Traveling across America by motor vehicle is something everyone should do. Cherie and I have driven across the U.S.A. eight or nine times, and it’s something I believe everyone should do at least once in their lifetime. When we fly to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or some other iconic part of America, we simply don’t get a feel for the immense proportions and diversity of America.
Our first cross-country trip was by car. We stayed at hotels and ate at restaurants, and while it was pleasant, the entire time we were talking about how much fun it would be as a camping trip. On our third trip, we took a Honda Odyssey pulling an 8-foot pop-up camper. We had a great time, but we were limited in the spaces we could set up the pop-up. We camped in small commercial campgrounds, free public campgrounds, National Forest locations and a Cabela’s parking lot.
While the pop-up camper worked, there were no toilet facilities, set-up was time-consuming, and Cherie didn’t feel comfortable setting up a pop-up camper in a Walmart parking lot.
We talked about the possibility of trying a small motorhome, but since most used RVs sell for around $50,000, that would have been a big investment for something we weren’t sure we’d like. RVs are big to drive around and park, and they use more gas than cars.
We found an older, small Winnebago with low mileage at a good price and became motorhome owners. We traveled across the country several times and made trips up and down the Atlantic Coast. Recently, we upgraded to a newer model, having learned about the joys and tribulations of RV life. Since many readers of our age range are perhaps contemplating RV ownership, I thought I’d share a bit of what we learned.
If you think the ability to drive your vacation home on trips would save money, the answer is both yes and no. It’s true that RV sites are cheaper than hotel rooms, but fuel costs are higher. With an RV, fuel costs are more than double the cost of gas for most cars and many SUVs. On our last cross-country trip, we spent about $1,800 on gas for about 6,000 miles of travel. Diesels get better mileage, but diesel costs more than gas. If there’s another RV owner at the station when you pump gas, he will almost always inquire about your gas mileage. Ten miles per gallon is generally considered good.
You definitely save money on food, provided you prepare your own meals. Our food costs are about the same as at home. We eat out at about the same frequency while traveling as at home. Travel cooking is just more fun than cooking at home. I don’t know why.
We save money by boondocking, meaning staying at public locations where overnight parking is allowed. We stay in Walmart parking lots, public parks, National Forests, state parks and occasionally the lot of an abandoned business. RV overnight sites average around $40, depending on location, but are almost always cheaper than even economy motel/hotel rooms. Of course you have to factor in the cost of ownership, maintenance and insurance, but we feel the RV life (at least the way we do it) reduces travel costs.
Your level of comfort depends on the unit you have, your sense of adventure, and whether you stay in RV parks. Modern RVs have comfortable beds and all the amenities of home, including air conditioning and furnaces. Showers are generally small, but most folks fit, and we’ve never run out of hot water. If you boondock, Navy showers reduce water consumption (not a problem in the East, but sometimes a problem in the West).
We choose to do truck stop showers. They are remarkably clean and comfortable, and we can both shower for around $12. Most RVs have outside showers, and outside showering is roomy, invigorating, and optional.
If you boondock, you’ll need to run your generator to have air conditioning. We generally run the AC to cool off the cabin, then shut down and open the windows at night. Of course, if you choose an RV park, you’ll be running on their power and can use the AC all the time.
At campgrounds with hookups, cable TV and Wi-Fi are the norm. When boondocking, you may be able to find sites where you can pick up Wi-Fi, but don’t count on it. We use our phones to provide computer internet if needed, but we only use it for travel information. We prefer to fix a nice dinner, enjoy the sunset, and wind up the night with some gin-rummy or listening to an audio book. After all, isn’t that stuff we’re trying to get away from?
There are downsides to owning an RV. It’s like owning a house that also has an engine, transmission, independent water and sewage system, brakes, tires, electrical generation plant, roof, and all the other issues that come with owning a home.
On most trips there is some small problem that arises, but any time you travel for three or four thousand miles, there’s going to be some tribulation. We never suffer delayed flights, mixed up reservations, disappointing and dirty sleeping quarters or undesirable travel companions. We feel it’s a more healthy way to travel.
Since we just bought a newer RV it should be obvious that we like the freedom of never making reservations, being able to live as if we’re home, not worrying about our dogs, and feeling the adventure that comes with traveling across the country while sleeping in your own bed every night. Of course, you can try out RV life by renting a unit and taking a trip, costs are about $300 a day plus cleanup fee, depending on the company and the unit.
We knew what we wanted to do. We had done long-range, multi-week travel. We found an RV at a good enough price that it made sense to use it as a learning tool, and it’s our favorite way to travel by far. We like the adventure of boondocking, but RV camps have more amenities. If you have an adventurous side and like to travel, you should try it.
You can’t run with the big dogs if you stay on the porch. Feel free to share your adventures with us at email@example.com.
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