This article first appeared in Moneysense magazine.
Hit the Road, Jack
Sage Advice on RVing around North America
Last summer our family completed a 40,000-kilometer, 8-month drive around North America. Our two boys learned to surf in the waves off beaches in Baja California. We prowled through bayous in Louisiana and swam in the astonishingly blue waters of springs in northern Florida. We watched icebergs in Newfoundland, and in Cape Breton, ventured down a coal mine.
Let me tell you, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. The trip proved to be an enormous family adventure. Part of our motivation stemmed from a desire to step off the day to day treadmill and share time and experiences with our sons Serge, 12, and Vaughn, 10, before they grew up. Our trip not only met but exceeded our hopes and expectations, and our sense of family togetherness has endured long after the trip ended. Whether you go for six days, six weeks or six months, spending time on the road with your family and seeing the incredible sights of North America is a world class adventure you’ll always remember. Plus the trip can be surprisingly inexpensive. If this interests you, here are words of advice from the road.
RVing is hugely popular in North America and not just because it can cost significantly less than other holiday options. Major benefits include being able to bring your pets and piles of personal gear, making friends at campgrounds on the road and, perhaps best of all, deciding your own schedule. The sense of freedom is truly exhilarating.
Choosing your vehicle presents your first and toughest decision. The category of Recreation Vehicle covers many different vehicle and towing combinations. RVs range in size and price from tent trailers to little Volkswagen Westphalia vans to enormous diesel buses with triple slide-outs. Choosing the right RV really depends on your trip. Says Al Shillington, the service manager of a major RV dealership in British Columbia, “What are you going to be doing? It all depends on what you’re planning to do and what you’re going to bring with you.” For overall comfort and room, Shillington recommends a motorhome. Trucks with fifth-wheel trailers, he says, are also popular because they’re dead easy to drive and back up Most trailers now feature two axles for safety and road stability. From white-knuckle experience I recommend avoiding a single-axle trailer.
People usually start out with something small, says Al Shillington. “I started out with a tent and worked my way up,” he says. Increasing size, however, has its drawbacks. Drivers of large rigs we met in Mexico complained bitterly of the price of gas and the narrowness of the roads. We chose a GMC Safari van for our tow vehicle and a small trailer because we liked the flexibility the combination offered. We were able to leave the trailer at a campsite and drive into town.
You might want to look into renting a RV. (Check out the rates at the RV rental website in the sidebar.) Renting for a long trip will prove more expensive than purchasing a RV and selling it afterwards, especially for a trailer. We sold ours for pretty much the purchase price. Trailer insurance is surprisingly inexpensive but pricey for the large rigs. And you can save plenty by buying your RV privately instead of from a RV Lot. Auto dealers who take RVs on trade-in sometimes offer them at firesale prices.
Whatever you choose, take plenty of short trips in your new RV before leaving on the big trip. You may find the size of the larger rigs daunting initially but all the drivers I spoke with said that they grew accustomed to driving them very quickly. No special driver’s license is required regardless of RV size. And attend to required purchases before you leave. We went out only a couple of times on short weekend hops and found we had to buy a new hitch and snow chains on the road. Searching for a RV shop in a strange city taxes your patience and takes the fun out of the day.
I’d also recommend purchasing a vehicle with a continent-wide warranty. It takes the stress out of breaking down on the road while you’re far from home. Our GMC Safari broke down in Moose Jaw. The 1-800 number instantly summoned a tow vehicle and the offer of overnight accommodation.
If you’re going south, an air conditioner is a great idea. We spent three months driving across the southern States, from San Diego to Key West. Though we loved Florida, especially the fresh water springs in the north and the Keys in the south, we suffered from the humidity. By April, it proved so acutely uncomfortable our two boys cried one night and I felt like joining them. Even tent trailers in Florida come with air cons and the owners run them 24 hours a day.
One concern every Canadian shares is the appalling (or lack of it) value of our dollar against the Yankee greenback: $1 U.S. = $1.60 Canadian. In other words, you’ll spend 60% more in the States than in Canada for equivalent services and goods. Fortunately we found camping in State Parks to be good value at about $15 U.S. a night. Obtain the best rates at private campgrounds by paying the monthly rate. By visiting in the winter off-season we never had a problem finding a good campground for the night except on holiday weekends. Depending on the state, gas is a bargain at about half the price in Canada, even with the exchange rate. All told –for gas, accommodation, and other expenses - we spent about $3,000 a month on the road.
Like us, you may be plagued with worries about taking to the road for an extended period. What about personal safety in Mexico and the U.S.? What about the children’s schooling? What about all the unknowns? Our fears proved baseless. Sure, we had close encounters with stingrays, riptides and alligators but that was part of the adventure. I recommend always talking to the locals for the best information. “Is it safe to swim here?” I asked a fellow in Louisiana. “Sure, as long as you don’t bring your dawg in the water, “ he replied. “The splishy-splashy brings the gators around.” You see, now that’s good advice!
Another concern that proved false was that the U.S. would prove to be a dull country full of malls and theme parks. On the contrary, many places proved to be unbelievably exotic. We especially enjoyed the snowy sequoia forests in California, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, a time-tripping Civil War Re-enactment in Virginia and the busy exciting streets of New York, New York.
We found Microsoft Streets and Trips software to be very useful. Before hitting a new town we’d turn on the laptop for directions to the next shopping mall, gas station, bank machine, whatever. Priceless. I strongly recommend checking out the state tourist information stations situated at the state line on all major highways. They’re valuable source of maps, brochures and discount coupons. Use public libraries to check your email.
If travelling through the United States or Mexico on your own sounds a bit daunting, check out joining a caravan. Different options abound from formal guided tours to friends travelling together. Check the sidebar for information. At any rate, however you choose and wherever you choose, taking to the long and open road can be a marvelous experience you’ll never regret.
Links you may useful in planning your own roadtrip
Mexican Auto Insurance
Information Pages on Baja California
Mexico Tourist Information
Free Camping in the U.S.A. Guide
USA Tourist Information
Canada Tourist Information
Guided caravans across Canada and the U.S.
Guides caravans into Mexico and Central America
Excellent source of information on Rving