I can’t begin to tell you how many emails I receive asking about traveling with family in an RV. The questions go something like this: What kind of RV should I buy? What should I know about RVing? Where should I go? My RV knowledge is not unlimited, but I have traveled with my family through a decent chunk of the good old USA by RV. We’ve traveled with as few as seven people and have now reached the insane number of TEN. We usually stay out on the road for several months a year, sometimes up to 100 nights in a row in our big old Familyman Mobile. My children have been to Gettysburg, Antietem’s “Bloody Lane”, the spot where Washington crossed the Delaware and where he rested his troops at Valley Forge. They saw the place where Lincoln was born, the only house he ever owned, sat in Ford’s Theater, the little room where he died, and the hallowed place they laid his body. They’ve walked the banks of Plum Creek where Laura Ingalls lived as a little girl and and visited the house she lived most of her adult life. They’ve been to Mark Twain’s boyhood home, his mansion, as well as the boyhood homes of Walt Disney, Martin Luther King Jr. George Washington Carver, and Bill Clinton. They’ve been to presidential museums, seen road side oddities, and even had their picture taken in front of the REAL Brady Bunch House in LA. And they saw it all and so much more because we RV. The RV gives us flexibility and spontaneity. The truth is, you might not drive all the way to Gettysburg just to see a battlefield, but if you happen to be in the neighborhood…you do it. Instead of not responding to all the emails and questions, I’ve decided to post my thoughts on all that I know about RVing, traveling with family, and some of the great places we’ve visited. And I think I’ll write it in a Q & A format.
Q — What kind of RV do you recommend?
A – Let me just say when we started the RV adventure we knew NOTHING…I mean nothing about RVing. Neither my wife nor I had ever camped in our lives, and my wife’s idea of roughing it was staying at a Holiday Inn instead of a Hilton. We were a little short on money and didn’t want to sell the farm just to try it out. We weighed our options, talked it over, and decided to look into buying a motor home rather than a pull-behind travel trailer (the bathroom while on the road is worth everything). After looking at Class C’s (looks like a u-haul truck) and Class A’s (looks like a bus) we decided we liked the open feel of the Class A although the Class C often sleeps more. Now we had to settle on a price…which also determined the age of the RV. There are also class B’s, but they’re like van-RVs and would be way too small for our large family. My brother-in-law’s parents have one and they love it. Had we known, we would have looked on-line, but we didn’t, so we searched all the RV lots in northern Indiana (The RV capital of world). We finally settled on a 1991- 30′ Mallard and paid $11,000 for it. It had a lot of miles but ran well and had ample storage. So we paid the money, spent 6 months getting it ready, and hit the road in the spring feeling our way through all the nuances of RV travel. Within a month, a Mac truck hit us on the interstate totaling our RV. Next, some nice people loaned us a 34′ Winnebago. It was big and old, and within two weeks nearly burned to the ground. Note: don’t go too ancient unless you have a gob of time and are handier than Goober down at Wally’s filling station. Still convinced that RVing was the way to go, we bought a 1992 – 30′ Fleetwood Flair in Michigan for about $15,000. It had fuel injection, which gave us about 9 mpg (as opposed to 6 with the carbureted Mallard.) It turned out to be a great RV, and I’d highly recommend the Flair anytime. It is an entry level RV so it doesn’t have a lot of bells or whistles…but you don’t have to pay to fix them either. Really, we had few problems with it although we ended up fixing or replacing most of the major coach components (like roof A/C, furnace, and fridge). Later, we replaced the carpet and had the seats recovered. It was like having a brand new RV at a fraction of the cost. The nice thing about gas RVs is that they’re no harder to operate and maintain than a big van. That ‘aint the case with diesel. The problem with traveling with kids is that they grow and take up more space so unless we were going to train our children to sleep sitting up, we had to get a bigger RV. Since I knew that the gas RV’s we could afford all had the same size engine regardless of length, I decided that diesel was the way to go. We looked on Ebay and PPL Motorhomes and saw gobs of great deals. We eventually landed on a design that we really liked–a Euro Premier. It was no longer being made but the price, the configuration, and the basics (engine, chassis, and transmission) were what we wanted. So we watched and waited and eventually bought one in Florida. I flew down and drove it home as happy as a…guy in a big diesel RV with an incredible air horn. When I pulled into the driveway, my wife stepped inside and cried (although she tried to hide it). I failed to see just how ugly, rough, and outdated it was. No problem. Six months of hard work could fix that. So we gutted the thing, recovered all the furniture, the floors and walls, added new light fixtures, removed the washer and dryer and a big closet and built in triple bunk beds and got the thing running.
