An eon ago, I was a perennial road warrior and “million miler” frequent flyer for a Fortune 100 company. Then I traveled on my own pretty much all over the world. I’ve taken a lot of cruises, gone on many guided and escorted trips, and I’ve planned and executed my own multi-month journeys on numerous occasions and continents. So, “I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two” about travel, I guess you could say.
But what I’m NOT used to doing is hooking up my own house to a truck and driving it across the country. Nor am I used to camping out far away from the city center. My travel philosophy in general is- luxury and convenience don’t suck, so the idea of setting up my own portable house at each and every location I visit seems on the surface to be a bit crazy.
That attitude explains why my last RV adventure with a bumper-hitch trailer was a minor disaster, but my wife convinced me that a fifth wheel (“5er”, as some call it), is an easier way to “camp”, so I bought one, being both of unsound mind and married as I am. Now I’m ready for our first road trip in it, and I’ve decided, for those of you who are on the fence about this kind of travel, to keep a log and see how things work out.
Here’s what I’ll make a note of:
- Pros and cons of this type of travel
- Comparison to travel by car/hotel
So, here’s my trip in a nutshell:
We’re driving north from Florida to Michigan, where we’ll spend some time with friends in the “Sportsman’s Paradise”. Then we’ll head back, with stops along the way coming and going. Simple.
To get to this point, though, it’s important to note that I first needed to spend about 50K. That may sound like a lot of money, depending on your budget, but in reality that kind of dough only gets you into the low-to-mid range for RV’ing, where you can easily spend 7 figures or more just on your motorhome. I only point out my investment to note that, for the same money, I could go on a luxury cruise for 2 solid months, spend a year in northern Italy, or finance my post-Lenten wine binge, so if RV’ing is right for me, it has a high standard to meet.
But I will say that my fifth wheel is very nice, even though it’s relatively small at 25 feet. It has a luxury kitchen complete with an island and Corian countertops, 2 slide outs, a 9+ foot ceiling, and a pillow-top memory foam bed. I’m pulling it with a 2015 Ford F250 diesel, which is like driving a tank, only faster, and it easily accelerates up steep hills as if the trailer was just a toy, which euphemistically it is, but still, it’s a 8,500 pound toy.
OK, ‘nuff said about the equipment for now. Here’s the rest of the story.
My first day is kind of a practice stop at a local RV park which is conveniently but noisily located right off the Interstate. Nobody is around the office, but an aging “surfer dude” lounging under the awning in front says there is someone inside the building somewhere, so we keep knocking on random doors until we finally get the clerk to the front desk. After that, check-in is a snap.
Hookup is a different story. Step 1 is to try to do the normal hookups. Step 2 is to realize I’m not normal and need the help of Tom.
Tom’s lived in the park for 18 years. He’s a wiry little guy with a sharp wit and is only too happy to help a stranger/idiot. I know this because he helped me with my last trailer as well.
Tom takes a look at my leaky water hose connection. He tries a gasket from his inventory of parts, which helps a bit, but as it still drips, he says I need to buy a widget to fix it. Since it’s Memorial Day weekend and all, though, no one will be open, but even if they were, Tom advises, he has no clue how to install the part anyway.
Then he putzes around with my water heater, which refuses to kick on as it should. This involves a small exorcism prayer and blowing into the venturi while tapping on the pipe, but ultimately, all we get is a temporary flame from the propane before it impotently snuffs itself out.
But all is not lost. He does have a spare connection for the sewer hose, which is a mighty fine thing to have unless you want to haul your “black water” around with you in a holding tank. He wants to charge me $3 for it, but since he’s already spent 30 minutes working on my trailer I give him ten, and he accepts that only reluctantly.
The next door neighbors are Mike and Mary, who are enjoying not only dinner on their patio but also the fun antics of watching me blunder around . Mike is a big grinning tattooed truck driver and Mary coincidentally works at an RV repair shop. They spend months at a time in their trailer, so they’re almost as experienced as Tom is at this life. Pity compels them to ask if I need any help, which I accept with desperate abandon.
After about 10 minutes of trying, they too give up, so finally I decide I should try to just “light ‘er up” using a long-stemmed lighter. Since that sounds alarmingly stupid even to me, I tell them to stand back while I thrust the flame in front of the venturi buried inside the vehicle. You’re reading this, so you know that I didn’t vaporize in a great fireball, but know also that I took a cold shower that night.
Nor is the hot water likely to be fixed anytime soon! I called a few repair shops, and when one of them returns my call he says it will take two days to get the part and the cost for the install will be $150. Unfortunately, in two days we won’t be in this state anymore, I tell him, but thanks for calling anyway.
So let’s summarize Day 1 so far:
I spent hours trying to set up the 5’er and still have a leaky water connection. I discovered that I have no hot water, the front door sticks, the bathroom door won’t close, the faucet leaks, and we have a growing list of home improvement goodies that we need to buy. We spent the night on the side of the Interstate so, counting what I gave Tom, I’ve spent $60 for the privilege of listening to the soothing sounds of 18 wheelers grinding gears throughout the night. Oh, and as the pool inexplicably closes at 7, we couldn’t cool off there instead of the shower.
On the flip side of the coin, I got to meet some nice folks.
Here’s the financial tally:
- Camping spot -$50
- Tom’s help -$10
- Groceries -$25
Notice that I’m not mentioning the cost of fuel right now. That’s because I didn’t fill up yet.
And I won’t even try to amortize the cost of ownership of the RV and truck until much later. Right now I’m just talking about actual travel expenses.
Projected hotel expenses-
- For a cheap but clean hotel in the same area-$75.
- Food and drink-$50
So right at the moment I’m money ahead based purely on expenses since this trip started. That said, in the hotel, I would have checked in, checked out the pool and bar, eaten dinner out, and already hit the sack before I was even finished with the cold shower in the 5’er.
Here are ten random thoughts (good and bad) that occurred to me about RVing so far:
- It’s only slightly easier to set up the fifth wheel than a tow-behind trailer.
- Campgrounds are among the last Mom and Pop operations left in the travel industry. There’s good and bad to that. The good news is, they are more likely to know the name of an RV repair guy than a hired manager is. The bad news is they keep short irregular hours and don’t believe in online reservations. There are no big chains that have consistently high standards, which means every time you pick a park it’s a roll of the dice.
- You need to be at least a little bit handy to “do” this as a lifestyle.
- It’s nice to sleep in your own bed at night, and it’s nice to know you don’t have to pack and unpack at every destination.
- Trailer park/campgrounds host some of the friendliest people in the world.
- You will never be able to stay anywhere near a city destination if you’re in an RV. This kind of travel only makes sense if your aim is to see the great outdoors.
- Campgrounds are far more kid and dog friendly than a hotel.
- The “buy in” for this lifestyle can be a big financial commitment.
- Do not even think about doing this if you’re single or alone. You won’t meet anyone and it makes the equipment set up a whole lot more problematic.
- You likely won’t find a spot in a campground that looks anything like the beautiful scenery you’ve seen depicted in brochures. More likely than not, you’ll be sandwiched into a camping area no more than 10 feet away from your neighbor. If you want that solitary lakefront spot with the snow-capped mountains in the background, it will cost you a whole lot more, and it probably won’t be available when you ask for it anyway.
OK, tomorrow we head to Jekyll Island, GA. I’ll report back to you then.