RV parked in St-Philippe, Quebec
Dan Carney
Our RV with the awning extended parked at a campground in Quebec. We spent $550 on gas and $220 on campgrounds for six days of travel for a family of five.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/13/2008 11:41:07 AM ET 2008-08-13T15:41:07

With the dollar weak in Europe and gas prices near record highs, many Americans are opting to save some cash and take short-distance travel alternatives for this year’s summer vacation.

The economy drive is understandable, but following the herd has never been my style. I still wanted to find a way to take my children to another country this summer to give them the experience of being immersed in a different language and culture.

The solution: a vacation in Quebec, where my 10-year-old son and two daughters, ages 13 and 7 years, would find 98 percent of the residents are Francophones. Quebec is not France, of course, but it is sufficiently foreign to serve as a budget substitute at a time when fuel costs are driving transatlantic air fares ever higher.

In our drive for our kids’ cultural immersion, my wife and I didn’t want to just drive to a hotel staffed by English-speaking employees. We wanted the full cultural experience, so we opted to travel by motorhome, which would put us at campgrounds, grocery stores and gas stations throughout our trip. Our vehicle was a 31-foot Jayco Melbourne motorhome, loaned to us by the RV Industry Association to get a taste of RV travel.

Of course, virtually all of those French-speaking Quebecois speak more than enough English for us to be able to communicate, but we hoped we could get the kids to try some French too. And we wanted to find out the cost benefits of our approach: How much cheaper is it to travel by RV?

RV sales have hit the skids of late, and it’s not difficult to see why. With gas at around $4 a gallon, our motorhome, with its 55-gallon fuel tank, costs $220 for a fill-up. We never had to face that scenario because we were never so reckless as to run our Melbourne all the way to empty, and because other than the diesel pumps at truck stops, the credit card approval for regular gas pumps won’t let you buy that much fuel.

Fueling at about 400 mile intervals, we burned $550 worth of gas on our six-day trip. We plotted a course north of Washington, D.C. to Harrisburg, Pa. From there we rode Interstate 81 all the way to the Canadian border, reaching it after an overnight stay on the shores of Lake Ontario in Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, N.Y. Once in Ontario, we drove east to Montreal. Our return took us through Lake Placid in New York State’s Adirondack Park, picking up Interstate 88 west of Albany and Interstate 81 back to Washington, D.C.

Most of the pumps we encountered along the way cut off at $75, and we typically put that in twice per stop. We did encounter a Sheetz station in Pennsylvania that allowed us to buy $125 worth of gas at once, so while earlier $150 fill-ups totaled more, that $125 on a single receipt marks the largest gas purchase I’ve ever made in one transaction. It also marks the first purchase of fuel that exceeded the cost of my first car, a 1964 Ford Falcon.

Canadian playground
Dan Carney
At Canadian playgrounds the kids played on seesaws and merry-go-rounds — equipment now rarely seen in America.

The guy was asking $100, but as a crafty 14-year-old I talked him down to $95. Remember the old joke about how to double the value of a Yugo — fill it up with gas. That joke is now true for rusty old Falcons.

So why travel in a fuel-thirsty RV when gas is at record prices? Because it’s still cheaper than flying and staying in hotels. Our family of five stayed one night in a New York state park for $20 and four nights in the Kampgrounds of America Montreal South campground for $50 on each of four nights.

Online travel agency Travelocity.com says that it can send me to Montreal in the air and put me in a Knights Inn for the $550 we spent on gas, but that’s per person. And you have stay in a Knights Inn. Nicer hotels brought the travel tab to around $800 — again, per person.

Unlike most hotels, our RV had a refrigerator, a freezer, a stove and microwave/convection oven, so we were able to prepare most of our meals ourselves, making for huge savings. Considering the $125 tab at a creperie in Old Montreal, I didn’t want to eat out very much.

And the need to buy groceries added to the cultural experience, with nary a word of English overheard while stocking up in the Canadian supermarket. Having food right there on hand allowed speedier starts to each day’s sightseeing, because there was no need to first go to a restaurant to get breakfast. It’s hard to beat the cost and convenience of having a box of cereal, cold milk and dishes right there in the motorhome.

There were other benefits. The kids had been begging for a trip in an RV, and they really did play games at the dining table. At Canadian playgrounds they played on seesaws and merry-go-rounds — equipment rarely found on American playgrounds these days.

Also, the ubiquity of wine in Canadian camping shops — along with the batteries, milk, Coleman fuel and other camping essentials — was a benefit to their parents. Perhaps more importantly, there was the benefit of not having to struggle through an airport for an international flight with kids in tow.

For an air travel-weary dad, that aspect was priceless.

Perhaps these advantages are what drive RV enthusiasts, or perhaps it’s the money they save. One fellow we encountered at a gas station, who was towing a Jeep behind his motorhome (with a scooter on a rack at the back of the Jeep), said he was getting a respectable 9.4 miles per gallon with his rig. Respectable, that is, for a house on four wheels. It’s worth remembering that, unlike the car in your drive, a motorhome has to carry your family, three beds, a fridge, stove, sink and shower.

RV drivers calculate their mileage to the tenth of a gallon, because when you’re filling up a 55-gallon fuel tank it really does matter. Gas has always cost more in Canada than in the United States, but we saw more RVs there and more RV dealers than anywhere in the United States outside the warm weather snowbird destinations. A fellow guest at the Kampgrounds of America campground in Montreal explained that he and his wife have 51 days of holidays and vacation a year, so they travel extensively in their RV.

In RV jargon, our 31-foot Jayco Melbourne was a “Type C” motorhome, built on a cutaway van chassis. In English, that means that it’s one of those RVs that has the front part of a van and a camper stuck on the back, very much like many rental moving trucks and airport parking shuttles.

Jayco seemed to have executed most of the “home” aspects of the Melbourne impressively, with particular kudos for the impressive quality of the cabinetry. The air conditioner, refrigerator and combination microwave/convection oven all worked well, and the sliding windows were easy to operate for cross-ventilation when parked.

The table and couch convert to beds, in addition to the queen-sized bed in the rear bedroom. The manufacturer rates the camper’s capacity as suitable for four adults and two children, but the table and couch beds were cramped even for the kids to share, so we’d rate its comfortable capacity as four people.

But the Melbourne has its drawbacks. Several of the light switches are located at knee height and are mounted in panels with multiple switches, so you have to bend down to see which switch does what. And the addition of stabilizers to hold the vehicle still when parked would be an improvement. Any tossing and turning by people in bed shook the whole vehicle and prevented other campers from dropping off to sleep.

With a price tag of $91,022 the Melbourne is the top of the line for Jayco’s Type C van-based RVs, but you can get into a smaller, less well-equipped model for $69,786. The cost equation of RV travel is attractive as long as you can justify at RV’s purchase price. We spent $550 on gas and $220 on campgrounds for six days of travel for a family of five, and our grocery bill was about the same as it would have been at home, though we did indulge in a few extra meals out so we could enjoy Quebec’s French cooking.

And, yes, the kids bicker when packed together for a week, but they do that in hotel rooms, too. And they also play games and look out of the windows at the changing landscape. RV travel, it turns out, is a little like a visit to Quebec. It’s a little foreign in some ways and very familiar in others, which makes it an exciting combination for the kids.

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