The thought of gassing up for a cross-country – or even crosstown – vacation is enough to unleash an expletive-filled rant worthy of Chevy Chase’s Clark W. Griswold.
According to a report in the Sacramento Bee, with fuel costs hovering around $4 a gallon, many motorists and recreation enthusiasts are rethinking and reworking spring and summer travel plans.
Count the Jones family of Citrus Heights among those cutting back. Gone are the days when this family of seven would pile into their Honda Odyssey van and go for a drive.
Julie Jones, 36, said the family will wrap their summer vacation in with a roughly 300-mile trip to San Luis Obispo to celebrate her grandparents’ anniversary.
“When we’re going down there, we’ll include vacation time in that instead of traveling somewhere else or at another time,” she said.
Consolidating trips and staying longer will be a common theme among summer travelers, judging from interviews with consumers and travel experts.
Forty percent of adults expect to take fewer trips in the next four months because of the cost of gasoline, and 74% of those surveyed expect to reduce the number of trips by at least two, according to a recent study by the global market research firm TNS Omnibus.
If gas prices stay high, people stay home, or close to it. Consequently, cities such as Sacramento will see a drop in tourism dollars, said Mike Testa, senior vice president of convention sales and business developments for the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Sacramento is a drive-in destination,” he said. “Anytime you have higher fuel prices, it impacts the amount of distance travelers will come from.”
When gas prices shot up a few years ago over Labor Day weekend – right in time for Sacramento Gold Rush Days – the event was attended more heavily by locals than out-of-towners.
“If history is the model, I think where we’ll feel it most are on those three-day holidays –
Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day,” Testa said.
Spending by locals who decide against travel might soften the loss, but won’t completely cover it.
“Visitors typically spend more than a local would,” Testa explained.
When gas prices inch up, recreational vehicle owners also tend to seek destinations closer to home. In addition, they stay in one place longer and trim costs in other areas, said Debbie Sipe, executive director of the Auburn-based California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC).
“They still end up going camping, but they buy the hot dogs instead of going out for a steak dinner,” she said. “They’re still going, but are spending money in different ways.”
Despite the recession and rising gas prices over the past few years, occupancy rates have held steady at about 55% to 60% at privately owned RV parks and campgrounds in California, she said.
Unlike other segments of the travel industry, which have seen double-digit downturns, camping has had almost no downturn in occupancy, she said.
“Americans feel that a vacation is a birthright, and they’re going to go. They’re just going to go with what they can afford,” Sipe said. “RVing and camping is an affordable alternative. … Plus, it offers good quality family time that you don’t necessarily get on other kinds of trips.”
Watch today’s Featured Video to lern more about this story.
AAA says holiday weekend travel will increase this year. You can expect to see more RVs on the road, which industry leaders say is because more banks are lending money and gas prices are lower, according to WSBT-TV, South Bend, Ind.
Ron and Judy Ruff travel about six months each year. Their RV is their home away from home. The Ruff’s have been all over the United States and Canada.
“We were traveling when the gas prices were $4 a gallon and it didn’t stop us,” Ron said.
What they have seen recently on the roadways is the biggest surprise of all.
“It’s amazing how many people still RV,” Ron said.
This isn’t something they’re just seeing locally. Frank and Marty Leland’s RV stopped at the KOA campground in Granger, Ind. They’ve traveled the country since April. In that time, they found they were in good company.
“Fifth wheels, motor homes are very, very common,” Leland said.
AAA projects an increase in Memorial Day weekend travel — despite gas prices being 80 cents higher this year compared to last year. It appears the local RV industry is on the road to recovery, following its share of bumps in the road.
“Employment is up, numbers are up and we’re increasing more as we go,” said Bill Fenech, president and CEO of Damon Motor Coach.
Fenech said production of vehicles on the assembly line has increased 85% to 135%.
“Last year was awful,” Fenech said. “We’re up significantly.”
While sales are up, Fenech is careful to sketch a pretty picture.
“Retail is doing good, not great. We need to make sure retail supports the number of units we’re shipping. We need retail to kick in and continue to be strong,” Fenech said.
The economic downturn was long thought to be the industry’s “nail” in the coffin. Now, it appears those fears may be easing as more and more camp and ride on the road in style, in their RV.
As the RV industry celebrates its centennial this year, a new survey shows that interest in RV travel remains strong, with nearly half of RV owners planning to spend more time on the road this spring and summer than a year ago, according to the current issue of RVIA Today Express.
