Rent an RV, hit the road and save gobs of money on your next vacation.
Really? Maybe not, even some advocates concede, according to Jane Engle, travel writer for Los Angeles Times.
“You could probably pack four people in a car, eat at restaurants, stay in hotels, and I imagine it’s about the same cost,” said Chuck Woodbury, editor of RVTravel.com, a consumer website offering tips and tricks for RVers.
But consider the intangibles.
“The real advantage of the RV is that the family’s together, and you can cook and eat healthy meals,” Woodbury said. “There’s something about being in a little house that’s very appealing. Sitting around a campfire at night is a lot more fun than sitting around a hotel room and watching TV.”
Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer’s Travel Guides series for budget travelers, said she was won over by her first-ever family RV trip last year. (And, yes, “we probably spent exactly what we would have spent if we went on a car road trip,” she added.)
I priced a hypothetical one-week vacation trip for a family of four from Los Angeles to South Lake Tahoe and back in July by rented RV versus going in the family car and staying at a hotel. Excluding food, the cost was about the same. But because it’s typically cheaper to make your own meals than to eat out, the RV won by a nose. (I priced a 25-foot Class C RV rental with a KOA campground stay and used a standard AAA calculator for driving costs of a medium sedan, with some tweaks.)
But why spend more than you need to? With that in mind, I gleaned tips from Woodbury and Frommer on how to save.
Rent the right size. Many people overestimate what they need.
Frommer’s family of four rented a 30-foot RV to tour the West. But in Sedona, Ariz., she said, “we realized we couldn’t drive it to a trail head. It was too big to park anywhere. So we turned out having to rent another car.”
Next time, she said, they’ll rent a smaller unit or even a pop-up camping trailer, which Woodbury said often rents for a fourth of what a regular RV costs.
Scout out free or low-cost parking: On my hypothetical trip, it cost $69 a night to park my RV with full hookups.
“You picked the high season and a very popular spot,” which boosted the price, Woodbury said.
Many private and national forest campgrounds charge less than $25 a night, he said. Cheaper spots don’t come with hookups or may just have water and electric. So consider doing without for a night or two, Woodbury said; rely more on battery power and siphon waste into a dump station.
You can park free on some public lands, he added, and many Wal-Marts will let you pull into their lots and spend the night — not exactly a nature experience, but OK in a pinch. For tips on cheap parking places, check out websites such as FreeCampgrounds.com.
Don’t write off private campgrounds, such as KOA, which may cost more but provide a resort-like experience.
“KOA is great for kids,” Woodbury said. “They’re in heaven. Many KOAs have swimming pools, game rooms, pancake breakfasts, movies at night and ice cream socials. It’s safe. There’s a store for supplies.”
Vacation off-season. By avoiding summer, the peak time for RV rentals in most places, you’ll pay less. Cruise America, which claims to be North America’s largest RV rental company, was recently giving 25% off rentals between Sept. 10 and Dec. 15.
Grab a one-way special. Rental companies sometimes need to move their inventory around, and if you help them, you can get “incredible deals,” Woodbury said.
Cruise America, for instance, was recently offering one-way autumn rentals from Carson, Calif., to Phoenix for $24 a night, with 1,000 free miles and no dropoff fee. By comparison, when I priced the 25-foot RV for my hypothetical trip in July, the company quoted $169 a night, plus 32 cents a mile.
Most everyone in the RV industry agrees that sales of recreational vehicles are up after several dismal years and that prospects are good for the future. But according to a reader survey over the weekend at www.RVtravel.com, sales may have peaked for 2010, according to a posting today by RV News Service Editor Chuck Woodbury.
More than 1,200 of the website’s readers responded to the survey as of today (March 29), which asked “How likely is it that you will buy an RV in 2010?” (see results below)
“Overall, I was discouraged by the response,” said Woodbury. “The good news was that more than 7% of our readers have already bought an RV this year. That seemed right in line with what everyone is saying about RV sales, which have shown a significant increases this year over 2009.
“The discouraging news is that only about 3% of our readers say they will ‘almost surely’ buy an RV during the rest of the year with only 8% saying they will probably buy one. What was most discouraging to me was that nearly two-thirds (65%) of our readers reported that they will definitely not buy an RV this year, with another 20% saying they will probably not buy — that’s 85 percent who are not likely to buy.”
See the latest results of the survey, which is still in progress, by clicking here.
The “RV Doctor,” Gary Bunzer, will appear on a live video broadcast at RVtravel.com on Saturday, Aug. 1, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., PST.
“Gary will appear in real time video on the same web page as our weekly newsletter,” said RVtravel.com editor Chuck Woodbury in a news release. “All readers at that time will see the live broadcast as it happens. They will be invited to submit questions to Gary by e-mail about RV repair and maintenance, which he will answer in real time as they watch.”
The RVtravel.com newsletter is in its eighth year of publication and is read by approximately 75,000 RVers a week, most on Saturdays.
Bunzer has served the RV industry since 1968 and continues to author technical articles, troubleshooting tips, installation guides and owner’s manuals for RV owners, suppliers and manufacturers. Additionally, he writes and edits textbooks and curriculum materials for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) and Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) and is a popular speaker at RV shows around the United States.
His column, The RV Doctor, has been in continuous monthly publication for 33 years and is a regular weekly feature in the RVtravel.com newsletter. He is also the author of Woodall’s RV Owner’s Handbook, a best-selling do-it-yourself manual for all RVs and the host of the DVD Do It Yourself RV Care.
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.”
Overnight parking of recreational vehicles in all public parking lots of Maine will be illegal if pending legislation passes the Maine Legislature.
LD114/HP98 would make it a civil offense to park an RV overnight on any public parking lot in the state, according to the rvnewsservice.com
The text of the bill reads, in part:
“A person may not park or occupy a recreational vehicle, as defined in Title 10, section 1432, subsection 18, in a commercial parking facility overnight. For purposes of this section, ‘commercial parking facility’ means a parking structure or area open to members of the public for the purposes of parking their vehicles while patronizing one or more commercial establishments, but does not include a mobile home park or recreational vehicle park allowed by a municipality or a camping area licensed by the department. A person who violates the provisions of this section commits a civil violation subject to a fine of no more than $100, which must be suspended for the first violation and may be suspended for subsequent violations.”
Due to the way this is worded, these restrictions will apply to any publicly accessible parking lot including those at casinos, truck stops, Wal-Marts (popular overnight stops for many RVers) and even dirt or gravel areas commonly used by truckers and RVers.
This is not the first time that RVers have been faced with such a challenge. Several years ago, similar legislation was introduced in Montana and Nevada. Due to the protests from RVers all over the country, the attempts to ban RV parking failed.
Typically, RVers make significant contributions financially to places that welcome them and, many times, will return to an area for an extended stay if they have been received in a friendly manner. Signs banning RVs from parking areas do not appear very friendly to an RVer who may simply be looking for a quiet place to sleep and have no need for a full-service RV park.
“In most cases there is a huge uproar from the RV community any time this type of legislation is proposed,” said Chuck Woodbury, editor of RVtravel.com. “I suspect that Maine lawmakers will back off this time. RVers value their freedom to stay where they want, as long as they are welcomed. Maine will be perceived as RV-unfriendly if this should pass, and it will likely cost the state significant tourism dollars.”