A hotel-restaurant on wheels

RV: For an initial investment, it can provide an economical alternative for vacationing families.


November 14, 1999|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

According to a study commissioned by the Virginia-based Go RVing Coalition, family vacations in a recreational vehicle cost about 50 percent less than driving the family car and staying in hotels and motels.

Of course, that figure doesn't include the price of buying and maintaining -- or renting -- the RV. And everyone has a different idea of what makes an acceptable hotel or motel.

Gary LaBella, speaking for the industry group, says the savings from skipping hotels and restaurant meals "are so significant that it wouldn't take many trips to recover the initial cost of the RV." But with RV prices ranging from about $10,000 for a basic trailer to $400,000 and up for a super-deluxe motor home, you could be talking about taking a lot of trips before the windfall kicks in.

So if you're considering buying or renting a motor home, think about the economics -- and, most of all, whether RV travel fits your idea of a good time.

There are all kinds of recreational vehicles.

The one we rented through Cruise America, a national company with Chicago-area outlets (800-327-7799; www.cruiseamerica.com), was a variation commonly called a mini-motor home. These typically feature a full-size bed, other sleeping arrangements for up to five kids (or a few very flexible adults), refrigerator, three-burner stove, microwave, air conditioner, shower, toilet, dinette table and considerable storage.

It looks like (and drives like) a smallish-size Ryder truck chassis with a well-furnished box wrapped around it -- which essentially is what it is. Prices for new minis begin around $40,000.

A full-size motor home, which looks like a bus, is a condo/apartment on wheels. They can sleep up to 10 and range from utilitarian to fabulous. You can buy one for around $60,000, but custom features can add hundreds of thousands to the bill.

Potentially as luxurious are fifth-wheels, which are built to be towed by pickups fitted with a hitch. Basic versions can be had for less than $20,000, but $40,000 can get you a beauty. Catch: The pickup is extra.

Conventional trailers, designed to be towed by cars or small trucks, come in all sizes, with comfort features linked mainly to size. Little guys go for about $10,000, higher-end models for $20,000 to $25,000.

Also available are detachable campers (which fit in the bed of a pickup), folding (pop-up) camping trailers, and vans and sport-utility vehicles modified for camping use.

Our mini-motor home was a 27-footer, which is considered intermediate in its class. Cruise America also rents 25- and 30-foot minis, and other RVs and campers as well.

Renting is not cheap. The two of us could have had a fine week in Paris for what this cost, but it was something we wanted to try, and many RV owners we met rented vehicles first before jumping into the larger investment. And kids stay free.

Here is a cost breakdown for a 10-night, 2,000-mile trip for two, based on our actual expenses (including taxes; all prices subject to change). All campgrounds (including ours in Yellowstone) were private, offering full hookups and other amenities (pools and the like); some would have charged extra for more than two people.

Food is not included in this breakdown; you can compute your costs based on your preferences. But for the record, we had all of our breakfasts, some lunches and half of our dinners in the RV.

Vehicle rental: $1,874.78

Extra miles (first 1,500 included): $145 (500 @ 29 cents each)

Campground fees: $246

Gas: $290 (at 8.3 mpg)

Total: $2,555.78.

One more note: Cruise America offers one-way rentals to some locations. Our drop fee for leaving the RV in Jackson, Wyo.: $375. Toss in air fare for two from Jackson to Chicago (we paid $393.69 each on United) plus food, and the basic cost of this little camping junket exceeded $4,000. (Off-season rental rates and promotions can cut that a bit.)

Pub Date: 11/14/99

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