Gas Vs. Diesel
Let me just say that diesel is a different beast. Every part in it is big and expensive to fix…but it sure drives nice. The price tag was quite a bit bigger at $34,000 but it still is a fraction of the cost of anything new. In fact, the sticker price on our 15-year old RV was $165,000. It has all the bells and whistles, cherry cabinets, and solid surface counter tops instead of paper cabinets. Gas is easy…like a big car. You go out in the middle of winter and fire it up. Not so with Diesel. Diesel does get good mileage and it seems to have more power. If I didn’t need such a large R and didn’t pull a trailer…I’d go gas.
How They Work
OK, here’s a quick run down on how an RV is put together: Propane – Every RV uses propane for hot water heater, fridge, stove, and HEAT. It’s pretty efficient, works well, and so easy to use on the go. I get most of my propane from Flying J Truck Stops (get a store directory). Generator – It’s the portable power that runs your roof A/C when you’re on the road, your microwave (we could get by with a microwave only), and anything that needs a lot of power like a hair dryer. Some folks have inverters (runs off coach batteries) that can do the same…but they eventually have to be recharged. Plugged in – That’s when you have the luxury to plug in to someone’s power source. Then everything is easy…although you’ll still need propane for your heater/hot water. Water – Water is gold in the RV, and I’m like the big water miser. “Don’t let the water run,” I bark at my kids. Here’s the deal: when you’re on the road you conserve. Showers?? Not daily. It’s just too hard…especially when you’re making time. Our trick: We stop at a truck stop, dump our tanks, fill our water tank, take showers right there, and then dump and refill our water tank. Quite the ordeal. Plus now you have a bunch of wet towels to deal with (you can use the dryers in the truck stop). Waste – This is the part no one likes but is so ‘daily.” In fact, a family as large as ours must think about ‘dumping’ every three or four days. You can dump at Flying J’s ($5), Loves ($5), fairgrounds, some rest stops, and even waste water treatment plants. (see App section)
My Advice When Buying
My advice when buying an RV is to look hard, look often, and wait for a deal. Go gas unless you’re absolutely convinced you need a big diesel. Class C is good for lots of beds but not as open as a Class A for a lot of on the road traveling. I’d buy on Ebay or PPL Motor homes…or some on-line RV seller. You have a huge selection and great deals are there to be had. Even if the RV doesn’t sell at auction, you can often deal with the seller afterwards. I know some are afraid to buy used, but I’m telling you that every time I take my old RV into the shop, it is surrounded by NEW RV’s that are being worked on as well. In fact, I know new RV owners who have had many more problems than I have had. Also, when you decide to sell a new RV, you take a huge hit and are never able to recoup your cost. We took a hit with our old RV (sold it at the collapse of the RV market), but we’re talking a few thousand-dollar hit, not a $50,000 dollar hit or more. After RVing for 10 years, I still love it and think it is the best way to travel as a family. My children and even my wife love it. It has allowed us to see things we would never be able to see if we were confined to a hotel budget and schedule. So my advice: pray for wisdom, watch the market and then do it!!! You may not get the best deal or the best RV but God is bigger than that. But you are guaranteed to make some incredible memories as a family…ones that will last a lifetime.
Q – What about renting an RV?
A – I don’t know much about the rental side of RVing. I do know several people who have done it and enjoyed it…without the pressure of owning it. Check out Cruise America I think it might be a great way to ‘ease’ into the RV world just to get your feet wet.
