The RV Life

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Recreational vehicles are changing the ways Americans vacation

It's the opposite of chic, somewhat rustic and rough. Yet the fastest-growing means for vacationing in America is the recreational vehicle, and the people using them are the finest travelers our country has.

You meet them with increasing frequency. They can be your best friends who have just returned from a three-month trip through the national parks--in a shiny new motor home--and claim it's the best thing they've ever done. They are your neighbors who have bought a trailer they're going to use to "winter" in a luxury RV resort of Florida. They are images of yourself as you day-dream about getting away from it all, buying a recreational vehicle, and taking off to see the great outdoors, the sights of the Southwest, the scattered grandchildren across the land.

But how do you get started? Buying a recreational vehicle--an RV--is a major investment that can even exceed $40,000 and $50,000. Is it worth the outlay? Will you enjoy the lifestyle of the semi-nomad? Will you get restless and claustrophobic, or will you have the travel experience of a lifetime? A bit of analysis is in order:

The vehicles themselves

"RVs"--a generic term for a conveyance that combines transportation with living quarters--come in two varieties. They can be motorized (like motor homes or van conversions) or towable units (like travel trailers, truck campers, and folding camp trailers.)

The motor homes, most popular among retired Americans, are built on or as part of a self-propelled vehicle chassis, with kitchen, sleeping, bathroom, and dining facilities all easily accessible to the driver's cab from the inside. They range from 18 to 40 feet in length, can sleep from two to eight people, and cost from $22,000 for "compacts" to $60,000 for larger types, with luxury-status models going way up to $150,000 and more.

Conversions are cheaper (but smaller.) These are vans, originally manufactured by an auto maker, that have been modified for recreation purposes through the installation of side windows, carpeting, paneling, custom seats and sofas, and assorted accessories. They can sleep from two to four people, and sell for an average of $20,000.

Travel trailers are hard-sided units designed to be towed by an auto, van, or pickup truck, and can be unhitched from the tow vehicle. They sleep four to eight people, and provide such comforts as kitchen, toilet, sleeping, dining, and living facilities, electric and water systems, and modern appliances. Models range from $10,000 to $25,000, depending on size and features.

Truck campers are camping units that are loaded onto the bed or chassis of a pickup truck. Many have kitchen and bathroom facilities. They sleep two to six, and go for $4,000 to $10,000.

Folding camping trailers are units with collapsible sides that fold for lightweight towing by a motorized vehicle. Set up, they provide kitchen, dining, and sleeping facilities for four to eight people, and sell for between $1,500 and $12,000.

The advantages

In an RV, you follow your own flexible time schedule, without fixed reservations anywhere, without depending on others (hotels, trains, planes.) You don't constantly pack and unpack; in fact, you carry no luggage. You cook when you like, eat out only when you wish, say good-bye to greasy spoons, and usually enjoy home-prepared food.

You can have your pets with you. You can visit friends or relatives anywhere in the country without imposing on them: your RV, parked in their driveway, becomes your own private guest cottage--as well as your summer beach house, your winter chalet.

You make friends easily upon arriving at a camping ground or RV resort. RV-ers are, in general, enthusiasts who love their lifestyle and like sharing it with new people. They are constantly attending rallies, caravans, campouts, meeting with other RV-ers to share common interests.

"It's difficult to be lonely in a campground," says one confirmed RV-er. "Our luxury RV resort in Florida ($15 a night) was constantly holding social events. Between dinners and galas, folk dances and exercise classes, meeting new people was not only simple--it was unavoidable."

And RV travel is economical. You can purchase fresh local produce on the road and cook your own meals. Your stay at campgrounds is usually nominal ($10 to $40 a night is typical.) And there's no one to tip. One study shows that an RV vacation costs about half the expense of a car/hotel vacation, one-third the cost of a bus/hotel or train/hotel holiday, and one-fourth the cost of an air/hotel vacation.

The drawbacks

But RV travel is not for everyone--it may not be for you. A Philadelphia couple I know who recently spent four months traveling across country in a motor home issued the following caveats: "Be sure," they said, "you feel extremely comfortable with whomever you will be traveling with; you're going to spend long periods of time in close quarters. Be sure you're an expert driver and enjoy spending long periods on the road. Above all, don't take this kind of trip unless you're extremely flexible, elastic even, and able to cope with new situations, which happen all the time. Mechanical breakdowns are not uncommon and you have to be able to handle them without getting upset."

Renting before buying

Many first-time RV-ers begin by renting a motor home to get used to driving a large vehicle and used to spending a great deal of driving time together. Now they're so enthusiastic, they're planning to sell their large suburban home, move into a small apartment, buy an RV, and spend at least six months on the road each year.

"The excitement and variety of life cannot be compared with any travel experience we've ever had--and we're experienced foreign travelers," they say. "It's a new kind of life, a brand-new world we never saw before."

