To see the West, take your home and the range RV: Renting a house on wheels may not save a lot of money, but it does have its conveniences and delights.

July 07, 1996|By Lynne Tuohy | Lynne Tuohy,HARTFORD COURANT

Picture touring Arizona for a week -- 1,000-plus miles, from the Grand Canyon down through scenic Sedona to the desert -- without once unpacking or eating in a restaurant.

Now add to the picture three young children. But you never once hear, "Are we there yet?"

Impossible? Nope.

Idyllic? Almost.

You haven't lived until you've toured in an RV -- complete with a bathroom, table for games, plenty of room to stretch and a well-stocked refrigerator.

Likewise, you haven't hustled until a gallon of milk bounces out of that refrigerator near the crest of a hill -- its contents rolling back toward the master bedroom.

Rule No. 1: Always latch your refrigerator before takeoff.

Rule No. 2: When you're standing at the gas pumps watching the sun set, and it gets dark before your RV's tank is full, remind yourself of all the money you've saved by not staying at hotels and not eating at restaurants; of all the time you've saved not having to find rest areas or cater to carsickness; of all the aggravation you've saved not having to pack and unpack from one hotel to the next.

Commodity of commodities

For us, the cost of recreational vehicle travel was offset by its convenience. After a morning of hiking among the red rocks of Sedona, we returned to cold drinks and lunch in our vehicle. The girls stretched out and read or napped as we headed toward Meteor Crater in Winslow. The toilet has a holding tank and can be operated in transit; there is no dollar value one can place on this commodity.

Renting an RV is like buying a car: There are a lot of options you may want that drive up the cost. Rental fees also vary by season and region of the country. We opted for the deluxe model (30 feet long; microwave; sleeps seven). Our rental with Cruise America in Mesa, which is near Phoenix, began Dec. 27, so we just beat the 1996 price hike.

The rental was $709 for eight nights. (The same unit, same time this year would rent for $896. During high season -- July 1 to Aug. 15 -- it would cost $1,239 for eight nights.) Minimum rental at most dealers is three days.

The rental included 750 miles. After that, you pay 29 cents per mile or can opt for an additional 500 miles for $125. This option can only be bought when you pick up the vehicle, not midway through the trip, so map carefully.

We opted for the personal bedding kits at $25 a person, which provided sheets, towels, a pillow, sleeping bag and sturdy plastic cup, plate and tableware. We rejected the $95 pots-and-pans option. Instead, I packed some pans and utensils due for replacement and made theirs a one-way trip. We paid $96 for additional collision insurance (or be prepared to leave a $500 deposit). On this total of $1,055 we paid 11.75 percent in state sales taxes -- an added $124. Our tab was $1,179, and we hadn't even started the ignition.

We were given detailed instructions by a patient Cruise America employee on everything from cabinet latches to switches that operate the generator and water pump. In the "master bedroom," complete with sliding door, the platform of the queen bed lifts to reveal an ample storage area, which we used to the max. I stayed inside loading duffel bags into this storage area while my husband, Michael, received his instructions on how to connect the sewer hose to the holding tank (when not in use, the hose is stored in an outside compartment).

The full-size bunk over the cab is spacious, but getting in and out of it requires agility. It became the private lair of our 7-year-old twins, Caitlin and Maggie. Five-year-old Nora stowed her gear up there as well and fetched it frequently as an excuse to climb in and out.

The dining room table drops down and the padded benches on either side fold out to make a bed that accommodates one grown-up comfortably, or two small children who don't thrash. A couch behind the passenger seat easily folds out to a bed, albeit a short one.

Most campgrounds have laundry facilities and coin-operated showers. Our RV had a shower, but the additional elbow room at the campground shower stalls was well worth the quarters. Some campgrounds provide a picnic table right outside your door.

The campground fee averaged $18 a night for a full hookup (capped sewer pipe at your site, in addition to electricity and water). We cooked and heated the RV with propane, and refilled the tank at a gas station only once the whole trip, for $20. You only have to back a 30-foot RV into a campsite once to appreciate the feature listed in the campground guides as "pull through" -- which means you drive forward onto your site, and drive forward onto another road out of it when you leave.

Bob Caldarone, director of marketing for Cruise America, said there are many reasons to rent an RV, but acknowledged that cost savings isn't near the top of the list.

That neighborly feeling

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