This just in from a RV renting dad -
“We rented a 2005 Fleetwood Discovery (39 ft) for two and a half weeks. The price was just over $5000, and of course the fuel for such a trip was somewhere around $2000 (I lost track). This was our second RV trip and I have learned a great deal about what to do and not do at this point. The RV places want to know your wants/needs, where you’re going, etc. and “pick you out” an RV. I will never allow this again. From here on out I’ll go and pick out the rig myself. Our first trip was in a 34 ft Ford van-based RV and I knew nothing about the entire venture. I didn’t mind that rig so much for the money (about $3000 for three weeks): but for the money I spent this time, I would’ve wanted a newer rig. It wasn’t bad, but it was a bit road-worn, rattled a lot, and a few little things like reading lights, bedside lamps, etc. didn’t work properly; and the radio didn’t have and aux jack for MP3s, which made it impossible to stream all the music I’d downloaded on my iPhone for the trip. ..So next time I’ll want to go over the rig with a fine-toothed comb and test-drive it before leaving. And if everything isn’t perfect, I’ll walk away and go find another deal. But when you rent online/over the phone, and then show up to pick up the rig, it’s too late at that point since the trip is already planned and getting on the road quickly is a must.
We traveled with another family; they rented from the same place. Their generator kept quitting, the oven didn’t work, the A/C vent cover came loose from ceiling, etc. They drove several hours through the desert with no A/C since generator kept quitting. When they returned it the guy kind of shrugged and never offered them anything for their troubles. I’m a big supporter of Mom and Pop businesses, but next time I’ll probably stick with RV World or someplace like that. I’m thinking they might be held to some kind of standard at least, being a big corporation. One would think so anyway.
We rented through a local small business. The guy has about 20 or so units on his lot. They’re all owned by individuals and rented out by him. He’s WAY more liberal in his generator usage policy than the big boys, hence our reason for going with him. I belly-ached a lot in my email to you about him (previous two paragraphs), but he’s really a pretty good guy and did get us fixed up while on the road with that busted water line. But I was mainly just sad to see the other family we traveled with have such a hard time on their first (maybe last!) RV trip.”
Q — What do I need to know about RVing before I hit the road?
A — Two things: It ‘aint easy, but it is good. That’s about it. Sure, there are lots of things you’ll need to do differently than driving a regular car like…how to dump your waste tanks, the difference between black water and gray water, how to run your generator, when to use propane and electric, where to park, HOW to park, what roads to avoid, and how to cope with limited supplies. You can do some homework beforehand, but you really need to be out on the road to learn firsthand. Expect some mistakes and some mean looks from your wife and children. But hey, that’s the fun of RVing. Check out my best of travel list!!!
Q — What should I take when I go RVing?
Q — Can you give ANY other advice?
A –Yes. 1. Make sure you join Good Sam’s Club Road Side Assistance Program (not to be confused with the Sam’s Club started by Wal-Mart founder, Sam Walton). For less than $100, it gives you free towing up to 1000 miles, help in locating service centers, free flat repair, and a bunch of other things. DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT!!!! IN fact, if you use the link below, Familyman Ministries will receive a portion of your membership fee. I’m not kidding on this one!!!!
2. Buy and use a GPS (saved my marriage). You can use your phone, but I like having a designated GPS. In fact, there is a RV version out there…but you’ll need to Google it.
3. Use RV friendly phone Apps – I’m high tech now, and I LOVE my phone apps. Two that are indispensable: All Stays Rv and Campground. It costs a few bucks but it’s incredible. It lists all the places you can camp for free and all dumping stations…plus about everything else you could ever want as an RVer. Gas Buddy is another app that has saved me gobs of money. You tell me would you drive an extra 2 miles for 30 cent a gallon cheaper gas?? Oh, yeah. There are probably other apps…but these two are indispensable (I seem to like that word).
