As I write this, David Woodworth is somewhere on the road between Indiana and New York, driving not one, but two, RVs. One is a fresh-from-the-factory 2010 Fleetwood Discovery; the other, a 1916 Model T with what was then considered a state-of-the-art sleeping/storage compartment known as a Telescope Apartment. Together, the two rigs represent almost a century of RV history.
In fact, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), this year represents the 100th anniversary of RVing. To mark the occasion, the group is sponsoring Woodworth’s trip, which is currently wending its way from Elkhart, Ind., to New York and on to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Along the way, says Woodworth, the two rigs demonstrate just how much — and how little — RVing has changed.
Rolling toward recovery
In recent years, RV sales have served as something of a leading economic indicator, tumbling as the recession loomed and showing signs of a rebound as early as last summer. According to RVIA, total shipments topped 165,000 last year, off 30 percent from the year before, but are expected to approach 216,000 for 2010.
Such numbers also bode well for those considering renting an RV for a vacation or weekend getaway. “Last year was all about the staycation,” says Michael Smalley, director of operations for Cruise America, the nation’s largest RV rental company. “This year, the staycation is not a solution; we’re seeing people going seven and eight nights more frequently than we did last year.”
At the same time, the industry is making renting a rig easier and more convenient. Much of the uptick in shipments, it turns out, has been in lower-cost towables (travel trailers, etc., as opposed to high-end motorhomes) that can be hooked up to all but the smallest cars. “There are so many trucks and SUVs that come out of the factory with [hitch] receivers already on them,” says Bob Livingston, senior vice president of Affinity Media, an RV media and services company. “It’s not like the old days when you had to cut and weld things.”
Meanwhile, on the motorhome front, newer models with more efficient diesel engines are taking some of the sting out of fueling up along the way. “There are a number of vehicles that are now getting 18–22 miles per gallon,” says Richard Coon, president of RVIA. “That’s actually better than I get in my Denali.”
Would-be renters can also lower their costs by searching for deals on one-way rentals or traveling in the shoulder season. El Monte RV, for example, is currently offering up to 50 percent off daily rates in select cities in an effort to move their fleet from southern cities to northern ones for the busy summer season. (Come fall, look for similar deals going in the opposite direction.) And Cruise America is offering 500 free miles from select cities to celebrate the grand opening of its newest outlet, which is set to open in Bozeman, Mont., on April 20.
RVing for the rest of us
While enthusiasts and industry observers have always touted RVing as an affordable vacation option, it’s poised to provide even more value this year — at least in relation to what’s going on in other segments of the travel market.
“We compete against the hotels and the airlines,” says Coon, “and those guys are helping us out a lot lately. [Lower-end] hotels are raising their prices; restaurant prices are going up, and the airlines with their stupid baggage fees — that’s great for us. You can take all the luggage you want in an RV and you won’t get charged for it. That rings very well with a public that’s being nickeled and dimed to death.”
Ironically, perhaps, RVing may also be ringing well with people who don’t actually have an interest in RVing. According to Phil Ingrassia, vp of communications for the National RV Dealers Association, more people are trying it not as a lifestyle choice, but as a means to facilitate the activities they already like to do: “If you’re going to a NASCAR event or a bluegrass festival, you can often do it easier by renting an RV. You don’t have to adopt the full-on RV lifestyle.”
All of which suggests that the RV industry has not only survived the recession but is also successfully adapting to changing times. These are not your fathers’ RVs and for would-be renters, the options open the door to all sorts of new and different adventures.
Unless, that is, you’re David Woodworth, who suggests that the more things change the more they remain the same. “If you were to read people’s diaries from the ‘20s and ‘30s,” he says, “you’d find people were doing it for the same reason they do it today — for the freedom and the flexibility. The vehicles and the technology have changed, but the reason people continue to RV is as old as the automobile itself.”
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, .