The RV lifestyle: It's a metaphor for retirement. Every day, you can wake up in a new place, and every day, you can make a new plan.
The idea is very appealing if you've spent decades in the same old work and home routine. But the word "lifestyle" is no exaggeration. Even if you're taking out an RV for just a week or two, there's a whole routine, body of knowledge and life view that you need to learn to make the trip work. An RV is not simply a hotel room on wheels.
The good news is that, in general, people who are living the RV lifestyle are eager to share what they've learned. From trip planning to repairs, there's a host of books, DVDs, Web sites and bona fide human networks to go to for advice.
And that advice starts with the first and biggest choice: How much RV do you really need?
The Right Vehicle
If you don't know the difference between a Class A motor home, a fifth wheel and a pop-up, well, it's time to learn.
If you want to navigate the Mojave Desert or pull up next to the shoreline of a lake to hear the lapping waves at night, the Class A motor home -- which generally exceeds 30 feet (9 meters) in length -- is not the right choice for you. This is a vehicle for hitting the highway in style, and definitely not the vehicle for off-road adventures.
If you'd like to park the RV and then drive a truck around town with greater ease, then the fifth wheel might be a good option. The fifth wheel detaches from the truck that tows it.
If you'd like a genuine camping experience, with a tip of the hat to times gone by, try the pop-up trailer. This is generally an option for a long weekend, not a three-month excursion down the Pacific Coast, but for a quick trip to the mountains or the lake, it's a great way to feel the outdoors without necessarily eating out every night or sleeping on the ground.
In short, match the vehicle to the kind of trip you want to take. The longer you're gone, the more appealing those conveniences of home might seem.
Rent vs. Buy
Even if you think you might eventually buy, many RV experts recommend renting different models first, just to see what suits you [source: New RVer].
If you're truly unfettered and want the freedom to pick up and leave at any time, then you might be a candidate for buying. But buying isn't cheap. The RVs that come flush with upholstery and appliances can run more than $130,000. The good news about this price is that RVs qualify as second home tax breaks on your tax returns. But payments on $130,000, plus the regular maintenance involved, can cost you more than $600 per month [source: New RVer].
A rental, on the other hand, doesn't incur constant costs, but it does require some planning to rent. Also, you may not be able to smoke or take along your pets in a rented RV.
If you buy an RV, then of course you'll also have to buy insurance. If you rent, you may be tempted to let your existing driver's policy cover the RV. While there's nothing wrong with that approach, you might benefit from having a chat with your insurance agent to find out exactly what your existing policy would cover.
Will it cover dings and scratches? If you need a 70-mile (113-kilometer) tow to the nearest RV repair shop, will your policy cover that? It probably won't cover mechanical breakdown, though that is one option that the rental company may include -- you'll definitely want to discuss that topic with the company before you're facing down a tow-truck driver with a $1,000 invoice.
Consider Health Concerns
If you're managing ongoing health issues, you've probably already talked with your doctor about embarking on a long trip by RV. Even if the trip is approved by your doctor, it should still require some extra consideration in route planning.
Do you need to be within range of emergency services? Will you need to refill prescriptions along the way? If so, you may not want to take a meandering path through America's most remote desert highways. And how's the cell phone coverage along your route? Will you be able to call for help in an emergency?
Also, check the fine print in the information that comes with your prescriptions. Some medications need to be kept in controlled climates. If they get too hot or cold, they may lose their effectiveness, so make sure the RV is equipped to keep them safe.
Some experts recommend that you get a locksmith to re-key the outside storage compartments of your RV -- in many models, these are keyed the same from vehicle to vehicle. That presents a bonanza for campground thieves in the know [source: DeMaris].
Have a locksmith review the RV's general door locks, as well. If you're on the road for a long time, it'll show. And anyone who's looking to take a quick crack at some great electronic goods will see your home away from home for the target it is.
Some experienced RV travelers recommend parking overnight only in campgrounds that employ security guards, adding alarms to the vehicle's doors and windows, and always double-checking when you hear a knock at the door [source: New RVer].
The RV community may be friendly, but there are plenty of people who will take advantage, as well.
Don't Forget Dumping
It's not the most pleasant topic, but if you're on the road, eventually you have to dump the waste from your RV.