The rental process

The first step is to look in your local telephone directory under the category "Recreation Vehicles--Renting and Leasing." Or you can call one of the three major national companies: Cruise America (800/671-8042, cruiseamerica.com); and Bates International Motor Home Rental Network (800/732-2283), or visit batesintl.com; El Monte RV Center (888 337-2214, elmonterv.com .) Another firm, Altman's Winnebago, (800/400-0787, altmans.com) may also be worth a call. It's also useful to visit the Web site of the Recreational Vehicles Rental Association at rvra.org. It contains a list of companies that rent RV's, including prices and addresses, in almost all of the 50 states.

Rental costs vary considerably, depending on type of vehicle, when and for how long you want it, season, and other variables. One way of getting a good price is by regularly checking the Web sites of the major rental outfits, which periodically post specials. One of the "grander" motor homes--either a 26-foot Alumalite by Holiday Rambler or a 27-foot Southwester by Fleetwood--will average $700 to $1,000 a week, plus low-cost mileage (29 cents per mile after an initial number of free miles). But that's for a vehicle that can sleep six people and is fully self-contained, with such added features as a microwave oven, roof air conditioning, its own generator and propane tank (so that a hookup is not necessary), power steering, and almost everything else you can name.

It is usually cheaper to rent from a private individual, but then you must be aware of the risk you take if a breakdown should occur; a private owner can usually do little for you, while with a major company, repairs are either handled on the spot or you are given a new vehicle and put back on the road within 24 hours. Rental dealers may also apply the cost of a rental to a future purchase. They can provide you with broad forms of insurance. Some will arrange tour packages if you're traveling to popular state or national parks or historic landmarks. Others offer orientation sessions and packages that include linens and cookware.

The most important step is advance study and comparison-shopping before you rent. Make sure you understand the terms of the agreement, take your vehicle out for a test spin, and reserve as far in advance as possible. Indeed, the "RV life" is becoming so popular that a reservation several months in advance might not be a bad idea.

Looking to the Web

Making all of the steps to successful and enjoyable RV-ing easier are Web sites dedicated to informing enthusiasts about every facet of this growing trend. Buy or sell a motor home, find the best campgrounds to park, check out dozens of rental companies, and even learn easy recipes to make inside your RV--all on the Internet. To help you sift through the many available sites, we've chosen five of the most useful:

RV Trader Online (rvtraderonline.com) is a great source for those looking to purchase an RV. With classified ads listing motor homes for sale, an extensive listing of dealers that can be searched by zip code, campground information, and resources for those in need of parts and accessories, RV Trader is certainly worthy of a visit, especially for those looking to buy.

Rainbow RV Club International: (rainbowrv.net) is a unique site that should be the first stop for gay and lesbian RV-ers. Claiming to offer the Web's largest database of gay and lesbian campgrounds, the site lists 170 gay-friendly places to park your RV from coast to coast. The site also features an events calendar, message board, chat room, and links all geared towards gay and lesbian RV-ers. Much of the information is only available if you pay for the annual membership, which costs $19.95.

RV Home: (rvhome.com) contains a wealth of information about RV-ing. While some of its topic links bring you only to advertisements, others are quite useful: an RV-geared bulletin board, tips, campground reviews, and fairly extensive classifieds. There's also a listing of RV dealers indexed by state.

RV USA: (rvusa.com) is among the best organized and most useful RV sites available. The site includes interesting features such as cookbook links (like "The Four Ingredient Cookbook Collection") especially selected for the small RV kitchens. The site also features forums for RV-ers to ask questions, and exchange tips and information, and allows members to post classified ads selling RV's for free. A host of travel information, including campgrounds, places to eat, sights to see, grocery stores, and events around the country, can also be found on the site.

Caravans and rallies around the globe: Taking the guesswork out of RV travel, caravans are package tours where recreational vehicle owners drive in groups (usually no larger than 25 units). The campground sites are reserved, activities are planned, and participants tour a region with enough freedom to allow for their own interests, but enough organization to keep them fairly busy. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s it wasn't uncommon to see a 20-unit caravan hitting the American interstates simultaneously, each vehicle pulling over when the caravan master (head RV) did. Though some still opt for this form of caravan (which can sometimes create a logistical nightmare, not to mention possible road congestion), many others have adopted the "scatter" concept of RV-ing. This allows individual RV-ers to travel at their own leisure, stopping at points of interest, and meeting at a given time at the day's final destination. Those who take part in a caravan often create lifelong friendships, even holding reunions year after year.

Quite different from a caravan is a rally, usually a gathering of RV-ers at a large-scale and well-known event like Mardi Gras, the Kentucky Derby, or the Albuquerque Balloon Festival. Rallies can be relatively small, attracting about the same number of RVs as a caravan (20), or can grow extremely large, with as many as 150 units. Whereas a caravan keeps drivers on the road, the rally only requires that you show up at the campground with an RV, where it will remain stationary until you depart. The organizers typically arrange for transfers (usually via motor coach) to transport rallyists to events.

While dozens of companies operate caravans and rallies, we've highlighted three of the biggest--and the best, and two specialty RV organizations (one for solo travelers, the other for women only).

