RV travel is having a moment. As summer approaches and “safer at home” restrictions are relaxing, many people are looking for creative ways to vacation yet maintain social distancing. Recently, my oldest son and I needed to travel from Florida to Massachusetts to retrieve his belongings from his college dorm. His university, like so many schools nationwide, closed their campus in March. Neither of us relished the idea of using public restrooms, eating in restaurants, and staying in hotels as we traveled through areas that still had relatively high risk. Enter our tiny home on wheels! We could be completely self-sufficient – cook, shower, sleep – while making our 2,800-mile journey and still have a bit of time to explore the great outdoors.
Just like any trip, there are many things to consider when planning RV travel. Several companies rent motorhomes by the day, week or longer; you can choose from networks of privately owned campers and national firms. If you are a first timer, it is a good idea to choose what is known in the industry as a “Class C” motorhome. This model RV is distinctive for its over cab sleeping area and offers a kitchen, dining area, rear bedroom and bathroom with a toilet and shower. Ranging in length from 21-33 feet, they will comfortably accommodate four people and are surprisingly easy to drive…after a little practice! We chose a 25-foot motorhome and it was exactly right for the two of us and all my son’s boxes and miscellaneous dorm furnishings that we were bringing home.
You might think renting an RV will be more affordable than other modes of travel. At first glance daily rental rates of $150 per day look attractive. However, there are many additional costs to consider. First, mileage charges average $.35/mile so if you are planning to cover significant distances be sure to factor in this expense. Tip! Look for special offers that discount mileage up to 25%! In addition to mileage, rental companies charge for generator use (you will need to run the generator to run the a/c, microwave, power outlets, etc. when you are not hooked up to electricity) and the propane tank that fuels the cooktop, furnace and refrigerator. Then there is the fuel expense. A typical 25-foot RV has a 55-gallon gas tank. Even though gasoline prices are currently exceptionally low, plan on averaging only 7-8 miles per gallon. That means you’ll be stopping to fill up every 350 miles or so. At $2/gallon, that’s close to $90 every time you top off. Tip! Do not wait until you are running on fumes to look for a gas station. You will need to find a spot that can accommodate the height of the RV and is spacious enough to allow easy navigation in and out of the parking lot.
The next consideration when budgeting an RV trip is where you’re going to spend the night. Unless you are parking your ride at a friend or family member’s property along your route, your choices are essentially a campground or Wal-Mart. Yep, RVs are welcome to park overnight at Wal-Mart! There is no power or water hookup, but it is free, and you will most likely find several other travelers taking advantage of this money saving option. In the RV world, camping without access to electricity, water, and sewer is called “Boondocking”, or “dry camping”. Campgrounds offer a wide variety of choices, from basic and affordable to downright luxurious…in the realm of camping. It is not hard to find scenic places to rest and relax in the evenings. Many campgrounds offer beautiful natural settings on lakes, rivers, and forests. Tip! Campgrounds can be crowded. Study the site map carefully when making reservations and choose a site that suits your lifestyle. Be sure not to reserve a spot near the dump station – enough said. If you are travelling with young children, you may want to be near the pool or beach. Others may prefer a quieter spot. Expect to pay anywhere from $25 at no-frills rural campgrounds and up to $75 or more for a “full hook-up” with a view and other amenities. Some campgrounds even have spots for RV that include a deck complete with a gazebo, fire pits, and lounge chairs!
While tempted by the affordability of boondocking, we realized that the amenities offered by campgrounds such as electricity and water, as well as dump stations, were best suited for our short-term trip. While motorhomes are wonderfully self-contained, storage tanks need to be emptied and the water tank must be refilled regularly. There are two storage tanks – the gray water tank is water you use while showering, washing dishes, etc. The black tank is the sewage tank which is emptied at designated dump stations. Tip! Watch the video tutorials on how to empty these tanks properly and wear disposable gloves while taking care of this task.
Planning your route is especially important for RV travel. These vehicles are taller and wider than a minivan or pickup truck. Travel only on roads that have at least a 12-foot height clearance. Tip! Many of the “parkways” and “expressways” in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York were engineered in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Designed to be scenic roadways that attracted tourists, many follow rivers and have lots of curves and often no shoulders. Criss-crossed by decorative but low clearance stone arch bridges, trucks and RVs are not allowed. These conditions are not usually factored into Google Maps or Waze so plan in advance. Driving in hilly and mountainous areas or on narrow backroads can also be tricky. Sticking to interstates is a good idea…driving a very tall and heavy vehicle up and down steep grades, and on winding roads narrow roads takes skill and patience. Weather plays a role, too. Be sure to slow down or even pull into a rest area if driving conditions deteriorate. After all, you have everything you need without stepping outside. You can have a snack, play cards, read a book, or take a nap!