According to the latest Campfire Canvass, a biannual survey of RV owners by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), 45.4% of RV owners expect to travel more this summer than they did last year; 41.9% say they’ll travel the same amount. More than 8.2 million U.S. households own an RV.
RV travel is as popular today as it was in 1910 when the first mass-produced RVs were built. “For a century, Americans have enjoyed exploring what’s over the next hill and around the bend,” says Richard Coon, RVIA president. “That pioneering spirit is still alive and well today.”
Survey respondent Bob Jaffe, 65, of Palm Beach, Fla., exemplifies that pioneering spirit. He and his wife, Sheila, bought their RV in August 2009 and spent five months traveling throughout the U.S.
“Our No. 1 goal was to visit our daughter in wine country in Northern California,” says Jaffe, who retired from his printing business in 2008. “During our trip, we visited 13 national parks, five national monuments and many historic sites, and we didn’t even get wet.”
The Jaffes, who used to get soaked putting up and taking down their tent in the rain before they bought their first RV, are planning another five-month summer trip that will take them from Florida to the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, Canada.
Among the survey respondents, 75% cited the flexibility of RVing as a major benefit of owning an RV.
Dennis Kiegel, 59, of Tampa, Fla., enjoys the freedom and control that RVing offers. “Whenever my wife and I feel like it, we can just get up and go,” says Kiegel, a former Anheuser Busch employee. “What we like best is the freedom to come and go as we please. With our RV, we can travel at our own leisure. We don’t have any set plans for the summer. For us, it’s more interesting to wake up in the morning and make a spur-of-the-moment decision.”
According to the survey, a primary reason so many RVers will be traveling this spring/summer is that they appreciate the value they get compared to flying, driving and staying in hotels. Almost 82 percent percent of owners say they save anywhere from 15% to 75% by traveling in their RVs. This is consistent with a study by international travel and tourism experts PKF Consulting, which found that family RV trips are, on average, 27% to 61% less expensive than other types of vacations.
“RV travel continues to appeal to people looking to save money and cut costs,” says Coon. “RVers get a bigger bang for their buck than they get from other types of vacations.”
State and national parks are among the most popular destinations for RV trips this spring/summer. Seventy-seven percent of the survey respondents said they’ll visit state parks, while 71% will visit national parks.
Rob Long, a 33-year-old architectural designer from Newark, Ohio, frequently visits state parks with his wife and 3-year-old daughter in their RV. “Staying at state parks is my way of giving something back and helping to sustain them,” says Long.
Long, whose parents and two brothers also own RVs, appreciates the family togetherness that RVing creates. “RVing is a great way to work and play together as a family,” he says.
According to the survey, RVers plan to be on the move during major holidays, with 60% planning to travel over Memorial Day weekend and 64% over the July 4th holiday.
RV owners appreciate the recreational and health benefits associated with RV travel:
- 78% say RV travel provides them the opportunity to spend more time enjoying outdoor activities.
- 73% of RV owners say they are more physically active on RV trips compared to other types of vacations.
- 72% say RVs allow them to escape everyday stress and pressure.
- 80% say their children are more physically active on RV vacations than other types.
Jumping in the RV and driving off into the sunset is a dream for a lot of people.
Harriet and John Halkyard actually did it – and so did Mike and Terri Church.
This weekend, the two couples will be spinning tales about their travels at the Snowbird RV Show and Sale at Tradex in Abbotsford, British Columbia. And there are some very interesting tales, because they have been to some very exotic places, according to The Vancouver Sun.
The Halkyards, for example, claim to be the first people to drive an RV up the historic Tea-Horse Road between China and Tibet, where they camped at the base of Mt. Everest.
“The Chinese travel authority and the Lonely Planet [travel guide] both describe that road as the most beautiful and the most dangerous in the world, which I’ll second,” relates Harriet Halkyard over the phone from her home in Houston.
“It was amazing, and fascinating. The road was good and passable for a couple of horses, but that was about it. We were knocking boulders off 2,000- or 3,000-foot cliffs, like into the Grand Canyon. It was not a good road, to put it mildly.”
Were you scared?
She pauses and sighs.
“Aw, heck, if I’m going to go, that’s the way to go,” she said. “I don’t want to die in bed, you’ve got to take a risk now and then.”
The Halkyards achieved some renown in RV circles for a book they co-wrote, “99 Days to Panama.” It details how one day they quit their day jobs, hopped in a rig they had just purchased and drove all the way from Houston to Panama.
That sounds kind of dodgy, as well, but Halkyard says it was relatively easy.