4. Get a Wal-Mart Rand McNally Road Atlas – These have a directory in the front and back listing all the Wal-marts in the country. In fact, my favorite thing to do each morning is to check off another ‘never before stayed at” Walmart.
Familyman Product Review
The First Law of RV Dynamics – Water is your enemy and always trying to get into your RV. You have to think like a soldier battling H2O. You can’t assume that just because no water is dripping from the ceiling everything is OK. I’m always looking at my ceiling for any signs of water. If a little tiny drip is sliding down your wall then…you got a leak. That’s why I’m always checking my calk lines to make sure everything looks good. And now for rule #1 - NEVER use anything with silicone in it. NEVER. There will be times you’ll need to scrape off the old and Silicone is VERY difficult to remove and nothing sticks to is…like new calk. The best calk is Dicor (it’s a butyle calk). It costs a little more but is worth it. BUT the best tool for water protection is Eternabond Tape. It’s about $80 a roll (look on Amazon or Ebay) but guaranteed for 20 years. Get the 4″ seam tape and cover each of the seams. I’ve had so many leaks I can’t count…none since Eternabond. Next RV I get, that’s the first thing I’ll buy and use.
Q — How do you sleep everyone?
A — We use every square inch. Here’s the rundown: My wife and I are on the queen-sized bed in the back, two kids on the dinette (it folds down), two on couches, three in the bunks we installed, and a baby in a Peapod in the shower…or any available space. In our last RV, we installed a swing down bunk over the driver’s seat (it was a job) and one child slept between the two captain’s chairs on a board spanning the distance. Not super comfy…but it worked. In this newer RV we’re as comfortable as ten peas in a pod.
Q — What do you think about slide-outs?
A — Never had them. The older RVs we could afford didn’t have them. They do add a ton of living space although it can make things kind of tight while you’re in transit. I’m guessing they have their own maintenance issues because all the RV magazines offer after-market solutions for slide-outs. I know my family would love to have them…maybe in the future. I would say, that we’ve never had them and we’ve gotten along just fine. Don’t let anyone talk you into spending MORE because they say you HAVE to have slides.
Q — My fridge keeps turning off?
A — Open the outside compartment and blow out the combustion chamber. I’ve had mine quit working, and it was because soot builds up around the burner. Blew it out and it works like a charm. This might also solve problems in your hot water heater. I always start out with the simplest fix.
Q — Do you ever spend the night in Wal-Mart parking lots?
A — You betcha!!! We practically live there from April through July. In fact, I’d say we spend about 80% of our nights at Wal-Mart. If you’ve never stayed there, you’re in for a treat. Not only are they safe, they’re practically everywhere. Just practice a little Wal-mart etiquette: park on the edges out of the way, return your carts to the cart corral, don’t use your leveling jacks (if you have them), and leave your spot clean when you leave. Make sure you get a Ran McNally Map from Wal-Mart that lists all the Wal-Marts in the country—indispensable. Frequently asked Wal-Mart questions:
Q — Do you have to ask permission to park?
A — No*. Just look for posted signs that might forbid parking there…then go to Lowe’s.
*Some folks like to ask permission…but I’m telling you when you ask, you’d think you were speaking a foreign language. They don’t even know what you’re asking. Note: if you know where you’re going to be camping, a call-ahead might save you a lot of frustration.
Q — I’ve heard they offer hook ups. Is that true?
A – In your dreams! Sorry, but you’ll be boon docking it.
Q — What if the signs say, “No Truck Parking?”
A — If you’re NOT a truck, you CAN park. RVs are NOT trucks. Also, we’ve been in a pinch a few times and have asked even if it says no RV parking. More than once they’ve said, “Yeah go ahead…just park over on the edge.” I once called the police to check and they said they NEVER ticket on private property. Don’t know if that is accurate, but that’s what they told me. Get the iphone/android app ALL STAYS. It will tell you which Walmart allow parking and which won’t.
Q — Are there other free places to stay?
