We call our RV our “mobile oceanfront condominium” because that’s what it is. We love to camp on the beach; we love to camp in the woods; we love to camp on a lake or a stream or a river.
We love to kayak. We love to ride our bikes. We love to hike. We love to move around and see new places.
We had a cabin in the North Carolina mountains, a lot of work for the amount of time we spent there, and it cost a lot in money and time to maintain. Our visits were consumed by maintenance. No more.
Today, we take our “cabin” with us.
There are nine kinds of recreational vehicles (RV’s for short)
Class A — Motorhomes that look like buses. Expensive and luxurious.
Class B — Van conversions. Tight living but can be used as a second car.
Class C — Cab-over caravans. Overhang above the cab has a bed or storage.
Fifth Wheel — Large, two-level RV that hitches into a coupler on the bed of a pickup.
Conventional Travel Trailer — Affordable. Just enough room. Unhitch and go.
Toy Hauler — Garage in the back for motorcycles, golf cart or ATV. (Could be a Fifth Wheel or Travel Trailer.)
Slide-In Camper — Box slides into the bed of a pickup truck. Cramped.
Camper Trailer — Tent beds swing out from main unit. Surprisingly spacious for what it is.
Pop-ups — A pop-up tent in a low-profile box on wheels. Least expensive. More like tent camping.
Why we bought a travel trailer
My wife and I like the versatility of a travel trailer because we can drive away in our tow vehicle after we set up camp. We have a private bathroom, our own bed, a kitchen, a dinette table, a TV and a couch.
Having a vehicle available for shopping and touring without dragging around the whole house is important for us. With a motorhome (Class A,B or C), you have to unhook and pack up every time you roll out for a loaf of bread, unless you have a “toad” (a towed vehicle).
Toy haulers are another option with that convenience, but we don’t have a motorcycle or a golf cart.
Everything is a compromise. You have to weigh the pros and cons before deciding your direction. You should look at everything out there — at dealerships, RV shows, consignment lots — before deciding which style of rig is best for you and your family.
New or Used?
Our first travel trailer was a year old model, used only once by the original owners. They apparently decided that the RV lifestyle was not for them. The trailer even smelled new. We saw it on a consignment lot in Fort Myers while shopping for a new trailer.
We got a great deal, well below the trailer’s list price, and most of the extra gear we needed came with the deal. We got 14 years of enjoyment from that trailer, but water leaks and moisture eventually did us in, so we got rid of it.
This time, we opted for a new trailer. Honestly, it wasn’t much more expensive than the first one we purchased. We learned that the markdown on RV’s is substantial, so buying a new one was not out of reach.
We could also be more selective with a wider range of choices. We visited several dealers and a couple of RV shows before settling on our Starcraft AR-One MAXX 21FB.
Important features to consider when selecting your RV
The Bed: Position of the bed is more important than you might think. A queen bed stuffed in a corner saves space, but take a deep breath. If you get up in the middle of the night, you crawl over your mate. Everybody wakes up. We insisted on a walk-around queen with a curtain to shield light created by the awakened party. If your camper has bunk beds for the kids, make sure they have curtains as well.
The Living Area: Most RVs are designed with the dinette and couch in the middle of the rig. Either the bed or the bath are at the rear of the trailer. In my opinion, the rear of the trailer almost always has the best views after backing into your campsite. This is our second trailer, so we specifically sought a design with the dinette, couch and plenty of windows in the rear.
The Kitchen: Very few trailers have much of a kitchen. With meager counter space, we wanted to be sure we had at least a double sink for washing and drying dishes. You can add to counter space with a cutting-board sink cover or a cutting-board stove cover. Most trailers have the standard three-burner gas stove, which doesn’t offer a lot of cooking room. Almost all trailers have a microwave. Small trailers have a two-burner stove.
The Hitch and Jack: If an electric jack doesn’t come with your trailer, consider adding one. Hand cranking gets old very fast, especially with a weight distribution hitch. We paid $190 extra for an electric jack. A weight distribution hitch, which requires a lot of up-and-down jack motion, is essential for stability on the highway.
