Recreational vehicles debuted a century ago, but those "auto-campers" were nothing like today's luxurious models. Original RVs came with chamber pots; modern RVs come with nearly every convenience of home and can range in cost from $5,000 to $500,000.
So many options can be intimidating for a first-time RVer, not to mention learning how to operate and maintain one. But 8.2 million American households enjoy RVs, so here are some important factors that can help determine if an RV is for you.
How do I envision my RV travel lifestyle?
What kind of RV travel do you plan to do? Will you be traveling with the whole family, just your partner or alone? How much privacy do you need? Will you take extended trips or venture out for just the occasional weekend? Consider what amenities and space you will need for the number of passengers and the distance.
There are four basic classes of RVs. A "motor home" is one drivable unit. Class A motor homes are shaped like 30- to 40-foot buses and — starting at $50,000 — have options for every comfort imaginable, like flat screens and Sub-Zero refrigerators.
Class B versions are the smallest fully-enclosed motor homes, similar to vans. Class C models resemble large trucks and have a distinctive "cab over" design for more sleeping room. Then there are an array of towable options — travel trailers, fifth-wheel trailers, pop-ups and more. These are on the lower end of amenities, but are more affordable.
Tip: When judging size, it's good to err on the smaller side. First-timers can easily bite off more than they can chew, and wind up with an expensive, unmanageable vehicle. (You can check out RV driving schools at RVSchool.com.) The website GoRVing.com is a great place for further research.
What is my budget?
Whether you go with the A, the B ($40,000 to $100,000), the C ($50,000 to $150,000) or a trailer ($5,000 to $100,000), the good news is that, like a car, you can finance an RV. Current rates are roughly 6 percent and are available as fixed, adjusted and variable. But as with cars, resale values plummet the moment you leave the lot. Also, new RVs come with a warranty while used do not.
And, of course, you'll also need to figure in costs for insurance, not just for the vehicle but the contents, too. RV owners' club Good Sam offers insurance, as well as many major insurance companies and AARP. Consider maintenance and taxes, though some states, such as South Dakota and Florida, are income-tax free.
The worst news may be the fuel costs. RVs do not get good gas mileage, something akin to 5 to 10 mpg for gas and 14 mpg for diesel (around $400 a week at the current $3 per gallon rate).
Tip: An RV can qualify as a second home. Check with your certified public accountant for possible deductions.
Where do I find an RV?
Before you buy, you might want to check out one of the many RV expos — the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association has a good calendar. These are good for shopping but also for learning about the RV lifestyle from those who know it well.
Next, there are RV dealerships. Check the National RV Dealers Association for reputable ones. And previously owned RVs can be had for a fraction of the original price in Auto Trader or Craigslist.
Tip: An RV with a low odometer reading is not necessarily a good deal; it may have just been sitting in the driveway for years. The ones with some miles may be more road-worthy.