“We didn’t know what we were doing, hardly even knew how to empty the tanks, but we decided to go,” said Halkyard, 63.
“I think my husband thought when I said Panama I meant Panama City, Fla. I didn’t know if we were going to make it back, I didn’t know if the vehicle was going to make it back, I didn’t know if the dog was going to make it back, but it was very easy. That’s the message I’m trying to get over to people.
“The roads (in central America), for the most part, are like country byroads — the Pan-American highway is two lanes. Yes, there are potholes, and yes, there are cows and donkeys and people all over the place, so you stick to about 30 miles an hour. Once you got into that frame of mind, of just going slowly and gently, it’s a piece of cake. There were no horrendous challenges at all.”
The Halkyards are part-time RVers — they still have a home in Houston, and John (an ocean engineer) still takes contracts designing offshore platforms.
The Churches, on the other hand, left their accountant jobs in Seattle in 1992 and haven’t looked back. Today home is a Fraserway RV hoisted on the back of a 2004 Chevy 3/4 ton truck.
“Truthfully we intended to take a year off, it was a sabbatical for us,” says Mike Church.
“But we liked the lifestyle a lot. We found it was much less expensive than we thought, so we decided we could continue to do it the rest of our lives if we wanted.”
The Churches are classic snowbirds — they mosey around up North in the summer, then split for Mexico or the U.S. Southwest for the fall and winter. They’ve written seven travel books aimed at RVers, and this weekend will be giving hour-long spiels on snowbird destinations.
“We’ve gotten around quite a bit,” notes Church, 58.
“We’ve been in all the states of Mexico at least six times, we’ve been as far south as Panama, we’ve travelled throughout Europe and into Greece and Turkey.”
Because they live full-time in their rig, they also are great at dispensing advice on the RV lifestyle. This is key, because given the current economic malaise, people are being more cautious about getting into recreational vehicles.
“(An event like) the Snowbird show is a great way to get familiar with RVs before you make a commitment,” he says.
“What looks good in the showroom or on the lot might not be the ideal rig for what you want to do. Do you enjoy the outdoors, do you want to spend time in the woods in government campgrounds? If you do you need a smaller rig, cause big rigs don’t work really well for that. But if you want to take your rig and sit on the beach in one place for three months, maybe you want a fifth wheel or a big trailer.”
There are also spots where you can park your RV for next to nothing, such as the land yacht mecca Quartzsite, Ariz. Located in the middle of the desert between Phoenix and Los Angeles, Quartzsite is almost unbearably hot in the summer – the average daily high is 108 degrees fahrenheit in July. But for the winter the weather is gorgeous, with normal highs of 66 in December and January.
“In the summer there’s nothing [there], but drive through Quartzsite in January and there are RVs as far as the eye can see, scattered around the desert,” says Church.
“All the land around Quartzsite is what we call BLM land, for Bureau of Land Management, which is a federal organization. They charge for camping on the land, but it’s roughly $180 for six months. So you can conceivably spend the entire winter there for almost nothing. You just have to have solar, so you have electricity, and you have to deal with the water issue, which isn’t difficult to do.”
Recession or no, there are still a lot of people on the RV trail — Church notes the Texas-based Escapees RV club that has 75,000 members, and Halkyard says there are an estimated 1 million RVers overall in the states, including weekenders.
“It’s like being in a bubble,” says Halkyard, who was a university lecturer and worked in a travel agency before she took up the RV lifestyle.
“You are cut off from all the annoyances of the outside world, and yet you can stop and pop that bubble any time you like. I just find it so relaxing, and educational as well, because you get to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet, and go into places you wouldn’t normally go. For instance (last year we took a) trip to St. John’s, Newfoundland. If we had flown in, it would have been lovely, we could have stayed in a nice hotel and met all the other visitors. But we didn’t, we drove in and therefore met the people who are really there.”
Harriet and John Halkyard’s website is www.99daystopanama.com; Mike and Terri Church’s website is www.rollinghomes.com.
At the Battlefield KOA Kampground in Gettysburg, Pa., you can catch up on e-mail at your campsite, take in an evening movie on a 9-foot inflatable outdoor screen, lounge by the pool, play a round of mini golf or try your hand at Extreme Hunting, one of the arcade games in the game room. There’s live music on Saturday nights and pancake breakfasts on weekend mornings, and if you don’t feel like cooking, you can have dinner delivered to your RV door, tent flap or what-have-you.
