RV Shopping: Meeting Your Family’s Needs

Lisa Fritscher May 8, 2012 No Comments

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Forest River Flagstaff 27RLSS

Our new travel trailer is well worth the wait!

Despite, or maybe because of, the economic downturn, the RV industry is experiencing an explosion in growth. Although newly retired Baby Boomers remain the biggest market, according to the RVIA (Recreation Vehicle Industry Association), the fastest-growing market segment is young adults aged 18-34. It is easy to see why—even the most luxurious RV park is typically less than half the price of a hotel room in a similar area. If you leave the RV mostly packed between trips, all you need to do before taking off is throw in a few clothes and your perishable food items. Many kids (and adults!) thrive on familiarity, sleeping and eating better in a place that they perceive as “home.” You can sleep in your own bed each night, cook meals in your own kitchen, and use your own bathroom facilities. But with so many models available, trying to choose “the right” RV can be mind-boggling.

Dad and I have been full-time RVers, living and working on the road, for more than seven years. When we set out in January 2012 to upgrade our RV, we expected a quick and easy decision-making process. After all, we knew exactly what we didn’t like in our previous travel trailer, so it was just a simple matter of choosing one that addressed those issues, right? We were quite surprised to find that even with years of RVing experience, it took over two months of serious shopping to pick out the right RV for us.

RV Types

Motorhomes

Motorhomes are extremely popular, but are not right for everyone

The first decision you must make when shopping for an RV is the basic type that you prefer. Many RVers love the convenience of a motorhome. A fully self-sufficient vehicle, a motorhome provides maximum flexibility when going down the road. The kids can spread out and relax on the couch or at the dining table. It is easy to grab a sweater, use the bathroom or make lunch, even if the weather is cold or rainy. When you arrive at your destination, all you need to do is park and hook up to the utilities.

Nonetheless, motorhomes do have their drawbacks. High on the list is the initial cost. Motorhomes are subdivided into three categories: Class A, Class B, and Class C. The tour bus-style Class A motorhomes are typically the most expensive, ranging in price from $100,000 to well over $1 million. Of course, all RVs depreciate rapidly, making a gently-used Class A affordable for many families. Class B van conversions and Class C “mini-motorhomes” are smaller and less expensive, generally ranging from $50,000 to $200,000.

Additionally, most people who drive motorhomes also tow a car. Without a car, you must pack the motorhome for moving and disconnect from all utilities every time you want to get groceries or go sightseeing. With a car, you must connect and disconnect the towed vehicle (sometimes called a toad) whenever you change campgrounds. Though many disagree, Dad and I feel that hooking up a car to a motorhome takes just as long as hooking up a travel trailer to a tow vehicle, negating one of the main “benefits” of a self-contained motorhome.

Both fifth wheels and travel trailers are towed behind a vehicle. A fifth wheel requires a truck, as its tongue sits on a special hitch in the truck bed, while travel trailers connect to the rear end of a wide range of vehicles. Some smaller, lighter travel trailers are towable by minivans and even large cars, while the tiniest trailers are towable even by a motorcycle! Of course, the bigger and heavier the travel trailer, the bigger and heavier the tow vehicle must be. Both fifth wheels and travel trailers come in a mind-boggling array of floor plans and design schemes, making it easy to find one that fits your needs. Prices range from just a few thousand for the tiniest travel trailer to over $100,000 for a luxury fifth wheel.

Truck campers fit over the bed of an existing pickup truck. Small, compact and inexpensive, truck campers are a great choice for families who spend the bulk of their time outdoors rather than inside the RV. They provide sleeping, dining, cooking and bathroom space, but like tiny travel trailers, they offer little room to simply spread out and relax.

Each type of RV includes numerous subtypes such as pop-ups, toy haulers and camper vans. Choose the basic type of RV first and then decide if you prefer a specific subtype.

Floor Plans, Weights and Features

RV Floor Plans

The sheer number of available floor plans is mind-boggling

Within these basic types of RV lay a truly stunning variety of options. When my parents first bought their travel trailer in 2004, there were a few basic choices. Would you like the bedroom at the front or rear? Do you want a closet or a spot for two bunk beds? Some RVs offered one or two small slide-outs, providing a bit of additional living space.

In the years since Mom passed away and I moved in with Dad, we went to occasional RV shows and marveled at the new choices. But it wasn’t until we began seriously shopping that we realized just how far RV floor plans have come. Want a bunkhouse that sleeps six in triple bunks, at the opposite end from the master bedroom? No problem. Would you like an outdoor kitchen (in addition to the well-appointed indoor kitchen)? Sure. Care for a slide out TV with that? Maybe you want a garden tub or a large enclosed shower. Are you a gadget lover? How about a 32-inch HDTV, integrated surround sound, hookups for all your consoles and a built-in hair dryer? Want to host a sit-down meal for six people? Check out the king-sized U-shaped dinette.

Of course, the more we shopped, the more we realized that it is impossible to get everything on a wish list in a single RV. Although RVs continue to grow bigger and bigger, they are still tiny compared to even the smallest sticks and bricks home. There is only so much weight that an RV frame can handle, and only so much weight that a tow vehicle can tow.

Our Experience

Forest River Flagstaff 27RLSS Kitchen

Can you believe we have this much kitchen in a travel trailer?

