There are several types of recreational vehicles available that are suitable for traveling families. Fifth wheels, travel trailers, bus conversions, campers, C-class and A-class motorhomes, and even conversion vans or B-class and tents can all be adapted for fulltime use.
But how do you pick the right one for your family? It's all a matter of of your needs, family size and travel plans. In other words, there is no 'one' right choice.
We'll discuss the pros and cons of each here and provide some resources to help your family decide which option is best. Scroll down for a description of RV types with sample photos to help you get an idea of what is available.
See the FOTR guide to Buying an RV for links to dealer's web sites. Where we discuss the pros and cons of buying new or used. Also find local places that sell what you are interested in to 'kick the tires' in person. Also check online sites like RVtrader for ideas and bargains. Many families have found their dream home on wheels there.
Types of RVs
An A-class is what most people think of when they think "motorhome".
C-class motorhomes have a sleeping area over the cab.
Fifth wheels may be a good option for those who don't want a motorhome--which might tempt you to get up and walk about or lie down while in motion. Fifth wheels are towed behind trucks with the hitch on the bed.
"A bus, if well maintained essentially has no upper-limit on miles. Eagles have a rusting frame problem that has to be watched carefully, but most other units (Prevost and MCI being very good choices) have "maintenance free" bodies. Just keep the running gear and engines in good shape. The best part of highway coach chassis is that they don't lose any more value after a certain point. Oh, and the killer basement storage! The truckers give you a lot more respect too. It's kinda of a fraternity."
Bus Conversions.com has a very developed bulletin board system. It has been invaluable for answers from building the interior of the bus to maintaining it, to problems on the road.
Travel trailers can be towed behind trucks.
Trailers with a ramp on the end are "Toy Haulers". The "garage" area can be used to haul a small vehicle or converted into living area.
Truck with Camper
Not many families seem to choose this option for fulltiming.
Conversion Van / B-Class
Conversion and B-class vans are much smaller than most motorhomes. They can be made to work for small families with small children.
"Our family of three toured in a conversion van for 7 years, until our son outgrew it. We camped in a tent (actually two tents) when time and weather would allow it. Sometimes we stayed in motels. But much of the time, we slept in the van, which was a challenge -- there was a bed in the back for the parents, but our son had to sleep in a makeshift bed on the floor, initially with his head under our bed. When he got too big for that, we rigged up a bed crosswise, across two passenger seats with a crate placed between them. The whole experience was an invaluable course in making maximum use of limited space. But we didn't think of the vehicle itself as our home; our "living room" was bookstores (Borders, Barnes & Noble) and our office was Kinko's, Panera, etc. Our backyard was all the National Parks, and our playground was America itself."
~Dennis (FOTR since 1992)
Tent and Car
"Tent camping doesn't have to be uncomfortable anymore with a few minor purchases.
For one I recommend a power pac (power station) that you can get at Sam's or Costco for 70 dollars. You can plug a fan into that and have a nice cool breeze. Also, no need to sleep on the hard ground. There are all sorts of air mattresses and/or cots to full beds that can easily be stowed away. I used to have a 34-ft travel trailer but found it limited us to the places we could go to. I switched to tent camping which we LOVED -- with just a couple of hundred dollar investment we had a nice easy shade tarp, some off the ground sleeping and a cool breeze."
For families with lots of gumption and a true sense of adventure! Add some paneers, sleeping bags and small tents to some good touring bikes and your off. Well, it's not quite that simple. But with proper planning and everyone in the family on board, you'll be able to explore America up close and test some limits.
FOTR Families Talk about Choosing an RV for Fulltiming
We interviewed several families on the road about their RV's. Peggy's Family (2 adults, 2 kids) just ordered a New Horizons custom-built 5th wheel/toy hauler that is 45 feet long, Marlene's Family (2 adults, 2 kids, 3 dogs) use a Rainier Travel Trailer, made by Thor Dutchman 26 feet inside (30 feet including tongue) and Amy's Family (2 adults, 4 kids, 5 pets) travel in a 40 foot Bus Conversion: 1980 MCI MC9.
- New Horizons custom-built 5th wheel (45') - over $100, 000 (Peggy)
- Rainier Travel Trailer (26') - under $30, 000 (Marlene)
- Bus Conversion: 1980 MCI MC9 (40') - $36k Includes additions not found in our previous TT rig - i. e. - w/d, internet system, larger fridge, tub, tanks, etc (Amy)
FOTR: Why did you choose the RV you did? What features were most important to your family?
