“Whatever this vacation cost,” said my husband, who had almost nothing to do with the itinerary and reservations, “it was worth it.”
That's how I knew our family's maiden RV voyage was a success. Yes, Arizona and Utah are uncomfortably hot in July, and yes, our real dream was to travel in Spain this summer, but reflecting on the 8-day road trip around the Southwest we made instead, we were both pleased with the way we had just spent our vacation time — and money.
Here's how it worked
Seduced by photos of the national parks in Utah, we decided to target that area of the country. Neither of us is big on long days of driving with kids, so we set our sights on modest daily mileage. This meant a decision to pick up the RV in Las Vegas, rather than Oakland to avoid an initial 12-hour day of driving.
Pros: Flying to Vegas meant our first drive — to Zion National Park — was only 2.5 hours.
Cons: Since we flew, what we packed was limited. Nothing from our own kitchen, no bikes, and minimal pillows and blankets. Also, we had to cover airfare for four people, plus taxis to and from the airports.
About three months in advance, I reserved a Standard size RV from Cruise America which sleeps five people. The smaller size will not accommodate a family of four. The day prior to pick up, I called to make an appointment. This is critical. I watched as the folks in front of me in the check out line learned too late that they did have a vehicle reserved, but they had not made a specific pick-up appointment and would therefore be waiting around the Cruise America center for much of the afternoon while other scheduled picker-uppers got on the road.
You do not need a special license to drive the RV, and it's really not that hard.
We headed out for lunch on the outskirts of Las Vegas where parking is no big deal. Energized by our burritos, we hit the Wal-Mart and bought exactly the right food for four days worth of dinners, lunches, breakfasts and snacks. We also picked up a pair of camping chairs for $5 each.
The RV comes with nothing in it, but Cruise America will rent you a kitchen kit for $100. We opted in for this because it included everything you see below, which was easier than remembering to buy a colander and a spatula.
Cruise America will also rent you “personal kits” at the rate of $55 per person, which means a towel, sleeping bag, and pillow, but I had dedicated one of our checked duffel bags (free on Southwest) to towels, sheets, and blankets. We thought it would be too hot for sleeping bags and I worried that the towels they offered us would suck, and we would need swimming towels in addition to shower towels anyway. I packed eight towels and a couple of rags. I think we were better off doing this than renting those things for $210 for the four of us. If we rented the RV in Oakland, as I might if we were doing a Pacific Northwest tour, we would have simply made up the beds right in front of our house before driving off, and then I would have had my pillow-top mattress pad. The “master” bed was so dreadfully uncomfortable that I ended up buying a pillow top after two nights of misery.
Better than camping or hotels
Access to natural beauty is sacrificed when you stay in RV parks, but the trade off is this: there is no packing up and setting up at each new destination. Connecting the RV to the electricity and water at your “full hook-up” campsite is dead simple, and even the toilet emptying situation is no worse than dealing with your Diaper Champ. It doesn't require any physical strength. Just go wash your hands afterward, because septic. Eww.
Once connected, you have a functioning sink, toilet, air conditioning, refrigerator/freezer, microwave and gas stove top. Should you need any of those things when pulled over in the middle of nowhere, you can use the onboard water tank or generator. Again, not rocket science to learn, and I am totally not into home repair and How Stuff Works.
A few days before your pick-up date approaches, Cruise America sends you a link to a 30-minute video that orients you to the RV. We watched it as a family so everyone would know what to expect.
Having your kitchen everywhere you go is pretty awesome. We finished an afternoon canyoneering adventure much later than expected and found ourselves back at our parking spot twenty minutes from the town, filthy, and hungry at about 8 pm. I opened a can of beans and whipped up quesadillas while the kids laid a blanket out on the ground. We ate our dinner right at the lake where our hike ended.
Because it was July, I selected RV parks with swimming pools at each of our destinations.
Stay in your seat and stay awake
We did not allow our children to get out of their seats while the vehicle was moving. Actually we adults didn't even do it until about five days into the trip. Because the only seatbelts besides the driver and front-seat passenger are lap-belts, we determined that booster seats weren't needed and had our 7 and 9 year old children ride belted without any car seats.
For that reason, I'm not sure I could recommend such a trip to a family with children young enough to need five-point harness seats. I did not research this topic, however, so there may be some great solutions out there. We only hopped up to quickly grab something out of the fridge and hand it to the children. Using the toilet just seemed like an invitation to bang up your knees while maneuvering through a moving vehicle.
Cons: It is unlikely anyone will fall asleep while you drive as they are sitting up in a booth-style setting.
Pros: The kids are sitting at a table where they can draw, eat, or watch a screen if you've brought one — or four as we did.
How much did it cost?
This adventure ain't cheap. Renting a standard size RV from Cruise America in Las Vegas broke down like this:
- About $200 per night/ we paid a “freedom rate” to have it for a week which was around $1400
- Plus $0.34/mile or roughly $400 for the 1200 miles we drove
- $25 to $50 per night for spots in RV parks, all of which I reserved in advance
- $100 for the kitchen kit
The staff at Cruise America in Las Vegas said that rates double around Labor Day when the demand for RVs skyrockets due to Burning Man.
Comparing this to the same trip in a regular vehicle comes out favorably, for if you fly, then rent a car, but require hotel rooms, the price may be about the same, and, each day you'll have to pack up all your bags and supplies, which usually takes my family around an hour — plus, you'd need a cooler and ice all the time if you want to tote your own groceries around for a week.
Wait — where else did you go?
Right. So I told you we started in Las Vegas and headed for Zion National Park. From there we went through Bryce to Arches National Park, staying in Moab, UT for two days. Then we went to Williams, AZ from which we day-tripped to the Grand Canyon by train. And finally we went back to Las Vegas, where we had tickets to a show one night.
Feel free to post follow up questions below. I'm happy to answer them.