Tandem or Single Axle — Safety. Tandem axles offer breathing room in case of a blowout or flat. Trailers under 19 feet generally have a single axle, while trailers over 19 feet have tandem axles. Single axles are easier to maneuver, but not by much. We insisted on a tandem axle, even if it meant a larger trailer.
The Awning: Go electric. We hand-cranked the awning on our old rig. The constant opening and closing can wear you and the awning out. With a hand crank, you tend to leave the awning out when the wind picks up. Damage can result, and it will cost about $600 to replace the awning. With electric, just push a button to roll it up.
Holding Tanks: There are three holding tanks on almost all rigs: Freshwater (when you can’t hook up to fresh water), Gray Water (Showers, Sink drains), Black Water (for you know what). Our first travel trailer’s each held 40 gallons, but we were forced to compromise on our new trailer 48 gallons (fresh) and 32.5 gallons each for gray and black. On our first trailer, we rarely used the freshwater tank except when we stopped on the road while traveling, so I was unimpressed by the 48-gallon tank we have now. Gray-water tanks fill up very fast, 3-4 times as fast as the black-water tank. Of course, if you always camp at a campground with full hookups, including sewer, you’ll have no worries. But most waterfront campsites, which we prefer, rarely have a sewer hookup. Although tank size will probably not be a deal-breaker when you find the right RV, it is certainly something you should consider.
Rear View Camera: Expensive, $300-$400, but helpful on the road and backing into your site. Some cameras transmit to your smartphone, others to a special screen you mount on your dashboard. The video is transmitted wirelessly, but the camera must be wired into the 12-volt power supply on your trailer. It’s a DYI add-on, so don’t rush into it. You don’t actually need it, but it’s helpful. We’re still shopping for ours.
How big the rig?
Size depends on your needs and the capacity of your tow vehicle, the tow vehicle probably being the most important factor in your decision.
Crossover SUVs rarely tow more than 3,500 pounds, which means the maximum dry weight of your trailer should be no more than 2,500 pounds because you’ll be carrying 700-800 pounds of gear. Truth be told, you’ll also want extra towing power for hills when traveling in the mountains.
Anyway, 2,500 pounds is not a very big rig, less than 19 feet. Your bed won’t be a walk-around, and you’ll probably have a two-burner stove, a small refrigerator and very little storage space for food, clothing and gear.
Your maximum gross vehicle weight for both tow vehicle and trailer is further reduced if you’re carrying bikes and/or kayaks on the roof of your tow vehicle. Everything counts, including the number and weight of passengers.
We have a tough old Ford F-150 Crew Cab with a 5.4 liter V8 and a tow capacity of 8,000 pounds. Because our truck is aging, we decided we couldn’t push the envelope on weight.
Our new travel trailer has a dry weight of 4,100 pounds and a gross weight (loaded) of 6,000 pounds, or a payload of 1,900 pounds, which is more than we need, even with kayaks on the roof of the truck and bicycles on the bumper of the trailer.
Consider also that you’ll be carrying clothing, bed and bath linens, dishes, cooking gear, pantry and refrigerator full of food, spare tires, patio chairs, outdoor carpet, grill, propane tanks, at least a hundred pounds of accessories (sewer hoses, water hoses, tool boxes), and, often ignored when considering weight, tanks carrying fresh water and/or wastewater at 8.3 pounds per gallon.
Astonishingly, you should also be aware that appliances (stove, fridge and A/C) are NOT always included in the manufacturer’s base dry weight.
As a general rule, figure on 500 pounds per person for the payload.
When to buy
My advice is to buy an RV when you are ready, no matter the time of year.
Certainly, the best time to buy is at the end of the model year. But manufacturers’ change model years at various times of the year, much to the frustration of dealers who carry different brands. So you should do your homework on model year changes, if that’s important to you. You can often find deals on “last year’s” models.
