When my son, Diego, was 6 months old, his father and I flew with him to Mexico for a beach vacation. He was a dream: well-behaved, undemanding, and--let's face it--mostly asleep. As we were getting off our return flight home, rested and patting ourselves on the back, a flight attendant deadpanned, "You won't be able to do that for long."
Alas, she was right. Flying with a 3-year-old holds no charm.
Which is why I had a brainstorm this past summer: RVing. As other modes of travel have fallen prey to the recession, RVing has held its own. It's easy to see why: It's like taking a rolling staycation. Not only can you bring all your favorite things, but you can also keep costs down by sleeping under your own roof and preparing your own food. So, what's RVing like? We ended up loving the experience. We'd do it again--with a few tweaks, of course. Read on for our hard-won tips.
Getting Ready to Roll
I tracked down an RV at the Linden, NJ, offices of EI Monte RV, one of the largest motor-home rental companies in the country. (Cruise America RV is the other; you can find dealers near you at GoRVing.com/locator.) It had room enough for four adults and two kids, so my husband, Rob, and I decided to invite (and split costs with) our friends chuck and Jessica, who have a 3-year-old son, Eli. Our destination would be one we city slickers probably wouldn't have visited any other way: Rocky Gap State Park, in far west Maryland, which had received raves on Rv parkreviews.com and Tripadvisor.com.
An RV is more complicated to operate than a car, as became clear when EI Monte made us watch a half-hour training film. It covered such things as our 27-foot vehicle's wide turn radius, using the generator for electricity, and how to dump the black water we'd produce when we used the toilet, kitchen sink, and shower. Then a rental agent walked us through the RV, showing us how to use the air conditioning and, to Diego's delight, the "pop-out," which, with a push of a button, moves a section of wall out a few feet to create more room inside while you're parked.
Something else we checked out: whether the configuration of the RVs we were considering would safely accommodate Diego's and Eli's car seats. The use of car seats (and seat belts, for that matter) in RVs is not federally regulated, believe it or not. Laws vary, sometimes dramatically, from state to state. Some require the use of car seats (and that all RVs be equipped with seating that accommodates them), while others require only that some seat belts be available. Some RVs have seats and seat belts that will work with car seats, but in positions that aren't safe-- namely, facing sideways instead of forward or placed behind a table or some other fixture that could cause injury in the event of a crash.
When we arrived to pick up Chuck, Jessica, and Eli that afternoon, their front yard looked like a Walmart had exploded. I could see beach chairs, coolers, a grill, tubs of food, suitcases, backpacks, toys, a pup tent, even a box of craft supplies. The extent of our preparation had been signing up for El Monte's "housekeeping" package--which means they pack dishes and linens for you--and a single trip to Costco, picking up milk, chicken breasts, steaks, and some fruit. Thankfully, Jess understood the core beauty of the RV experience: Sleeping in a sylvan glade is no reason to give up extra-virgin olive oil.
Another revelation: After the rental agent shows you the RV features, it would be wise to repeat the tour for your youngest riders, focusing on their needs. While we were loading up, Diego tried to go to the bathroom but couldn't figure out how to open the door--so he peed in a corner of the back bedroom.
We arrived in Rocky Gap as it was getting dark. Our spot was a pull-through, which meant that instead of having to back in the RV, we could just pull in, and, when we were ready to leave, drive on out the other side. Our territory had a picnic table, a shady tree, a fire pit, and a hookup for electricity.
Of all the goodies our pals brought, I was especially glad for the grill, which allowed us to hang out outside while cooking. After a lovely dinner of steaks and salad, we bedded down the kids--Diego in the pull-out sofa, Eli in the over-cab bed between his parents.
The Campground Scene
A ranger at Rocky Gap had told me that, for peak summer weekends, they book up almost five months in advance. Next year, I'm getting in line: Our loop was an easy walk to the campground's sandy lakeside beach and had a refreshing Leave It to Beaver feel to it. In the morning, senior citizens waved as they walked by with their dogs; later, kids whizzed by on bikes, clearly scoping out which campsites had possible playmates. Walking around ourselves, we met families that had been coming to the park for 15 years. It had a neighborliness that I haven't experienced on other types of vacations--and rarely even in my own neighborhood.
That first day, we swam and rented a kayak, visited the camp's family fair, and, in the afternoon, made crafts on our picnic table. As the sun went down, we grilled burgers and let the kids run around on the grass. Just this past year, the Maryland Park Service decided to become more family-friendly by not allowing alcoholic beverages outdoors--you can only drink in your vehicle. Though this made our beer-loving husbands mildly cranky, it might have contributed to the utter peacefulness of our stay. Everything was quiet by 10.
The next day, we'd arranged to take a steam-train ride about seven miles away. We had to pack everything in our RV, unplug from the hookup, and set off in, essentially, our house. We were very lucky to find parking and just made our train. Next time, I would tow a car; I noticed every other RV on our loop had.
The bill for our four-day junket: $2,482, which included the rental and insurance fees for the RV, the campground fee of $30 a night, and $450 in gas. But you can save by bringing your own pots, pans, sheets, and towels (the "housekeeping" cost $325), and choosing a smaller RV that could be covered by your auto insurance. The model we picked didn't qualify, so we had to cough up $150. And it can be even cheaper if you're flexible: In spring and fall, RV companies need to move their inventory across the country, and they offer up to 50 percent off if you're willing to ferry a vehicle in an allotted amount of time.
The best moments were those that blended the everyday quality of being "at home" with the focus on each other of being on vacation. As the guys busied themselves at the grill, Jess and I caught up on each other's lives. Later, I was at the water pump, rinsing off our dinner dishes. I could see the lights on in the windows of vehicles around us, and the stars overhead. I was doing dishes, and utterly content.
Picking Your RV
Van campers: Also known as Type B motor homes, these are built on the frame of a van, with extra headroom so an adult can stand up inside, and sleep up to four people by converting seating into beds. They drive like a van, so you can park almost anywhere, and gas costs are lower than with other RVs. But quarters are tight, and pulling out the beds can be a pain. Best for: Short trips, small families.
Mini-motor homes: This is the type we went with. Typically 19 to 31 feet, the Type C's usually come with a bed over the cab and convertible sofas, and some have a separate bedroom (with a door!) in the back. They guzzle more gas than the Type B's, but there's no need to put away the beds every day. Best for: Longer trips, towing a car.
Motor homes: Type A's range from 22 feet to a palatial 45. Some of them are fully pimped out, with leather seats, flat-screen TVs, even pop-out outdoor kitchens with grills and sinks. Of course, they can be harder to maneuver (including being too big for some campgrounds), and while it's possible to tow a car, it's trickier. Best for: Bringing the grandparents, staying in one place.