Ever since RV industry started to flourish in the years after World War II (when cooking facilities consisted of engine-top grills), more than just an ingenious few have been enamored with the idea of combining their car with their accommodations. And these days, many RVs are veritable luxury digs on wheels, even offering kitchens with more bells and whistles than those found in studio apartments—dishwashers, Sub-Zero refrigerators, and handy washer and dryers. If you’ve met anyone into “RVing” then you know the enthusiasm for “cruising” can be infectious. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, some seven million US households now own RVs, and there's an estimated 30 million RV enthusiasts just looking for an excuse for a roadtrip.
For families, the savings can be big
The RV lifestyle, which for many brings silver-haired retirees and Adventures with Charlie to mind, is not for everyone. (Actually, more Baby Boomers, people ages 35-54, drive RVs now than any other demographic.) But, RVs can offer a refreshing alternative to traditional modes of travel. And while it may come as a surprise to some considering their low miles-per-gallon ratios, RVs can actually help you save money on vacation—maybe not on gas but on meals (you can cook your own) and accommodations. When you consider the average family of four in the US will spend approximately $250 per day on food and lodging (according to a 2004 report by AAA) cost-conscious travel by RV suddenly seems like the more affordable way to go.
Let's look at the numbers. While you will pay to park at a campsite, in the end the cost is far less (between $15-$100, depending on the site) than what you’d spend on hotel rooms. (Of course, you always have the option of pulling into one of the many Walmart parking lots around the country. Walmart allows RVers to park for free, except in cases when overnight stays violate local zoning laws). Using the lowest possible rates—camp site ($15), RV rental ($90/day), and food ($30)—we calculated that it could cost as little as $135/day for a brood of four to travel by RV, excluding the cost of gas. That's a savings of $115 per day. Carry that out for an entire week and you save a whopping $805!
Problems at the pump
One place where your bank account will feel the pinch is at the pump. RVs, which have become much more fuel efficient in recent years, have long been considered the undisputed kings of gas guzzling. However for the budget traveler, as well as the political and environmentally minded, exactly how many miles your RV gets to the gallon remains a concern. The average generously proportioned RV motorhome today gets about 10-12 miles to the gallon, which is fine for short area toots, but not so nice if you’re planning a cross-country road trip. If you do plan to slog it across our great nation in a motorhome, then we advise logging on to GasPriceWatch.com, a helpful consumer advocacy site that tracks the price of gas state by state, station by station. With a simple check you can be sure you’re filling up at the gas station with the lowest prices. Check ahead with your campground—a growing number are offering Internet access along with camp sites and showers.
An RV to call your own
If you don't own an RV but are interested in perhaps buying, renting can be a good "test drive." There are over 450 some odd national chain outlets that rent RVs around the country, so chances are you’ll find one close to home, or an airport.
According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, rental prices are based three factors: season, region, and unit size (motorhome, travel trailer or truck camper). Daily rental range anywhere from $90-$200, but often you can negotiate lower per day costs if you rent by the week. What’s commonly referred to as “housekeeping” packages — all the necessary pots, pans and dishes—are available at most RV rental agencies free of charge, but they do charge anywhere between $30-$100 if pieces are missing, or if you bring the dishes back dirty, so scrub those pots!
Tips for renting an RV:
- Figure out whether you want to rent close to home or at the airport
- Look into fly-drive packages from RV rental agencies
- Confirm whether your insurance policy covers RVs (many do not)
- If towing an RV, be sure you have an automatic transmission, power brakes and steering
- Like with most car rentals, you must be at least 25 years old to rent an RV
The Association website has a convenient directory for finding the RV rental agency closest to you. While it asks you for your zip and area codes, simply putting in your state (or the state where you’d like to rent) is your best bet for full-featured search results. Listings include website addresses and contact information.
Special offers from the biggest RV rental agencies
The country’s two largest RV rental companies, Cruise America and El Monte, are solid places to turn for decent rates; each has its own regional offerings. For example, El Monte also has a whole host of one-way specials that come without same drop-off or mileage penalties. Expect to spend between $90-200/day, depending on where, when and what you rent. El Monte is also a great supporter of our nation’s troops and regularly has special discounts for military personnel and their families.
In warmer months, Cruise America partners with KOA Kampgrounds, a national chain with over 500 campgrounds across the US. If you’re planning on sleeping at the same site and keeping your exploring local the partner agreement is a good deal. It works like this: you can actually rent an RV through Cruise America and then get free nights of camping (KOA sites average $45/night).
With 7.2 million RVs on the road, the growing popularity of recreational vehicles cannot be denied, even in this age of high gas prices. One thing is certain: RVs aren’t just for retirees anymore.