A — Oh, yeah. You can stay at Cracker Barrel all night (although you might be all alone). You can also stay at Target, truck stops (kind of noisy), church lots (ask first), and some rest stops. Just about any big open space is fair game…but be prepared to move if someone comes knocking. Some other cheap options are fair grounds and Corp of Engineer campgrounds
FYI – My official count…216 unique Wal-Marts (maybe 300-400 total). I record them in my Wal-Mart Rand-McNally Road atlas which lists all the Wal-Marts in the country.
Q — I need help!! My wife and I just bought our first RV…. It is a class C Tioga, 1981 with a Dodge chassis. We cannot find parts. We need a new “gas tank filler neck surround” and a vacuum breaker for the Thetford Aqua Magic IV toilet. Have you encountered an RV salvage and/or parts dealer where you can get parts (reasonable)?*
A – Repairing RVs goes hand in hand with RVing. As the old RVing saying goes: If it ain’t broke…it will be. First place I go to is PPL Motorhomes. They have a large selection of RV parts, and those PPL folks know their stuff and have been very helpful. I’m sure they have a part for your Thetford toilet, and will get it right out *(by the way tell them the Familyman sent you)*. If that doesn’t work, because your part is ancient, then I would contact a RV salvage place like RV Surplus and Factory Rv Surplus in our neck of the woods or Arizona RV Salvage (I bought the hardware for my swing down bunks from them). If those don’t work…Google. It may take you a little work, but you’ll find your old part.
Here’s another little RV gem – All Season’s RV Appliances (service, parts, and sales) not only are the reasonably priced…but they sell factory seconds A/C’s and other appliances. I bought a roof A/c brand new cheap!!! In fact, I have my RV furnace being worked on right now. Need an appliance? They’re your folks.
Need a body work or paint job? Precision Painting & Interiors (Bremen, IN) they did an amazing job on my damaged RV…AMAZING!!! Tell them Todd Wilson sent you.
Todd’s Tip for Trouble Free RVing
Stop, Look, and Listen – Keep an eye on your gauges. If anything looks odd, check it out. Don’t wait. Bad things happen to those who wait. Also, every time you stop, look under your RV or do a walk around. It’s amazing how often I see a latch unlocked and something hanging from it. One time I looked up and my A/C shroud was missing…another time a huge cover grill on the back of my RV was about to fall off. This time out I noticed a small wet spot under the engine. I dropped down and stuck my hand in it and sniffed…fuel. I found a fuel line high up in the motor that was fixed with a quick tightening of the wrench. That could have gotten a lot worse fast had I not been aware of drips. I also check my tires often. If you have a duel tires in the back (two on each side) check the inside tire. It could be flat without you knowing it. Just give it a good thump.
Q — What about meals?
A – My wife is queen of quick meals. Actually when we first started we had all kinds of dinner ware and high ideals of cooking on the road. Now we use paper and plastic and like quick and dirty (er…clean). It’s not that my wife isn’t willing to cook something grander…it’s just that we don’t have to wait. Because 10 people waiting can get mighty ugly cramped in the kitchen. So my wife does a lot of microwavable meats for fajitas and tacos. Hot dogs are a favorite too. Eating out is a very nice option!!!!!!
Q — Here are some questions sent in by a familyman who is planning to do a little RV renovation.
Q — What advice would you give a 36-year-old father of three…
…(11/daughter, 9/son, 7/son) who is considering stepping into his first RV? Is it good timing given my kids age? Does it really create amazing family bonding opportunities? Will it make me a real stud with my wife?* A – The age of your kids is PERFECT. Actually, any age is perfect…because NOW is the perfect time AND the ONLY time we have. I know some who wait for the perfect age and it never comes. They look for perfect economic conditions, gas prices, and RV prices, and they never get any better. So my advice is seize the RV by the horns and Do it NOW. It ain’t getting any cheaper and you ‘aint getting any younger. Just do it. Yes, it does offer amazing bonding opportunities. Being smashed into a tight space for any length of time is good for families…especially in our “give me my space” age that we live in. Your family will be forced to share space, the bathroom, and everything else. It isn’t always easy…but it is good. Will it make you a stud with your wife? Oh, yeah…unless she kills you first. What it will do is give your family tons of great memories that they will cherish for a lifetime.
