RV travel option.
Rent an RV before you commit to buying one.
No one can give you a full picture of RV travel in a series of articles. You must experience it yourself. Block off a long weekend, choose a route that requires less than 200 miles per day of driving, and rent an RV that fits the size of your travel party. If the trip is successful, plan a longer vacation (one week or more).
As with all budget travel, RV travel must add value to your experience, not just your bottom line. It's worth investigating.