Heck, you don’t even have to really camp at this wooded 25-acre site, thanks to its growing inventory of air-conditioned cabins, cottages and lodges – essentially, tricked-out trailers done up to look like hand-hewn log dwellings, according to USA Today.
“So much for getting away from it all,” owner John Bergeron says with a laugh.
But getting away they are. By many accounts, business is brisk this summer at campgrounds nationwide. The sinking economy may have put the brakes on taking the Grand Tour, but many Americans still want to get away. And with relatively low gas prices, more people are pulling into campgrounds.
All Metrics Point Up
Campground reservations through ReserveAmerica.com, which books campsites in most national parks, are up 8% over last year in the first six months of 2009.
Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), a network of 460 commercial campgrounds, reports a 5% increase in June occupancy. REI, an outdoor-gear chain, says sales of family tents were up 17% in June over last year. The retailer also saw double-digit increases in sales of related products, such as air mattresses and campground stoves.
A recent survey by the Outdoor Foundation, a non-profit group that promotes outdoor activities, indicates camping’s popularity rose 7.4% in 2008 after a decline the year before. Overnight backpacking grew by 18.5%, the group reports.
“People are returning to simpler lifestyles – the ‘less is more’ ethic,” says the foundation’s Christine Fanning. “And everyone is searching for vacations that fit with today’s economy.”
Indeed, ForestCamping.com, a comprehensive guide to U.S. National Forest campgrounds, where campsites go for $10 to $15 a night, has seen a spike in hits. Bookings for reservable Forest Service campsites were up 11% through May.
“When the economy goes down, camping goes up,” says Suzi Dow, who with her husband, Fred, runs the site.
David Berg, owner of the Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, Maine, echoes the sentiment. “I believe camping is a recession-proof business,” he says. “When people can’t afford $200 or $300 a night for a waterfront cottage, they dust off the pop-up (camper) or get out the tent and spend $50 a night on a campsite and maybe still go out to good restaurants.”
At Yellowstone National Park, lodging bookings are down this year, but campground stays are up, says Rick Hoeninghausen, marketing director for Xanterra, which runs the park’s concessions.
“This is an interesting summer because, even in April, reservations were trailing last year. Then it kicked in in May. There’s more last-minute decision-making this year than I can ever remember.”
As in other segments of the travel industry, campers are staying closer to home, but they’re also staying away longer. At KOA campgrounds, for instance, average stays are 2.5 nights, up from 1.7 nights three years ago.
RVTravel.com editor Chuck Woodbury has been traveling through Western parks this summer, and says he’s struck by the number of rental RVs on the road. “It’s families, it’s couples, it’s everyone,” he says. “RV’ing has become much more accepted. It’s not just Grandma and Grandpa’s playhouse anymore.”
Campgrounds Expanding Services
Nor are today’s campgrounds necessarily like the ones you might remember as a kid. Food delivery, concierge services and skate parks are among innovative additions at some private facilities. In Columbia, Calif., the Marble Quarry RV Park features on-site gold panning. At Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Hill Country in Canyon Lake, Texas, laser tag is all the rage. At Kamp Klamath RV Park and Campground in Klamath, Calif., the alder-smoked salmon served at the park’s restaurant has won prizes in several competitions.
At Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp-Resort & Water Playground in Wisconsin Dells, owner Brent Gasser has gradually expanded what began as a campground with basic tent sites to a “camp resort” with a four-level water playground, boat and golf cart rentals, themed weekends (think Christmas in July), and 51 rental units that go from $39 to $299 a night.
“The traditional camper has been requesting more and more accommodations that they’d find in a hotel,” Gasser says. “And since we’re in an area with many hotels, we have to compete.”
And at the Red Apple Campground, the annual $25 Maine lobster fest sells out two years in advance. This summer, bookings are up 9%, and the average stay has stretched from 2.5 to 4.5 days.
“You have to be more creative to get people in your park and get them to come back again,” Berg says. “Today’s customer wants it all. In the majority of campgrounds today, we have Wi-Fi and concierge services. There are (waterfront) campsites in Maine that go for over $100 a night. And they sell first.”
But the constant buzz of organized activity can be a bit much, even for avid campers such as Brian and Michelle Gillespey of Brownstone, Mich.
“They’re on the PA making announcements about putt-putt golf and the ice cream social at 3 p.m.,” she says.
“There are too many activities at some of these places,” he says. “To me, it’s not relaxing.”