Q — A problem with freezing?
“We ran across your blog while looking for RV tips. We are getting ready to travel to OH in our motor home. Do you think we will have a problem with freezing (in late October)? We are looking to purchase a farm in Ohio.”
A – You shouldn’t have any trouble. I usually, don’t winterize* my RV until Oct. 31. I’ve even gone later than that. We can have some cold weather, but if you’re living in the RV, the heat from the coach should be enough to keep things thawed. You need some really cold weather for several days to freeze things up. I once waited too long to winterize my RV and the drain pipes froze. It took my about half a day to thaw them out but there was no damage. I think you’ll be fine. Make sure you have a full tank of propane…you don’t want to run out because it can get a little nippy at night. I have run out of propane…not fun. * To winterize my RV I drain all the water from the lines, tank, and water heater and replace it with a couple gallons of RV antifreeze (look for it on sale at Wal-Mart or Menard’s). I also, remove everything from the cabinets…that might become a mice snack…which is EVERYTHING. Think they won’t chew on those plastic handles on your utensils? Guess again. Paper products? They love that stuff. Play it safe and remove everything!!! Maintenance Tips – The First Law of RV Dynamics – Water is always trying to get into your RV. You have to think like a soldier and H2O is the enemy. You can’t assume that just because no water is dripping from the ceiling everything is OK. I’m always looking at my ceiling for any signs of water. If a little tiny drip is sliding down your wall then…you got a leak. That’s why I’m always checking my calk lines to make sure everything looks good. And now for Calk Rule #1 – NEVER use anything with silicone.
Q — What have been some of your favorite places to travel?
A – There are so many wonderful places to travel in the USA. But my favorite bang for your buck is THE FATHER ROAD. It runs from Chicago to Orlando and is dotted with nostalgic places all along the way. I also have some favorite roads like… I-40 (parallels Route 66), I-10 (Through the Florida Panhandle across the bayou, and into Texas), 1-95 (a great road down the east coast…I love the flower planted highways of North Carolina). Ooo…and of course you have to travel A1A down the coast of Florida. Have a favorite? I’d love to hear about it.
Q — Where are the best Familyman Friendly Beaches in the USA?
Q – What are the best traveling songs?
A – Glad you asked. These are the best of the road traveling songs.
Q – Where is the world’s biggest bottle of Ketchup?
A – Near St. Louis…and here are a bunch of other world’s biggest suggestions.
That’s so D – Muffler Men are scattered all over the country, and they just beg for stopping the car and taking a family photo. You can lean more about these American Giants here. You can also get a history of their origin from the man who made them, here.
Q – How about some great places to stop from Chicago to Galveston, TX?
My family is road tripping from Chicago to Memphis and then on to Houston/Galveston, Texas. Are there any points of interest along the way I should show my kids? I.e. The giant Cross in Effingham, IL?
Perhaps there’s an app out there that would help Dads find points off the beaten path.
A - If you’re going through Springfield, IL. Awesome Lincoln museum/house/law office/tomb (5 stars)…plus birthplace of the corn dog (called the Cozy Dog). Memphis is home to Graceland (but have never been) the hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot (the Loraine) and Civil Rights Museum…plus lots of cool Memphis stuff on their main street.
Q — Do you have some Familyman traveling tips you can share?
A – You bet I do.
Q — Do you know of any Family friendly campgrounds?
We normally stay in Walmarts…but here are some suggestions made by some camping dads.
Q – Do you all use seat belts while on the road?
Q – Do you tow a dinghy (a car)? If not, how to you get around once at a campground?
Q - Any other blogs or forums that you recommend to learn about traveling and purchasing tips for a motor homes?
My Closing thought -
Always more RV Q&A to come
If you’re traveling through Northern, IN, stop in check out the RV Hall of Fame.
Here’s another great resource by a family that RVs full time, and it just so happens to be called “Fulltime Families.”