It probably pays to double-check information about dump stations; one Web site that tracks dumping stations reports that many states are eliminating them in places where RV drivers might expect to find them. In the past, rest stops and campgrounds were sure sites for dumping, but because of the mess and the maintenance costs, many of those traditional sites are gone [source: RV Dumps].
It's worth taking a practice run at hooking up the hoses to a dump station before your tanks are full, too. Experienced RV drivers report that the hoses can bend in all the wrong places at all the wrong times [source: RV Dumps].
Know How to Drive
OK, so you went and bought a 40-foot (12-meter) motor home. How are you going to get it off the lot? Are you just planning to navigate and let someone else do all the driving? What if your driver gets drunk? Or sick? Or too tired to drive?
In general, it's a good idea if everyone on the trip can make right turns, left turns and park. Fortunately, RV driving schools are not hard to find. You can enter "RV driving school" into any search engine along with the name of your city, and you're sure to find an instructor nearby.
Are you in a pinch? There are a number of instructional DVDs out there, too. But if you go that route, be sure to pick up some orange cones, find a big parking lot and drag along a patient, experienced RV driver to get in a little practice before you hit the road.
Make an Itinerary
You want to camp at the beach? You might need to reserve a space a year in advance. Same goes for some mountain and lake campgrounds. The RV population has gained enough critical mass that you can expect the best places to be full at the last minute, so plan your trip the way you would plan your daughter's wedding.
Like a wedding, it pays to check the cost of everything -- particularly the cost of staying at each RV park. Call every park before you leave to make sure it has the amenities you want. Some parks are actual resorts with hot tubs, showers, fitness centers and regulation-size bocce ball courts. At parks with lots of amenities, rent can exceed $70 per day -- or $600 per month -- in peak season. Also, some of these parks don't allow children [source: New RVer].
If you're the sort of person who sticks to a plan, leave a copy of that plan with friends or family so they'll have a good idea of where you are in case something goes wrong. If you want to start each day with a new destination, consider taking along a GPS that will transmit your location and allow friends or family to check where you are on a Web site every day.
Take a Test Trip
It all sounds so idyllic: A vacation with the whole family, roaming the open road, hiking and fishing along the way. But did you realize that your grown daughter just can't put down her smartphone? Or that your 5-year-old grandson refuses to use public toilets? The beginning of a long trip on the road is a terrible place to find out those things.
Even if you've taken trips with family to resorts or campsites, if you haven't tried the RV, give it a short test trip first. Chances are, it'll go great, and everyone will love it.
But if someone has a habit that just doesn't work in close quarters, you'll have prepared for that by starting with a trip that has a quick escape. It might turn out that some members of the family would make great house sitters while the rest of you hit the road.
Be Prepared for Repairs
The more like home your RV is, the more household problems it'll require you to solve. Look at any RV travel Web site, and it's flush with questions about how to manage repairs.
If you rent the RV, you may have a contract that allows you to request repairs as part of the deal. If you own the RV, you may need to be better prepared to handle maintenance issues as you go. Of course, some people enjoy that part of the experience.
Maintaining an RV is not exactly like maintaining a house. You have some different concerns, such as handling noisy water pumps, monitoring propane gas levels in your tanks, maintaining a generator, and routinely checking tire tread and pressure. And with an RV, you may have to be more attentive to small problems than you would be at home -- in close quarters, that dripping faucet may drive you crazy.
For more great tips on RV travel, check out the links on the next page.
What are the best vacation spots for baby boomers? Learn about some of the best vacation spots for baby boomers at TLC Family.
- DeMaris, Russ and Tina. "The key to happy compartment locks." RV Tech Tips. (May 19, 2011)http://www.rvtechtips.com/?cat=193
- New RVer. "Beginner's Guide to RVing." (May 24, 2011)http://www.newrver.com/
- RV Dumps. "Dump Station Tips." (May 19, 2011)http://www.rvdumps.com/dumpstations/tips
- RV Vacation Travel. "Traveling By RV: Should You Buy or Rent?" (May 19, 2011)http://rvvacationtravel.com/rv-rent-or-buy/traveling-by-rv-buy-or-rent