Planning for the unexpected is important. Most likely you will not have a TV in your motorhome; keep up with current events through apps and online news reports. Tip! Some motorhomes do not have a USB charger and audio cable. Your new best friend is a cigarette lighter USB adapter.
Our trip was precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented event that has dramatically impacted lives worldwide. Shortly after we hit the road on June 1st, protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death began to flourish in cities nationwide. We carefully considered the risk of driving through “hot spots” while adhering to our five-day roundtrip timeline. At the end of the day, we decided to drive through several major cities and were fortunate not to encounter road closures or delays.
On the first day of your trip, do not try to drive more than 200 miles. Just picking up the RV and loading it with all your supplies will take half a day. Know where you are staying that night and arrive well before dark. Trust me, it is much easier to hook up the power and water when you can see what you are doing!
Tip! Some companies will deliver the RV to your home for an extra fee. This is worth the money! You can load all your supplies, clothing, and food directly into the RV from your front door, no need to pack and then unpack your car at the rental pickup site. Also, you can leave your car safely at home. The RV rental company we used did not allow us to leave our car in their lot; we decided to park at a private home about 20 minutes way for $10/night.
Preparing meals on the road can be one of the most enjoyable components of your sojourn. The most important thing you need to know is that RV refrigerators are not the same as the one you have at home. They operate either on battery power while you are driving or propane or electricity (depending on the model) while hooked up to “shore” power. Food does not stay as cold as it does in your home refrigerator. Tip! Ask the RV rental company to get the fridge nice and cold before you pick up. Then, pack a small cooler with drinks, sandwiches, and snacks for your daytime travel so you can avoid opening the refrigerator while its running on battery power. Also, verify what cooking equipment the vehicle offers before you plan your meal. Not all RVs have ovens or coffeemakers! Most have a small gas cooktop and microwave. Another extremely important consideration is water. You will need to bring all your drinking and cooking water with you or buy more along the way. RVs have a water storage tank that supplies water for showering, sinks, and flushing the toilet. The amount of water stored is limited and the used water collects in a tank that must be emptied regularly. Tip! You know it’s time to empty the water storage tank when the shower starts to fill with water.
Cooking in the great outdoors is part of road travelers’ tradition. Most campgrounds have firepits at each RV site and sell firewood. After a long day of driving you may not want to put together an elaborate meal. Don’t worry! You can still enjoy a simple gourmet meal with a little advance planning. Good choices include marinated steaks or chicken kabobs, juicy burgers premixed with portobella mushrooms and goat cheese, or honey crisp apple and chicken sausages. Sauté fresh asparagus and mushrooms on your indoor cooktop while also heating baked beans “doctored up” with brown sugar, maple syrup and bacon crumbles in the microwave. Serve with hunks of freshly sliced baguette or crusty rolls and a well-chilled glass of pinot noir or an old-fashioned and you have achieved perfection!
Three things that we loved most about our recent RV trip:
- The empowerment achieved by facing new challenges and succeeding. It can be intimidating…okay, downright terrifying…sitting behind the wheel of a motorhome for the first time. But you take a deep breath, put it in gear, and go for it! Add to that figuring out how to hook up the power, fill the water, empty the tanks, turn on the heat (it was 41 degrees one night in Massachusetts!), and merging onto a six-lane interstate. You will feel like you have earned a superpower after your first trip!
- Sipping a steaming mug of coffee while lounging in a lakefront Adirondack chair, hugging the warm mug on a delightfully cool early morning. A family of ducks paddled by my feet, splashing, and quacking noisily as they made their way along the shore searching for breakfast. The sun was rising, turning the sky from pale pink to bright hues of rosy gold and yellow. I felt a sense of peace that had been absent for many months.
- Eating dinner fireside with my son who would all too soon be returning to college and all too soon on to the next chapters in his life. I have done my best to raise him and am so proud of the wonderful young adult he has become. Sharing these special moments together was truly priceless. We hungrily ate the meal we had cooked over the fire we built (when was the last time we did that?) while listening intently to identify the sounds of wildlife surrounding us. The wild turkey was an easy one. The strange, plaintive call that repetitively drifted across the small lake at the edge of our campsite was more mysterious. Never sure just what kind of animal could make that eerie noise, we were happy to retreat to our tiny home on wheels, lock the doors, and snuggle under the blankets for a well-deserved night’s rest.