Considering the number of retirees seen piloting recreation vehicles, I was surprised to learn that RV travel isn't so much a leisurely way to sightsee as it is an adventure. In other words, things are apt to go wrong. On a six-day test-drive through New Mexico, our 35-foot RV had heater problems, transmission woes, and ultimately, engine trouble that stopped us dead.
But, just like a lot of other baby boomers who are joining the rolling ranks of retirees, my three crew members and I also discovered the pleasures that are prompting people to put 100,000 new RVs on the road every year. How else can you haul all the modern conveniences down a back road so you can awaken to fresh coffee, toasted bagels, and a brilliant sunrise in the desert? I felt like I suddenly owned a home on the choicest real estate in America.
For most potential RVers, the fun begins in a showroom with a bewildering array of choices. You can start with towable pop-up campers that are essentially roomy tents on wheels and cost about $5,000. You can step up to a custom-converted van with bed and kitchen for around $43,000. Or you can go all the way to a 35-foot motor home that is more luxuriously outfitted than many residences and comes with a price tag from $75,000 to seven figures.
The advantage to towables is they cost less than motor homes and can include the same amenities, such as full baths and kitchens. Plus, when you reach your destination, you can unhitch your car and use it for errands and day trips. The downside is that in most states, you're not allowed to ride in a moving trailer.
That wasn't a problem in our $90,000, top-of-the-line Cruise Air motor home built by Georgie Boy, a division of Coachmen Industries. While one of us drove, the passengers could microwave popcorn, nap, or watch TV in the back bedroom. Of course, these bus-sized rigs aren't too handy for tooling around town, so most motor home owners tow a car along. (We didn't.)
Many RV owners pinch pennies when it comes to options--a pity, because some are well worth the price. For $250 to $1,000, you can get a front-end steering stabilizer that takes a lot of the side-to-side wallow out of the ride, making it easier to stay in your lane and bringing you to a safe stop if you suffer a blowout. Our Cruise Air lacked the feature, and when co-driver Chuck Weiss had to swerve around some orange roadwork cones, he just missed flattening a row. "It handles like a barge," he complained. Also critical are optional, $325 remote-control wide-view mirrors, which tell you not just who's coming up alongside but let you know if you're in your lane or about to clip a mailbox when turning on a narrow street.
Dealers say the top concern of male buyers is horsepower (while women care more about the interior). Up to 400-horsepower diesel engines are available on $125,000-plus RVs, but those with lower price tags have punier power plants. Our Cruise Air, which fully loaded could weigh 17,000 pounds, was powered by a 245-horsepower Ford gas engine, 50 fewer horses than some stock Camaros. Not surprisingly, the engine struggled in the mountains around Taos. Our RV made only about eight miles per gallon, and topping off the 75-gallon tank after a day's drive ran to $60.
Our RV did have some nonessentials that were nice to have, such as $450 dual air horns. A Mustang that started to cut me off thought again when we gave it a blast. And we were glad the rig came equipped with one of the most popular options, a $4,700 "slide-out." Like a bay window, it extends up to three feet from the side of a parked RV and gives you the impression of a lot more living space. However, slide-outs require levelers--feet that extend from the RV's chassis to the ground. They keep the RV stable and prevent the slide-out from jumping its tracks.
KINDLY TAX MAN. Ultimately, what type of RV is right for you is a matter of budget and taste. Budget may be the smaller consideration thanks to current tax laws and financing packages. The Internal Revenue Service allows owners to treat an RV as a second home and to deduct interest, provided the vehicle is used to secure the loan, has basic sleeping, cooking, and toilet facilities, and you don't already have a second residence. Terms for RV loans resemble those for mortgages. You can get a 15-year loan these days for 8.5% to 9%, depending on the vehicle's cost. Even 20-year loans for about 8.5% are available for more expensive rigs. Mitch Shatzen, senior vice-president for marketing at Deutsche Financial Services in Newport Beach, Calif., worked the numbers on our Cruise Air, which retails for about $74,000 and was equipped with $16,000 in options. He figured that if we wanted to finance the full $90,000 price for 15 years at 8.5%, the loan would cost $886.27 a month.
Once you buy your RV, you still need to purchase housewares. American RV & Marine in Albuquerque did our outfitting for us, stocking glasses and ceramic plates--a classy touch but not recommended over plastic dinnerware. It took us less than a half hour to break our first glass. Stored items can shift and cascade out when cupboards are opened. Stacks of dishes tend to clatter while moving, which drove crew member Madeline Bayard to wrap each plate in paper towels to quiet the noise. We were also stocked with a gas grill and reclining lawn chairs (highly recommended). You'll always want to have extra fuses and electrical adapters as well as work gloves, extra hose, and an assortment of adapters that connect your sewage pipe to RV park dump sites. With the right connectors, it's an easy job. Otherwise, it's a malodorous mess. Total cost of all the gear: $1,500.
After we got the RV outfitted and on the road, we quickly discovered that a brand new, factory-tested unit can be prone to teething problems. Heaters, refrigerators, toilets, and engines, among other components, all come from different manufacturers whose quality control can be uneven. Before our first day was over, the heater in the main living area of the Cruise Air broke down. Then our transmission would spontaneously go into overdrive. Our engine grew sluggish and eventually stopped altogether, the victim of a faulty fuel pump. Discussing some of the problems with veteran travelers in an RV park, one warned: "Until you get 10,000 miles on these things and everything's been fixed once, nothing works."
Even Robert Maese, an owner of American RV & Marine and an RVer of 20 years, said when he buys a new unit, he always takes several shakedown cruises to a campground just miles from his house and even closer to his shop. One way to get familiar with the RV experience is to rent one for a few trips and see if you're up to the challenge. The Recreation Vehicle Rental Assn. (800 336-0355 or www.rvra.org) offers a list of rental locations. Our test drive made us wonder if a few mechanical problems weren't a reasonable price to pay for the freedom of going wherever we wanted in the comfort of home.