America’s ‘Last Small Town’
What many campground denizens say they do like is the camaraderie of the camp. KOA president Jim Rogers calls campgrounds “the last small town in America. They’re a live community, a social beehive. You’re interacting with strangers and allowing your kids to.”
“A woman stepped onto our site to avoid a passing car last night and ended up staying until midnight,” says Lynn Boozel, a camper at the KOA in Gettysburg. Boozel and his wife, Rhonda, of McVeytown, Pa., are wrapping up their seventh annual week-long visit here. “We came for a weekend and got hooked,” Boozel says.
The couple, with their two young daughters and a granddaughter, are sleeping in a six-person tent, which puts them in the minority among the Hitchhikers, Wolf Packs and other RV models that occupy most of the sites.
Across the way, Valerie and Bill Stack of Donora, Pa., have just arrived in their Ford pickup pulling a 12,000 pound, 38-foot trailer. This is one of five trips they’ll make here this summer.
“Once you’re addicted to this, you can’t stay home,” Bill Stack says. “You come back and say, ‘Boy, did I have a great time,’ and they ask, ‘What did you do?’ and you say, ‘Nothing.’ ”
The trailer has a gas fireplace, queen-size bed and flat-screen TV, among other amenities. They’ll spend the weekend swimming in the pool and maybe play some putt-putt golf.
“But we’re here for nature,” Valerie Stack says. “If I lost everything tomorrow, I’d go out and buy a tent.”
RV travel and camping are receiving a timely boost with the debut of NBC’s Great American Road Trip, the reality TV show showcasing the adventures of seven families traveling in motorhomes on a cross-country road trip.
“This is tremendous exposure for the RV industry coming at a time when American families are focused on summer travel,” said Gary LaBella, RVIA vice president and chief marketing officer, in a news release following the show’s debut Tuesday night (July 7). “The message of the show reflects the appeal of RVing…that families reconnect and recharge as they spend time together traveling.”
Airing on NBC on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. EDT, the Great American Road Trip is a new series where seven families from divergent backgrounds take the vacation of a lifetime. Over eight episodes the families will travel iconic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles in their own motorhome through cities large and small, all while competing in a medley of humorous challenges that will ultimately lead one family to victory.
El Monte RV, a national RV rental company, provided the motorhomes used in the Great American Road Trip. The units are Bounder type A motorhomes built by Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. RVIA’s Public Relations Department worked with the program’s producers on content and messaging.
“The premier really had some nice moments, including the beautiful sights seen from the RV and family and friends bonding at the campground,” said LaBella. “We’re hopeful this continues throughout the remainder of the show and grateful to El Monte for making this wonderful exposure possible. The series has the potential to make millions more American families aware of the benefits of RV travel and camping this summer and beyond.”
Editor’s Note: Travel writer Keith Bennett posted this recent story in the Denver RV Travel Examiner about RV travel in Colorado.
If you drive a motorhome with a towed vehicle and wish to enter Colorado state parks, you will have to pay the $8/day entrance fee on both “motorized” vehicles for a total of $16/day to get in. If you drive a vehicle with a trailer or fifth-wheel in tow, you will only be charged $8/day. We were told this is the policy across all Colorado state parks.
This policy has upset many RVers who visit Colorado and has been an issue on Internet forums going back to 2007. Comments range from not staying in Colorado state parks to, as long as the money goes to the state parks, then it is OK. Most commenters were upset at the perceived unfairness between motorhomes with toads and the rest of the camping visitors.
We decided to check and see if anything has happened in the last two years to change this policy. We called the Denver administrative office at (303) 866-3437 and posed our question to determine the future of this policy. We were told that the State Parks Division has looked into this and “intends” to make some changes sometime in the future. The changes would be an ID pass for the motorhome and entrance pass for the toad.
When pressed as to the timing of a new policy, we were told that it has to go before the state legislature and that it would not happen until next session, at the earliest. That would be fall of 2009 or nothing for this year’s season. The person went on to say that each park has its own manager and that if it was a real issue to plead ones case to the park manager for an exception. When asked if park managers have the authority to grant exception, the parks representative was very quick to back pedal and say, “I don’t want to speak for park managers, but they are managing their park…it’s worth asking, but if they are adhering strictly to the rules, any motorized vehicle does require a pass to be on the windshield. I’m just giving you the official word.”
With the state’s budget issues, as a result of the economy, I am not optimistic for a change in this revenue generator. On the other hand, these are challenging times for all of us and I would hope that groups like CTO (Colorado Tourism Office) would jump in and press the need to have “happy customers” when the competition for the tourism dollar has just gone way up.