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Quick tips to make your RV family vacation memorable—and affordable

From finding the right vehicle to the best campsite, here’s what you need to know for a fun-filled holiday

RV pulled by a truck through the desertAn RV vacation can be daunting to plan for first-timers, but a little foresight can go a long way (Image provided)

How can you combine the thrill of the open road with the convenience and comfort of home—all while playing games with your kids and singing along to tunes on the way? 

The answer is RVing, of course. Not only does this vacation choice let you discover the world as a family, it also lets you do it without unpacking several suitcases every night. No wonder it’s a winner with travellers such as Chad Davis, CPA, a Halifax resident and co-founder of LiveCA. He took an RV trip with his wife and kids one summer and they liked it so much, they decided to take an extended trip across North America.

For all of its appeal, however, an RV vacation can be daunting to plan for first-timers. Aren’t these vehicles expensive? How do you rent one? Where do you stay?

To take the edge off the planning process, we’ve gathered some advice from RVers and experts that should help you put together a memorable, yet affordable, vacation—one that you will all still be talking about years from now. 

1. FIND YOUR MATCH

Recreational vehicles—often called rigs by those in the know—come in many shapes and sizes, from trailers to luxury motorhomes. [See Which is the best RV for your trip?]

But as Rob Tischler, owner of Allstar Coaches in Miami, Fla., points out in an RV guide, you can narrow down the pool of options by asking some basic questions. For example, how much of your budget do you want to allocate to the RV and the resort or campground? Do you want to tow your personal vehicle behind the RV? What amenities are important to you? 

“These answers can help you eliminate RVs that don’t have what you need and select which services are best suited for your getaway,” he says. 

2. START BY RENTING

If you’re a novice RVer, you might want to test your preferences by renting. You can get a sense and feel for the options by checking out various videos on YouTube and/or going in person to a rental company (in Toronto, for example, CanaDream RV Rentals & Sales Toronto holds a fair amount of inventory). And for affordability, you’ll want to check out RVezy, which is sometimes called the Airbnb of RV rentals. There you can easily find trailers and some Class Bs for $120/night, while motorhomes average $250 to $300 a night. 

Certainly, if you opt for the upper end of the scale, that might sound like a lot of money. But when you consider that you don’t need to pay for a hotel and can make as many meals as you want in the RV or with a barbecue, you can see the value start to appear. (To give you a sense of how much a vacation might cost, check out our rough budget below.

3. KEEP AN EYE ON FUEL 

Beyond the rental fee, fuel is the biggest expense to consider with RVing. On average, an RV consumes between 12 and 30 litres of gas per 100 kilometres, says Authentik Canada, a travel agency in Montreal, Que., that specializes in road trips. Naturally, the larger the vehicle, the higher the fuel consumption. 

Fortunately, there are ways to save on gas, or at least compensate for the cost:

  • Get an RV that is fuel efficient. Some models get 18 to 20 mpg—almost twice as much as others. 
  • Use the Gas Buddy app. Enter your trip details and the app will calculate the total cost of your trip and find the cheapest places to get gas.
  • Don’t go as far. The shorter the trip, the lower the cost. (That’s one reason why we chose to use 1,200 km in our example below.) Davis has friends who are RVing all the time but travel only an hour and a half every few weeks.
  • Lighten up. The heavier your motorhome, the more fuel it takes to haul it. So whatever you can leave at home, do.
  • Slow down. For saving gas, it’s best to drive at 80-90 km (55 mph). 
  • Consider your payment method. Think about paying for gas with a credit card that gives you loyalty rewards for purchasing fuel. 

4. BOOK EARLY AT CAMPGROUNDS—AND FIND SAVINGS WITH APPS

Campgrounds cost about $25 to $50 a night—nowhere near as much as a hotel. But according to Davis, they fill up quickly, so you need to book in advance. The Davis family spends half their time in campgrounds and the other half on public land, friends’ land or Harvest Hosts locations (farms and wineries). Bill Best, an avid RVer from Toronto who generally travels with friends, opts for campgrounds about every three nights; otherwise, he either parks at a Walmart if they are in or near a city, or he chooses boondocking (camping without hookups) if they are elsewhere. 

To find campgrounds and other places to stay, Best likes to use an app called Allstays, while Davis uses the satellite view on Google maps combined with a website called Campendium. Other useful site-finding apps include RV Parky, Boondockers Welcome and Passport America (a discount camping club; for US$44 you get access to 1,800 campsites at 50 per cent off). 