Another good time to buy is at an RV show that is stocked by multiple dealers offering multiple brands. You really get a good chance to see a lot of rigs in one place, and dealers don’t want to tow home unsold trailers. Markdowns can be substantial because of the competition. I tend to avoid single-dealer “shows,” but multi-dealer shows are good.
While the end of camping season is also a good time to buy, there really is no end to the camping season in Florida. Still, dealers are anxious to sell to snowbirds trading in their rigs before heading home in the spring, so you might cash in on those deals.
No matter what time of year you buy, though, keep in mind that there is a significant markup on RVs. You can beat down the manufacturer’s suggested retail price at any time of year.
Hidden costs of buying an RV
Accessories — If you are buying a new RV, you will probably spend $1,000 or more on fittings and gear that, surprisingly, don’t come with the RV. If you are buying a used RV, many of the essential accessories MAY come with your rig, but not always. If the former owner is upgrading, they will most likely take the gear with them. In any case, for a comprehensive checklist of accessories you will need for your new or used RV, see this article: Outfitting Your New RV
Storage — If your yard is not big enough, or your local zoning doesn’t allow it, you will need to find a place to store your RV when you’re not using it. Generally speaking, the more secure the storage, the more expensive it will be. And storage fees are often based on the size of your rig. Figure on spending anywhere between $50 and $150 a month to store your RV.
Fuel — Fuel costs will increase no matter what size trailer you buy. My F-150 normally gets 16-18 miles per gallon, but mileage drops to 10 mpg no matter which trailer I’m towing, my boat (2,000 pounds) or the RV (6,000 pounds). I’m a slave to GasBuddy, a smartphone app that helps you find the cheapest gas prices near your location. Don’t leave home without it.
Insurance — My RV insurance costs $400 per year with comprehensive, collision and liability coverage, as well as coverage of personal effects and an allowance for emergencies, such as a breakdown. I also pay $160 annually for AAA Plus RV, which covers four 100-mile tows, lockouts, and more for my truck, car, boat and RV. You can get towing coverage in your regular insurance policy, but I like AAA because I don’t have to barter with towing companies, nor do I have to file claims for reimbursements. With AAA Plus RV, everything is covered. I don’t lay out any cash, and service is guaranteed.
Maintenance — Moisture is an RV’s worse enemy, so you need regular inspections to make sure the roof remains sound. Inspect tires often for loss of tire pressure and wear, and have your dealer inspect wheel bearings and other potential trouble spots on a regular schedule. Wash your trailer often, and wax it every few months to protect the exterior surface. Keep your awnings clean, and don’t roll them up if they are wet. When in storage, keep the interior dry with DampRid. If you have a motorhome, plan on costly breakdowns.
Hidden benefits of buying an RV
Mortgage interest tax deduction — As long as you live in your RV more than two weeks a year — why buy one if you don’t? — you can deduct the interest on your loan as a second home.
Sleep in your own bed — Instead of jumping from hotel room to hotel room, sleeping in the same bed as hundreds of others, you sleep in your own bed with your own pillows, your own linens, your own comforters, your own germs. You have full control of your environment.
Prepare your own food — Save hundreds of dollars on food when you’re on the road. Home-cooked meals prepared outdoors tastes way better than any restaurant. You eat outdoors often while enjoying your surroundings. The last time I ate lunch in a restaurant, it cost $50 for the two of us. You can almost buy a week’s worth of groceries for $50!
Overnight costs — You can spend as little as $10 a night in many public campgrounds. Many wildlife management areas and state forests are even free in Florida. If you are over 65, the benefits are compounded. In Florida, seniors who are residents pay half price for camping in state parks. For example, a state park campsite in the Keys normally costs $36, but Florida residents over 65 pay only $18 a night. Where else are you going to get an ocean view for that price?
The views, the air, the outdoors — The best view you’ll get from a motel room is the swimming pool, if you’re lucky. But there are no limits to views in county, state and national parks, and many private campgrounds pride themselves on the environment they provide. There is nothing comparable.
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Camping World carries everything you can possibly need or want to outfit your RV. Just browsing around the store will give you ideas.