Dad and I began our shopping with a specific wish list, then added and subtracted things as we toured different models. After spending seven years sleeping on the jackknife sofa, my feet blocking the silverware drawer, I knew I wanted a separate bedroom. Then I began to realize just how much real estate a bunkhouse truly takes. Somewhere along the line I decided I would rather have a usable kitchen than a bedroom. Likewise, I fell in love with the electric fireplaces that are now installed in many models—until I realized that the space used by the fireplace took away from the space available for electronic components. With DirecTV HD, two laptops, a Kindle Fire, a four-in-one printer/scanner/copier/fax machine and a DVD-VCR combo, we really needed a place to put our components!

Although we are partial to travel trailers, Dad and I did not restrict our shopping. We walked through million-dollar luxury motorhomes (not that we could have afforded one, but it was great for comparison purposes) and tiny truck campers. We soon came to the realization that no matter how much you spend, the tradeoffs remain the same.

As we could not find any particular reason to change, we ultimately decided to stick with a travel trailer. Dad has a small travel scooter that he uses occasionally due to his arthritis and other medical conditions. Our Ford Expedition allows him to carry the scooter in the back, protected from the elements. So we needed to find a travel trailer that fit within the specs that the Expedition could handle. That eliminated the biggest and heaviest trailers from our list, though the beefy Expedition was equipped for the vast majority of trailers that we liked.

It took more than two months to settle on our new travel trailer, the Forest River Flagstaff 27RLSS. Despite attending the Tampa RV Supershow (the biggest RV show in the country) and several smaller shows, and walking the lot of practically every dealer in Central Florida (and several in Georgia), we actually found this one online. I Googled all of the major RV manufacturers and went through every floor plan on their websites one at a time. It was tedious, but well worth the time.

When we saw this particular floor plan online, our initial thought was, “That’s the craziest thing we’ve ever seen!” It was completely unlike any other floor plan we had seen in any other RV, and it looked like it just might work. We located the RV at a small dealer that had not been on our radar, and went to take a look. Yet we rejected it at first. When I decided to give up on having my own bedroom, I decided that sleeping on an air mattress hide-a-bed would be a reasonable alternative. But when we opened up the hide-a-bed in this particular RV, it took up way too much floor space for me. One of our favorite features is the opposing slide-outs that create a huge amount of living area. The hide-a-bed covered most of that space.

After rejecting this model, we walked through another hundred or so RVs, but could not get this one out of our minds. Other than the hide-a-bed concerns, the RV was perfect. At the beginning of this shopping adventure, I discussed the shopping process with a friend who has owned numerous RVs. Her advice was simple—Buy the RV that you love and then customize it to meet your needs. With her words echoing in my mind, I took another look at the floor plan. That’s when it hit me. Instead of sleeping on the hide-a-bed, why not sleep on the dinette? The high density foam cushions make a surprisingly comfortable bed that is just slightly narrower than a queen. Tucked into its own slide-out, it creates a cozy sleeping nook that feels separated from the rest of the room.

We made a fantastic deal and went on to further customize our new RV. We upgraded the 900 watt microwave to an 1100 watt, replaced the plastic toilet with a porcelain model, and purchased an extra-large countertop convection oven to augment the built-in gas oven. We had the dealership install extra satellite hookups for our HD DVR and replaced the 6 cubic foot RV refrigerator with the 9.6 cubic foot household model that we already owned. We are looking into stainless steel replacement options for the plastic kitchen sink, and we bought a starter set of high-quality kitchen knives to place in our built-in knife rack behind the stove. Incidentally, if anyone in your family has a disability, many companies now specialize in accessible RVing. Google “RVing with a disability” for products and services.

RV Dining Room

We hosted a sit-down Passover dinner just weeks after we bought it

This RV is not perfect—no RV ever will be. But we love the floor plan and the décor. We have a massive entertainment center along the back wall with a built-in 32 inch HDTV and plenty of space for our electronic components. The leather sofa, refrigerator and oven are on a slide-out opposite the king-sized U-shaped dinette that serves as my bed at night and my office by day. The kitchen features an enormous peninsula counter with an extension, providing plenty of prep space to create elaborate meals, and there are enough cabinets to hold a dizzying array of groceries and cooking essentials. The large bathroom has an enclosed corner shower with plenty of elbow room, and Dad’s bedroom has a long hanging wardrobe and enough space for a coat rack. We have two skylights, a plethora of windows with day and night shades, and an upgraded fan that offers full air replacement in less than five minutes. We hosted a full sit-down Passover dinner for five with plenty of room to prepare, cook, serve and store the meal, and no one ever felt crowded. There is enough space to store everything we need for full-timing, and enough curio shelves to display our treasured items. These are the things that are important to us. Your family will have entirely different needs and wants. Oh, and that hide-a-bed I wasn’t thrilled with? It turned out to be extremely useful when we had houseguests for five days right after we moved in. Dad gave the guests his bedroom, and he slept on the hide-a-bed. There was just enough room to get around it to the kitchen, and we folded it up each morning when we awoke. Though I wouldn’t want to do it every day, having that third queen bed is a wonderful feature!

It was a hard-fought battle to find the right RV for us, but in the end it was worth the effort. Take your time, shop around, use the Internet as a tool, and do not allow any dealer to pressure you into making a quick decision. An RV is an investment in your family’s happiness, so make sure that you buy the one that your family truly loves.

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avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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