5. WATCH YOUR WATER

Some RVs have onboard generators for power. But if yours doesn’t, most RVs have a battery bank for those times when you’re not hooked up to power at a campground.

If you’re like Davis and eventually decide to buy your own RV, you can install a solar system as a way to bring “free” power in your rig. Systems range from a few hundred dollars to more than $8,000.

Water is included in most campgrounds, but if you’re boondocking, you can get water free at some gas stations or provincial parks. As Davis points out, it’s important to have a water filter you trust (or a Berkey or Brita). Conservation is also important: as Best explains, his water tank holds 70 gallons. 

“That is for everything. You can’t have long showers,” he says. “When I’m with people who aren’t used to RVs, and I see them leaving the faucet running as they’re washing their hands, I always have to tell them, ‘No, no, no—you can’t do that.’”   

6. ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE

Beyond cost and conservation, it’s always important to keep the home-away-from-home comfort of an RV in mind. 

As Jaimie Hall Bruzenak, author of RV Traveling Tales: Women’s Journeys on the Open Road and Support Your RV Lifestyle! An Insider’s Guide to Working on the Road, points out in a beginner’s guide to RV family vacations: “Children can be easily entertained while traveling. [An RV is] also more convenient. You can stop easily for bathroom breaks without getting out. The children’s toys, clothes, washroom and snacks are right where you are exploring and playing, so there’s no need to return to a hotel…If you visit a national park, you can camp there and save driving time, plus they have activities and programs geared to children. Other families will probably be camped where you are, too, making it even more fun for the kids.”

Certainly, RVing isn’t as inexpensive as tent camping or home sharing. But you will be bringing your family closer with every day you spend on the road. As Susie Kellogg, a mother and long-time RVer from TK, puts it, “RVing is one of those life-changing activities, a life hack, if you will. It keeps on giving back long after the family vacation is over.” Davis concurs. “Travelling with my wife and kids in our RV has given us more unique family moments than I could ever imagine. If you’re considering this as an alternative to a traditional holiday, I can’t recommend it enough!”

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT BUDGETING FOR VACATION?

Get the scoop on saving money on that summer road trip and how to see Canada inexpensively. And, will help make that vacation a reality.

Also, see CPA Canada’s Summer Spending Survey to get an idea of how other people are planning to spend their vacation dollars this year.

RV VACATION BUDGET BASICS

To get an idea of how much an RV vacation might cost for a family of four, here’s a test scenario. We went to RVezy and plugged in July 19 to August 2, 2019 as our vacation dates, and chose Algonquin Park in Ontario as our destination. (Since this is just a basic budget, we did not take attractions, internet use or other fees into account.)

Vehicle
We chose two types of vehicles: a Class B Dodge Road Trek ($125/night) and a Class C Classic Ford Sunseeker ($199/night). With the 10 per cent Rvezy fee and other charges, the first option came to $2,388, while the other amounted to $3,526 for those dates.

Gas
Fuel consumption will depend on the size and type of vehicle, as well as distance. Let’s say you go a total distance of 2,000 km, at a consumption rate 20 L / 100 km at 1.30/litre. You would pay: 20 L x (2,000 km / 100 km) x $1.30 = $520.

Camping

We assumed you would stay in a campground for the entire time. At $25/night, that would come to $350; at $50/night, it would come to $700. Of course, if you choose to boondock (park for free) some of the time, you can save on some of these costs.

Meals

We assumed you would be “eating in” or barbecuing most of the time, so you would only need to factor in your regular grocery costs (say $300), plus another $300 for some restaurant meals. You might also want to invest in a barbecue: for example, Davis bought a Napoleon portable cast iron propane grill (about $200).

Using the figures above, the cheaper option (lower-cost RV along with $25 for campground costs) would amount to $3,908 for the two-week vacation, while the more expensive choice (larger RV plus $50/night for campground) would come to $5,396.

Sound expensive? When you consider that a five-day stay for four at a resort such as Ontario’s Bayview Wildwood in late July can set you back more than $4,000, an RV vacation definitely compares favourably. Even cottage rentals on Airbnb can run to more than $250 or $300 per night.

If your first foray into RVing turns you into a fan, you might eventually want to buy your own vehicle. If you do, you can find options anywhere from $10,000 up to $300,000. Bill Best, an avid RVer from Toronto, actually bought a used RV for $7,000, although he paid another $7,000 to fix it up

So as you can see, your options are many. All you need to do now is plan—and enjoy your trip.
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