RV Economics Part 1

Chilling Out

The last several weeks have been cool – it’s still quite chilly in the mornings and evenings, and there’s been a lot of rain. I like the rain, and I love that everything is green around me, but I would love just a bit more sunshine. Fortunately it’s coming, as is summer.

And that means we’ll take the cover off of the RV and begin to use it. We bought it last year, but it’s a purchase that we’ve both thought about for years both individually before we were together and afterwards, jointly. Once we decided to do it, we moved fairly quickly, but only after significant research. As RV sales are booming and it’s a way cheaper investment than a second home (bonus: you can take it anywhere there’s a road) I wanted to talk about how we decided on ours, what the cost were, and how we’re thinking about it one year in. If you’ve been thinking about diving in to the RV world, I hope this is helpful.

First, what we bought. We own a Prime Time Tracer 24DBS travel trailer that can sleep 8. After looking around for a used Airstream – new not really being in the budget – and day-tripping to Vermont to drool over a 1960 model with stained glass windows that would need a completely new interior, we realized that with our current and growing family, plus our time limits, the time to refurbish an Airstream wasn’t now. Once we made that decision, our options shrank. We have a Nissan Pathfinder that can tow a maximum of 6000 pounds, and we knew we needed the ability to sleep a lot of us comfortably. And I wanted a u-shaped dining area so we could all sit and eat together. At the end of the day, only one make and model fit exactly the kind of layout we needed, the 24DBS.

Then we set out to find it. Last year the RV market went crazy in the pandemic, and finding this one model was a challenge. There just wasn’t any within 500 miles on the used market, and the ones that were out there weren’t much – if at all – cheaper than new. but we did find a new one about 90 minutes away from us. One. We went to look at it, and noting the folks lining up to look at it after we went in, we bought it on the spot. While new vehicles aren’t normally what we want, I’m totally comfortable with our decision for a few reasons:

  1. We bought from a nationwide dealer, RV Camping World. This means that there’s likely to be a service shop within a reasonable distance from wherever we go, and as newbies, that’s nice to know
  2. Because we were new to this, the hours Eli spent with their folks going through the details of how to hook it up to the Pathfinder and all the features stem to stern were invaluable.
  3. They installed our tow hookup as well, so we only had to go to a single place

This decision isn’t for everyone, but for us, with limited time and zero knowledge, it was absolutely the right decision. We have no regrets, and expect to enjoy our RV for many years. While new isn’t necessarily right for everyone, spending months looking and long road trips during a pandemic weren’t the right things at the time.

After doing a bunch of research, we decided if we were all in, there were some things that would make our lives easier that were worth the upfront costs.

  • Beddys. These things are great, and in the tiny, cramped spaces around the beds, make everyone’s life easier. They have regular BoGo sales and are super cute and easy to maintain. After reading rave reviews by every RVer that has invested, we went all in. Plus the kids got to pick theirs.
  • A completely automated hook up with backup camera and secondary electronic brake in the car. This makes navigating so much easier for Eli, and was worth every dime.
  • The Camping World roadside service plan. While this is not a necessity, it gives me a ton of peace of mind, and it’s also good for the vehicle pulling our new vacation digs.
  • An inexpensive set of knives, bowls, flatware and plastic drinking glasses that live in the RV
  • A percolator coffee pot that doubles as as backup to our house coffee pot
  • A covered bamboo bowl set (well, my big sister bought me one of them, because she’s wonderful) for salads and serving

All in, the ‘extras, were about $3900 on top of the $28,985 purchase price, but I will say that after having made many ‘pennywise, pound foolish’ decisions over my life, these up front adds have been worth it.

For the rest, we repurpose extras pans and dishes from our kitchen to cook with. This year, I may buy a cheap stick vacuum for the interior, as well as a towel rack, and Eli bought a toilet paper holder (please note that this is not something built in, and to avoid soggy toilet paper in a super small RV bathroom, you’ll want to invest) eventually we’d love to move away from the heavily brown interior and do a bit of slipcovering and redecorating, but generally we’re set.

So let’s talk about using it. So far, we have not added solar or a composting toilet, which will allow us to move away from RV parks and into the backcountry, what RVers call ‘boondocking’. It’s in the plan, but by the time we bought it, had the hookups installed and got it home, it was September of 2020, so we used it a couple of times and then winterized it.

We used it twice for a total of 5 nights last year. The first was a weekend in New Hampshire in October to try it out. We stayed in an RV campground with a wonderful staff, and when we realized we also didn’t have a sewer hose, another thing that doesn’t come standard, they got us set right up. We learned from this trip how much gas the Pathfinder uses hauling it (a lot, we now carry a gas canister at all times) and how to use it. The kids really loved it, and so did we, a not-insignificant outcome for something we’d bought without ever so much as renting a camper in our lives.

Eli and I then took it to Maine in November and spent Thanksgiving weekend. We learned a lot that weekend as well – such how quickly the propane tanks empty when you need the heat on, which we learned by waking up and being able to see our breath, to be grateful I’d brought extra blankets, and a much-needed reminder that advance meal prep is a great way to ensure you don’t eat out when you are starving after a long hike.

RV sites with full hookups, i.e. water, sewer and electric range from about $46 a night to about $90, infinitely cheaper than your average hotel room. Given that we had been spending about $200/night on hotel rooms and house rentals on vacation, this is a substantive savings. But it will still take a long while to amortize those savings against the cost of the RV.

I can tell you though, it was worth every dime.

Next time: The cost of RV vacations and getting it to pay for itself