Editor’s Note: The following story was written by Dave Kelly, marketing director for the Florida RV Trade Association. His story appeared in the The Tampa Tribune.
As soon as I found out that we were going to my wife’s family reunion in Ohio, the wheels started spinning — RV wheels that is.
The closest our daughters Sarah, now 6, and Megan, 5, had ever come to a road trip in a house on wheels was playing in the very stationary display models at RV shows.
Hard to believe, I know. I’m the marketing director for the Florida RV Trade Association. I have done hundreds of interviews talking about the fun, freedom and flexibility of recreational vehicle travel, yet my family had never experienced it firsthand. Now, all I had to do was get my wife, Jody, on board. “I’m scared,” she said when I suggested it. “Scared of what?” I asked.
“What if the kids don’t like it? What if it’s too small? What if it’s too big? What if you back into something? What if …””They’ll love it! You’ll see.”
You can rent an RV at a number of places. There are more options in the Orlando area than in Tampa because the Magic Kingdom draws more international travelers there. But you can find rental companies all over the country through the Recreation Vehicle Rental Association’s website, www.rvra.org.
At Cruise America, a national chain with an office in Tampa, manager Bonita Martinez says business has been brisk, despite the economy. “We’ve sold out every weekend this month,” she says, noting the office has 25 RVs ranging from 19 feet to 30 feet long. “People have been choosing land travel versus air.”
The price at Cruise America averages about $100 a day. In addition, there’s usually a charge of 32 cents a mile, but that’s reduced to 16 cents through Dec. 15. Being in the industry, I was able to get a loaner from a friend. Jeff Crum at Dusty’s RV in Bartow had three from which to choose. At first, I thought they were all about the same, but soon it became apparent which one was right for my family: the 31-foot Sun Seeker Class C Motorhome by Forest River. The Class C styles have a loft bunk over the cab — my girls would love sleeping and playing there. They’d also like eating at the dinette and watching our portable DVD player on the queen-size bed while I drove and my wife relaxed on the sofa with a book.
When I got home, Megan and Sarah’s delighted squeals quickly proved I’d chosen well – at least for them. But what about Jody? She entered slowly, stood quietly for a second taking it all in, and then exclaimed, “I love it!”
We headed out on a Wednesday morning, bound for our first stop, Atlanta. My only previous experience driving RVs was ferrying them to shows; I’d never hit the highway for a long haul.
Handling was surprisingly easy. I drove a little more slowly than usual because you can’t make sudden moves, like lane changes. (Why rush anyway when you’re in an RV?) For the same reason, I also paid closer attention to what was going on farther up the highway and behind me.
It’s good to know how tall the RV is, so you don’t drive under anything too low, and when you pull into a restaurant or gas station, you need to make sure you’re in a spot you can get out of again.
When I needed to back up, Jody jumped out to spot me.
Martinez, at Cruise America, says her company orients renters how to drive and operate the RVs using an online video tutorial. She says the rigs at the Tampa office are akin to driving an SUV, and she’s never heard a customer complain they couldn’t manage the vehicle.
In Atlanta, we picked up two more passengers: 12-year-old nephew Zach, and 14-year-old niece Rachel. Both opted to ride with us rather than their parents because a trip to Ohio in an RV looked like a lot more fun than a 9-hour car ride.
Even with two more travelers, the camper was roomy and comfortable. Jody and Rachel played Bananagrams (get it if you don’t have it) while the girls played with their toys and Zach read and texted his friends. As the kids got hungry, they could sit at the dinette and have a snack. That was especially convenient for Megan’s favorite snack, cucumbers.
Later in the day, we stopped for a special lunch. It was Sarah’s 6th birthday and her favorite restaurant is Olive Garden. Jody went on-line and found one on our route. Note to future RVers: Having a laptop with an air card helps a lot with spontaneity and flexibility. Throughout our trip, we were able to easily change plans because Jody could find campgrounds, gas stations and whatever else we needed online.
With full bellies, we were back on the road headed to Cumberland Gap Falls State Park in southern Kentucky. We arrived in the early evening, time enough for a quick swim in the pool and a snack for dinner before setting up camp.
One thing about RVs, when you park them for camping, they have to be on a level surface. It doesn’t matter so much when you’re up and about, but sleeping on a slant can be less than restful. As soon as I parked and got out, I realized our rig was listing. Thank goodness RVers are the friendliest people in the world. My “neighbor” was over in minutes with a few boards and advice. I pulled the RV forward and he stacked a couple pieces of wood on the slab for me to back the rear tire onto. Problem solved.
Sleeping six was no problem. Megan and Rachel got the overhead bed, Zach took the sofa bed, and Sarah slept on the dinette, which converts to a bed. Jody and I got the queen-size bed in the back.
When you’re checking out campers, be sure each average-sized adult will have a bed at least 6 feet long, or sleeping won’t be as comfortable.
The next day we drove to just outside Columbus, Ohio. Jody’s family has a house on an island in the middle of Buckeye Lake. There were about 50 people at the reunion and most of them were staying on the island in tents. We decided to do the same. Lying in my tent that night, I could not stop thinking about the cozy beds we left behind in the RV. But eventually, the cool night air and chirps of crickets lulled me to sleep.
The weekend was full of fishing, swimming, tubing, kayaking, and canoeing. Two rope swings were rarely idle and a shady hammock held a certain snoozing RV driver on two or three different occasions. On Sunday it was time to say good-bye and return home. We loaded up the bottom of the RV with our camping gear, filled the fridge with the leftovers from our cooler, and started our RV wheels spinning toward southern West Virginia. Zach and Rachel were going back with their parents, so we took a different route home. On the laptop, Jody found a campground right off the interstate. Camp Creek State Park and Forest turned out to be a wonderful place, with a new playground that had slides, swings, a climbing wall and two sets of monkey bars. I’m sure we’ll never forget that playground, because both girls became monkey bar masters there.
In another memorable moment, Sarah and Megan spotted deer in a field near the road and more alongside a creek. The campground is beautifully serene, with lots of trees and even a small stream that ran alongside our site. So it was especially jarring when, in the middle of the night, we were awakened by a loud electronic chirping coming from inside the camper. It was the carbon monoxide detector. These detectors are a vital feature in a house that runs on a gasoline-powered engine and comes equipped with a power generator. Gas-powered machinery can produce carbon monoxide, a deadly odorless and tasteless gas that can quietly rise to lethal levels. Thankfully, the alarm was chirping only to let us know the batteries were low. My wife just happened to have a fresh pack of the size needed, so we were able to quickly silence the alarm — and rest easy knowing it was standing guard. Note to future RVers: Though rental companies likely change out alarm batteries on a regular basis, it doesn’t hurt to put fresh ones in at the start of your trip. Or at least know what kind of batteries it takes and have some on hand.
With two days left on the road, we decided to try to cover a lot of ground. In an RV, it’s much easier to go a long distance with your family than in a car. The kids and Jody were able to eat, play, stretch their legs and use the restroom while I drove more than six hours that day. That put us just outside Savannah, Ga. We were thinking about staying in a hotel, but Jody had changed her mind.
“This will be the last night in our little home,” she said.
We found a KOA campground right off the interstate, with a playground, swimming pool and a lake. We got an early start the next morning and rolled into Tampa around midday. It was sad unloading our belongings; I’d started thinking of our RV as home. A house is just bricks and a roof, but a home is where you share time with family and friends. A home is where you laugh, cry, eat, sleep, play and create memories.
I know that this will not be our last family RV trip. My wheels are already spinning imagining where we’ll go and what memories we will create. And the best news is, my family’s on board.