Creative World: (4005 Toulouse Street, New Orleans, LA 70119, phone 800/732-8337, Web: creativeworldtravel.com or rv-fun.com) is a forefather in RV travel, and among the best out there today. Founded in 1976 by "Big Bill" LaGrange (who has traveled to 130 countries himself), Creative World offers over 45-50 different rallies and caravan itineraries, all of which are listed on their sleek, easy-to-use Web site. Rallies range from seven to 42 days (for international trips) in length at a cost of about $1,300 to $8,000 for two people. A six-night itinerary to Mardi Gras for two, for example, runs $1,350, and includes everything from city tours to Cajun cooking lessons to the premiere events of Carnival. Two- to six-week caravan packages are similarly priced , with itineraries throughout the U.S. and Canada, and in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Upon arrival at the initial meeting spot on a caravan, participants are given an extensive trip log/guidebook with easy-to-follow directions indicating meeting points each day. When the RV-ers depart a given location, they're told when and where to meet, and they can consult their guidebook for directions, sights of interest along the way, and the history of the towns they're passing through. Creative World's caravans are priced at $2,000 to $7,000 for two people, and like their rallies, include what other companies often offer as "optionals," such as entertainment, additional meals, and guided touring opportunities.

Adventure Caravans: (125 Promise Lane, Livingston, TX 77350, phone 800/872-7897, Web: adventurecaravans.com) is another well-known RV caravan and rally company. It's particularly of interest to those who want to go RV-ing in Central America and Mexico, where Creative World doesn't venture. It arranges rallies at many of the same events as Creative World, with rates averaging from $100 to $225 per day. Its caravans run from 12 days to 78 days, and are priced from $995 to $17,390 for two people, though they include far fewer activities than Creative World. In total, it has about 63 different programs in the US, plus five overseas.

Fantasy RV Tours: (111 Camino Del Rio, Gunnison, CO. 81230, phone 800/952-8496, Web: fantasyrvtours.com) is among the nation's largest caravan companies, but its specialty is RV travel through Mexico. One-third of the company's 75 yearly departures head to our neighbor to the south, with the balance cruising through the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and a variety of countries in Europe. Its caravans, six to 48 days in length, cost between $1,800 and $11,500 for two people, including one meal daily, camping fees, some entertainment, and many tours and admission fees. One defining characteristic of a Fantasy caravan is its insistence on sticking with the original style of caravanning. Unlike many of its competitors, when a Fantasy caravan makes a departure, all of its rigs follow.

Loners on Wheels, Inc: (P.O. Box 1060-WB, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702, tel: 888/569-4478, Web: lonersonwheels.com) organizes campouts, caravans, and potlucks around the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, and sends out a newsletter with information on all of the above. The organization is devoted to people who enjoy RV-ing on their own, but who also like to meet up with like-minded travelers from time to time. A rather large organization, it forms caravans of RVs operated solely by singles, and takes them to rallies and camp-outs all over North America. Annual dues are $45.

RVing Women: (P.O. Box 1940 Apache Junction, AZ 85217, tel: 888/557-8464 or 480/671-6226, Web: rvingwomen.com) is another specialist operation, this one focused (as the name states) on women who travel by RV. The organization offers advice, support, seminars, caravans, and a bi-monthly magazine and membership directory to "on-your-own" women RVers who are single, widowed, divorced or have husbands who just hate camping. Membership is $45 a year, with a processing fee of $10.

Motorhomes in Great Britain and Ireland: Eveer vacationed in a recreational vehicle? Then why not do so in Britain? The campsites and trailer parks there are as numerous as here and large fleets of what the English call "motor caravans" are available for rental from numerous firms at rates of L658 to L890 (US$1,236 to $1,670) per week for the summer months, down by L35 ($US144) per week in the other months of the year; rates cover everything except gasoline, food and nominal charges at the campsites. In a vehicle fully equipped with beds and sleeping bags, toilets and all cooking and eating utensils, you'll wander the British Isles without fear of high hotel rates or fully booked hotels and share the company of camping English people, all at marvelously low rates. Among the largest of the British firms are Hornchurch Motor Caravans, 5-7 Broadway Parade, Elm Park Avenue, Hornchurch, Essey RM12 4RS (phone 011-44-01-708-443782, Web: hmcc.co.uk) or the company's American partner; Motor Home Rentals, 37-39 Upper Halliford Road, Shepperton, Middlesex, TW17 8RX (phone 011-44-1932-770-765, Web: motorhome-rentals.co.uk); Marquis Motorhome Centre, Winchester Road, Lower Upham, Nr Southampton SO32 1HA (phone 011-44-1489-860-666, Web: marquis-mh.co.uk); and Leighway Hire, 246 Chertsey Lane, Staines, Middlesex, TW18 3NF (phone 011-44-178-445-5073, Web: leighwayrental.co.uk). The last firm will send a mini-bus to pick you up at Gatwick or Heathrow Airports at no additional charge if you request this service in advance (give them at least one day's notice).

For rentals on the Emerald Isle (both in the Northern Ireland and the Republic), contact Motorhome Ireland (17 Valley Rd., Banbridge Co Down, N. Ireland BT32 4HF tel: 011-44-028-4062-1800 Web: motorhome-irl.co.uk). For Web sites that detail campsites and their locations, try the official site of Caravan and Camping Ireland: camping-ireland.ie.

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