Peggy: Before we started fulltiming, we owned an Excel bunkhouse model which was wonderful for weekends and short excursions but was a bit too tight for fulltiming. Unfortunately, Excel did not make a bunkhouse in their larger models, and we did not want to make up a couch or dinette every morning. We decided to go with New Horizons because they are the only 5th wheel manufacturer with a 5-star rating by the RV Consumer Group (Excel also has an excellent rating, but they cater more to the retirees). New Horizons models are built for fulltimers and designed to be used in a wide range of weather conditions and to last a long time. Since we plan to be on the road for a minimum of 5 years, we wanted to buy a rig that would be comfortable, reliable and solidly built. We also chose New Horizons because they built the RV to our specifications. We wanted a separate bedroom for our kids with plenty of room to play and a desk to use for homeschooling. The toy hauler model seemed best for our family as we can use the floor of the garage for the kids to play Legos, Barbies, etc. while they're young and can be modified to carry dirt bikes, ATVs, etc. as they get older. We really wanted our RV to feel more like a home than a "camper". Big holding tanks, a generator and an inverter to facilitate occasional boondocking were important as well. Storage is another big issue.
Marlene: Price. We wanted a class A but had to finance until our house sells and couldn't afford the class A. We chose this particular model for the bunks (set of 2 twin bunks), and short and light enough to pull with our Dodge 1500 truck.
#1: Safety in traveling; the coach is solid and stable to travel in.
#2: Flexibility in design; changes with our needs
#3: Cost - Price of remodel can be stretched out over time, allowing us to purchase without financing
FOTR: What would you change about your RV?
Peggy: The few minor changes we wanted were incorporated into our new RV-- dishwasher, pull-out drawers in the pantry, desks for each child, more closet/storage space for the kids. It would be nice to have an RV that we could take into national parks, but so far we have not had any trouble finding a place to accommodate our "big rig".
Marlene: Quality of construction. Maybe this is true in many RVs, but I feel like the interior construction is put together with office staples and kindergarten paste, using something close to balsa wood, just so it looks pretty when you see it, but as we started using it we quickly learned it is all very delicate, which is tough with the size of our family including pets.
Amy: Nothing - we love our bus! Although, as in a house, it's never really finished. If we have interior aspects that need changing, we do it as needed or as time/money allows.
FOTR: What advice do you have for families who are just starting out?
Peggy: Do your homework and research, research, research! Determine a price range and find the manufacturer with the best reputation in that category. Look at quality, customer service, warranty, etc. Ask the manufacturer for testimonials. If you have any friends/relatives who own an RV, ask them their opinion and advice. Visit a few RV parks in your city and ask people what they think of their rigs. Search bulletin boards and forums on the internet. We found that purchasing the software from RV Consumer Group was very helpful and let us narrow down a few manufacturers in our price range. At that point, we started looking at floor plans. I think a lot of people make the mistake of looking for the perfect floor plan first, finally finding what they want then overlooking the problems with the manufacturer. If you choose a few good manufacturers first, then you can contact them and ask about floor plans. They may be able to modify a plan, or perhaps there is an older model available with what you want or a new one coming out the next year.
If you're looking at used RVs, ask for maintenance records and look it over VERY carefully. I know this is hard if you are buying directly from the owner, but if you are seriously considering purchasing the RV, then look under area rugs for stains/flaws, look in cabinets, outside storage, and definitely give the exterior a thorough inspection. (You should probably ask the owners before you start poking around. . . ) If you are a newbie, then bring a friend along who has experience with RVs.
If you have never owned an RV or been camping, I would suggest that you rent or borrow a pop-up or small trailer and do some camping first with your family.
Marlene: Look at the sturdiness of construction; if possible try NOT to be in a hurry. Once you get a unit, make covers for all the cushions. I took 2 sets of stretch knit twin sheets and made covers for the dinette cushions, the not-quite-twin-size bunk mattresses, and the couch. I used the pillow cases, opened up to cover the back of the dinette, and to cover throw pillows for the couch. I made two sets of everything, so that we have a spare for when we launder the others.
Amy: Don't try to over plan or get set on what type of RV you need before you get on the road. Our experience of being on the road changed our floor plan needs greatly.
Pack light! We've lightened our load a dozen times so far, and are still trying to streamline even more. But don't cut necessities - if you love your toaster, keep it. Don't skimp so much you're miserable - this is not camping, it's living, and even though they call them "recreational vehicles, " this is life, not a vacation. You'll need more than you think and less than you think all at the same time.
Smile. Breathe. Learn how to say "Oh well. "
Also of interest: Shelley Zoellick's article Three for the Road.